It is two and half weeks since the New York Marathon 2012 was cancelled. And you might think things would have cooled down since then, but obviously they haven’t. The race’s Facebook page is still flooded with questions and complaints – and still the NYRR isn’t answering.
That is why I write this English post in a normally German blog (sorry for any typos or grammatic hickups). I’d like to add some longer thoughts from the perspective of a German marathon newbie.
For my wife and I this was supposed to be our first 42,195 km. We actually ran our first marathon in New York thanks to the wonderful initiative Run Anyway. So there’s not really anger or disappointment in us, this Sunday morning had some sort of magic, it came as close to a romantic New York comedy as you can get in real life.
But the way all this happened made me think. I have to add that for 14 years I worked as a journalist for Handelsblatt, Germany’s biggest business newspaper. During that time I covered sports business as a hobby, for example the Football World Cup, the German Ice Hockey League or the NFL. Today I do mostly digital consulting and a little bit of journalism as editor at large of Wired Germany.
The first thing I found strange was the NYRR’s communication in the weeks before Sandy. It’s the year 2012 and obviously they have nobody with only a basic knowledge of social media. That became obvious when the no baggage policy was announced. Suprised by the headwinds on Facebook the NYRR organised a “chat on Facebook”. Everyone who’s right in his mind knows that you can’t do a chat on Facebook – you collect questions and answer them. The NYRR answered – if I remember it right – 5 questions of dozens in one hour. Highly unprofessional…
After that: silence. The community management of the page was taken over by the wonderful Norwegian Runner Runar Gundersen. If it wouldn’t have been for him, hundreds of questions would had been unanswered. For a organisation the size of NYRR this alone is not acceptable. The moment Sandy hit it became worse. There just were no answers, not even a polite “Sorry, please stay tuned”. From the outside it seemes as if the NYRR didn’t care.
Then came the cancellation. I am absolutely sure, the race could have been held. It was cancelled for political pr reasons, Mayor Bloomberg was not strong enough to stand by his decision. Everyone who says differently knows better than the Mayor. Don’t get me wrong: I deeply feel with the people who where hit by Sandy. But I also think that noone gets better by hiding in a cave. You have to be active to make things better.
If Bloomberg would have been cancelled – or even keep it open – the days before, noone would have said anything. But the moment you make a decision that affects 20.000 of your guests, you have to stick with it.
That’s why Bloomberg gave as a reason for the cancellation: “you can’t have a controversy around an athletic event”. He knew that the race would saved him from a huge problem in the long run: getting enough money together to help all the people. The broadcast on ESPN would have been turned into an telethon that would have brought in millions of Dollar. Money, that will be sorely missed in a couple of months when the media circus has left the area and will return for the first anniversary of Sandy.
I am sure that the hateful reactions toward the race on Facebook did have an influence on the decision. Bloomberg hired an excellent digital director, Rachel Sterne, and we can be sure that he sees social media monitoring as important. What I’m not sure about: If he recognized how many people who were not from New York spread this hate on Facebook.
“Haters gonna hate” is nothing new on the web. But there was one thing that struck me. It was the hate against the runners from abroad, aka guests of New York. The way they were insulted was disgusting. Even people, who just wrote from the heart that their dream of running in New York is over for years because they can’t afford a trip every year, where stampeded by a wild mob.
The strangest idea was to shout at foreign runners: “Go out and help”. In the meantime volunteers were blocking streets which had to be regulated by the police while others who wanted to help didn’t have anything to do. It is an American reflex to go out on your own and help, it’s something that makes this country special. But it is not always the best solution. And does anyone honestly think it is a good idea to send tourist into unknown areas without mobile navigation?
It became clear that active sport and the marathon in peticular don’t have lobby in the US. Many of the commentators considered it “elite” to train for such a race and travel around the globe to run it.
And here we are back with the NYRR. “Together with the help of all of NYRR’s members, supporters, participants, and partners, we’re working hard to fulfill our mission of giving all people everywhere a reason to run”, says their mission statement. Now we can see, how miserable they failed in this task. Running as a middle class activity, but in the eyes of a huge part of the American citizens it is considered an upper class pastime. Maybe that’s understandable in a country where many people need two jobs to barely make a living.
The NYRR also failed in lobbying the people in New York. They are obviously divided when it comes to the marathon. There were so many out in Central Park on Sunday, supporting the runners, shouting things like “Thank you for coming to New York” or “We feel your disappointment”. But there are also others.
“People here are not into the marathon. It’s disturbing. For hours you can’t park, you can’t go through the streets. Today, we like it better. It’s quiet. We go and come”, said one guy from Brooklyn. And Rupert Murdochs lowly tabloid “New York Post” is giving this part of the city a voice. And of cause they’re bitching about the organisation not giving money to charity – completely blocking out that the NYRR’s programmes itself are charity. But you better don’t argue with the irrationallity of Rupert Murdochs media bloodhounds.
In my eyes a huge part of New York just doesn’t want a marathon in their city. The problem with the NYRR is that they don’t argue against this. They are not fighting for their cause. They try to be political and diplomatic. But after the hate I read I don’t think this is a good position. That’s why there was no marathon – but the Giants and Nets and Knicks played, with their fans burning gas and blocking streets and not collecting millions of Dollar.
Now the pressure mounts on the NYRR. They’re into hiding mode again. The reason may be: Mayor Bloomberg. In a clear statement he announced that this was not a cancellation due to the storm and its effects. And this opens the way for lawsuits.
We already hear about hundreds of French runners going to court, other will follow. And we know that in the empire of class action everything is at least worth a try. Runners will sue NYRR. NYRR will maybe sue the city. This could take years do decide.
In the meantime will NYRR pay back the fees? No.
Why? Because they can’t.
Like most sports organisation without a league the financing of the NYRR is volatile. With one big event they get a huge chunk of their budget which they spend over a certain amount of time. It’s the same with Fifa and the World Cup. The fees should account for around 10 million Dollar. Paying it back would cut deeply into the daily life of NYRR. Programmes would have to be cancelled, maybe you would have to fire some of the staff.
Furthermore there’s the danger of at least some of the cases in court leading to liabilities – which would lead to deeper cuts. All this makes it not only harder to organize the smaller races and programmes, it’s also affecting the New York Marathon 2013.
Even if Mary Wittenberg would like to pay back the fees, she probably couldn’t do it. There should be a passage in her contract – like in all manager contracts – that forbid her to take actions which would not be for the best of the organisation. And giving back such an amount of money isn’t good for NYRR.
That’s why my bet is: They won’t pay back. But because they are so desastrously bad in communication an pr the NYRR just doesn’t know how to tell it to the people.