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March 13, 2018

Assessing Austin As The 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials Host

Last week, we kicked off our previews of the four of the cities bidding for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials with Chattanooga. You can read that piece here. Up next? Austin.

In several informal surveys conducted within my network, Austin is the clear “people’s choice” among cities bidding to host the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. The self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World” is also the spiritual home of the breakfast taco, site of an embarrassment of riches in the world-class barbecue joints category, and is likely where your friend from college had his bachelor party. Also, let’s not overlook the fact that it’s the city where you have the best chance of bumping into Tim Riggins (that article is sadly lacking pics, a situation which I’ve remedied for you here)! To paraphrase Tina Fey and give an executive summary of my survey results, you all “want to go to there.”

But does USATF agree? There are some soft spots in Austin’s bid that may make it a smart — albeit unpopular — decision for USATF to not be swayed by the enticing scent of smoking meats and take the Trials to a destination more likely to produce a flawless selection event.

City

Austin, which you’ve been seeing on all sorts of “best places to live” and “fastest-growing cities” lists for almost a decade now, would provide a compelling, modern, urban setting for the Trials. With an airport renovation and expansion “to keep pace with increasing passenger traffic and to prepare for the future growth of air service to the rapidly growing area” scheduled for completion in 2019; several downtown and downtown-adjacent neighborhoods with world-renowned restaurant, bar, and (of course) music scenes; and a young, tech-savvy, active population, Austin has desirable demographics and all the amenities USATF could want in a city bidding to host its crown jewel.

Additionally, as the 31st-largest metro area in the country and the largest American city without a major league professional sports team (although the University of Texas Athletics Department is anything but amateur) the media market is perfect for an event like the Trials— small enough to where the Trials will earn wall-to-wall local coverage, but large enough to attract national media attention and not be viewed as a backwater event in a hick town. The city itself is the highlight of this bid and is its strongest suit.

Course

Famous in the earlier part of the 21st century for its blazing fast net downhill, point-to-point course, for the past decade-plus the Austin Marathon has featured a challenging loop course with its start and finish lines on Congress Avenue near the Texas State Capitol. Constructed of local pink granite and intentionally built slightly taller than the U.S. Capitol (leaning into the stereotype that, yes, everything is bigger in Texas), this landmark could provide a nice backdrop for the storytelling of the Trials race.

And utilizing the area surrounding the Capitol for the Trials’ start and finish lines, a fast criterium course with no major hills or U-turns on the major downtown thoroughfares and through trendy East Austin could easily take shape (assuming permits will be granted by the city, which is always a major question). This course would not only be great for high-performance racing, but also could include a stretch on 6th Street, a live music and bar district known to locals as “Dirty 6th” (and known to tourists as “where they threw up and left their wallet last night”), providing a spectator-friendly route that hits several city highlights.

Weather

The 2018 Austin Marathon was on Sunday, February 18, and the average historical low on that date is 45 degrees while the average high is 66. On this year’s race day, the low temperature was 51 degrees and the high was 75. Record extremes in Austin on February 18 are 14 degrees (1900) and 91 degrees (1986). The average relative humidity in Austin in February at approximately 6am is 80, and the city receives an average of 2.0” of rain every February with an average of 7 days in the month having precipitation. Average instantaneous wind speeds in Austin in February (calculated 10 meters above the ground) are approximately 10 mph, with average speeds of over 12 mph at 11am, at which time, depending on NBC’s demands about broadcast time, the Trials may not yet be over.

In summary, the typical conditions in Austin in February are good, but there is a substantial risk of moderate winds as well as warm, muggy weather on race day. Worth noting, however, is that a warm-weather Trials in Los Angeles in 2016 selected a strong marathon team for a warm-weather Olympic Marathon in Rio, and that the average high in Tokyo in September is 79 degrees. A tough, warm-weather Trials may not be viewed as a negative by USATF.

LOC Strength

The Austin Marathon has been under the ownership of Austin-based event production company High Five Events for its past three editions, and operated by High Five for the last two, and if the Trials were awarded to Austin, High Five would probably be responsible for operating the Trials. While High Five has a strong history of producing triathlon and cycling events throughout Texas, a 2015 production contract with Austin right-of-spring race the Cap10k was its only experience in truly major road race production prior to its Austin Marathon buyout. It’s still a relative newcomer in the space.

And as a newcomer, they have had some challenges that the may not have foreseen. Austin sources say High Five’s attempts to redesign the notoriously challenging Austin Marathon course to be less hilly have encountered several municipal roadblocks; a new course rolled out for this year’s race was said to be even hillier and more challenging than previous editions. So it seems High Five may still be learning the nuances of city permitting for a day-long, city-wide running event. Additionally, while ultimately this year’s event went off smoothly on the new course, some of the altered sections of the route encountered traffic control delays that caused the roads barely to be closed in time for the leaders.

