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SBD/November 5, 2012/Events and Attractions
N.Y. Road Runners Reeling From PR Hit Over Last-Minute Marathon Cancellation
Published November 5, 2012
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INSIDE THE DECISION: In N.Y., Barron & Belson note N.Y. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, facing “criticism that he was favoring marathon runners arriving from around the world over people in devastated neighborhoods, reversed himself and cancelled” the race on Friday evening. He “changed his mind as opposition became nearly unanimous.” There were also “concerns about what the world would see” in terms of images in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Bloomberg, who was “virtually alone in saying the race should go on" during the week, "finally relented and canceled it after a conversation” with NYRR President & CEO Mary Wittenberg late Friday. Wittenberg said, “This isn’t the year or the time to run it” (N.Y. TIMES, 11/5). Bloomberg on Saturday said, “What simply happened was it became a source of dissension and we don’t need that right now.” He added, “The spirit of the race is to bring people together. When that became a divisive issue I just made the decision it should not go on” (Bergen RECORD, 11/4). In N.Y., Macur & Belson noted Wittenberg after the cancellation “walked through Central Park not far from where the race’s finish line would have been,” and she looked “pale and tired.” She appeared “shaken, on the verge of tears.” Wittenberg said, “It’s crushing and really difficult. One of the toughest decisions we ever made.” Some people online and some runners registered for the race “called Wittenberg insensitive,” while others said that she “had not called off the race because Road Runners was in it for the money.” But World Marathon Majors Secretary General Glenn Latimer said that Wittenberg “did not deserve to be the target of contempt.” He said, “It wasn’t her call, it was the mayor’s call.” A source said that Wittenberg “started on Wednesday to have doubts that the race could go on.” It became “particularly clear the race would divide the city -- not unite it, as she had hoped” (N.Y. TIMES, 11/3).
THIS WASN'T PLAN B: In New Jersey, Tom Gulitti noted NYRR officials “had planned for almost every contingency, but seemed unprepared for the negativity directed at it, the runners, and the event.” Postponing the race a week or several weeks “was not an option because of getting everyone back in town and finding the hotel rooms, etc., to accommodate them would be impossible.” Officials discussed “several alternatives to canceling the event, including modifying the course and converting it into an elite-runners-only marathon or a 10-mile race in areas not impacted by the storm” (Bergen RECORD, 11/3). In N.Y., Belson & Chen reported Wittenberg announced that NYRR would contribute $1M to relief efforts, but the gesture “did little to stem the anger and the prospect of runners racing past hostile crowds on Sunday.” By 6:30am ET Friday, hours “after she and her staff inspected the course, Wittenberg decided the five-borough race had to be scrapped.” But persuading Bloomberg “to change his mind was difficult.” Wittenberg and Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson “decided it would be best for her to speak to Bloomberg.” Sources said that Bloomberg “was unhappy to back down, but said that if the race had to be canceled it needed to be done immediately.” Wolfson and Wittenberg “then began drafting a statement, released at 5:21 p.m. Eastern, that the race was off” (N.Y. TIMES, 11/5).
BLOOMBERG ON BLAST: YAHOO SPORTS’ Eric Adelson wrote anger toward Bloomberg and marathon officials "mounted throughout Friday after a New York Post cover depicted two massive generators devoted to powering the press tent in Manhattan, while many citizens on Staten Island and the outer reaches of Queens remained in the dark” (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 11/2). The WALL STREET JOURNAL’s Grossman & Futterman noted the debate over whether to hold the race “had grown heated Friday.” Wittenberg had “attempted to recast the marathon as a ‘Race to Recovery’ highlighted by a fundraising drive to support relief efforts.” Already those efforts raised $1.1M from the Rudin family, a "longtime sponsor" of the marathon, a $1M commitment from the Road Runners, $500,000 from event title sponsor ING (WSJ.com, 11/3). Runners will be “offered spots in next year's race or in the New York City half-marathon in March.” It will mark the “first time the marathon won't be run since it started in 1970.” Calls to cancel the marathon “gained steam on social media,” and the online movement “heaped guilt upon tormented runners” (WSJ.com, 11/3). In N.Y., Slattery & McShane wrote Bloomberg “flip-flopped amid charges of insensitivity, barely 36 hours before the race’s start.” The annual race would have started on Staten Island, where “19 residents died last week” (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 11/4).
