INDIANAPOLIS — In four years as chief executive of USA Track and Field, Max Siegel has built a reputation as a savvy deal-maker who has raised so much money the Olympic sports nonprofit finally can offer decent pay to some Team USA athletes, many of whom scrape by on annual incomes of $20,000 or less. Within the track and field community, however, Siegel is a polarizing figure.
Some athletes and former employees are alarmed and dismayed by what they see as Siegel’s soaring pay, lavish spending and unethical nonprofit leadership, according to interviews with more than 40 people who have worked with the organization and a review of hundreds of pages of documents and emails. Seven of those interviewed had direct knowledge of the organization’s financial records.
Most former employees spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from Siegel, who once sent a text message to a retired Olympic athlete in which he said he would “[expletive] anyone up that goes after me personally.”
Under Siegel’s watch, USA Track and Field has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of business to an Indianapolis marketing firm that once advertised itself as “a Max Siegel company.” It is owned by two women whose companies continue to do business with Max Siegel Inc., his personal sports-marketing company. While a prior USA Track and Field chief executive only flew coach, Siegel regularly flies first class, recently used a private jet and stays in luxury hotels, former employees said.
Siegel initially agreed to an interview for this story then canceled and designated USA Track and Field Chief Marketing Officer Jill Geer to speak on his behalf. Geer denied that Siegel has benefitted personally in any way from USA Track and Field’s work with his business associates.
Siegel’s travel habits are approved by USA Track and Field’s board of directors, which this year is paying Siegel $1.7 million in salary and bonuses, a compensation package seven times the average for the CEO of a nonprofit with a similar budget.
USA Track and Field board chairman Steve Miller defended Siegel’s compensation and perks as necessary to retain the most successful deal-maker in the nonprofit’s history. But Miller also acknowledged that the deal that produced most of that new income — a long-term sponsorship agreement with Nike worth a reported $500 million — was primarily negotiated by two former Nike executives whose small consulting firm is collecting$23.75 million in commission payments from USA Track and Field through 2039.
“Max has done a spectacular job,” Miller said. “Max makes decisions based on what he believes is best in order to . . . run his organization, and as long as he does not exceed the budgets that are allocated, I’m comfortable with that.”
First-class travel for executives, according to Geer, is part of a culture change implemented by Siegel, a 51-year-old former sports agent and record executive, and the board of directors.
“The business of USATF has evolved from what would be more of almost a charity model to a true sports-business model. And with that comes attracting executives who choose USATF over other executive opportunities,” Geer said. “Essentially, we run our business more like a business.”
As CEO of USA Track and Field, Siegel manages a 501(c)3 nonprofit entrusted by federal law to oversee all levels of the sport domestically — from children competing at the youth level to senior citizens competing at masters level — and to field America’s track team at international competitions, including the Olympics.
In the track and field community, many regard Siegel as the best CEO in the organization’s history. This year, for the first time, the nonprofit offered $10,000 bonuses to all of its Olympic athletes, as well as additional bonuses for medal winners. Team USA returned from Rio de Janeiro with 32 medals, the most by an American track team at a non-boycotted Olympics since 1932.
“He is the first [CEO of USA Track and Field] who isn’t just talking the talk; he is walking the walk,” said Renaldo Nehemiah, a former world-record holder in the hurdles and now a sports agent. “When you have the most money being raised ever, in our sport, something is going right.”
But in an industry in which many world-class athletes earn barely enough to make a living, details of Siegel’s management style prompted disbelief.
“We’ve got athletes who are struggling to make ends meet to stay in the sport, and meanwhile we have a CEO who is living lavishly,” said David Greifinger, former USA Track and Field board counsel. “That’s not leadership. That’s Marie Antoinette.”
Since Siegel’s hire in 2012, according to USA Track and Field promotional materials, the nonprofit has enjoyed unparalleled financial success: 12 new corporate partners and an influx of income that is funding budget growth from $17 million in 2011 to $35 million this year.
