Q&A With NASDAQ Chairman Bob Greifeld Who is Investing in Track Town Summer Series Hoping to Make Track More Popular and Profitable

A multimillionaire is investing some of his dough into a US pro track and field series. Is he crazy or could track and field be profitable in America? We may soon find out with the TrackTown Summer Series.

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By Jonathan Gault
April 26, 2017

Bob Greifeld, 59, is among track & field’s wealthiest fans. The chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange (he served as NASDAQ’s CEO from 2003 to 2016), he’s also served as chairman of the USATF Foundation since 2004, where he has raised over $3 million to support elite and youth track athletes. Greifeld’s latest venture is serving as one of the principal investors, along with Pitch Johnson, in the TrackTown Summer Series, which begins its second season this summer. Greifeld, who made $14.7 million in his role as NASDAQ CEO last year according to the New York Times, has been a lifelong fan of the sport, and I had the opportunity to speak to him on the phone Tuesday morning. Greifeld explained why he’s pouring some of his money into the TrackTown Summer Series, what he hopes to accomplish, and the keys to making track & field more popular in the United States. TrackTown USA president Vin Lananna and TrackTown USA CEO Michael Reilly were also on the call, and while the interview was primarily between Bob and me, they chimed in on occasion. 

Last year, in its inaugural year, the TrackTown Summer Series was a single meet in Eugene, Ore., prior to the Olympics that had a team concept, $356,000 in prize money and bonuses to athletes, an ESPN broadcast, an announced attendance of just over 3,000 and a total cost that had to be well over half a million dollars. Recap of meet #1 here.

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For more details on the TrackTown Summer Series, which involves a team concept and for 2017 includes three meets (June 29 at Stanford, July 2 at Mt. Hood Community College near Portland and a final championship meet at Icahn Stadium in New York on July 6), check out this article: LRC TrackTown Summer Series 2.0 To Have Allyson Felix, Bernard Lagat, Nick Symmonds and Sanya Richards-Ross as GMs, Plus Why Nick Symmonds’ Final Season May Be a Short One

Jonathan Gault: What is your background in track & field? How did you become interested in the sport?

Bob Greifeld: I would say time is a big circle, in that, as a young person, I remember watching track & field on television. It was on on the weekend. We didn’t have DVRs back then or VCRs, so I looked forward to it with great enthusiasm. And when you talk to people of a certain age today, we all have fond memories of that time where track was more accessible. There were more meets, the athletes became branded of themselves.

So I know there is an interest in the sport and clearly TrackTown Summer Series is there to kindle that interest and I fundamentally believe that our sport is a very interesting and exciting sport. The human drama of person-to-person competition is exciting in and of itself. We’re adding a team dimension to it, which I think is innovative and unique and will be of enduring value to the sport.  We don’t want to have a focus on the clock as much as the races and the team.

The direct answer to your question is I’ve always had an interest in track. As a young man, I found the sport [to be] the true essence of athletics and have loved it my whole life.

Did you ever compete in track & field, either in high school or in college?

Yeah, I competed in high school and I had to stop competing after junior year to get a job, to work in order to be able to go to college. So I say sometimes a dream interrupted is a dream never forgotten. But I had a good time doing that. I regretted not being able to continue, but it was a necessary thing based upon my economic circumstances at the time.

But I always have loved the sport as a fan. And even in high school, I remember being fascinated by the times. I lived on Long Island, and Newsday would have the clips of different meets, so I was able to recite who ran what, when and where. Track & Field News was the only subscription I had back in the day.

I just have naturally come to the sport as a fan. For the past 12 years, I have founded and run the USATF Foundation, and I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made there, where if you come out of college today ranked in the top 10 in the US with no other available means, the foundation will most likely be in a position to put you through the next Olympic cycle. And so we’ve had great pleasure allocating millions of dollars to our athletes and the list of medal winners as a result of that has been quite impressive.

Why invest in track and field, and in this series in particular?