SPIN CYCLE: The WALL STREET JOURNAL’s Jason Gay noted the marathon “became a target in a frustrated city,” and the “fury was beginning to undermine a world-class athletic event, not to mention" the NYRR. Efforts to “spin the marathon as a symbol of the city's post-storm comeback got no traction” (WSJ.com, 11/3). The AP’s Tim Dahlberg wrote the “idea that a marathon could somehow lift the spirits of a city following Superstorm Sandy was a stretch to begin with.” Bloomberg “stubbornly spun it like this was two months after 9/11,” but he “seemed as clueless on Saturday about the public reaction as he was all week long” (AP, 11/3). The WALL STREET JOURNAL’s Matthew Futterman writes, “In hindsight, the race was doomed as soon as the New York Road Runners Club and Bloomberg tried to turn it into a symbol of New York's resilience, a so-called ‘Race to Recover.’ If they could make it a symbol, so could the opponents, who said it symbolized ignoring the city's most pressing needs. And the opponents had it right” (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 11/5). In N.Y., Phil Mushnick writes, “All the mayor and the New York Road Runners folks had to do after blowing it was say just that: ‘We blew it.’ … Telling such a truth would have disarmed every person who has ever done something they always will regret.” Mushnick: “Instead of human relations we got spin, public relations” (N.Y. POST, 11/5).
BOWING TO PRESSURE: On Long Island, John Jeansonne wrote Bloomberg eventually was “forced to react to mounting criticism both within and outside the running community, including several marathon entrants who made public their intentions to stage a starting-line boycott and pivot toward volunteer relief work for storm victims” (NEWSDAY, 11/4). ABC’s Dan Harris said Bloomberg’s “insistence that the show must go on was met with massive outrage.” ABC’s John Muller: “The public has spoken loud and clear: They want the focus on the victims and the city has listened” (“GMA,” ABC, 11/3). NBC’s Stephanie Gosk said “since the moment” Bloomberg said the marathon “was going forward, the anger started to grow” (“Today,” NBC, 11/3). CNBC’s Brian Shactman said the “image of starting the race in Staten Island where people died" may be "something that could actually tarnish” Bloomberg’s legacy (“The Kudlow Report,” CNBC, 11/2). ESPN N.Y.’s Ian O’Connor wrote, “Right-minded New Yorkers never bought the lame pitch that the marathon would be just what the doctor ordered days after surviving an epic storm” (ESPNNY.com, 11/2). A CHARLOTTE OBSERVER editorial states cancelling the race “was the right move.” It is “surprising that a politician as savvy as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn’t realize that earlier,” but wisdom is “appreciated whether it arrives early or late” (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 11/5). The N.Y. Daily News’ Frank Isola: “There’s no sense criticizing anybody because they’re doing the right thing. The race never should have been run” (“Daily News Live,” SportsNet N.Y., 11/2).
WITTENBERG IN SPOTLIGHT: In N.Y., Mike Lupica wrote Wittenberg “stumbled around all week trying to explain why she thought the race should be held.” In the end New Yorkers “did not want this race” (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 11/3). Also in N.Y., Mike Vaccaro reported NYRR sent a letter “to the 47,000 people scheduled to run the race.” The letter read in part, “It became increasingly apparent that the people of our ... area were still struggling to recover. That struggle, fueled by the resulting extensive and growing media coverage antagonistic to the marathon and its participants, created conditions that raised concern for the safety of both those working to produce the event and its participants.” Vaccaro: “Shame on the NYRR. Shame on Mary Wittenberg, the NYRR’s heartless president and CEO, for allowing this absurd drivel to stand as the NYRR’s official explanation.” If the NYRR “was smart, today would be Wittenberg’s last day on the job” (N.Y. POST, 11/4).