While Siegel has added a wide array of new sponsors, according to two people with knowledge of financials, the majority of the new cash flowing into USA Track and Field is coming from one sponsor: Nike, which is paying a reported $20 million annually. All the other partnerships involve six-figure amounts of money, at most, along with in-kind products, according to two people with knowledge of financials.
The deal Siegel negotiated with new corporate partner Rosetta Stone, for example, involves little cash. Rosetta Stone agreed to sell its foreign language learning software to USA Track members at a discount and share the proceeds with the nonprofit.
Geer declined to discuss financial specifics of sponsorship agreements but pointed to Hershey as a significant new cash sponsor. When the Hershey deal was announced in 2014, a Sports Business Journal article estimated the deal was worth “mid-to high-six figures annually,” which the publication reported made Hershey “USATF’s second-largest sponsor behind Nike.”
On April 16, 2014, Siegel announced the deal he called “a game-changer for the sport”: a 23-year sponsorship agreement with Nike worth a reported $500 million.
While Siegel and his bosses on the board of directors touted the deal’s size, some athletes immediately criticized its unusual length. The injection of cash was good for USA Track and Field in the short term and provided the promise of financial stability over the next two decades, but some wondered whether the organization had signed away its future bargaining power.
“I know of no other sponsorship deal, not tied to naming rights of real estate . . . for a term of that length. The risk is just too great,” Doug Logan, a former USA Track and Field CEO, wrote in a blog post. Fired and replaced by Siegel, Logan concluded by saying, “In 2040, the Federation will still be paying for the lack of judgment of its current leadership.”
Executives at other running-apparel companies decried another aspect: The rights were never put on the open market. USA Track and Field approached Nike, a sponsor since 1991.
“We never got a call,” said one executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss business dealings. “It was a negotiated deal that wasn’t an open process.”
Board chairman Miller, a former Nike executive, said the idea to approach Nike about a long-term extension did not come from Siegel. Instead, Miller said, the idea came from former Nike executives Adam Helfant and Chris Bevilacqua, friends of his, who contacted him not long after Siegel took over as CEO and asked for Miller to introduce them to Siegel. Helfant and Bevilacqua then led negotiations for USA Track and Field on the Nike deal, Miller said.
Helfant and Bevilacqua’s role in the deal has not been previously disclosed. USA Track and Field’s 2014 990 tax form showed that the organization paid their firm, Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures , $505,000 in 2014 as part of $23.75 million in commission payments due through 2039.
Helfant and Bevilacqua did not reply to multiple requests to comment.
Some Olympic athletes expressed dismay upon learning that the Nike deal — which some already saw as favorable to Nike — was negotiated by two former Nike executives collecting a sizable commission and not Siegel.
“$23 million is a lot of money that gets passed out and taken away from athletes that, if the organization had done its job in the first place, they wouldn’t have to pay,” said Adam Nelson, a two-time Olympic shot put medalist who has tried to unionize the sport. “Who actually deserves credit for making that deal? . . . And if this was brought to USA Track and Field by some former Nike executives, whose best interest is it really in?”
Miller, the board chairman, said both Helfant and Bevilacqua had spent many years working for other companies — Helfant ran the Association of Tennis Professionals for several years, and Bevilacqua launched college sports network CSTV — and are well-respected negotiators who have worked on deals for organizations such as Notre Dame, the NCAA and the Pacific-12 Conference.
“It may have looked like an inside job; it’s just the opposite,” Miller said. “Those two guys did work at Nike; I worked at Nike. . . . If anything, it made the negotiation harder.”
The commission, Miller said, was reasonable and standard — $23.75 million is less than 5 percent of $500 million.
Logan, the previous USA Track and Field CEO, said Helfant had approached him years earlier with an offer to negotiate a new deal with Nike, but Logan couldn’t understand why he would pay anyone else to do such work. (Logan negotiated the prior Nike deal, signed in 2009, that brought in a reported $10 million annually.)
After signing the deal with Nike in 2014, Siegel received a $500,000 bonus on top of $514,000 base pay. This year, Siegel is collecting $1.2 million in bonuses, Miller confirmed.
Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, has evaluated 501(c)3 nonprofits for more than 30 years. He said he typically only sees seven-figure pay for CEOs of large public hospitals and universities, whose budgets can stretch into the billions. USA Track and Field’s budget this year is $35 million.
“That is highly unusual,” Weiner said of Siegel’s $1.7 million compensation package in 2016. “That is at the highest end I’ve ever heard of for a nonprofit of that size.”
The IRS requires nonprofit boards to ensure executive pay is “reasonable” and not “excessive.” The average compensation for the CEO of a nonprofit with a budget of $25 million to $50 million in 2015 was $242,000, according to a national survey by the NonProfit Times.
Miller said Siegel’s pay is commensurate with CEOs of other Olympic sports organizations. In 2014 (the most recent year in which public records are available), the CEOs of USA Swimming and USA Gymnastics — which have similar budgets to that of USA Track and Field — made about $850,000 and $560,000, respectively. U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun, who oversees a budget about seven times the size of USA Track and Field’s, made about $1 million in 2015.
“I don’t know what Scott Blackmun makes,” Miller said. “When’s the last time that a national governing body did a $500 million deal?”
When asked to describe Siegel’s role on the Nike deal, Miller declined to answer.
In an email, Geer said Siegel “led overall strategy, managed the process, and gave them directives on the financial benchmarks and key contract points he wanted to hit. They hit those benchmarks and in many cases exceeded them.”
At the time he was hired by USA Track and Field in 2012, Siegel was facing personal financial challenges.
In late 2011, Siegel was the subject of eviction proceedings in New York for failure to pay $7,800 in rent on a luxury apartment in Manhattan, court records show. In 2012, his racing company, Revolution Racing, was sued for failure to pay rent, and the IRS placed a lien on the company for more than $300,000 in unpaid taxes, court records show.
Siegel’s financial problems continued after he started at USA Track and Field at a salary of $500,000. In April 2013, the IRS filed a lien against Siegel for more than $200,000 in unpaid taxes, court records show. In October 2014, six months after the Nike deal was signed, Siegel paid off those taxes, and the lien was released.
“Any personal financial strain was due to Max’s entrepreneurial work with his NASCAR team,” Geer wrote. “All debts have been settled and all taxes paid.”
Nonprofit legal experts advise CEOs to avoid doing anything that gives even the appearance of using their position for private gain, or “self-dealing.” When Siegel was hired, the board allowed him to keep ownership of his sports marketing company, Max Siegel Inc., and his NASCAR team.
Multiple times, Siegel has flown to NASCAR events and expensed the trips to USA Track and Field. Geer said Siegel met with NASCAR officials on the trips to discuss “social and digital media strategy and tactics, entertainment production and fan engagement strategies.”
Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch, questioned that explanation, noting that Siegel easily could have consulted sources not connected to his personal business.
Inside USA Track and Field’s accounting department, Siegel’s decision to award hundreds of thousands of dollars of marketing work to a company owned by a business associate has drawn concerns from multiple employees.
Matchbook Creative is an Indianapolis marketing company that used to be located next door to Max Siegel Inc. For years, Matchbook Creative also has done contract work for Siegel’s marketing company and his race team, and Matchbook employees have used email addresses that end “@maxsiegelinc.com.”
For a period of time, the companies even shared office space, and the window billed Matchbook Creative as “a Max Siegel company.”
Matchbook Creative CEO Donna Gray declined requests for an interview and would only answer questions submitted via email.
Siegel’s name does not appear on any of Matchbook’s corporate filings with the state of Indiana. In an email, Gray acknowledged Matchbook once billed itself as “a Max Siegel company” but said that did not mean Siegel owned the company or shared in profits.
“We never meant to give the impression that Matchbook was owned by Max,” Gray wrote. “We had been trying to convey . . . that Matchbook was doing creative work for Max Siegel Inc.”
Shortly after Siegel became CEO in 2012, USA Track and Field’s marketing department started working with Matchbook. The decision to pick Matchbook, according to Geer, was “mine and Max’s.”
From 2012 until 2014, according to one person with knowledge of the nonprofit’s financials, USA Track and Field paid Matchbook about $192,000 annually.
