• A look back at NYRR with Mary Wittenberg at the helm

    Mary Wittenberg built a year-round schedule of events for the New York Road Runners.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
    Mary Wittenberg, longtime president and CEO of the New York Road Runners and former race director of the TCS New York City Marathon, announced a week ago that she was leaving her post to oversee Virgin Sport, a new sports venture funded by billionaire Richard Branson.

    Wittenberg started the new job today, so in honor of her 17 years with NYRR — including the last 10 at the helm — SBJ looks back at her time with the Road Runners.

    In 1998, Wittenberg left her partnership position with the Hunton & Williams law firm to pursue her lifelong goal of working in the sports industry. Her new post was the No. 2 position behind race director Allan Steinfeld at the New York Road Runners Club, the local running group that organized one of the world’s largest footraces, the New York City Marathon.

    Steinfeld had taken the reins of the race in 1993 from co-founder Fred Lebow. Wittenberg, 52, said she saw opportunities for growth across the club and the race. At the time, the race had no timing chips or wheelchair events. Many of the NYRR’s smaller races were staged in Central Park. The club sold sponsorships but struggled to help sponsors activate in a creative, meaningful way.
    “Fred and Allan had laid this great foundation,” Wittenberg said. “But [the NYRR] needed to build in order to keep up with the partners and the growth in running.”

    Wittenberg, who became CEO and president in 2005, pursued an aggressive policy of growth. Under her guidance, the New York City Marathon matured into the largest one-day running event, with 50,000 runners, as well as one of the premier commercial properties in the sport, with live network TV coverage and worldwide media reach. The NYRR also grew into a year-round running platform, with 52 annual races held in all five boroughs, and its annual operating budget expanded from around $17 million in 1998 to more than $80 million in 2015, Wittenberg said. Full-time employees grew from around 30 to 160.

    George Hirsch, NYRR chairman, attributes much of that growth to Wittenberg’s original vision.

    “Mary saw running as a sport that hadn’t peaked — and she was right,” Hirsch said. “Her goals are always to do bigger events, and more events, and to build out programs to get more people running.”

    Wittenberg also sought out new ways to monetize the race. In 2003, after JPMorgan exited as the race’s longtime “premier” sponsor, Wittenberg and then-EVP Ann Wells Crandall pushed the NYRR to bring in Dutch bank ING as the race’s first-ever title sponsor in an eight-figure annual deal. Selling the race’s name represented a sea change that was never an option under the NYRR’s old guard, Wittenberg said, but it presented an opportunity to finance the NYRR’s year-round ambitions.

    “The [ING deal] had a flywheel effect for bringing in other [partners],” Wittenberg said. “It enabled us to build things for the community of runners.”

    Her tenure at NYRR was not without criticism. Critics in the running industry blasted her reported $500,000 a year salary. Hard-core runners balked at her efforts to “corporatize” the marathon with partnerships.

    Wittenberg earned her loudest criticism in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy destroyed parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn. Instead of canceling the race immediately, the NYRR went forward with the event, only to have Mayor Michael Bloomberg cancel the race two days before its running.

    Hirsch, who said he spent the 2012 race week alongside Wittenberg, said the experience affirmed his confidence in the CEO.

    “She took the brunt of the criticism,” Hirsch said. “And she was unflappable.”

    Wittenberg said she and the NYRR staff learned important lessons about communication and collaboration from the disaster. Both lessons will help her in her new role as CEO of the newly launched Virgin Sport, which will look to build assets in running, cycling and other mass-participant sports.

    “It’s another chance to build something,” Wittenberg said.

    Fred Dreier is a writer in Colorado.

    Tags: On the Ground
  • TV Timeout: The Garden Of Eden?

    SNY’s Chris Carlin said of Isiah Thomas, “A man who cost James Dolan $12 million in a sexual harassment lawsuit, a man who set your Knicks franchise back six, seven years, comes back to not only run your women’s basketball team but also partially own it. How do I get a friend like Jim Dolan?” (“Loud Mouths,” SNY, 5/5). N.Y. Daily News’ Bill Madden: “If Isiah Thomas is in the house, it’s nothing but trouble for Phil Jackson” (“Daily News Live,” SNY, 5/5). Dallas Morning News columnist Tim Cowlishaw said, “I don't know why anybody in the WNBA would be okay with it. Just getting a famous person involved in your league is not going to sell tickets, especially when they’re involved (in a sexual harassment suit) the last time they worked at Madison Square Garden” (“Around The Horn,” ESPN, 5/5). FS1’s Petros Papadakis added, “It does come off as a little bit tone deaf for the Knicks … but remember, Isiah Thomas was working for NBA TV. He was already accepted by the NBA. NBA people are fine with Isiah Thomas, otherwise he wouldn't be underneath their brand on TV two or three nights a week” (“Fox Sports Live Countdown,” FS1, 5/5).

