USA Track and Field hired former board member Max Siegel as its new CEO on Monday, ending an on-and-off, 16-month search with a transaction similar to a controversial move the U.S. Olympic Committee made a few years ago.
The organization that runs America's biggest summer Olympic sport picked Siegel six months after he resigned from the USATF board to become a paid consultant charged with shoring up the group's flagging sponsorship, media and communications efforts.
Siegel was on the board when it ousted the former CEO, Doug Logan.
Over the past 20 years, Siegel has served as president of global operations at Dale Earnhardt Inc., and has worked in different capacities with several Olympic sports, including gymnastics, swimming and skiing. USATF leaders are hoping his experience with NASCAR will help him on the marketing side of track and field, which has become a much tougher sell over the past few decades.
He signed a two-year deal worth $500,000 a year with a chance for bonuses.
"We cast a wide net, not only nationally but internationally in the sports and entertainment arena," USATF chair Stephanie Hightower said. "Based upon his commitment and passion from his stint as a board member and as consultant, Max thought he could bring some leadership and help to position our sport in the future."
Hightower said the board's unanimous vote to select Siegel was a signal that years of infighting and politics are at an end at USATF.
But this move did raise eyebrows in the Olympic world.
It struck a resemblance to what the USOC did in 2009, when the board unexpectedly ousted Jim Scherr as CEO and replaced him with unpaid board member Stephanie Streeter. Streeter never gained acceptance in the CEO role and later stepped down and was replaced by Scott Blackmun.
David Greifinger, the former legal counsel for the USATF board, who has had ties to the organization for more than three decades, said Siegel will ultimately be judged by the "scoreboard" — both in terms of medal count at the upcoming Olympics and how much money he brings in.
He said, however, that certainly Siegel's role in Logan's termination, as well as his position as Logan's successor, "certainly would make people ask questions."
"At the very least, a very clear explanation from the board and from Max would be in order to clear up those kind of things," Greifinger said. "You don't want to start off 10 meters behind the start line, having to answer questions about that rather than getting the sport to move forward. If I were advising Max and the board, I'd say come out and address the questions proactively."
Asked about those issues, Hightower and vice chairman Steve Miller each said they had been extensively addressed throughout the entire search process, which included a period when Hightower was thought to be in contention for the job.
"We certainly understand the perception issue, but it can go two ways," Miller said. "It can be received as a negative issue, 'these are the reasons why not.' But we tried to concentrate on the reasons why. It's his background as a board member, in working with media, marketing, swimming, they've all played into this opportunity at USATF. Perceptions are what perceptions are. But we feel confident we went through the process appropriately and Max was the best candidate and we couldn't be happier about the outcome."
The USOC called on USATF to shake up its governance structure in 2008, which led to the hiring of Logan, who didn't make it through a single Olympic cycle. But given its own history and its reluctance to cause turmoil with three months left before the London Games, there was little the USOC could do but go along with this hiring.
"Max will have our full support and we look forward to working with USATF as they continue to refine their governance model and find ways to enhance the effectiveness of the organization," Blackmun said.
Siegel said he stood by a goal set during Logan's tenure — to win 30 medals at the London Olympics — though his hiring is clearly a move with an eye on the business side. Track's popularity has been dwindling for decades now; Siegel is charged with trying to cash in, not only for the organization but for athletes, who have small windows of opportunity, almost all of which correlate to the Olympic calendar.
Siegel has not signed any major deals for USA Track since taking the consulting gig, which will terminate when he becomes CEO on May 1. He said, "I consider what we've done so far to mainly be foundational and behind-the-scenes work."