Well as I said, I have a lifelong interest in a fan. [The] last decade or more, I’ve been supporting them directly through the foundation. And you say, wouldn’t it be great if these athletes had their own sport where they could make a living at it and thereby not eliminating, but lessening the need for charitable giving to the sport?

And that’s kind of the genesis of it. And it comes back to what I said. This sport is fundamentally exciting. We have to produce it and release it in a manner in which fans can digest it, learn to love it and follow it. Most people who get involved watching a track meet or going to a track meet who don’t come from the sport find it a fascinating sport to follow.

I think in the early years, we want to get to those individuals who have been involved with the sport in some fashion whether directly by competing in track in high school or college or by participating in road races that are held across the country every weekend. So [if] we can convert those ex-athletes or those current road runners into fans, we’ll be doing quite well. From what I can tell, that’s not that large of a step that we have to take to get from where we are today to where we want to be.

How much money have you invested in this series?

Well I would say this: right now, we have enough invested and desire to give the TrackTown Summer Series its full shot at becoming successful.  So we started last year with one meet. This year, we’re going with three meets. We’ll soon be coming up with plans for 2018. So we have a commitment, between Tracktown Summer Series itself, myself and Pitch Johnson, who’s one of the leading venture capital investors in the [Silicon] Valley, to see this thing through where it has a fair shot to attract a fanbase.  

The TrackTown Summer Series is in a way replacing the New York Diamond League meet, which no longer exists. That meet had the backing of the IAAF and adidas. I’m wondering, how much of a risk do you view this investment?

Well, I’d put this investment in the venture capital category. Anytime you make a venture investment, you know there is a fairly high degree of risk associated with it but you also know that the reward is quite great. And in this situation, I think the reward is primarily non-financial. If we can have this league be self-sustaining, grow a fanbase over the years, fans of the athletes, fans of the teams, fans of the sport, then we would know we’ve done a very good thing.

I would also say that between this organization, you know, myself, Pitch, Vin, Michael, we’re approaching this in a quite clinical business fashion. We recognize that we are first and foremost in the entertainment business. So a track meet has to be presented in that fashion. We have to stay very true to the roots and the spirit of the sport, but we have to make it accessible to a large number of fans.

We’ve looked around the world at different things that have been very successful. At NASDAQ, I spend a lot of times in the Nordics because we own the exchanges there. And if you go to Copenhagen, it’s remarkable the festival they have associated with running events. So we looked around the world and we learned from it. I think we’re going to be presenting this in a interesting, unique way that has not been done before. 

The other thing I would say is that this is primarily — not exclusively — but primarily a US-based effort. Our job here is to give American-based athletes the ability to compete in the US in a high-quality meet where they do not have to go overseas. So we expect something approaching 90% of our athletes will, in fact, be American. We don’t have a hard rule but somewhere between 85% to 90% will be American, so I think that will help build the local fanbase.

What will you view as success for series both in the short-term and the long-term?

Well, the long-term is we want this thing to be self-sustaining where you have a fanbase, television, web distribution that allows athletes to make a very good living and the league to sustain itself. That’s where we need to get to.

This year, we certainly have goals with respect to our television ratings, we have goals with respect to the attendance in the stadium itself and we have goals with respect to the visibility we have in the wide digital world. There’s always that dimension. And so we have to see notable progress as compared to where we were last year and that’s what we’re looking for.

What are the biggest hurdles you have to overcome for the series to be a success?

Last year, we were a complete success with respect to the athlete engagement, the athletes really taking to the concept kind of instinctively. At the after party — I was not there — the athletes grouped into their teams. This is after the meet was over. So I believe that people are fundamentally tribal and a team structure speaks to that. They enjoyed being part of a team. I’m sure it gave them recollections from back in their college days. So with regard to athletes, the team concept works. So that was, I think, a great success.

