SBD/Issue 169/Sports Industrialists

THE DAILY Goes One-on-One With NYRR’s Mary Wittenberg

N.Y. Road Runners President
& CEO Mary Wittenberg
MARY WITTENBERG left a partnership in the law firm Hunton & Williams to join the staff of the N.Y. Road Runners in ‘98. Two years later, she became the club’s first-ever COO. A year ago in April, she was named President & CEO of the NYRR and Race Dir of the ING N.Y. Marathon. Wittenberg has championed the sport of running and emphasized the organization’s commitment to health and fitness while overseeing the awarding of record prize money and partnering with four of the world’s marathons. The World Marathon Majors series took its first step in April with the Boston Marathon and will finish in November ‘07 with the ING N.Y. Marathon. Wittenberg spoke with SportsBusiness Journal New York bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh on the eve of the series.

FAVORITES
Music: U2, Coldplay, “The Jersey Boys.”
Vacation spot: Wellfleet on Cape Cod.
Author: PATRICK LENCIONI. He’s written a number of management books.
Book: “The Great Gatsby.”
Quote: “Live life to the fullest.”
Sporting event: The Tour de France.
Movie: “Chariots of Fire.”
Pet peeve: When people can’t see the bigger picture.
Greatest extravagance: A spa day.
Basic management philosophy: I’m big on teamwork. All oars in the water and people working in sync with each other.
Best advice you received in professional career: Be yourself.
Best decisions: In life, marrying my husband and having my children; in business, going to the New York Road Runners club.

Q: Why do road runners need a club? Running is such a solitary sport.

Wittenberg: The loneliness of the long-distance runner is but a part of running. I think running is actually an extreme social activity. People look at running as another form of entertainment. What we can provide is the ability to have a community around running. Without community, running would never be as popular as it is. The United States has ten million frequent runners.

Q: Define "frequent runner."
    
Wittenberg
: Someone who runs over 100 days a year.

Q: How do you promote and market the sport?
    
Wittenberg
: It’s easy. Running is an extremely compelling sport and something that is good for you. The best result is when we can put it all together and have the guy on the couch inspired to get moving because he turns on the marathon. Another guy may relate to the overweight older gentlemen he sees running, and a former basketball player may relate to the professional at the front of the field who’s running all out.

Q: The sport includes everyone from the elite athletes to the weekend joggers.
    
Wittenberg
: It’s ideal. From a major sports perspective, we have over 300 million TV viewers worldwide. We had 300,000 unique visitors on our Web site on race day. The average visit was 17 minutes. We’ve got two million spectators on the streets of New York watching and 87,000 people applying to the race and learning about our sponsors. And then we’ve got the other end of the spectrum, which is so completely grassroots.

Q: And you don’t need a lot of equipment to get out there.
    
Wittenberg
: Man was born to run, more than anything else. It’s so natural. We have the best of all worlds. We have a serious sporting event and an activity that people of all ages and abilities can engage in and be better as a result of it.

Q: What are your goals for the New York Road Runners?
    
Wittenberg
: Our major goals include turning the tide on obesity, getting people healthy enough to run and elevating the sport to be on a par with the other great sports of the world. We’re similar to soccer in the U.S. in that we have a huge participatory base, and we’re trying to make that leap to professional recognition in the U.S. and beyond with our stars. And community service is very important to us. We have 12,000 inner-city school kids a week in New York running in our programs, and we’re seeking to have 100,000 in five years.

Q: Why should corporate sponsors spend their dollars with the NYRR and not elsewhere? What’s the attraction for them?
    
Wittenberg
: We’re a marketer’s dream. Our races, our marathon, provide a sponsor an opportunity to enhance the runner’s experience. Whether it’s the marathon or another one of our events, you’ve got to prepare, you’ve got to train. So, there are opportunities for sponsors to have all these touch points with the consumer all the way through the experience: before, during and after. It provides an annual platform for our sponsors. And most importantly, it is an association with an organization and event that are doing good. Particularly today, there is so much pressure on companies to ebb the tide of people really taxing our health care system, living less than productive lives because they’re out of shape. Running is so good for you emotionally and physically. And for a corporation to be associated with that, it’s nothing but positive.

Q: No steroids scandals.
    
Wittenberg
: No. They’re very positive stories for an association for a sponsor.

Q: How much money does the New York Marathon bring into New York City’s economy?
    
Wittenberg
: Over $185[M]. We have 20,000 international runners from over 100 countries. They stay here for four nights on average. They go to restaurants. They go to Broadway. They really live off the New York City experience. It’s one of the best stories we have. The demands far exceed the supply of entries.

