Q & A On The Boston Marathon Dropping the USATF Membership Requirement
Well, now we find out how much people really care about USATF. The decision by the Boston Athletic Association to drop the USATF membership as a requirement for entry into the Boston Marathon may be a victory for the free market, but it will undoubtedly be a blow to the fiscal health of USATF, especially the local New England Association.
Posted Friday, 29 August, 1997
Well, now we find out how much people really care about USATF. The decision by the Boston Athletic Association to drop the USATF membership as a requirement for entry into the Boston Marathon may be a victory for the free market, but it will undoubtedly be a blow to the fiscal health of USATF, especially the local New England Association. "Yes, it will definitely have an effect," says Steve Vaitones, director of the New England USATF association. He adds that the association as a going concern is not in danger. " We run a pretty lean operation here. We are not going to have to close an office or reduce our services, but it will force us to look into other programs that will drive membership." That said, let's ask some questions about this latest development and see if we can come up with some answers.
Q: How much money was USATF collecting from the Boston Marathon?
A: Given a field of 10,000 US runners, $15 for each membership card equals $150,000. That amount is divvied up between the national office and the local association. The New England Association took a $4 cut from each card outside of New England.
Q: Do any other races apart from Boston require USATF membership?
A: Yes, several of the big city marathons such as New York and Disney do as well. Many track and field competitions also require membership cards, including all championship meets, along with many youth meets.
Q: Why would a race such as Boston, which is not a USATF championship, require USATF membership as an entry requirement?
A: USATF is involved in many behind the scenes aspects of big events like Boston. They sanction the event, provide insurance, and generally support the sport, which helps Boston, because a healthy sport will continue to supply runners for Boston.
Q: Why did Boston drop the requirement then?
A: According to BAA press liaison Jack Fleming, Boston made its decision after a careful "cost/benefit" analysis. In other words, money tipped the balance. An outside observer might speculate that the Boston Marathon is worried that the $15, added on to an already hefty $75 entry fee, might in time erode the size of the starting field. Unlike New York, Boston's field is limited by qualifying standards. In the mid 1980s, Boston's starting field dipped to 6,000 runners. Relaxed qualifying standards pushed the field back up above 10,000. The BAA needs to keep the figure that high to support its budget. This move will certainly help assure that will happen.
Q: Will other races drop the requirement?
A: Alan Stienfeld from the New York Marathon said they have not made a decision yet, but will review the situation next spring for the 1998 race. This year, the membership requirement is still in effect. New York had many more applicants than places, so does not share Boston's concern for keeping the numbers up. The entry fee for New York is also less, so the $15 USATF fee is presumably less painful for the runner.
Q: What was USATF's reaction to the Boston announcement?
A: Vaitones, who attended a USATF meeting in Houston last week, said the initial reaction was one of "shock" among USATF associations. "Once the initial shock was over, many of us realized we have to stop looking at big marathons as a revenue source, and instead start looking at how we can better service our members," Vaitones says, adding "The problem is that some of the local associations don't have offices or the ability to provide members with services. They were basically depending on their cut of the Boston and New York Marathon entrants from their area to support area programs. That has to change."
Alan Roth, president of the Potomac Valley Association of USATF, noted that: "The major problem we are all going to face is the huge drop-off we can expect from LDR [long-distance running] membership, especially if other marathons follow the example of Boston. This will have a very detrimental effect on almost all of the associations, but can be countered by dramatically increasing our services to LDR members. The more we can do for them, the more likely we are to hit on things that will be considered of value."
Q: Are there any hard feeling between BAA and USATF?
A: Not at all, says Vaitones. "We have a very supportive relationship both ways. We provide many services that help the marathon, and they provide us with referral calls and provide office space for us to conduct monthly meetings." "While we still think that membership in USATF is good," said Fleming, "we just did not want to make it compulsory." Instead a note in the Boston Marathon entry form will explain how a runner can go about obtaining a USATF membership.
Q: Will the average runner pay $15 and join USATF, if they are not required to do so?
A: This is the $64,000 dollar question, literally. Many runners who have no connection to the sport other than running road races including the Boston Marathon, have long looked upon the $15 USATF card as a tariff on the Boston Marathon entry. They received an occasional newsletter from USATF, but that's about it. Viatones addresses this feeling. "We do a lot for the clubs, but there are a lot of marathoners out there who don't even know there are running clubs out there. We need to reach out to the unattached runner to show them that is worthwhile for them to join the organization."
Q: Should Folks join USATF?
A: There are two ways of looking at this issue. The outlook of many runners these days is, What's in it for me? "So many runners now are insulted if they don't get a T-shirt and a meal at every race the run these days," says Vaitones. "Even at track meets that only exist because of USATF such as the Metrowest Series, there are competitors who balk at getting a membership card. Maybe it is a reflection of a larger societal problem." O.K. Steve, if you won't say it, I will. By and large many runners are "thrifty" to be kind. When they don't see a direct benefit from a cost, the wallets will stay in the back pocket.
The other way of looking at a USATF membership is an investment in the sport. That is how Vaitones would prefer you view it. "We do a lot of things that keep the big machine of the sport going," he says. Course certification, coaching schools, club practice and race insurance, staging events in little participated sports such as youth meets, race walking, and cross country are a few of those things. For a relatively small fee, a runner can know that they are doing their part to keep the sport moving along.
Which of these two views will runners take? Now we will find out.