Gray, the Matchbook CEO, disputed the figure and declined to disclose how much USA Track and Field has paid her company.
Melissa Bowlby, an accounting manager at USA Track and Field from 2001 until 2013, said she thought the figure was higher, as she remembered approving payments of more than $200,000 to Matchbook.
Geer, who said Matchbook is a reputable company that charges market rates, also declined to release any financial details. While legal experts recommend nonprofit executives get multiple bids before awarding business to friends or related parties to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, Geer acknowledged that USA Track and Field has never sought a second bid for any of the work Matchbook does.
“What would be the reason to bid it out to someone who, we don’t know what we’re getting?” Geer said.
In 2014, Gray started a second company — Brand Fuel — located at the same address as Matchbook. Within months of its existence, Brand Fuel also started working for USA Track and Field, collecting about $96,000 annually, according to a person with knowledge of the financials.
Gray also disputed this amount and declined to say how much money her second company was getting from USA Track and Field.
In an interview last month, Geer, the chief marketing officer, said she had never heard of Brand Fuel and was unsure what the marketing company did for USA Track and Field. A week later, Geer emailed an explanation: Brand Fuel helps a few elite athletes promote their personal businesses.
“The program will be expanded in 2017 to include more than 100 athletes,” she wrote.
In the late 1990s, USA Track and Field nearly went bankrupt. The CEO who led the nonprofit back, former middle-distance runner Craig Masback, was proudly frugal, former employees said. Masback’s office was furnished entirely with items from yard sales, and he flew only coach, turning down free upgrades.
“He once told me . . . if an athlete saw him traveling first class, the optics are just not good. That was not what the organization was about,” Nelson recalled. Masback, who now works at Nike, declined to comment.
With the approval of the board, Siegel flies first class domestically and business class overseas. He also stays at luxury hotels, often more expensive lodging than where staff and athletes stay for the same events, according to several former employees.
At the Olympic marathon trials in Los Angeles this year, staff stayed at a J.W. Marriott while Siegel and other executives stayed at a Ritz-Carlton. The Marriott was overbooked, Geer said, so Siegel and other executives opted for the Ritz.
At the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., the staff stayed at a Hilton while Siegel stayed at the Inn at The 5th, which Geer acknowledged. The “luxury, boutique hotel” features “private balconies, fireplaces, butler pantries and plush bathrobes,” according to its website.
At the World Indoor Championships in Portland, Ore., in March, staff stayed at a Hilton and a Marriott while Siegel and executives stayed at luxury hotel The Nines. Geer said the Hilton and the Marriott were sold out and that international track executives were also staying at The Nines.
Siegel and several members of his executive team returned to Indianapolis from Portland that week aboard a private jet. Miller said renting the jet was partly his idea. He cited the importance of “time on task” and the hours it would have taken Siegel and others to get through security.
“They had some business meetings the very next day” in Indianapolis, Miller said. “I think there were six to eight people . . . when I did the math. . . . I said that it makes perfect sense for you to use a private plane.”
Miller initially offered to provide specifics showing the cost was justified, but Geer later said USA Track and Field would not disclose any details.
Private-jet charter costs can vary widely, depending on the type of plane. Privatefly.com, an online booking service, estimated that a one-way flight from Portland to Indianapolis for six to eight people could cost $10,000 to $35,000, depending on specifics.
Siegel has enjoyed more modest perks of the job as well, according to documents obtained by The Post.
As a 501(c)3, USA Track and Field often doesn’t have to pay sales tax on business-related purchases.
On June 22, 2015, Siegel emailed chief operating officer Renee Washington an image of a Macbook laptop with specifications selected — such as the “space gray” finish — with this message: “order this for me so I may save on taxes etc. Once the computer arrives I will pay USATF for it.” This computer cost $1,599, saving Siegel about $112 in sales tax.
Records show that Siegel had previously purchased a desktop computer through USA Track and Field in February 2015, also avoiding sales tax.
In an email, Geer denied that Siegel bought the computers through the nonprofit in order to avoid sales tax. “Max requested that an employee with technical expertise assist him in the purchase of computer equipment,” she wrote. “His request had nothing to do with the avoidance of sales tax.”
Later informed of Siegel’s email saying he wanted to “save on taxes,” Geer declined additional comment.
Under the leadership of Siegel and chief operating officer Washington, the office environment has become authoritarian and tense, several former employees said.
Bowlby, the former accounting manager, recounted an exchange with Washington over Siegel’s company-funded NASCAR trips.
“She told me it was none of my business,” Bowlby said. Siegel and Washington “made it very clear it was their way or the highway.”
In December 2013, USA Track and Field held its annual meeting in Indianapolis. At these meetings, members from all levels — from youth coaches to elderly runners — vote on rules that govern the organization.
In 2013, there was a proposal to remove the CEO’s power to decide where USA Track and Field holds national championships and give that power to volunteer committees. Siegel strongly opposed it and asked Jon Drummond, an influential retired athlete, to spread the word in his favor.
Drummond declined, according to multiple people familiar with the conversation. Drummond felt that athletes should have a say in where their championships are held. Late one night that week, Drummond received several invective-filled texts from Siegel that shocked him so much he shared them with several friends. One of them provided a copy of the text exchange to The Post.
Drummond verified that the text exchange was authentic but declined to comment further.
“I personally feel at this moment like you are full of [expletive] and a double agent,” Siegel wrote. “I have trusted you and you are [expletive] with fire. You are allowing me to be personally attacked. And this [expletive] Vail of ‘athletes rights’ is a crock of [expletive].”
“wow! ... Dude ... You are trippin,” Drummond replied.
“I WILL [expletive] anyone up that goes after me personally,” Siegel responded.
Inside the office in Indianapolis, former employees said, Siegel berates staffers who disagree, while Washington is seen as more passive-aggressive, speaking condescendingly to those who dissent. Siegel declined to make Washington or other current employees, other than Geer, available for interviews.
“They just deliberately bully people. . . . It was grotesque,” said Amy Henson, a former retail and marketing manager. Henson provided a copy of an email in which Washington wrote to Henson, of Geer: “Jill is a bitch.”
“I can’t personally recall ever hearing [Washington] use an expletive to refer to any colleague,” Geer wrote.
Henson was one of two employees whose USATF career ended shortly after asking questions about Matchbook Creative.
Henson provided emails in which Matchbook estimated that a job would cost $1,100 and then charged $3,250. Henson emailed Matchbook CEO Gray and copied Washington, asking why the job came in nearly 200 percent over estimate.
In the emails, Washington approved the expense, expressing no concern about the discrepancy. Henson questioned USA Track and Field’s relationship with Matchbook several other times, she said.
“That was when things started falling apart for me with Max,” Henson said. “I was asking too many questions.”
A few months later, Henson says, she was fired. Geer did not dispute the financial figures in Henson’s emails but denied that Henson’s firing had anything to do with her questioning money going to Matchbook.
In early 2013, former USA Track and Field chief financial officer Gina Miller also grew concerned about payments to Matchbook as well as Siegel and Washington’s travel spending, according to three former employees. Miller decided to approach board treasurer Ken Taylor.
A few weeks later, Miller no longer worked for USA Track and Field. Miller signed a nondisclosure agreement and declined to comment, but several former employees said Siegel forced out Miller shortly after her meeting with board treasurer Taylor.
Taylor denied any involvement with Miller’s departure.
“I do not recall that happening,” Taylor said
Bowlby said Miller knew she was risking her job by going over Siegel’s head and was disappointed but unsurprised that it led to her exit.
Siegel and Washington have “just made it their playground,” Bowlby said. “They can do whatever they want, and no one will stand up to them. The one person who was willing to was Gina.”
This year, Siegel’s stature in the Olympic movement has continued to grow. In March, the International Association of Athletics Federations, the global track and field organization, announced it had selected Siegel to chair its marketing commission. The position comes with travel perks and influence over business decisions at the most powerful body in the sport.
A news release announcing Siegel’s selection touted his many accomplishments, including “a landmark, 23-year deal with Nike that drew the attention of the international sports business world.”
Post reporter Tim Bontemps contributed to this report.