BLAME GAME: SI.com’s David Epstein wrote many of the criticisms leveled at NYRR -- when the race was still on -- had “little substance.” Was NYRR “only concerned about the bottom line in continuing?” Epstein: “Not really, because the non-refundable race fees are already paid, and the race is insured anyway.” Interviews with eight people involved in putting on the marathon “testify to the fact that the race organizers truly felt that the marathon was going to be part of the city's psychological healing.” That this race “would somehow become a symbol of excess, came as a surprise to many of the people who help to make the race work, particularly after NYRR canceled the normal pre-race festivities and donated $1 million to hurricane relief” (SI.com, 11/3). The Bergen RECORD’s Gulitti noted it “wasn’t an easy" event to cancel, with $350M "in revenue at stake.” Although there was “a lot of vitriol directed toward the runners" and NYRR "over the last few days, their hearts actually were in the right place,” as they “wanted to run to help” (Bergen RECORD, 11/3). The AP’s Peltz & Cohen wrote under the header, “Most Agree That Cancelling The NYC Marathon Was The Right Thing To Do” (AP, 11/3).
REST & RECOVERY: In N.Y., Robbins & Belson wrote the question now is “just how long it would take Road Runners to recover -- financially, and in terms of reputation.” NYRR relies on the marathon “for more than half" its $60M in annual revenue, which "officials say goes into financing its programs and conducting races.” This was the “first time in nearly 20 years that the marathon was going to be broadcast live on national television, and officials had adjusted the script to be sensitive to Sandy’s aftermath.” Wittenberg said, “This was going to be our version of a telethon to raise funds for New York.” Tax returns and interviews with officials revealed that NYRR has a “relatively slim cushion, generating a couple of million dollars more than it spends each year.” Now the organization will “still have to determine how much to pay the television sponsors and the race sponsors, as well as the elite runners who came from as far as Africa and Australia, some of whom would have earned the bulk of their income from appearance fees in the race.” A clause in the insurance policy “about ‘extreme weather conditions’ seems to cover the storm cancellation, but just how extensive that coverage will be has not yet been determined.” Wittenberg said, “We have some insurance, but there’s going to be some heavy hits as a result of this.” Robbins & Belson wrote the “public relations hit could be far worse.” All the amateur athletes “who trained for months will want to know whether their entry fees, which were as high as $347, will be refunded.” A source said that NYRR “will, at least for now, stick to its firm no-refund policy.” It is also unclear “how the organization will rework its five-year television rights contract with ESPN and WABC, the local affiliate.” Network execs said that one possibility is “extending the contract a year” (N.Y. TIMES, 11/4).
IMPACT ON TOP RUNNERS: In N.Y., Jere Longman noted the cancellation “brought a significant shortfall to the best runners in the field.” A win or a “high finish could have meant a six-figure increase in a shoe-company sponsorship,” or a “chance to have a shoe deal of any kind.” Sports agent Luis Posso said, “This is a big blow. Everyone is in shock. Where do we go? What do we do?” One thing that remained unclear Friday night was “whether elite runners would receive any portion of the appearance fees they had negotiated beforehand.” Wittenberg said that organizers "would be fair, given how important one race was to the runners’ annual income.” Wittenberg: “We’ve got a lot to figure out” (N.Y. TIMES, 11/4). In Boston, John Powers noted missing the “chance at a hefty payday hurts, since most of the top guns get only two a year.” It was unclear Saturday “whether the elite runners still would get to keep their full appearance fees.” They did “what they’d contracted to do by showing up ready to rumble and it wasn’t their decision to cancel the event” (BOSTON GLOBE, 11/4).
ON TO THE NEXT ONE: In Philadelphia, Kathy Boccella notes city Mayor Michael Nutter “reportedly had stepped in with an offer: All 40,000-plus runners could come to Philadelphia” (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 11/5). The WALL STREET JOURNAL’s Diamond, Woo & Clark noted the cancellation gave the racing calendar “new options, and other marathons were more than happy to adopt the vagabonds.” The Richmond, Va., marathon this Saturday “saw an immediate surge.” Richmond's half-marathon “sold out Friday for the first time ever,” and event Dir Lisa Randolph said that the race “would be the most crowded marathon in the event's 35-year history.” Randolph said, "Our phones are ringing off the hook" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 11/3).