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:
It would be nice and convenient if our USATF membership fee also paid for the rankings site.
Those are the numbers after twelve years? I’m glad he does it, but the opportunity cost seems really high.
Seems many years work has finally paid off (if only a little), aside from some obvious changes to the board (easy to make) I’d say it seems clear WMA and USATF MTF want this site to succeed, masters want it and use it, so he deserves every penny for creating the site, the software, all of it, after many years of work. My only question why be a non-profit at all? Perhaps when there was no money to support this work it was helpful. But this guy deserves cheers, not smears. Thanks John!
I am not familiar with non profits so can’t comment on how the web site is financially structured. What are his operating expenses? If John has raised $244,000 in three years that is about $81,000/year. Looking at the scope of the web site, I can believe that he works 10 – 12 hours a day & his wife pus in 40/week. Are you arguing that John should work for free? How much would it cost if John was replaced and the work was outsourced by a specialist firm? Can’t seeing that it would be less.
I love the website. Only place to see world wide rankings. John does a great job in supporting Masters Track. I am always surprised at how quickly he responds to inquiries. The $244K over three years is a small compensation as the site has been around longer. As someone else mentioned it works out to $81K a year gross so after expenses and taxes he is definitely not getting rich. Keep up the good work John!
John’s tireless efforts at Masters rankings make him a true champion. As is said above, he deserves cheers, not smears.
The site is a simple wordpress site with a SQL database and query application
Cost including hosting 300 per annum at max!
The “work” required is minimal few hours a week at the most as results are sent
Problem is why all the extra pleads for donations? And charity status. In Malaga he quoted 2500 paying members at min of $20. And arranged a WMA bursary. Shocked by the 11k from usatfm too.
Yes he can make a living, but he already does on top of this. But should the site be enough to pay his life… No!
Thank you Ken for raising this
Why does National Masters News warrant $7000 in support from USATF? It is not useful at all for information purposes due to its monthly publication frequency. By the time it is published some of the information is already outdated. If it was an on line site that was updated much more frequently I could see the justification for the money. As it stands now its only useful for entertainment purposes.
I for one am happy to see John Seto making a (modest) profit on his website. I use it regularly and find it very valuable. It is also a service to the masters community as a whole, so I don’t have a problem with him getting some minimal money from USATF. Ken, you and John are very similar, in the sense that you are the two providers of the services that enable our masters community. I wouldn’t begrudge you making $80,000 either! Maybe you didn’t intend this, but there’s a flavor of blame in your writeup that I don’t think is justified.
Ken: I wish to echo other’s, in that you and John Seto are invaluable and integral to the USATF masters track community. As a business owner myself, – you pay for EVERYTHING, including health care, car, any/all insurance, and, if lucky, vacations, any savings and retirement. Masters Rankings = What a bargain! I sure wouldn’t want to do John’s job, but so glad he does.
I wish John continued and increasing funding success- THANK YOU.
John Seto’s site is fantastic and provides a very useful tool to masters athletes. I happily contribute, typically at the end of each year so that I can have full access to the site. I give more that the minimum for a membership, because I value it more. Lots of legitimate reasons for it to be non-profit. It promotes a healthy lifestyle and all the other positive things that go along with masters track. I don’t want to see it go away, so I support it. I hope John and his wife are duly compensated for the work that put into it. I don’t know John, but whenever I have had to email him, he responds within a day. Very attentive to his mission. I hope his site lives long and prospers.
In response to my queries, Rankings Committee chair David Bickel writes:
My role as the Masters Rankings Subcommittee Chair is defined pretty simply. I am to do the best I can to see that the Top 25 Performances, for each age group, in each indoor and outdoor track and field event, are supplied to USATF each year.
John Seto is not on the committee. John is the primary contact for the company Masters Rankings. Masters Rankings is the party USATF has hired to provide the above described information. I do not know how USATF decides on the funding.
I am not and should not be part of Masters Rankings nonprofit board. That would be an inappropriate conflict of interest in my opinion given Masters Rankings is a USATF vendor.
More information about the subcommittee should be available through USATF.
The actual specific “economics” of Mastersrankings are kind of irrelevant, I believe. We should only care that John receives (from whatever sources) enough funding to continue. John (and I guess his wife) work very hard in providing an amazing site that is invaluable to the world Masters community. I believe WMA and every National masters organization should be supportive of the site, either through funding or the forwarding electronically of race results. Ideally both. Go John Go!
The site costs about $1k a year to run! (that would cover top hosting and licenses he has in use. the “work” being undertaken is about 2 hours a day at the most people come on.
I too have asked the WMA to respond as I believe they pay about 8k a year to help him out with costs… what costs? you mean Salary right?
Not saying we don’t want the USATF rankings and world but don’t hide behind the “oh I need help to cover costs” and keep asking for more money every year
John has done a fantastic job with the masters rankings and it’s great that he’s able to raise significant revenue from members and sponsors. Here’s my opinion about the financial aspects: Either (1) John should allow free access to current season rankings to all USATF members (whose USATF dues are being used to support his efforts) — or– (2) John should neither ask for or accept funding from USATF Master T&F, so that money could be spent on other, underfunded MTF programs and services.
I wholeheartedly agree Ken, he is taking in far more money than is needed to fulfill this task. $244,000 is simply insane for a simple website that is run part time.
It isn’t even accurate – meets that appear on the USATF calendar, with results published online, are often not accounted for and require the athletes to self-report.
I’m not sure what he is doing with all that money but it is far, far more than is needed to run a simple database driven website. I’ve personally run far bigger websites that hosted far more traffic with FAR less resources.
I hope that he is not charging people in developing nations this fee.