From his Indianapolis office at USA Track & Field, Max Siegel has been dodging javelins of criticism. It won’t get any better after he arrives Wednesday night for the governing body’s annual meeting near Orlando.
USATF recently revealed that it paid Siegel, its CEO since 2012, $3.8 million in 2021.
“This frankly is the worst week of my life,” Siegel told Times of San Diego in his first public comments since the group’s IRS Form 990 was posted. “It should be the best. We should be going down [to Florida] to celebrate, have reunions and brainstorm.”
Normally, the one-time agent and lawyer for Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn would let his success as a sponsor-fetcher speak for itself. This time, Siegel’s family felt the attacks.
“When my daughter … who’s now 19 sends me crap that people tweet and send her about her dad, you know, or my family, I take it personally because it’s not professional criticism,” he said in a 50-minute phone interview Tuesday.
Siegel said a similar “hubbub” happened in 2020 when his 2018 pay was revealed, which some took to mean he banked nearly $4.3 million. (But media outlets including the Washington Post and The Sports Examiner properly noted it was mostly deferred compensation.)
Of his $3.8 million in 2021, however, $2.5 million was that deferred compensation. He says he won’t get any more deferred pay. Still, outrage ensued.
His total take led to brutal commentary, including from elite athletes, some calling the 2021 compensation “obscene.”
World-class decathlete and NCAA champion Harrison Williams tweeted: “In a sport where the best athletes in the country only receive a $12,000 stipend from USATF (and have to be top 15 in the world to get it), it’s absolutely absurd that our CEO Max Siegel just made $3,819,264 in one year.”
Said Lauren Fleshman, a three-time world-meet distance runner and regular critic of USATF: “I don’t care how good you are at your job. This is a non-profit running on the fumes of athlete dreams and underpaid coaches and countless volunteers. It’s mind blowing USATF thinks this kind of pay disparity is remotely appropriate.”
Curtis Beach, a former high school record-holder in the decathlon and a member of USATF’s Athlete Advisory Committee, told Runner’s World that Siegel’s legacy would be “leveraging athlete labor and a corrupt system to build a massive personal fortune.”
Siegel (who is biracial with paternal grandparents being Russian Jews) hinted a racial aspect at play in the social media criticism, noting that Fleshman and Beach, both white, are among “the same people” who find fault with USATF.
He asked: “Have you seen one gold medalist in there that’s been critical of me?”
But a leading track writer did some math.
Letsrun.com writer Jonathan Gault tweeted: “If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made the same salary as a percentage of organizational revenue as USATF CEO Max Siegel did in 2021, he would have been paid $1.9 billion last year.”
One wag just made fun of Siegel: “Congrats on being the highest paid athlete in US track and field! All those years of training are paying off.”
Siegel’s pay is determined by the USATF board and compensation surveys, says the IRS filing.
Board chairman Mike Conley, an Olympic champion in the triple jump, noted in a statement that Siegel is evaluated yearly and directors are “extremely pleased with Max’s performance.”
Conley continued: “The organization’s success on and off the field of play has been historic under his leadership and we are poised to continue that trajectory. The USATF Board is comfortable with Max’s salary level and as a part of this year’s evaluation, we will do a deep dive with an outside firm to analyze his salary based on his level of expertise and how it compares to organizations with similar or smaller operating budgets.”
In fact, Siegel expects the board to eventually extend his contract, which now ends on his 60th birthday — Dec. 31, 2024.
“I’ve had great performance reviews,” said Siegel, 57, who saw the United States host its first world outdoor track championships last July in Eugene, Oregon, and easily win the team title — with 33 medals including 13 golds.
In an interview that also touched on plans to decide which elite athletes USATF should pay a “living wage,” Siegel said he didn’t want to “get into a public debate with all the stuff on social media.” Instead, he offered what he called “background.”
When he was recruited from the USATF board a decade ago to become USATF’s fourth CEO, Siegel said, the financial stability of the sports federation was “in question” — with no new sponsors in 10 or 11 years and Visa having left.
“So I took a little time to kind of assess why the business side of the organization was stagnant and I gave my recommendations and part of that was why I was hired, OK?” he said.
He says he’s delivered the goods — adding 19 new “partners” and tripling the USATF operating budget.
