Close friends describe Max L. Siegel as the type of leader who sees potential where others don’t. In his new role as CEO of USA Track & Field, a position he took three months before the London 2012 Olympics, Siegel faces an uphill task of turning around an organization that has suffered tremendous setbacks on and off the track, both at and since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. Undaunted, he takes to the July 27 to Aug. 12 Games of the XXX Olympiad a determination to see the U.S. team perform with fewer mistakes than it did at the Beijing Games and bring home more than the 23 medals it won then.
His determination is steeped in his belief in the sport he now oversees. “This sport has it all: charismatic stars, great stories, unmatched diversity, grassroots participation in the tens of millions, a multibillion-dollar sporting goods industry and a passionate base,” he said at the time of his appointment. “Connecting those dots is what the board, our staff and volunteers will work together to achieve.”
Siegel, 47, succeeds Doug Logan, the former commissioner of Major League Soccer who was fired in 2010, barely two years into his tenure. A board member of the USATF since 2009, Siegel resigned in 2011 to become a paid consultant to enhance the board’s sponsorship, media and communication efforts. He now has a two-year contract that will pay him $500,000 annually plus bonuses, which likely will be based on the sponsorship revenues he brings to the organization.
The national governing body for track and field, long-distance running and race walking in the United States, USATF is also one of the biggest national governing bodies in Olympic sports. Many still wonder why Seigel wanted to be the leader of the organization at time when it is still beset by turmoil: its board of directors had become so unwieldy that the U.S. Olympic Committee threatened in 2008 to decertify it if it did not fix itself; the search for a CEO that began when Logan was fired lasted a painfully long 16 months, reflecting a board still somewhat at odds with itself; the men’s and women’s relay teams performed disappointingly at the last Olympics; some of the organization’s biggest stars became embroiled in a steroid scandal, the sting of which still lingers; and sports sponsorships have not fully recovered from the economic crisis. During Logan’s last year in office, the USATF brought in just $10 million in sponsorship deals, albeit an increase of close to $4 million over its $6.8 million intake in 2009, according to the organization’s annual reports.
Those around Siegel say his ability to solve problems and see new opportunities are precisely the reasons why he accepted the responsibility of turning around USATF. An attorney, former music executive who has produced for stars like Donnie McClurkin, Fred Hammond, Britney Spears, NSync, Usher and R. Kelly, and an entrepreneur with an enviable list of clients and business ventures in the world of sports and entertainment, Siegel is no stranger to leading people and organizations in new directions. Former colleagues view this as one of his most valuable assets. “Max is a tremendous leader and a visionary who has the talent to see the entirety of the situation, and is able to see how the pieces will work together,” says Amie Peele Carter, a partner with Faegre Barker Daniels, an international law firm headquartered in Indianapolis. Siegel worked for the firm in the early 1990s and returned three years ago to be part of the firm’s sports and entertainment practice.
Both the track-and-field rank and file and fans of the sport have been weighing in on how Siegel should approach his role. “Siegel should have a visible role, not as an operations officer, but to imprint transparency on the proceedings. One of the biggest concerns and most often cited as his need to fix first is public image. Bring the back room into the light!” one wrote on Letsrun.com, which covers running as an elite sport, not just a recreational activity.
A clear example of Siegel’s visionary leadership can be seen in the relationship he established between Black Entertainment Television and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, NASCAR, in 2010. “He was able to organize a deal for a reality television show called Changing Lanes. Max was able to bring two organizations together that had never worked before. He was able to get that done,” Peele Carter says. With Seigel as the show’s creator and executive producer, women and minority drivers competed on Changing Lanes to win a spot on Revolution Racing — known today as Rev Racing — a NASCAR team that Siegel still owns. The contestants were part of NASCAR’s driver development program, Drive for Diversity.
At the time, Siegel was also president of global operations for Dale Earnhardt Inc., a NASCAR-related organization, a role that made him the highest-ranking African-American executive in NASCAR. As CEO of USATF, he joins a small, elite group of African-American executives at the top of sports organizations, including Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, and DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association.
Siegel’s main focus is moving the organization forward. His vision for USATF will not steer far from one of Logan’s goals: winning 30 medals in London. “Our goals are going to be the same,” says Siegel, who is no stranger to achieving success in organizations that are facing challenges or that are looking for new directions after troubled times. He has received awards for his leadership as a record executive and was named one of 40 Under Forty Achievers by both The Network Journal and Crain’s New York Business in 2004. He is the University of Notre Dame Law School alumnus who made history as the school’s first African-American honors graduate and also received NASCAR’s Diversity Award.
Such recognition is no surprise to Eddie O’Loughlin, who worked with Siegel as co-head of A&R (Artist and Repertoire) at Tommy Boy Records. “One of his talents is identifying the problem and editing it down to its lowest point,” says O’Loughlin, who is now a music consultant for NBC’s The Voice and owner of the music label Next Plateau Entertainment. “Max can visualize who the customer is, create a goal and then look for strategies to get results.”
O’Loughlin recalled instances that sum up the way Siegel handles problems and takes care of his clients. During their time together at Tommy Boy Records, he recounted in an interview with TNJ, there were artists who did not deliver their albums on time. When that happened, Siegel was the kind of leader who got on the plane and flew across the country at a moment’s notice to see what the artists, producers or songwriters needed to get the job done.
For O’Loughlin and many others, Siegel is a man who delivers and who will do the same for USATF.