How The Millrose Games As We Knew It Died

By: Weldon Johnson,
December 22, 2011

Weldon Johnson, "Wejo," co-founded in 2000. Since founding LRC, he went from a 29:49 10k runner to a 28:06 10k runner to a 39:20 10k runner.

A couple of weeks ago, after had another headline critical of the new Millrose Games, I got a call from track and field super-agent and new Millrose meet director Ray Flynn.

Ray expressed his view that we at LetsRun were being unfair to Millrose. I told him I did not wish the new Millrose ill will, I just strongly believed that Millrose moving to the Armory was not best for the SPORT of track and field, and when we at LetsRun have an opinion we're not going to hide it.

We talked a little about the new Millrose. I told Ray I did not doubt the meet could be successful. I think the new Millrose can succeed like the pro meet in Boston - now called the New Balance Grand Prix - which is held at the Reggie Lewis Center.

But for the sport of track and field to prosper, it needs to be on the biggest stage possible. That means national television and that means in arenas with as many fans as possible. All else being equal, a pro track meet on national TV at Madison Square Garden is better for the sport than a pro track meet in a rec center like the Armory or the Reggie Lewis Center.

How Far Has The Sport Fallen?
Now the jury is still out on whether our sport has fallen so far that it can not even sustain one meet a year at a professional indoor arena.

There used to be a thriving indoor track and field circuit in the US at big arenas. I remember going to a pro meet at Reunion Arena, the former home of the Dallas Mavericks, as a kid. I knew nothing about track, just Carl Lewis, but remember thinking it was really cool.

Now all that is left is the one pro meet at Madison Square Garden. For 98 years in a row, Madison Square Garden had a pro track and field meet at it - the Millrose Games. This year with the US Open will be year 99. I'm pretty sure we'll see 100 next year, but after that I am not so positive.

My beef with the Millrose Games is that it gave up on Madison Square Garden before it was absolutely necessary. Our sport may soon be so marginal that it can not even support one meet a year at a major arena in the US. However, we are not at that point yet, as USATF stepped up to the table to put on the US Open at Madison Square Garden. I told Ray I could not understand how the Millrose Games ended up at the Armory. Ray said he did not know the details so I started looking into it.

How The Armory Became The Owners Of Millrose
I pulled up the public tax documents of the Armory, the Millrose Athletic Association and its successor the Millrose Foundation, and I talked to Dr. Norb Sander, the executive director of the Armory, and Robert Mulligan, the president of the former Millrose Athletic Association and now president of the Millrose Foundation.

What I found out is that the Armory with no fanfare had been given the rights to the Millrose name in 2009 by the former Millrose Athletic Association. As far as I am concerned, that is the day the Millrose Games as we knew it died - for the Armory's interest first and foremost is not the sport of track and field, but the Armory itself. It was only a matter of time from that point on that TMFKNAMG (The Meet Formerly Known as Millrose Games) would end up at the Armory.

Now to the details. The Millrose Games were started in 1908 by employees of the Wanamaker Department stores and Rodman Wanamaker. It was originally held at a local armory and then after an overflow crowd in 1913, it was moved to Madison Square Garden in 1914 and took place there 98 straight times until 2011. According to Robert Mulligan, at some point after Woodward & Lothrop (where Mulligan was a vice chairman) bought the Wanamaker department stores, the Millrose Games was spun off into the Millrose Athletic Association. According to the 2007 and 2008 IRS filings of the Millrose Athletic Association (MAA), the purpose of the Millrose Athletic Association was "The support of amature (sic) athletics" and "to promote social welfare by fostering and encouraging individuals to develop and enhance personal skills through the participation in amature (sic) athletics." Robert Mulligan talked about one of the MAA's objectives being to support "youth track."

The association's expertise was not running track meets. At some point it began licensing out the Millrose name to various entities that ran the Millrose Games (the licensing fee was $31,963 in 2008). Meanwhile the association itself had a few million dollars in investments ($2.2 million in its 2007 filing) and supported its mission by giving away a few hundred thousand in grants each year to various groups involved in amateur athletics. The term "athletics" was not restrictive to track and field. The vast majority of grants did not go to groups associated with track and field (for examples, the Palm Beach Tennis Association, Friends of Dupont Ice Rink, high school scholarship funds, and the Washington Tennis Foundation, among others). The MAA did give grants to the Armory whose purpose according to its 990 tax form is "To serve youth by promoting excellence and fitness through a broad range of athletic, educational and community programs." It was through these grants that the MAA and Robert Mulligan came into contact with Norb Sander.

Attendance continued to decline at Millrose and the meet by all accounts lost money, but that was not the MAA's problem, as they just licensed out the Millrose name each year and gave away the grants.

According to Mulligan, as Millrose continued to decline, the MAA concluded that they "were not in position to get licensees." But the MAA people did know Norb Sander. Sander was successful with youth track and field in NYC with the Armory, and the Millrose Association decided that the Armory was in a "better position to manage the meet." So Mr. Mulligan went to NYC, met with Dr. Sander, and told him they'd like the Armory to take over the meet. But they didn't want him to just run the meet - they wanted to give the Armory the Millrose name. According to Mulligan, Dr. Sander was "surprised" by the opportunity.

