Mike McNees

New USATF CEO: Max Siegel

USA Track & Field announced Monday that Max Siegel, the marketing consultant it had hired last October, was now its new chief executive officer. Can't say that's much of a surprise.

The question, as ever with track and field in the United States, is its future. During the last week of the Olympic Games, it commands TV time and headlines; the rest of the time, not so much.

Years ago, though, track and field used to be a major sport in the United States. Now it's not. Can it ever be again?

The corollary question for the people who run track and field in the United States -- not Siegel but the people he now will have to deal with on a day-to day, real-life basis -- is whether they will let him do his job.

Here's my dream for the sport: The U.S. Olympic Trials in Cowboys Stadium, with 100,000 people jamming the place, night after night. Why not?

Here's Siegel's mantra: to make a difference in American culture, with the idea of  competition on the field impacting lifestyle, and -- as he put it in a conference call with reporters -- to "over-deliver" to corporate partners "on their expectations."

Siegel takes over from Doug Logan, fired in September, 2010. USATF has been without a chief executive since; Stephanie Hightower, the federation president, had let it be known in an interview with the Chicago Tribune's Philip Hersh that she might be interested in the position, which of course proved problematic.

University of Oregon coach Vin Lananna reportedly emerged as a top candidate for the position. He's still in Eugene.

All the while, Mike McNees, USATF's chief operating officer, a wholly decent guy, was left to run the ship as interim CEO.

Skeptics, of course, will suggest that the hire of Siegel is proof that no one else wanted the USATF chief executive's job.

You know what's great about covering this kind of thing in track and field? You can't spell dysfunctional without f-u-n!

To the credit of the U.S. athletes -- all they do is go out and win. They pretty much ignore this stuff at the world championships and the Olympics. The U.S. team won 25 medals at last summer's world championships at Daegu, South Korea, one shy of the 26 won by the 1991 and 2007 teams.

Even so, everyone close to the sport understands that better governance might lead to even better results on the field of play.

Logan had said all along that 30 in 2012 was eminently do-able.

To his credit, Siegel said Monday on a conference call with reporters, "We have said 30 medals. And we are sticking by 30 medals."

Getting to 30 medals takes contributions from both the business and culture sides of USATF. That takes a profound understanding. That's what Siegel has been doing since October, taking what he called a "deep dive" into the organization, doing a "lot of the foundational and behind the scenes" work.

That sort of understanding, Hightower said on that same conference call, is what made him an attractive candidate.

Along with the fact that Siegel is truly an idea guy; that he has big-time credentials in auto racing and the music industry; as well as experience and contact in the Olympic scene as a member of the boards of U.S. swimming and USATF.

The perception glitch all along, of course, had been that Siegel had been on the USATF board -- until resigning just a month before -- before being hired as a consultant.

Hightower emphasized that he was not on the board when selected. Steve Miller, a USATF board vice-chair, said on the call, "Perception can go two ways. It can be seen as a negative and as a, why not? What we tried to concentrate on is, why?

"… We feel confident we went through the process … and Max simply was the best candidate."

The hire takes effect May 1. His base salary will be $500,000. He also can earn bonuses, Hightower said on the call without providing details.

Siegel notably becomes the only African-American chief executive among the more than three dozen national governing bodies in the United States.

U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive Scott Blackmun issued a statement that said, "Our relationship with USA Track & Field is very good, and we are particularly pleased with the partnership that we have with them on the high performance side. Having a CEO in place will add a measure of stability as we complete our preparations for London. Max will have our full support and we look forward to working with USATF as they continue to refine their governance model and find ways to enhance the effectiveness of the organization."

Candidly, the USOC -- which for years set the standard for dysfunction -- is arguably now the model for good governance. The USOC board, under the direction of Larry Probst, sets policy and then lets Blackmun run the organization day-to-day.

That's the way things need to go down now at USATF. On the call, they said all the rights things Monday. They said Siegel would have authority.

Hightower said on the call, "We want to become a model NGB as it relates to best practices and model governance," Hightower said on the call.

"I don't want to say we're going to agree on every single aspect on how this organization is going to be run."

She also said, "We trust Max's leadership to move us forward."

Hightower said the time of "chaos" -- "that time is gone, it's over."

One might hope of course that the U.S. relay teams hold on to the baton at the 2012 Games. But should the stick clatter to the ground, could one predict chaos? Would it really be over?

Time, as ever, will tell.

USATF boldly does something right

Wait. What's this? USA Track & Field, arguably the most dysfunctional of all major American Olympic sports federations, maybe getting something not just right but possibly taking an ambitious step to profoundly reshape the future direction of the sport in the United States and even worldwide? For real.

In announcing Monday that it had retained Indianapolis-based Max Siegel Inc. as part of a wide-ranging plan to restructure its marketing and communications efforts, USATF boldly steps into the 21st century.