    FIGHT FALLOUT: ESPN’s Bomani Jones said of the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao bout, “I think the public’s demand for that fight has been satiated” (“Highly Questionable,” ESPN, 5/5). N.Y. Daily News’ Frank Isola said, “There’s a thin line here between having the courage to play hurt and then fooling the public. So which one is it for Pacquiao?” (“Around The Horn,” ESPN, 5/5).

    BLOWING THROUGH TOWN
    : NFL Network’s Rich Eisen said of the NFL Draft in Chicago, “It was a totally different atmosphere than any televised draft has ever seen. Again, I don't know how Chicago doesn't get another crack at it next year unless the league wants to move it around, which obviously making the draft a traveling road show would be very popular amongst the fanbase” (“The Dan Patrick Show,” 5/5).

    COVER MODEL: ESPN’s Marcellus Wiley said of choosing the cover athlete for the next edition of the Madden football video game, “You can’t give the cover to a guy who didn’t even play one entire season. You’ve got to give it to the Super Bowl champion and the craziest personality we know in the game and that’s (Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski). He’s going to sell more games for you” (“SportsNation,” ESPN2, 5/5).

    WHO’S THE BOSS? Former NBA Commissioner David Stern said of the league’s new TV deal and the higher salary cap, “It all comes back to the same thing, management. It depends how you spend your money when the cap goes up” (“We Need To Talk,” CBSSN, 5/5).

    FOREVER AND EVER
    : PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, on how long he plans to hold his position and what he wants his legacy to be: “I can answer both of those things with, ‘He died in office’” (“Feherty,” Golf Channel, 5/4).

  • Podcast: This week's NHL Wrap-Around

    NHL writer Ian Thomas and Alex Silverman discuss Lou Lamoriello’s legacy in the wake of him stepping aside as Devils GM after 28 years and his successor Ray Shero’s biggest challenges, as well as the NHL’s stance on live-streaming apps like Periscope and Meerkat in the wake of the Mayweather-Pacquiao piracy issues, in this week's NHL Wrap-Around.

    Tags: NHL, SBJSBD Podcast
  • TV Timeout: Yanked Check?

    ESPN’s Bomani Jones, on the Yankees not paying DH Alex Rodriguez a $6M bonus for hitting his 660th home run: “They ain’t giving back that ’09 World Series, are they, talking about morality” (“Highly Questionable,” ESPN, 5/4). Denver Post columnist Woody Paige said of Rodriguez, “He is not a marketing factor anymore” (“Around The Horn,” ESPN, 5/4). MLB Network’s Ken Rosenthal said, “We are all tired of talking about this” (“MLB Now,” MLB Network, 5/4).

    JUICED: Fantex co-Founder & CEO Buck French said of partnering with 49ers TE Vernon Davis on several Jamba Juice locations, “Part of our relationship with the athlete allows us to co-invest alongside them if they're getting opportunity based on endorsement type deals. So Vernon had already owned a Jamba Juice store and created an opportunity we believe to create future cash flow streams for investors” (“Closing Bell,” CNBC, 5/4).

    HITTING SNOOZE: ESPN’s Dan Le Batard said of the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao fight, “What would you do to cash in on a rematch nobody wants to see after that fight? Invent a shoulder injury that none of us knew about” (“Highly Questionable,” ESPN, 5/4).

    FEELING A DRAFT? FS1’s Peter Schrager, on the NFL Draft in Chicago: “Chicago was a great host city, but I like my Radio City. It just didn't feel the same way. In person, it didn't have that same energy and same buzz” (“America’s Pregame,” FS1, 5/4).

    FACE-OFF: The S.F. Chronicle’s Scott Ostler said of Warriors G and NBA MVP Stephen Curry possible being the face of the league, “He may have jumped over LeBron, and that's saying a lot” (“Yahoo Sports Talk Live,” CSN Bay Area, 5/4).

    TAKE A NUMBER: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said of possibly revamping playoff seeding, “I’m not ready to go 1-16 in terms of seeding. I don’t want to go to extreme places and have a huge impact on the schedule” (“PTI,” ESPN, 5/4).

    BUYING WITH CAUTION: Disney Chair & CEO Bob Iger, on ESPN: “We’re not going to buy everything. We can't, but we’re going to buy what we believe the viewer wants and what we believe is going to create value for the company” (“Squawk on the Street,” CNBC, 5/5).

  • Podcast: Analyzing 'soft' ad sales market

    As part of SBJ's Media Upfront in-depth, media writer John Ourand and Executive Editor Abraham Madkour discuss the ad sales market and what its current "soft" status means for sports.

    Tags: Media, In-Depth, SBJSBD Podcast
  • Populous working high-profile events this week

    Populous’ event design and planning group is working behind the scenes at two high-profile events this week, the NFL draft and the Kentucky Derby.

    The Denver-based division of the Kansas City sports architecture firm is working its 11th NFL draft dating to 2005. As the draft moves from New York City to Chicago, Populous’ role is to transform the Auditorium Theatre into a broadcast-friendly facility and a venue to accommodate 3,000 fans.

    In the days leading up to the draft, the 126-year-old building, designed by famed architect Louis Sullivan, presented some challenges for hanging multiple video screens and fitting draft sets on stage for ESPN and NFL Network.

    “We were at Radio City [Music Hall] for nine years and got set in our ways with work crews,” said Todd Barnes, an architect and principal with the firm. “We had it dialed in there and our installation period was less than four days. In Chicago, with the unique conditions, we’re looking at load-in, with all the technology, [of two weeks] leading up to [Thursday] when the theater is filled with fans. There can be no hiccups.”

    In addition to sets for the two main networks, Populous developed a press box in the balcony level for 200 reporters and interview space for radio outlets ESPN, Sirius and Westwood One.

    In Louisville, Churchill Downs recently hired Populous to develop a more efficient method for patrons to enter the 140-year-old facility on Derby Day. This year’s event is Saturday.

    Populous, whose sports designers created the track’s new Winner’s Circle suites, had been talking with track officials for several years on the event planning side, and this is the first year that the consultant has been engaged in that role, said Kevin O’Grady, an event manager and associate principal.

    Over the past two months, Populous has had four employees on site to develop operations improvements, including reconfiguring gate entrances, increasing the number of signs directing attendees to their seats, adding more guest services staff and boosting the number of restrooms and betting lines placed under tents inside the gates, O’Grady said.

    “The Kentucky Derby draws 160,000 people, which is like having two Super Bowls on top of each other,” O’Grady said. “It’s such a historic building with unique challenges and a different style. When you put 160,000 into this place, there is always room for improvement.”

    Tags: On The Ground
  • Podcast: This week's NHL Wrap-Around

    NHL writer Ian Thomas and Alex Silverman discuss Seattle's possible expansion effort, the Edmonton Oilers' front-office changes and the second-round playoff matchups in this week's NHL Wrap-Around.

    Among the comments:


    "You look at some of the fan support there, whether it’s for the Portland junior-level team. The Northwest in general is a good hockey market, I think an untapped one. If they could put a world-class arena there, I think the NHL would certainly listen to any pitch from a potential owner. The question still remains about whether the arena can get done."

    "You can’t imagine that anyone would be willing to invest in an arena without some sort of assurance, or at least a notion, that they would be granted a team when that arena is built. … You look at the Quebec City situation, where they are set to open a brand-new arena without an NHL tenant and really no indication that they might get one in the near future."

    "It’s an important time for the Oilers to start to improve the team, with a new arena in their sights in the near future. … It’s the first time in a while if you’re an Oilers fan that you can really see a path to change, similar to what’s happened in Toronto as of late."

    Tags: NHL, SBJSBD Podcast
  • TV Timeout: Of Major Concern

    N.Y. Daily News’ Bob Raissman said of Yankees DH Alex Rodriguez chasing a milestone 660th home run, “The way he’s playing, he’s the face of this team now ... and if he does hit this home run and he was to sell t-shirts, I think they’d sell a few. I don’t agree that he’s not marketable” (“Daily News Live,” SNY, 4/27). FS1’s C.J. Nitkowski: “He can be marketable if they want him to be. ... You need to embrace it. It’s not going away” (“America’s Pregame,” FS1, 4/27).