This is not necessarily disqualifying, though. While smooth operations are, of course, an absolute necessity for the Trials, Austin has multiple high-quality, local (or regional) race operations vendors who play substantial roles in other major road races (including in some cases in the past two Trials in Houston and Los Angeles) who could become involved in the event (or have their involvement scaled up) to manage the Saturday Trials race if it were to be awarded to Austin. Additionally, Austin has hosts such other major festivals as SXSW and Austin City Limits, and with some creativity the special event production expertise and infrastructure that has sprung up in the city around those events and others like them could be leveraged to make the Trials a sleek, professional production that would look great on TV and feel like a major event to the participants and spectators.

Lastly, while High Five doesn’t have extensive experience with the specific logistical demands of a large elite field, this past year’s Austin Marathon Elite Athlete Program included athletes including Allison Macsas (women’s marathon champion in an Olympic Trials-qualifying 2:43), Craig Leon (men’s marathon runner-up), and Patrick Smyth (men’s half marathon winner), so they are making strides in that direction.

X-Factors

While Chattanooga had no identifiable x-factors, Austin has a plethora, both positive and negative. As a city that holds not just the aforementioned major festivals but also plays host to a Formula 1 race, regular presidential visits (during both Obama terms and our current fella) and also six home University of Texas football games every fall (each of which bring 100,000+ Lonestar-drinking fans into the city’s core), Austin has dealt with a surge in special event traffic and day-to-day congestion as both its population and festival scene have boomed. Would extending the marathon weekend to include two days of major events be viewed as just another cost of living in a vibrant destination-city? Or would it be viewed as an unbearable inconvenience by city residents (and thus, city officials)?

Possibly able to overcome those concerns is another x-factor — the strong ties between civic leadership and the marathon organization. High Five Events co-owner Jack Murray is a prominent local businessman, and also serves as President of the Austin Sports Commission and on the Board of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. These positions within the organizations tasked with bringing large-scale events with substantial marketing value or economic impact to Austin may allow Murray to galvanize civic support for an event that otherwise might be seen as a nuisance.

These roles may also allow Murray to unlock public funds to fund part of the Trials bid. Past Trials efforts have cost organizers between $1.5 million and $2 million; some believe that many of the challenges encountered at the Los Angeles Trials were due to it being put on by a for-profit organization with staff accountable to owners for the bottom line as opposed to a non-profit organization with staff accountable to a board of directors for achieving a mission. High Five is a for-profit event production company, but the Sports Commission and CVB are public-private partnerships, agencies with a budget specifically intended for attracting events that will raise the profile of the city and put heads in beds. If Murray’s roles with those organizations causes them to open the purse-strings, it may put USATF at ease about selecting a bid from an LOC spearheaded by a for-profit.

Lastly, while USOC events (of which the Trials is one) are famously difficult for the LOC to sell sponsorship against, Austin’s emerging private sector (with a vibrant and growing tech scene and only two established Fortune 500 companies) and growing sense of civic pride surrounding its new “it” city status may make it different. If Murray’s connections within civic institutions and through his other business ventures can galvanize support, perks like “seats at the table” on the race committee — with no tangible marketing benefits — can sometimes go for five figures among city leaders who want to show that their city (and they) have made it, helping to underwrite the costs of an event that would have been out of Austin’s league less than a decade ago.

Assessment

2.5 Olympic rings (of 5 possible, obviously)

Sorry to all the #Austin2020 boosters, but it would be a major upset for Austin to be awarded the 2020 Trials. The operational questions and the for-profit nature of the LOC’s leadership are, for now, challenging obstacles, in my opinion. Bid leadership themselves seems to realize Austin’s chance of being selected is a longshot at best, with Murray — seemingly attempting to temper expectations ahead of the decision — telling local media, “Whether that be championship mile events, championship 5K, 10K, all these kind of underserved races. Everyone wants the trials, right? We were interested in more than just the Trials. It just so happens we happen to be right in the middle of the Olympic Trials bidding.”

But there is a path forward here: while this 2020 bid may have been impulsive, Austin has expressed interest in being in the USATF road championships game. And if High Five is able to successfully (financially and operationally) host a USATF 10k or half marathon championship (at the Cap10k or the 3M Half Marathon, perhaps) in the coming years, and if Murray and his colleagues at the Sports Commission and CVB can galvanize support, Austin may establish itself as a serious contender for the 2024 Trials.

So there is a silver lining for Austin supporters: if you can find someone who can tolerate you in the next six years, you may be able to have your dream bachelor party/Marathon Trials/hungover-half-marathon-you-inevitably-will-impulsively-register-for Austin long weekend some time in late winter of 2024. So keep swiping right, and hope that USATF does the same for Austin next time the Trials come up for bid.


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