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Ever The Showman: Once described as the P.T. Barnum of tennis by Tennis Magazine for his management of the Mahwah Tennis Classic, Korff was the cover story for the August 2005 issue of (201).
Posted: Thursday June 28, 2012
By Andrew Tangel

In the middle of the past decade, sports promoter John Korff wanted to organize a "bigger" race for the New York/New Jersey metro area. Korff owns Korff Enterprises, which organizes the New York City Triathlon, a race in which participants run 10 kilometers, bike 40 kilometers and swim 1,500 meters. He wanted something more ambitious.

"This is a city of 'yes.' It's a city of accomplishment," Korff says.

Korff, who is 60 years old and lives in Manhattan, decided to bring an Ironman  competition to the region, the first time such  an event has been held in an urban area.

"I dream very big dreams," says Korff, who for 25 years organized the A&P Tennis Classic in Mahwah. His dream is on track to become a reality on Aug. 11 when a few thousand athletic overachievers are set to converge on New York and Bergen County for this monumental competition, dubbed the Ironman U.S. Championship. Participants from around the country will swim 2.4 miles in the Hudson River, then bike 112 miles through Bergen County and New York, and finish with a 26.2-mile run. 

"There are certain races – period – that are aspirational events that truly change people's lives when they do it, and Ironman is one of those races," Korff says. "It's a life changer. It's  a game changer. You do it, you finish the race, and you've really achieved a significant accomplishment in your life."

Herculean effort

 Organizing the race itself is quite the accomplishment. It has been a nine-year effort, and this is by far his most challenging and complex athletic event for the seasoned sports promoter.

"It took seven years to get the green light from everybody, and then the last two years we've been ironing out the specifics," Korff says. "And the last eight months we've been re-ironing the specifics. We want to make this a superior event."

Korff says 3,000 participants had entered as of June 2011, but he expects only 2,500 to 2,600 to go through with the event. They're likely to bring to the area friends and family, who will shop, eat and lodge in Bergen County and New York.

"Bergen County is huge to the race," Korff says.

Much of the bike race will go through Bergen County and into Rockland County, N.Y. Organizers have met with municipal officials from Fort Lee to Rockleigh, and nearly all wanted the race to go into their downtown areas. Fort Lee, a western nexus of the competition, will even host events for spectators, Korff says.

"These are people who would never have come to Fort Lee," says Korff, who estimates participants to inject $5 to $10 million into Bergen County's economy.

Chiropractors and masseurs should see a boon, too.

"These athletes have more aches and pains than you can shake a stick at," Korff says.

Strictly Bicycles, a bike shop in Fort Lee, is already seeing more customers preparing for the Ironman competition. Nelson Gutierrez, the shop's owner, expects business to pick up more as the weather warms and the competition nears. He's planning to expand outdoors and stay working 24 hours a day for two or three days around the event.

"It's just going to get crazier and crazier," Gutierrez says.

Coordinating among all the different municipal, police and other agencies will also require some organizational heavy lifting. On competition day, the event will close down the Palisades Interstate Parkway, likely from 2 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., he says. Korff estimates expenses for the event will cost about $4 million, which he says would make the event the most expensive Ironman ever staged.

"It's got to look like the 10th year the first year," Korff says. "People don't come to New York for a good experience. They come to New York for an amazing experience."

Joseph Parisi Jr., the mayor of Englewood Cliffs, expects some local economic impact, in the way of house rentals, higher sales for restaurants  and retailers, not to mention the  overtime organizers have agreed to  pay the town's staff.

"From a prestige standpoint, I am excited about it. I am concerned about the logistical things," the mayor says.

There are also security concerns, but Parisi says various law-enforcement  agencies should be ready. Meanwhile, the Ironman participants are training. For  the competition's New York debut, they will not encounter a lava field in Hawaii or high altitudes in Utah. They'll have a hilly race, and runners traversing the George Washington Bridge will have to dash up and down stairs.

"Who says this thing was supposed to be easy?" Korff says. "That's why it's called an Ironman."

The devil is in the details

 A native of northern Illinois, Korff was fresh out of Harvard Business School when he jumped into sports event planning. He started the A&P Tennis Classic in Mahwah. As a fixed event – with  athletes contained on fenced-in courts and not running or biking long distances – the greatest challenge in organizing the event came in drawing back spectators over the course of nine days.

How long would the pro tennis players last in the tournament? Will the weather behave? That would likely determine attendance.

"There is no star in a triathlon," he says. "Every athlete is the star, because they're doing it for their own personal reasons, for their own sense of accomplishment."

Still, as a young B-school grad in his mid-20s, Korff learned what organizing details he missed. In the tennis tournament's first year, when about 600 people attended, he didn't plan, for example, to ask Mahwah's help in traffic control at one particular intersection.

"I didn't really know what I didn't know," he says. "I look back on it now and I'm like, 'Oh my god, how did I ever get through that? How did we ever pull it off?'

"I've always had the mentality of that of a fan, of the spectator," he says. "Because if you're always thinking, 'How do I make this a better experience for the spectator,' you really can't go wrong."

A few years later, Korff and a partner bought another festival, this time one that didn't rely on star athletes – a balloon festival, based in Readington. (The Quick Chek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning is now in its 30th year.) Over the years, he perfected details, and eventually he added concerts to the festival. The nine-day event, including two days for qualifying, eventually drew about 60,000 spectators through its  duration (though that figure may count  the same people multiple times.)

The Mahwah tennis tournament ended in 2002, after its primary sponsor, supermarket chain A&P, pulled its support.

"With the tennis tournament, between the qualifying and the main draw, we had nine days to work out kinks," he says. "With the Ironman, we have no minutes to work out kinks, so we have to get it right from the get-go."

Strong to the finish

 At the New York City triathlon, they enter about 5,800 participants, but fewer than 4,000 actually show up.

"We have demand for far more but we don't want to make it any bigger because it will reduce the consumer experience, because it will be too crowded and then that's no fun," Korff says.

Crowd estimates for the triathlon are hard to come by. Korff expects 10,000 spectators to converge on Riverside Park when participants jump into the Hudson River. They anticipate about 20,000  spectators at the finish line. While it's hard to know how many spectators will show up for the Ironman competition, Korff says each participant usually draws four to eight friends and relatives for  support. Korff says he's ready for planning the most complex event of his career.

"It's a street event. It's moving. It's in two states, in three counties. It's the most densely populated area in America," he says. "We feel we're up to the challenge because we've done a lot of events in the tri-state area, but it's logistically challenging."

The secret to planning and executing a big sporting event?

"First you have to have a vision for what you want the thing to be," Korff says. "But it can't be a one-year vision. You have to say, 'Where do I want this thing to be in five years?'"

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