The Day Millrose Died - October 2, 2009
According to Dr. Sander and Robert Mulligan, for legal reasons three Armory board members - Norb Sander, Michael Frankfurt (chairman of the Armory Board) and Gerry Burn - joined the previous two-member Millrose Athletic Association board in fiscal year 2009-2010. Around the same time, a new non-profit entity, the Millrose Foundation, was created on October 2, 2009. Its tax forms say, "The Millrose Foundation was created in anticipation of the merger of the (Millrose) Association into the Armory Foundation ... which will beginning in 2011 be responsible for arranging the annual Millrose Games." The Millrose Athletic Association was then dissolved and its assets ($1.6 million in cash and securities), except for the Millrose name, were transferred to the newly created Millrose Foundation. The Armory was given the rights to the Millrose name. The Millrose Foundation would continue to give out grants to youth groups but not be associated with the Millrose Games anymore. The Millrose Games were now the property of the Armory.

Dr. Sander and Robert Mulligan both indicated the desire from the Millrose Athletic Association was to keep Millrose in the Garden. Dr. Sander said the MAA came to him and said, "We want to pass this along, we want to pass this to you. We feel you can keep the tradition going somehow. We'd like you to try and keep it in the Garden but if you can't you can't."

Interestingly, 13 days after the creation of the new Millrose Foundation, there was a press release and press conference in 2009 announcing a new partnership between USATF and the Armory to save the Millrose Games, but nothing was said about the Armory soon becoming the owner of the meet (Dr. Sander told us this paperwork was not completed until over a year later - December 31, 2010). Norb Sander told the New York Daily News he would work with local officials to "insure the future of the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden. This is the flagship event of indoor track and field and its presence at the Garden is crucial."

For the next two years (2010 and 2011), USATF continued to take the financial risk with the meet, willing to absorb any losses, with the goal of promoting track on the largest stage possible. When the contract with USATF came up for renewal this past year1, USATF and Millrose could not come to terms to keep the meet in the Garden, even with USATF willing to absorb any losses on the meet. USATF and the Armory had different visions for the meet.

Dr. Sander's words less than two years previously of" "This is the flagship event of indoor track and field and its presence at the Garden is crucial" rang hollow. With very different objectives, USATF wanting to promote the pro side of the sport and Armory the youth and college (there is a reason the Armory has not put on a major pro meet before Millrose, it is not part of its mission), perhaps it was destined that once the Armory became the owner of the meet it would be moved to the Armory.

Norb said, "USATF made it very clear it was a professional track meet. Period." He added that USATF "could not guarantee high schools could continue (at Millrose) ... they made it clear it's not your meet. It's our meet. We're going to do it our way."

USATF Communications Director Jill Geer, while saying the new US Open at the Garden would have high school races, also said, "It became clear we had different visions for the meet. USATF was more fixated on the elite and professional aide. The Armory given its business models ... was very interested in the high school and college races." Geer said the desire by USATF was to have a much more compact, fan-friendly meet.

If keeping the meet in the Garden was paramount, an option would have been to continue licensing the Millrose name to USATF or even to sell the name to USATF, but that does not enhance the stature of the Armory. Thus 98 years of tradition were tossed aside and the meet was moved.

In the end, Dr. Sander said, "I'm not sure we left it (the Garden) reluctantly. It's (the Armory) a better place to have the Millrose Games than the Garden for track." There is no doubting the Armory with its 200m banked track is faster than the Garden. Dr. Sander and Mulligan both stressed how today's athletes want to run fast and how the Armory is a better track for running fast.

That does not mean it is better for the sport of track and field. Dr. Sander had it right when just two years ago he said, "This is the flagship event of indoor track and field and its presence at the Garden is crucial."


Tomorrow, we'll have a little more on the US Open and how Madison Square Garden itself is surprisingly very committed to keeping the meet in the Garden, and according to Jill Geer of USATF is doing a lot to promote it with promotion on billboards in Times Square (photo on left), and more. According to this web page, Millrose was the longest continual event held at Madison Square Garden. Until talking to Jill, I had little hope the meet would make it past 100, but now think there is a chance. I applaud USATF for not quitting until it no longer is feasible to continue in the Garden.


PS - I wonder if Millrose's demise is linked to the Olympics being 100% amateur when Millrose was created. The MAA tax forms talk about promoting "amateur athletics." In my mind, Millrose was about the highest level of athletics possible, not amateur athletics per se. It just so happened it was not until I believe the 1990s that pro athletes could officially compete in the Olympics. So technically they were amateurs. Thus its easier for people who run the Millrose Association and don't know a lot about track and field to give away the Millrose name to a group promoting youth track and field because they are supposed to be supporting "amateur athletics." I did not see any of the organizational docs of the Millrose Athletic Association, but its tax form talked about promoting "amature (sic) athletics" and Robert Mulligan talked about supporting "youth track."


PPS - It's entirely possible our sport can  no longer support a meet at MSG and thus the Armory is the only place for the Millrose Games. But we weren't at that point yet. And if Armory is the best place for the Millrose Games, then why the fanfare from Norb Sander in 2009 about keeping the Games at the Garden? Also it seems a bit odd that when the Armory finally became the owner of Millrose Games, it was not announced publicly. Maybe it just shows how far off the radar our sport has fallen if no one thought one of its most historical assets getting a new owner was not a very big deal.


PPPS - We're going to put it up for a vote. We'll do this on a yearly basis. Should we refer to the meet at the Armory as the Millrose Games or TMFKAMG (The Meet Formerly Known as Millrose Games). Some may say we're hurting the sport of track and field by not calling Millrose by its technical name, others might say we're encouraging others in the future to treat our sport's assets better, especially when you are given them with no strings attached.