An argument can be made that John Seto has done more to turbocharge masters track than anyone since David Pain ran his Johnny Appleseed track tours of Europe and Oceania in the 1970s and Al Sheahen spotlighted the sport via National Masters News. After growing his site, mastersrankings.com, for a decade, John won our highest honor a year ago — induction into the USATF Masters Hall of Fame.John wasn’t coy about his commitment, saying he worked 10-12 hours a day. He wasn’t shy about asking for donations, either. And in July 2015, he won nonprofit OK from the IRS. With tax-exempt status, the site lets American donors write off their contributions.
Even before John took over from Dave Clingan in 2007, rankings had been getting USATF grants — $3,000 in 2006, rising to $5,000 by 2015 and topping out at $11,000 for 2019 (after $10,000 in 2018).
But John resorted to begging.
In January 2015, six months before getting IRS approval, he wrote his subscribers: “The fundraising effort has not produced any sustainable funding and I therefore cannot hire the help needed to do all the work necessary. I will be scaling down and shutting off portions of the site if much more funding isn’t secured shortly.”
Such appeals worried me, which I noted on masterstrack.com.
In June 2015, I interviewed John, who said he worked between 60 and 85 hours a week on the site and “almost every waking hour is spent on rankings-related stuff. I am at my desk seven days a week around 7 a.m. and stop working between 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.”
I called it a recipe for disaster. But a year later, I noted he had dialed back the panic. He reported on the success of creating a partial paywall — where for a donation you can see the current world seasonal lists as well as previous years (open to all).“Contributions since memberships have started have enabled the site to continue by paying most of the recent and some of the deferred operating costs,” John told me in 2016. “Of 2,365 registered users, 1,039 have paid at least $25 for annual memberships.”
In July 2017, however, John went back to the well, saying: “It will be sad if MastersRankings.com (aka World Masters Rankings) does not exist in 2018 because not enough athletes contribute and help ensure others know their support is needed.”
He now lists more than 1,600 donors — including two dozen kicking in $500 or more.
His business is booming, with sizable website traffic. He’s gotten WMA’s blessing as an official rankings site. Although John continues to solicit donations, his stress level appears lower.
Thank goodness for that.
But ever since noting his $10K and $11K USATF grants, I’ve grown curious about his nonprofit status.
What is his “charitable” mission? How much has he taken in and spent? Who’s on his board of directors? Who are his employees? Who gets paid what?
Some answers came via his latest Form 990 — covering 2017.
It’s an eye-opener. It says he took in $244,000 over his first three years as a nonprofit. His 2017 revenue was $102,000. John lists $88,000 in 2017 expenses, including $44,000 in salaries. Net assets for 2017 — about $21,500. Fine so far.
But then things get strange.
He lists only one employee — Linda Seto, his wife. (She got the $44,000.) John’s salary? $0.
But in Schedule O, he lists a payment of $36,999 for “Software License & Website Management & Hosting.” His Internet host is GoDaddy.com, and I wasn’t aware of their costs being that high. Also, I was under the assumption that John wrote his own software. Whose work is he licensing?
Also odd: His list of “Officers, Directors, Trustees and Key Employees” is entirely family members — no masters officials or knowledgeable athletes.
Besides himself (as director and president), he includes sister-in-law(?) Jacqueline A. Seto as vice president and his wife, Linda, as director and secretary. Stephen Seto (his brother, I think) is listed as a director and his brother-in-law Michael Milo is listed as director and treasurer.
Only John and Linda log average weekly hours — “40++” by John and 40 by Linda.
In the section titled “Reason for Public Charity Status,” John checks the box for “A community trust described in section 170(b)(1)(A)(vi).” Such charities, the IRS says, get “direct or indirect contributions from the general public.”
But what is mastersrankings.com’s “primary exempt purpose”?
John says: “International athletic competition.” (Is this not overbroad?)
For “accomplishments,” John writes: “MastersRankings’ program accomplishment is measured by listed performances and athletes — 340,444 performances by 93,601 athletes representing 166 countries were added in 2017. All 90k athletes benefitted as this is a motivation to do better and maintain healthier lifestyle. Also builds international camaraderie.”
(No doubt rankings are great motivational tools, but does creating a database justify tax-exempt status?)
On Friday, I sent a list of questions to John and CC’d members of the Masters T&F Executive Committee, including national chair Rex Harvey. John didn’t respond. Neither did Rex. On Saturday, I left voice mail for John at his home and cell numbers. No response yet.
But I got a reply from Carroll DeWeese, treasurer of the MT&F Committee.
Carroll confirmed that the “rankings” line item in the 2019 budget is for John’s site. But he said there was no individual vote on that item.
“All individual items were voted for at the same time,” Carroll said.
I asked Carroll: What did Seto say about the need for this money?
Carroll replied: “MTF is not giving him money. He is providing a service to MTF and its athletes. MTF is trying to support him as best as we can and set a precedent for other major countries around the world.”
I sent Carroll a copy of John’s Form 990. He didn’t comment on it.
(In a related question, I asked Carroll whether National Masters News publisher Amanda Scotti — who also serves as elected secretary of the MT&F Committee — voted on the overall budget, which included $7,000 for “official print” — which stands for NMN. Carroll said she did.)
My unanswered questions for John included:
- You pay yourself $0 but your wife $44,000. What does she do for the site? Why not pay yourself?
- You list your site’s purpose as “international athletic competition.” But what is the charitable purpose of mastersrankings.com?
- Who did you pay $36,000 for “software license and website management and hosting,” as noted in Schedule O?
I also asked: Your LinkedIn profile still lists you with Reblin Corp. but NY State corporations records don’t list it. I also found this: “Reblin Corporation is a privately held company in Pleasant Valley, NY. Categorized under Construction Management. Current estimates show this company has an annual revenue of $1 to 2.5 million and employs a staff of approximately 1 to 4.”
- What is status of Reblin?
- Athletes worldwide pay to become members of your site and have access to current year information. But why should USATF members have to pay if their USATF fees already subsidize your site?
- National Masters News paid you $750 in 2017 for “publish lists and promotion.” Can you expand on what this means?
In June 2015, I asked John: Has WMA or USATF helped much with costs? What are prospects for more subsidies?
John replied: “There is not much money available from national and world masters’ governing bodies as we all know. USATF, in my opinion, provided a significant portion ($4,000 which has amounted to about $4 per hour as I historically spent about 1,000 hours annually on rankings) of the masters budget toward rankings. Other federations tell me they have no significant amount either. They have not been part of my short-term funding strategy. The governing bodies can help by endorsing and publicizing the site plus collaborating and promoting to their membership.”
I suspect WMA now kicks in a couple grand. But WMA brass won’t return my email — such as when I asked for details on its finances.
Officially, the chair of the USATF Masters T&F Rankings subcommittee is David Bickel. Why isn’t he on John’s board?
I’m well aware that John sweats blood for mastersrankings.com — working years for peanuts or nothing. I honor his efforts. (I’ve nominated him for awards.) But he doesn’t help his cause by playing mum. He needs to account for sketchy aspects of his IRS Form 990.
You should know that John has been generous over the years — giving me free access to his site and making a monthly $10 pledge to me via PressPatron. I’m grateful. But I also owe you, my readers, information as well — however unpleasant.
My hope is that John has innocent explanations for all my concerns, and that he is forthcoming soon. He owes it to his donors as well.
Contribute to support independent track and field journalism: