A revealing story by David Woods of the Indy Star published yesterday exposed a great deal about the difficult financial circumstances that many professional track athletes face, but a particular statement in the piece from USA Track & Field CEO Max Siegel stood out to me as misguided.
Max Siegel, CEO of USATF for two years, is a former president of global operations for Dale Earnhardt Inc. He said he is “perplexed that there is this angst toward the shoe companies” that he didn’t find toward automakers in NASCAR.
“I’m careful with it because they’ll take my head off because people feel a certain way about it,” Siegel said. “But it’s interesting that the very bedrock and the foundation of the sport is supported by those shoe companies, who get a bad rap. So I often ask the question, coming in relatively new, … has anyone ever sat back and asked what this industry would like if the shoe companies divested?”
In many regards, fans and observers of track and field have a great level of adoration for shoe companies that make the dream of competing professionally a reality by paying athletes a salary, providing gear, etc.
Some companies go a step above by sponsoring training groups that provide additional resources such high level coaches, training partners, and cross training facilities. Brooks with the Michigan-based Hansons group and Nike’s Oregon Project were the first to pioneer this space, and many companies have followed suit. These groups have enhanced the development of American athletes and given many the opportunity to pursue a professional career.
This set-up is not dissimilar to the three car companies in NASCAR — Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota — that provide vehicles and sponsor racing teams.
It’s worth noting that all three companies are listed as “official partners” of NASCAR (in addition to a bevy of other sponsors) and carry equal weight as integral parts of the sport.
USA Track & Field, on the other hand, has just one official shoe company sponsor — Nike.
The sponsorship itself isn’t a big deal. The fact that Nike bankrolls much of USATF and recently signed a massive new contract extension until 2040 is.
The perceived “angst toward shoe companies” doesn’t come from Nike or any other shoe company helping athletes make a living, just like the auto companies do in NASCAR, but that one company in particular has such a large influence over a governing body that should operate in a fair and equitable way to all parties involved.
When Siegel still makes statements like this with the caveat that he’s “coming in relatively new” despite having been on the job for two years, one has to wonder whether he’s out of touch with the community he’s been tasked to serve.