USA Track and Field finds its man on the board

Updated: October 20, 2011, 5:21 PM ET
Associated Press

USA Track and Field has made another high-profile front-office move that is raising eyebrows across the Olympic world -- even inside the federation's own boardroom, a place prone to infighting in recent years.

USATF, which oversees the U.S. Olympic track and field team, hired recently resigned board member Max Siegel to a yearlong contract to try to shore up its flagging media, sponsorship and communications efforts.

The six-figure deal -- USATF would not be more specific about the exact value -- was given to Siegel's 50-employee company this week, barely a month after he resigned his unpaid spot on USATF's board of directors after 2½ years. The contract was awarded without USATF making any formal request for proposals (RFP) from other vendors.

"In my opinion, there absolutely is a conflict of interest when someone has a perceived advantage over their competitors by having `inside information' as a member of the governance or management of an organization looking to hire a vendor or service provider," said Steve Roush, who was the U.S. Olympic Committee's chief of sport performance when it asked USATF to overhaul its governance structure three years ago.

"I would always recommend an organization protect itself with a full RFP process to avoid opening itself up to criticism for favoritism or inappropriate business operations," said Roush, who now works for TSE Consulting, advising other countries' Olympic programs.

The Associated Press interviewed four other Olympic insiders, none of whom wanted to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic, but all of whom objected to the method of USATF's hiring of Siegel.

Some members of the USATF board were also uncomfortable with the move.

Chief spokeswoman Jill Geer, who will be the USATF's liaison to Siegel and his staff, told the AP that when the idea of hiring Siegel was first raised, one of the biggest conversations in the boardroom was how the move would look ethically. The board decided to move forward, convinced that Siegel's ability to improve USATF's image quickly was more important than any backlash USATF might receive for the politics behind it.

"USATF went into this with open eyes," Geer said. "We extensively discussed the issues concerning the process, the fact we were bringing a former board member on as a contractor. But we felt strongly that this is the best move USATF can make to not just advance our business model but really remake it and essentially put us into the 21st century in sports marketing."

The practice of awarding a high-profile job to a current or ex-board member isn't completely unheard of in the corporate world, but neither is it universally accepted. It garnered attention in this case because of the group that did it. USATF overhauled its board in 2008 at the USOC's prodding, then hired and fired ex-CEO Doug Logan in a span of 26 months and has indefinitely postponed its 13-month search for a replacement. Logan sued USATF for wrongful termination and reached an undisclosed monetary settlement in June.

As a contractor, Siegel will fill the roles that would otherwise be executed, in various forms, by the CEO, the vacant chief marketing officer's position and others on the sales and marketing side. Geer said USATF went to Siegel, asking him to submit a bid for the position.

"When USATF came to me to explore this new relationship, it was an opportunity for all of us to work together to remake the organization's business model and culture and to tap its unrealized potential, especially in the marketing, sponsorship and cultural platforms," Siegel said. "My past as a board member has helped me gain a true understanding of USATF's organizational goals."

The USOC, long skeptical of the way USATF does business, declined comment on the topic.

Like USATF, the USOC has had its own governance issues -- most recently in 2009, when volunteer board member Stephanie Streeter helped fire CEO Jim Scherr, then took over his position at a salary of around $1 million a year. She resigned and has been replaced by Scott Blackmun.

Now, like the USOC, which has been steadily improving its image since Blackmun took charge, USATF could use the kind of image makeover Siegel is trying to engineer. USATF's board wants to take advantage of the publicity the sport receives in the lead-up to an Olympic year.

Roush said that's not a good enough reason to short-circuit the selection process.

"Absolutely it is great that they are trying to take advantage of some limited opportunities in the next year," he said. "But this shouldn't cause any organization to bypass conducting a process that protects both the organization, as well as the bidders, for this work."

The federation has only five sponsorship contracts, including deals with Nike and Visa, while other high-profile sports such as skiing and swimming are in double digits. Meanwhile, because of doping, a dearth of high-profile events in the U.S. and a lack of stars that transcend their sport as Carl Lewis and Marion Jones once did, track and field only captures a wide swath of America's attention every four years.

When the USATF hired Logan in 2008, he said he could change all that, with bold ideas to bring more events to the country, add more sponsors and improve track's image. But in a sport long run by insiders, Logan rubbed people the wrong way, and he was fired in 2010.

Siegel has essentially been charged with finishing the job, serving as a key voice for a federation led by chairwoman Stephanie Hightower and interim CEO Mike McNees, who is more comfortable behind the scenes. Geer said the board was convinced that if Siegel raises track's profile, the method of his hiring will long be forgotten.

"Ultimately, whether this was the right move will be determined by the results," she said.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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