N.Y. Marathon Offers Larger
Purse For Women's Winner

Q: You had a photo finish last year in the men’s race.
    
Wittenberg
: That’s a dream come true.

Q: The women’s winner (JELENA PROKOPCUKA, $160,000) in last year’s N.Y. Marathon received more money than the No. 1 man (PAUL TERGAT, $125,000). Why?
    
Wittenberg
: We take our leadership role in sports very seriously and we feel compelled to make strong statements where they’re needed. In our sport, mainly outside the United States, there is still a disparity in how men and women are paid. It may have been warranted many years ago but it’s not warranted anymore. So, as an even stronger statement, we said we’ll put the women higher than the men. It was an opportunity we had with our title sponsor, ING, to do something different and make a statement about the strength of women’s running.

Q: How do you increase the fan base?
    
Wittenberg
: It’s critical to find a way to help fans identify with our stars. The women’s World Cup won over the fans one by one, and that’s what our sport needs to do. We need to get our athletes out, to put them in front of people to help fans relate to them better and understand that they’re real people. The World Marathon Major series is an effort to create more awareness of who our stars are. You need that personal connection if you’re going to follow an athlete.

Q: You said, “Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf.” With the World Marathon Majors you’re hoping to create a grand slam, of sorts?
    
Wittenberg
: Yes. We have an extraordinarily compelling sport, particularly when it comes to marathon running. The body is not supposed to go beyond 19-20 miles, and these athletes train and push their bodies and their minds beyond where they’re supposed to go. The beauty of the marathon is that it’s a different story every time. There is no certainty. It’s a little bit like NCAA March Madness. You can be the best all year round, but in the marathon, it’s who’s the best on that day. There are so many factors beyond how fast you are that determine success on that day. If we can create the interest in the individual runners, people will really get pulled into marathoning. All you need is an interest in sports and competition to relate to what’s going on. The beauty of the World Marathon Majors is you try to take that and go even further so that you have a combination on any given major event (be it N.Y., Boston, Chicago, Berlin or London) of a March Madness approach where whoever’s best on that day wins.

Q: You have also taken a page from NASCAR with this new marathon series.

Wittenberg: We’re introducing for our sport a Nextel Cup approach: Who is going to be the best marathoner over a two-year period? That requires consistency: performing at the top of your game over several of the individual events. It’s a nice combination of some of the best of what several other sports have. We, the ING New York City Marathon, aspire to be one of the major sporting events in the world. We are always pushing higher to be the Super Bowl, the World Cup, the Tour de France -- something everyone stops for and pays attention to. Our sport will be much stronger if people are aware of it, just like they’re aware of the majors [in other sports]. Everybody pays attention to tennis and golf year-round. You could have just the Masters or the British or U.S. Open or Wimbledon, but they’re all stronger in relation to the others, particularly because it provides context for the people to get to know the athletes.

Q: Will bringing together the top five world marathons make it easier to sell sponsorships? Do you have any sponsors lined up for the World Marathon Majors?
  
Wittenberg: We just started pitching it, and we have several major sponsors quite intrigued by it. I’m hopeful that by the fall we will announce a title sponsor.

Q: What about TV?
    
Wittenberg
: The five organizations have different TV partners and we’re sold internationally differently, but we work with each of our TV partners and we’ll find a way to enhance the overall coverage. We’ll seek to go in together to the markets where we are, and then maybe we’ll do a highlights show throughout the year. We’re looking at TV now. It remains critical. We’re meeting in London with each of our TV representatives to talk about the future.

Q: What’s the status of the Fifth Avenue Mile?
    
Wittenberg
: We have a real belief here that in distance running there’s a real magic to the mile and the marathon. The general public really understands those. People always ask you, “What’s your mile time? What’s your marathon time?” So, we work very hard to keep the mile on our schedule. Last year it was on ESPN and we worked with ESPN to bring back a professional field. This year, Continental Airlines is the title sponsor and we’re working with presenting sponsors to bring in a professional field again.

Q: Running requires a commitment, especially of time. Have you had to sacrifice anything to fit your own running into your schedule?
    
Wittenberg
: No, 6:00-7:00am is my window and that never takes away from family time. It’s often tempting for that to be work time, but the return on that investment of one hour of running pays off for the staff, pays off for everybody throughout the year.

Q: It’s therapeutic.

Wittenberg: Yeah. It’s so easy not to run, not to work out. I don’t think anything has suffered because of my running. I think my running has suffered because of, you know, real life.

Q: You could use that hour to sleep.
    
Wittenberg
: Yeah, someday that will be a priority, but not right now.

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