I think the viewership numbers from ESPN first time out were impressive (per Awful Announcing, the broadcast drew 297,000 viewers). And I would say where we didn’t do well — and we had bad weather — was the attendance at the stadium (just over 3,000), where we had record heat in Eugene. We in New York are accustomed to 90-degree days but in Eugene that is quite unusual and it was over 90 degrees.

We clearly want to have better ratings than we had last year. We want the athletes to start thinking of this as a major part of schedule as they get into 2018. And I want to see Randall’s Island filled with fans, cheering fans. So if we do those things, we’re going to feel very happy about the progress.

You guys aren’t the first group of people to try and make the sport more popular in this country. I know that you’re trying to make it more of an experience and party atmosphere at the final, but I remember they used to have a meet in Carson, California, where they would do a similar thing, even the American Track League the last few years has tried to have that party atmosphere. I’m wondering how do you view your series as being different and why will yours work where others have not worked?

Good execution beats good strategy, every day of the week. We think we have some innovations with respect to the strategy and how we’re going to present things. Certainly the team concept is one of those. But we recognize that if we don’t execute well on the ground — that means handling every detail, every day to make this thing successful — then we won’t do well. But we think that’s our strength. We know how to execute plans very well and that’s a thousand small steps to get you over the line. I think that, compounded with consistency over time.

Your earlier questions are good. We’re committed to seeing this thing through, we’re committed to getting better every meet and every year. And I don’t think I’ve seen that kind of philosophy in any competing effort over the last seven decades in our sport.

What are your roles and responsibilities with the series as an investor?

Obviously I’m not responsible for day-to-day management. We’re fortunate to have two of the best people, if not the best people in the industry on the phone here to run it. But Pitch and myself and others function as an engaged board of directors.

Vin Lananna: Jon, let me jump in. Let me add something to this. We’re fortunate, as you can see from the conversation, that Bob has taken a very calculated approach towards this and a business approach with real metrics and the ability to be able to grow the event. And if you know his background, running billions of dollars of, billions of dollar organizations, this is the approach that the investors have taken in it. Basically, we know how to run a track meet and we can do some cool stuff. But the fact is that we’ve got to execute on some of the objectives that Bob has outlined and that is really exciting to have somebody with his expertise in other ventures with the passion for track and field that will make this a grand success.

Greifeld: And I would also say, before I was CEO of NASDAQ, I was a software entrepreneur with startup companies. So as much as the NASDAQ experience running big global businesses was certainly helpful, the fact is, we’re a very small startup company that has to do everything right day by day. And that’s what we’re going to do here.

The general managers that you guys announced a few weeks ago, they give each team a public face, but right now each team is still being managed by a combination of you guys and TrackTown USA staff. Is the ultimate goal to create standalone franchises a la the NBA/MLB/NHL?

I would stay that decision has not been taken as of yet, but I think you would not be surprised if that was the conclusion. But for the next several years at least, it’s important to have more of a central plan, central control as a small operation. So we want the league to run most things but you’ll certainly see delegation of responsibility in time. And you could theorize that that ultimate delegation is where they are their own franchises.

I remember on the conference call a couple weeks ago, I was asking some of the athletes whether they’d be competing in the series or not and Allyson Felix mentioned that she might, but she hadn’t drawn up her schedule yet. I’m wondering how do you convince the best of the best in the US to stay and run in this meet rather than heading to Europe? And is that even the goal? Are you okay with the top athletes going to Europe and competing in the Diamond League while you get the ones who maybe don’t have the ability to do that and have them compete at your meet?

Let me let Vin answer that question, but I’ll just say a couple things. Clearly, the goal of the league is to make our meets the best meets on the planet. [As an athlete] in the US, why deal with a long flight, why deal with jet-lag? As someone who’s gone to Europe more times than I can count, it puts a hurt on your body. And as a businessperson, that can impact your performance and certainly as an athlete it’s not ideal. It’d be better for them to have great meets here and I’d rather have a set of circumstances where the top international athletes are clamoring to be a part of the Summer Series where our 10-15% limit of non-US [athletes] is an issue for us. That would be a reality that I’d like to create.

Vin Lananna: And Jonathan, let me add to that. I think that – you asked about hurdles [that we are facing] – I think one of the big deals is to be sure that we redirect, reset the bar as it relates to what American athletes, what American fans see with track and field during the summertime. They’re not accustomed to seeing these great events in the United States yet, probably the best place to be able to have track & field. It just happens that we have not done it before. So it is going to take a little while but I think that if you go down and you actually poll the athletes, you’ll see that what Bob just said is exactly the same things they’re saying. This is not us making this up. This has been driven by the athletes to have domestic opportunities in the summertime for a lot of years. Which we’re going to try to make this event so compelling, so exciting, so athlete-friendly and hopefully this will create an opportunity for them to see this is the best competition they could find in the entire world.

Greifeld: We’re at a standing start now but what we have to do is create the positive reinforcement cycle. So to the extent that we’re successful this year and the stands are full at Icahn Stadium, the TV coverage is good, then the next year, we’ll have more revenue to attract more athletes. And we get better athletes, we get better attendance, we get better viewership and that cycle. Obviously we’ve got the largest market in the world here and in a certain respect, we’re competing against the dog days of summer baseball games, which are quite repetitive. But if we create that positive reinforcement cycle then we’ll have the economic power to basically ensure that all the athletes are here, or the vast majority of them.

This year’s important to us, we have to make visual progress as compared to last year. And that will make 2018 that much easier. Not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but easier than it was in ’16 and/or ’17.

Paul Doyle tried a similar concept, the American Track League. It started, I think 2015 was its first season (actually it was 2014). Did you ever consider investing in that? Why or why not?

No. We have on the phone, between Vin and Michael and the other people involved with TrackTown, the demonstrated clearly superior management team. When you’re a venture capitalist, you think of two things. And different venture capitalists judge them on a different scale.

One is, you can believe the business model is so strong that you want to invest in it and it doesn’t matter who the management is. So if you come up with a widget that nobody else will have, you want to get that product to market.

The other style is you invest in the people. You get the right people on the bus and they’ll take you wherever they are. And so different venture capitalists will invest in the management team saying the management team will figure out how to get there because we don’t know what problems they’re going to see.

To me, with Vin and with Michael and with others, we have the best of both worlds. We have clearly the best management team in the industry, bar none. Their track record, nobody can compare to that. And the team-based model, to me was better. So it was an easy one for me.

In our sport, the World Champs and Olympics, they’re the most important things by far. Athletes basically plan their schedules around them. Whereas in the NFL, the Super Bowl is very popular but the regular-season games, you know you’re going to see Tom Brady on the field every weekend. Every regular-season game matters. Is it possible to make a regular-season meet like your one matter? Is there a way that a governing body or something like that can make it so that athletes need to compete more in the regular season? Because right now, a lot of the top stars simply pick and choose their meets. They’re not forced to do anything that way.

I would take it in a little different way. I obviously believe in the true spirit of capitalism. And I also believe that people don’t do what they’re told to do, they do what they’re paid to do. So if we run this thing successfully, we will not have to worry about making outbound calls. We’ll be getting inbound calls from the athletes.

Our goal is to have this be a venue where the athletes can make money on a consistent basis, make a very good living. Obviously we think some of them could get wealthy at it if we run this thing properly. And that’s going to be the calling card that’s going to fundamentally interest the athletes to compete. And the track & field athletes are some of the greatest athletes on the planet. And if I were them, I’d look at what basketball and NFL players are making and I’d have to say, “Why did I pick the wrong sport?” So we want to lessen that disadvantage over time. Our athletes deserve to make a very good living and if we create this venue that allows them to do that, then we’ll have the athletes very eager to compete in the regular-season meets and the championship meets and whatever you want to call them.