Siegel is a guy who gets the vision thing, the commercial thing and the relationship thing. USATF needs precisely that sort of help.

No recitation of Siegel's extraordinary life story and career seems to do it justice. Here's a very short take:

He has represented the likes of pro football star Reggie White and baseball great Tony Gwynn. Siegel was president of global operations at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and a senior executive at Sony/BMG, serving on the executive team overseeing pop stars such as Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Usher and then gospel greats such as Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond and Donnie McClurkin.

Now he is has his own race team, Revolution Racing, and it wins. His company, MSI, represents sports figures and organizations. It creates literary, television and film properties, including the 2010 BET Network series, "Changing Lanes," and the ESPN documentary, "Wendell Scott: A Race Story."

In short, Siegel is a winner across sports, sponsorship and entertainment lines.

The freaky thing is that Siegel actually wants to help USATF.

When he assesses track and field, he said in an interview, "I see all these heroes and I see the opportunity to expand the brand."

USATF has tried substantive change in the not-too-distant past. It hired Doug Logan, a change agent, to be its chief executive officer; soon enough, it didn't like the changes Logan proposed; it then fired the agent.

Other Olympic bodies, of course, have also gone outside the so-called "Olympic family" with similarly dim results.

The U.S. Olympic Committee, for instance, turned twice over the past 10 years to outsiders for its chief executive position -- Stephanie Streeter and Lloyd Ward. Each lasted a short time.

Critically, Siegel is not being hired to run USATF itself.

Again, he is not being hired as CEO.

For emphasis, USATF has an interim chief executive, Mike McNees, who has kept things moving steadily, quietly forward, seeking little screen credit.

Nothing gets done in the Olympic world without relationships. Siegel is a former director on the USATF board and the USA Swimming Foundation; he has ties to other Olympic sports as well. If you were paying attention at the USOC assembly last month in Colorado Springs, you saw him there and might have wondered why. Now you know.

The CEO thing is an entirely separate discussion at USATF. What's at issue now is that, like a patient in therapy, USATF realized that it might, you know, actually help itself -- in this case, its business model -- if it just acknowledged it first had a problem and was then willing to do something constructively about it.

Here is the problem:

The sport is stagnant in the United States.

The release USATF issued Monday says that engaging Siegel's company is part of a "broad, fully integrated service agreement that will unite USATF's commercial ventures" and that "streamlines its internal staff structure in marketing and communications."

Translation: major culture change.

They're actually going to throw some resource at the problem -- pulling together staff from five separate departments, for instance, to work together with Siegel's firm -- with the intent of making some real money by expanding the reach of USATF's commercial efforts in marketing, sponsorship, publicity, membership and broadcasting.

All of that.

To reiterate: USATF is thinking big. Finally.

Jill Geer, the longtime communications chief at USATF, who through thick and thin has always been outstanding in not just her dedication but performance, will oversee all of this. As a sign of just how serious this is, she and her family are moving from New England to Indianapolis.

To reference "culture" again -- track and field shines during the second week of the Summer Games and then all but disappears for pretty much the next three years and 50 weeks. That has to change. Siegel gets it -- that track and field has to again become part of our national discussion.

That's not going to happen overnight. It may not even happen by the start of the London Games. These things take time.

Siegel understands we live now in a culture where reality-TV rocks the ratings. Why not, for instance, a "making the U.S. team" series?

How about the notion of staging a specialty event -- say women's high-jumping, in Vegas, to the back beat of rock or hip-hop music?

Street racing might be cool. How about down Bourbon Street in New Orleans? Or Navy Pier in Chicago?

Anything and everything that might work has to be and should be up for discussion.

Look, two things.

One, the world championships in track and field have never been held in the United States.

Two, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage of children aged 6 to 11 in the United States who were obese went from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008. Over the same period, the percentage of adolescents -- ages 12 to 19 -- who were obese increased from 5 percent to 18 percent, according to the CDC.

That is obscene.

Track and field is the easiest way to start getting a fix on that, because the great majority of those young people can put on a pair of shoes and start walking and then running. And if Max Siegel, who is big on getting tastemakers on board to help impact our popular culture, can do it -- bravo.

"I think this is a two- to five-year fix," he said, referring specifically to USATF -- not, this must be stressed, the nation's obesity issues.

"Year one is restoring the credibility and solidifying the relationship with the core fans and core stakeholders. For me, no matter what you do, there are critics. I think it's going to take points on the board to achieve credibility and get the trust built back up.

"The second phase is to build brand equity," USATF revamping its television strategy in particular.

Phase Three, he said, while always emphasizing service to the "core constituency," can also include a turn toward "new and innovative things."

He said, "I have been a firm believe that sports and entertainment when used properly is a very powerful way to impact culture.

"You've got have something meaningful," and the best news of all for track and field in the United States would be if, finally, it were again -- year-round, day-after-day -- meaningful.