He pushed back against the notion that the 2018-2040 longterm deal with Nike, worth $500 million, was in the bag before he came.
“Let me just be clear,” he said. “That’s simply not true. And I don’t care what people say. … Nike was not going to stick around.”
He said USATF offered him a long-term contract as a result of the Nike deal and others.
“The reality of the situation is that we had to prove and demonstrate that we understood the value of partnership and deliver on that,” Siegel said from his Indy office. “So I’m not getting into peoples’ … opinions. That’s their opinion. I know it happened and so we get the Nike deal.”
He later declared: “As I’ve said to everyone before, if they want to go back to $16 million a year and have 100% of nothing — yeah, go ahead.”
Siegel has netted regular $500,000 annual bonuses (and a $1 million bonus in 2016), but says he doesn’t get a percentage of Nike revenues.
“The eight years before I got here, the organization’s actual revenue was about $129 million,” he said. “Since I’ve been here [it’s been] $359 million. Those are just facts. That’s not my hyperbole, right?”
He also revealed that he has been recruited to leave USATF “for a bigger job.”
Siegel says he’s brought on 19 new partners since he started.
Pay Was ‘Benchmarked’
How was his salary set?
He says his base pay originally was “benchmarked” between that of former USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny and late USA Swimming CEO Chuck Wielgus. Penny made $585,315 in 2012. Wielgus made $908,432 that year, rising to a total in 2013 of $1.64 million, according to tax records.
“I had a deal that every single year, my base salary would be increased by $25,000,” Siegel said, and the bonus was based on factors including “partnership revenue” and relationships with other governing bodies. “My contract got extended twice early on and then in addition to turning around the TV [income], which went up exponentially.”
His base pay in 2021 was $685,000 compared with $513,296 five years earlier. (It was $596,130 in 2017 and $611,014 in 2018.)
“Our costs went down, the Hershey Co. came on,” he added. “I brought on Comcast Xfinity. I brought on Toyota.”
He conceded the Nike deal was a “lightning rod” for knocks, but said the shoe company’s wealth provided what he called long-term predictable, economic stability.
Critics say usual CEO pay for nonprofits the revenue size of USATF ($33.7 million in 2021) is much lower than Siegel’s.
Excellence in Giving, a philanthropic advisory firm, cites five factors for setting CEO pay, with revenues being No. 1.
“The most significant factor affecting CEO pay was the amount of money raised and spent every year,” the group said last year. “On average, a CEO at a smaller nonprofit ($500K – $1M in annual expenses) makes $84,674 each year, while the average for a CEO at large nonprofits (over $50 million in annual expenses per year) gets paid $402,366.”
For nonprofits like USATF, raising $10 million to $50 million a year, average CEO pay was $240,733, the group said.
A recent survey of nonprofits’ compensation found health-care CEOs at the top, led by $4.87 million paid to Dr. Viviane Tabar at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (including $3.35 million bonus and incentive pay).
National Rifle Association Executive VP Wayne LaPierre made $1.66 million in 2021. Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, made just over $1 million.
Outlier Among NGB CEOs
Among sports NGBs (national governing bodies), Siegel’s pay is an outlier.
- USA Basketball, with $26.7 million in 2020 revenues, paid CEO Jim Tooley $467,714.
- USA Gymnastics, with $23.6 million in 2020 revenues, paid CEO Li Li Leung $410,967.
- USA Hockey, with $42.7 million in 2020 revenues, paid executive director Patrick Kelleher $415,386.
- USA Soccer, with $64.9 million in 2021 revenues, paid Sporting Director Earnie Stewart $825,720 (but also paid head coach Gregg Berhalter — now in Qatar for the FIFA World Cup — $1.32 million).
- USA Swimming, with $37* million in 2021 revenues, paid CEO Tim Hinchey $1.04 million.
- And USA Volleyball, with $37.1 million in 2019 revenues, paid CEO Jamie Davis $488,951.
But when USA Tennis paid Executive Director Michael Dowse $1.40 million in 2021, it boasted $335 million in revenues.
USATF’s tax form included some other notable numbers, which Siegel explained (with the help of Chief Financial Officer Sara Reese, who made almost $288,000 in 2021.)
Siegel was loaned $952,730, but it didn’t go into his bank account.
“It was the organization paying payroll taxes on money I didn’t [yet] have,” he said, referring to the deferred compensation.
CFO Reese said Siegel’s base pay declined from $721,000 in 2020 to $685,000 in 2021 to reflect a “temporary elective pay cut that Max took during the pandemic as well as a change to our [paid time off] policy which was applied systemwide” at 82-employee USATF.
Reese said the drop in media revenue (from $1.242 million in 2018 and $1.413 million in 2019 to $463,238 in 2020) was due to events cancelled amid the pandemic.
She said media revenue in 2021 was mistakenly reported as $108,116. She said that figure was transposed with the correct amount — $941,520 — erringly listed under Miscellaneous Revenue.
“Because the transposition was in the notes only and because we wanted to ensure a timely filing of the return, we did not adjust nor amend the return,” Reese said of the Form 990 with a Nov. 15 deadline. “We will correct both lines on the 2022 return with this explanation.”
The latest USATF tax filing also showed Chief Operating Officer Renee Washington — also on the payroll since 2012 — making a total of $1.64 million (with $1 million in “other reportable compensation” on top of base pay of $370,549 and a $210,000 bonus.)
“She’s gotten raises based on her performance,” Siegel said. “There’s nothing else to really say about all of that.”
‘Insult to USATF Board’
But Siegel had plenty to say about rumors that the 24-member USATF board (including himself) was somehow handpicked by him.
“I feel like it’s an insult to the board” that he has such power — when only five members are independent (not elected by USATF constituencies). He calls the board “accomplished professionals” who deserve credit for being independent thinkers.
“Somehow or another, I personally am able to manipulate a board?” Siegel said. “You know that that is not possible.”
More possible is a USATF program to pay a certain number of elite athletes a “living wage” — first mentioned by USATF board member Willie Banks in July. By the end of the month — at the Eugene world track meet — Siegel was confirming the notion.
“The first thing we want to do is define the universe of athletes. … who are at the top of the game,” he said July 24 at Eugene.
The USATF Foundation, a sister but separate group, announced ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics that 115 elite track and field athletes would share a total of $2.45 million. But the “living” or “fair wage” plan would be from USATF.
“The media only has a piece of the puzzle in terms of the type of support” given top track and fielders, Siegel said in Eugene, promising to share data. On Tuesday, he said the definition of who should be paid is close — “I’m probably 85% to 90% there.”
“I’ll challenge even our athlete leadership to come up with that definition” at Orlando, he said. “I’ve been discussing it with the [Athlete Advisory Committee] and leadership.”
Recalling Friend Tony Gwynn
Siegel softens when asked about his late friend Tony Gwynn.
“I’ve spent more time in Poway, California, probably than you have,” he said of their longtime home, saying wife Alicia and their children have been a part of his life since he was a young lawyer “and for many, many years.” (The Gwynns also had a vacation home in Fishers, Indiana, home of Siegel and his pediatric dentist wife, Jennifer.)
Coming from a family in entertainment (“My mother was a singer, my father signed the Beatles to their deal in America, my sister was in radio”), Siegel started representing Christian music recording artists “when nobody wanted to touch them and the industry was small.”
Tony Gwynn saw Siegel’s name on the back of a client’s CD and wanted to meet him.
“And so he could do a sports camp at my client’s church,” Siegel said. “And my client could do a music camp at Tony’s church. So I helped them for a couple of years … and Tony asked me to be his lawyer and his agent…. That’s how as a young lawyer I really kind of launched my sports career.”
At USATF’s annual four-day convention (technically in Lake Buena Vista, Florida), Siegel will give his traditional State of the Sport address. He has plenty to boast about. But not himself: “We had a great year. The team had a great performance.”
In our interview, he stressed: “I never want to make this about me, OK? … And I wake up every day trying to make the world a better place for people in general. And especially for people like me, who never even dreamed they had access to opportunities like this.”
Reflecting on the uproar over his pay, he said: “I hate the fact that somehow or another, this organization figures out how to create drama. Good lord. Can we just have one annual meeting where everybody goes home happy?”
*An earlier version of this report had the wrong revenues for USA Swimming.
Updated at 11:20 a.m. Dec. 1, 2022