Vin Lananna: Let me add to that, Jon. There is a big difference, or a difference, between championship events and professional track and field. And what Bob just referenced, in the long term the goal of this organization is to have athletes in a position where they can make a living, a real living, in the sport of track & field. And this is what our long-term goal is. That’s where most of our excitement stems from, is our ability to help create an environment where these athletes can make enough money where they can not only just barely survive and master their trade, but actually excel in it and be able to thrive. That’s one of the main reasons we put this thing together. So there’s big difference between those two things, championship and professional league.

Greifeld: We’re obviously priming the pump now. We’re investing, we’re paying more to the athletes than the revenue of the league but we think that will be best for the sport over the long term.

I think if you look at the greater New York City area, there are track fans there. I’m sure you could fill Icahn Stadium with people who would have a good time at the meet. But how do you actually do that and ensure that these people come to the meet when it happens?

Well that’s certainly the question that we have right now. We have [until] July 6 and we don’t know how we’re going to do right now. We’re working very hard on that. And you’ll see for yourself — I assume you’ll be there and [will be able to see] on July 6 how well we do. And that’s the excitement of it: how do we fill a stadium and are people, more importantly, coming out of that stadium saying, “Wow, this was a worthwhile experience, I had a good time” and looking forward to going to the next meet and maybe paying a little bit more for the ticket.

Do you anticipate long-term you’ll be making money off of this meet? It is a for-profit enterprise. Do you think that’s a realistic goal for you?

I think it certainly is the goal. How realistic it is, we can’t tell in 2017. I think by 2019, we’ll have a sense of it. Right now, the manifest destiny is to get his thing to be self-supporting and that’s going to take certainly a few more years of nurturing along the way.

This thing will only survive over the long term if it is a profitable enterprise. And profitable for all the stakeholders, not just the shareholders. Profitable for the athletes, where they’re anxious to make this part of their schedule because it’s the bulk of their earnings for the year, profitable for the owners so that they don’t have to keep dipping into their pockets and writing a check. This thing have to be profitable for all the stakeholders involved and we’re going to give it a fair amount of time to get there but that has to be the end state.

Whenever I hear about an event like this, it always comes back to me the biggest thing is making track & field in general more popular in the United States. I think that’s the problem everyone’s trying to solve. And obviously it’s a very difficult question otherwise it would have been solved by this point. To you, how do you go about accomplishing that? How would you try to make track & field more popular in this country?

Well I would say two things. That’s a long-term question that we spend a lot of time talking about so I’ll only give you a thumbnail summary. But we have to recognize with respect to the business model you have to master the digital aspects of the sport. So to the extent that we fill up Icahn Stadium on July 6, we’ll feel very good about that but that by itself will not be enough. You have to digitally distribute your products in a proper way for this thing to work. So right now, we are focused on the physical aspects of running the meet, and Michael and Vin do that better than anybody, the physical aspects of getting people in the seats who are paying for those tickets and the other revenue sources associated with that. But then we have to master how do you monetize and how do you distribute the product on a global basis where it’s of interest, right? 5,000 people, that seems great, but we want millions of people to be aware and involved with the product over time. So those are the two main thrusts of our business efforts right now.

Any final comment you want to make?

I would say this is a labor of love for everybody on this call. We all have the best intentions at heart. It’s a risky maneuver but it’s what the sport needs and we’re going to give it our all to make sure this thing works.

Author’s note: I actually had one more question after asking for a “final comment.”

TrackTown USA itself is a nonprofit, but this is a for-profit series. Can you explain the connection between TrackTown USA? Because the name is very similar and for a lot of fans, they sort of view it as the same thing. And can you explain the role TrackTown USA has in it? Will TrackTown USA be making money off it? How does that relationship work?

Michael Reilly: Basically TrackTown here is really operating as the event management agency to deliver on the vision that the investors have set out. We’re really the operational side of the effort. And really trying to make what they’re dreaming about come true. That’s really what TrackTown is here to do. We do have the ability to lend the name to it right now and really, more importantly, I think try to lend our expertise to what needs to happen on a day-to-day basis to pull it off.

Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed for clarity.