    BIGGER THAN BASEBALL: MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, on postponing games in Baltimore due to the ongoing civic unrest in the city: “First and foremost, we worry about the fans, their ability to get in and out of the ballpark, but it's also important to remember that we have players, umpires and a lot of day-of-game staff that are in the ballpark. We want to make sure that they’re safe, that we're not putting them at risk. ... Cancellations are difficult for us, and so moving forward, we will have to consider alternatives that are focused more on getting the games played as opposed to exactly how many fans will be able to see the games” (“Mike & Mike,” ESPN Radio, 4/28). MLB.com’s Brittany Ghiroli reported from Baltimore: “I’ve been impressed by how much the Orioles have paid attention to what’s been going on. ... This whole city really seems like it’s under siege” (“OTL,” ESPN, 4/27).

    PLAYER HATERS BALL: ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd: “I will quit this network if I am ever asked to cover (videogames or eSports). I tagged out at Harry Potter. I tolerated Donkey Kong. I’ll tell you what that was the equivalent of … me putting a gun in my mouth and having to listen to that” (“The Herd,” ESPN Radio, 4/27).

    AND BACK TO BASEBALL: ESPN’s Jayson Stark, on the Angels eating a ton of cash to trade away OF Josh Hamilton: “The why it happened really goes back to this past winter when Josh had his relapse and from that day forward (Angels Owner) Arte Moreno … essentially decided Josh Hamilton was never going to play for their team again. He never had a locker in spring training. He never had a locker in Anaheim this year at any point." Stark: “It looks like they saved $20 million, but this still is going to go down as one of the biggest contract disasters in baseball history” (“Mike & Mike,” ESPN Radio, 4/28).

  • TV Timeout: So Sorry

    Comedy Central’s Larry Wilmore said of ESPN’s Britt McHenry, “I heard Twitter accepted her apology but the lady she actually insulted is still waiting for hers” (“The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore,” Comedy Central, 4/20).

    UNHAPPY CAMPERS: NFL Senior Dir of Broadcast Michael North said of creating the league’s master schedule, “We’re not going to make everybody happy and truth be told, we’re unlikely to make anybody happy” (“NFL Total Access,” NFL Network, 4/20).

    FINDING VALUE: L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke on Raptors President of Basketball Operations & GM Masai Ujiri cursing when addressing fans of the team: “It’s a great marketing tool. He makes about $3 million a year (and) it’s probably worth it to him to endear himself to the fan base, to rally around” (“Around The Horn,” ESPN, 4/20).

    CHECK SWING: N.Y. Daily News columnist Bob Raissman said of Pete Rose being hired by Fox to cover MLB, “I’m wondering if Pete Rose is going to be himself and be feisty, be combative, be controversial because don’t forget that Rob Manfred has opened the door for him to come back. Pete might start playing to the commissioner’s office and the baseball owners and pull his punches” (“Daily News Live,” SNY, 4/20).

    SOUND OF MADNESS: ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser said of Pelicans coach Monty Williams suggesting the noise level at Oracle Arena is illegal, “I didn't know that there were legal limits to noise. This is what you want from your fans. You want them to be so persistently loud that the other team has a drum beat in their heads and they can't react” (“PTI,” ESPN, 4/20).

  • Podcast: This week's NHL Wrap-Around

    NHL writer Ian Thomas and Alex Silverman discuss the Maple Leafs' front-office shakeup and rebuild, as well as attendance numbers from the regular season and the NHL and NBC's marketing for the playoffs in this week's NHL Wrap-Around.

    Among the comments:


    "There’s a lot of media pressure (on the Leafs) and, while losing naturally the team is going to take a lot of heat from the media in Toronto and presumably the fans, it is a rabid hockey market where a few lean years on the ice doesn’t necessarily lead to lean years in attendance or ratings because the interest level there is just so high."

    "Say what you will about the job that Dave Nonis did, but one thing he did manage to do was trade the virtually untradeable contract of David Clarkson to Columbus. … They’re going to have to trade Dion Phaneuf’s contract, which an inexperienced GM might have trouble coming up with a creative way to get out from under that contract. It’s a similar situation with Phil Kessel."

    "You look at some of the teams that drive attendance from a total number standpoint, whether that’s Canadiens, Red Wings, Blackhawks, Wild, Rangers, teams that are essentially at 100 percent already. There’s little room for those teams to grow. So the fact that (attendance) was flat, considering the types of years that the Hurricanes and Panthers had, is rather impressive. You’re talking about teams that had double-digit drops, including almost a 20 percent drop for the Panthers."

    Tags: NHL, Hockey, SBJSBD Podcast
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