Saturday, 11 February 2012

Cashing in on running booms

I just read Steve Boyd's recent post regarding the semi-recent decline in competitive running among Canadian athletes (Follow Feb 6th blog entry "The 'De-sportification' of Running?"). From the title most readers will correctly predict where the piece is going: Canada used to have a lot of running talent (in the late 70s to mid 80s). More people in Canada are running that ever but we're not getting faster because of it. To be clear I am not brining up his article to debate against it. Rather I want to supply some of my own thoughts I had while reading his.

I should sum up first what Steve wrote in his own entry. His blog was inspired after lingering thoughts from his interview with Canadian Running magazine. In his post, he details the three running booms we've experienced in North America, the first being in the 1970s:
In the early years of the first running boom-- the one ignited by Frank Shorter's marathon victory in the 1972 Olympics, the first in many decades by an American-- runners at all levels tended to approach the sport as just that-- a sport, something at which one competed. (...) The first running boom represented the mass popularization of a competitive activity, with both its harsh physical demands and its romance, rather than as a form of physical hygiene, or as a spiritual balm. 
The second boom began in the late 1980s where companies correctly took notice of its steady popularity and wanted to cash in. They also wanted to ensure popularity would not wane among the masses. 
By the peak of this [second] boom in the mid to late 1990s, signs that running was on the way to morphing from competitive sport for the masses into mass "lifestyle activity" were beginning to become apparent. Among the symptoms of this shift were the above mentioned decline of the 10k--the "racers" preferred distance-- and steady rise of the 5k and marathon-- the beginners' and "completers'" distances respectively. 
Finally we have now reached the third boom supported by those looking to maintain basic cardio fitness. Of course the Gen-Xers, no longer so young themselves, are also getting into the mix. This third boom can be measured by the number races promoting Run for the Cure and other charity-related causes. This is a newish phenomenon; often these are held without even giving participants an official time. An even more recent trend in running events is to 'fight' obesity/diabetes and/or simply get off the couch.

A side note, which Steve alludes to in his article, occurred to me while writing this: it seems clear that all three running booms were initiated by baby boomers. Dividing the booms into three stages of a boomer's life, you have: 1970s = young and competitive; 1990s = young-ish but with family commitments ("See? I can still run fast"); finally the 2010s & beyond = healthy aging (as a bonus promoting cures to cancer and heart disease, which are your average boomer's two greatest fears).

Regardless of cause, now the average running race has been divided into the competitive and non-competitive camps. The throngs of back-of-the packers who simply cross the finish line I recently began referring to as 'active spectators'. It's a fair description; how many professional sports have hosted more people playing on the field than watching? Unlike a football game, however, they do not (usually) directly interfere with racers. But do they interfere in another way?

Steve highlights the important point that the combined results of these programs meant to promote 'healthy' exercise may be swamping elite development. We're getting more involved, but no-one is there to cherry pick the best and move them up a notch. It would be as if we collectively contented ourselves promoting basic reading a writing skills but neglecting to search for the next Margaret Atwood. In other words we'd have nothing worth reading. Seems every sport requires a hero to promote. Reid Coolsaet is doing a fantastic job on this front (there were posters of him everywhere at the T.O. marathon). Still, more are always needed.

Steve also mentions the amount of revenue now generated by companies from running, of which more should be going into elite programs. It does seem immoral to provide such scant prize money to winners of races that generate this kind of income. Should the 'active spectator' model reflect the earnings of the elite? Tickets for hockey games certainly do this.

NHL hockey, which isn't even the most over-paid pro sport on the planet, a typical combined team salary is now over $50,000,000 (though varies). Average ticket prices are about $50 league-wide (about the same as a typical race-entry fee), and a typical stadium has a capacity of 20,000 with 41 home games (plus playoffs). Doing the math, assuming all games are sell-outs, teams cost about 22% more than the basic revenue taken in! The same math applies to other stadium sports. Obviously advertising and food sales make up for the difference.

I did some back-of-the envelope calculations, and it's shocking to see how little goes into the winner's purse. I'm going to give the following example on the low earnings of runners only because I know the numbers and it is typical of road-racing economics. The Tely 10 road race has been held in St John's NL almost every year since 1922. It is one I personally love to enter. It used to never hand out prize money at all as there were only 10-100 entries before the 1990s. Since the 2000s the race has swelled to over 3,000 participants. A few years ago they decided it would be fair to introduce a purse for the winners, especially as they help promote the race itself. The total prize money was $3,000 ($750, $500, and $250 for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, men & women). This change was good for me, since I have come in the top 3 before and money is always welcome. Thing is, I read this in the Telegram paper: would you guess how much the awards stage costs where they hand out the prize money? About $7500. The winners are not exactly raking it in. Or doing the math, the entry fee is between $45-60 (depending when you register). Multiply that by the 3000 runners entered and you find the winners are allocated about 2% of race revenue. This is typical, and I don't mean to single them out. The Boston marathon purse, one of the largest in the world, is $575,000. (A single athlete wins up to $100,000, and for a race distance competed at only twice per year). Together these racers they take home about 14% of the revenue collected.  If road races used the same revenue model as the NHL, Boston winners would take in over five million dollars! Moral: We are short-changing running athletes. Clearly advertising pays the best athletes more than what these numbers reveal, but I maintain there is an imbalance of basic money in/out shown here.

Steve points out that we are generating a lot of short-term good by having so many race, but have avoided the (necessary) next step of re-investing in the sport. This will mean losing those same runners when the next fad comes along. I hope the calculations I made make this case. Perhaps this is not a problem for advertisers who can switch sports more easily, but a word of caution to race hosts: lean times may be ahead and you must save up for winter. Easy revenue will disappear when yoga or Xfit or whatever comes to take your place in the sun. You can continue to not paying more for the best runners, but don't expect more people to enter your race every year, either. Another way of arguing the need to re-invest is the free advertising you get when your sport/best athletes make the papers (recall that the first boom was ignited by elite americans?). No-one, it seems, wants to participate in a 'loser' sport.

One idea might be that more races start combining their revenue towards promoting a specific group of athletes year-round. I know this idea was tried and failed within the Brooks marathon project. Then again, the idea of hosting free videos online failed many times before YouTube came along. Persistence is necessary, something athletes are familiar with I'm sure. Is this idea being tried somewhere and I just haven't heard of it? As it stands, most races just pay your way to their race, and going beyond that simple arrangement is mostly done under the table.

All of that concludes the introduction to what I really want to post about, which involves some trends I found in elite performances in Canada and worldwide. I didn't mean to steal any of Steve's ideas; one paragraph turned in to many. I'll contribute more of my own data/conclusions next time about what evidence there is to show that all of this 'dilution' is affecting the elite levels of Canada's running.

For a preview, here are the best Men's 10k track performances run worldwide (and in Canada), divided by the date they were run. I included all the performances for a single athlete appearing multiples times. My quick observation for the 10k is that we've been holding steady quality-wise since the mid 1980s. Obviously as the rest of the world improves, this is not good enough.

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