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Former NYC Marathon director Mary Wittenberg joins EF

The veteran sports businesswoman chats with VeloNews about her ideas for the WorldTour squad.

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The EF Education First professional cycling team is off and running with a new president.

Mary Wittenberg, former president and CEO of the New York City Road Runners (NYRR) and former director of the New York City Marathon, recently joined EF’s leadership team. Wittenberg will operate alongside CEO Jonathan Vaughters and will oversee the team’s business development and liaise between EF leadership and the cycling team staff, among other duties. Wittenberg joins EF after spending three years with Virgin Sport.

Wittenberg brings extensive experience with mainstream sports business and executive leadership to the position. She worked with the NYRR for 17 years and oversaw it for 10. Under her guidance, the New York City Marathon blossomed into the world’s largest single-day running event with more than 50,000 participants and a sponsorship lineup of top-tier international brands. The NYRR nonprofit also grew under her guidance; revenues increased from $17 million in 1998 to more than $50 million in 2015, and the NYRR’s full-time staff grew from 30 to 160.

In a release, Vaughters said the team will rely on Wittenberg’s “business and brand background” as it works to create a sustainable financial model.

What impact will Wittenberg and her running expertise have on team EF Education First? VeloNews spoke with Wittenberg to understand her vision for the team.

VeloNews: How did the deal come together?

Mary Wittenberg: I didn’t know about EF Education First. I was talking to a search firm about sports and fitness in New York City and they said, “Mary, you need to speak with this company in Boston.” I was talking a lot about values and purpose and there was a real fit. I’ve been lucky to be in jobs that are part of companies that make a difference, and they told me that I needed to get to know EF. It’s this quiet company that is massive in reach. There are 46,500 employees but it also feels small and has managed to stay entrepreneurial. I’m tied to sports and fitness. So when an opportunity came up (former team president Shane Steffens took another position in the company) I felt like it was really up my alley.

VN: What does the org chart look like, and what are your responsibilities compared to those of Jonathan Vaughters?

MW: Nothing really changes in Jonathan’s responsibilities around the team. He simply picks up a partner who can support him. Jonathan has that expertise on the performance side and he has a good head for sponsorships and marketing. I have the organization and the sponsorship and business development experience, but I’m also really passionate about the competitive side. I think we’ll be extremely complementary. And we’re both straight-shooters so we can be honest with each other.

VN: You come into this position with a wealth of experience selling sponsorships in professional sports. What’s your vision for EF’s sponsorship future?

MW: We’re going to take our time and be selective. We’ll look for partners who share a common vision, and inspiration is the common denominator. With EF owning [the team] it does create opportunities for other partners because they can come in and not take on the big financial responsibility, and be part of something big. We start with the men’s road team as the initial focus, and we grow from there. We’re already taking the team to non-traditional races. These races are so interesting as a bridge between the pro riders and the masses of participants, and we really want to reach people. What that means from a sponsorship side is to have a family of partners who love the brand awareness that comes from the Tour de France and the other big races, and who also want to tell stories of inspiration and exploration through the team at all of its races.

VN: What similarities do you see between running and cycling?

MW: There are a lot of parallels. There’s that same connection between the pros and the participants. There’s the goal-setting and pursuing of one’s dreams. On the pro level, it’s about helping people pursue their talent and their dreams to the highest extent. You’re going after something that you have no idea if it’s going to work out, but you put so much time and effort into it. Sometimes we don’t want to get out of bed to train but we do it anyway. And they are both international sports with great personalities. Last year you see Dani Martinez hand over his bicycle to Rigo [Uran], and he’s no longer going to win the best young rider prize.

VN: And the differences?

MW: I don’t ever hear the “why” behind cycling like you do in running. Runners have grown up within mass-participant events. They talk about the “why” of what motivates them. In cycling, the riders can feel distant sometimes. I don’t know if we get to hear their stories enough.

VN: You left the NYRR to help Virgin launch its fitness events. The first U.S. event was canceled last year due to wildfires in California, and then Virgin refocused on the UK market. How do you think things would have played out differently had there not been the fires?

MW: I think that fitness events still remain a great opportunity. The fires really didn’t help. I also think that we were really ambitious, and there is something about starting out and staying focused. Those UK events we were able to create are really cool — in Hackney and London — and now I think it’s in the right place for Virgin to grow out from there. I do think we could have done it here, I just think it was bad timing. But it’s wonderful what’s happening with the events in the UK and I think they’ll continue to grow from there. And for me, it was an amazing experience to work in a startup. For me, I had graduated undergrad, then went to law school, had 10 years as a lawyer and then 17 years with NYRR. I think I learned more in those three years [with Virgin] than anything.

VN: You’re stepping into a leadership role in men’s pro cycling, and these jobs are almost entirely filled by men.

MW: I’m a believer in diversity of thinking. I’m just starting out but the one thing I’ve told the guys is “don’t just say yes to me.” I want them to push back. I love the power that comes from diverse thinking, and I think there are a lot of opportunities in cycling to look at things differently.