Sunday, 14 June 2015

(Questionable) ideas for promoting road races

In the USA, for the year 2014, total marathon and half marathon participation numbers are at an all-time high. There are almost 100 races across the US with more than a thousand participants. All good news so far.

We've come a long way from the niche sport that was marathon racing 40 years ago; total numbers have since increased 20-fold. There is no reason to suspect a collapse of the system, as races require little capital investment compared with, say, a soccer stadium or an NHL-worthy ice rink. But there are hints that 2015 will see an absolute peak in race numbers. This could lead to a small, but noticeable, chain of events.

With growing numbers of races matching the growth in runners, profits are spreading thin. If any race loses money for even a single year (perhaps over-ordering medals, food, t-shirts, etc), the race may fold. It's like opening a restaurant for one day a year while predicting total sales, costs, supplies, and possibly even weather! If numbers per race drop at all, the standard road race model may require an adjustment. Some races have already started doing so.

Notably many races are banding together to create race series, effectively franchising. The Rock n' Roll race series is a good example, and well distributed on a spatial scale, but for a given city there is usually but one race a year. Costs are kept low, but customer loyalty is still only assessed on an annual basis. The MEC race series, found in various canadian cities, is looking to find repeat business through hosting 4-5 small races a year per city. They also lower costs further by racing off-road, which cleverly aligns with their brand image of 'escaping the city'. This is a promising model, and will inevitably be imitated by others. Given the present saturation of foot races it will likely come in the form of rebranding existing events rather than reinventing the wheel.

From my limited perspective, that's all I can say about the immediate future. If races do nothing, a good number will fail. Banding together is the first move. Races that don't join into series are going to work harder to differentiate themselves. Sitting here I reflect upon ways that races could make themselves more distinguishable. These are a few silly, maybe worthwhile, ways to get attention:

More celebrity runners: Everyone knows the NYC marathon is host to a gaggle of celebrity runners each year. But they tend to come on their own terms. How many are invited to race? In the case of NYC, given the high density of high profile people it's a case of 'build it and they will come'. Perhaps smaller races could make the effort to invite a local celebrity to join in their 5k. Money isn't the only thing that attracts such people. It could be a chance for them to spread awareness of their favourite cause or charity, or promote their latest TV/movie/book franchise. Or hey, maybe they'll come because they know you, like you, and were promised a good time and steak dinner.

Time restrictions: Boston Marathon is of course the most famous example, where one must earn themselves a right to the start line. And by doing so they create a club-like atmosphere. All clubs know to be popular, people must feel an air of exclusivity. NYC does so by sheer number of applicants (200k each year for 50k spots). Boston choses instead an artificial time cutoff, which is proven to be just as effective. What other races do this? A very small number, including, and possibly limited to, Houston (sub 4:00), Fukuoka (sub 2:40), and Lake Biwa (sub 2:30) marathons. Those last two are treated as spectator sports (e.g. Biwa has no entry fee), so that only 'competitive' times are permitted, but Houston is interesting since the cutoff is more of a money-saving device. Including time limits means paying police to guard the road for less time (who are being paid up to 2.5 times their normal hourly salary, a reason they are so friendly!). Marathons are expensive in part because of 6+hour marathoners finishers, who effectively double closure costs compared with 3ish hour runners (and also put a strain of volunteers). Could it be that fewer, but faster runners might actually be more profitable, and while creating an air of exclusivity?

Luxury races: The most expensive running events cost thousands because of their location, e.g. Iceland, Arctic circle, Antarctica, Sahara desert, Andes, or the Yukon. Other races end up costing a lot due to the a la carte style of services. Not many venture to try smaller, locally-oriented races at a higher-than-normal fees, but for all-inclusive design. Included would be a pasta dinner catered by a high-end restaurant, quality on-site bathrooms, post race massages & beer, and next-day spa outings. Have race kits filled with socks, race jackets, and assorted power bars. Printed photos are automatically mailed to all finishers. One could travel to Chicago/NYC/Boston and spend $1500, or run local luxury race for $500. In fact this price tag is less than an Ironman registration fee, which is why median triathlete incomes are six figures, hence the present popular choice among the rich and eccentric. Part of me thinks this idea is terrible, another part sees this potential movement as inevitable.

Promote local rivalries: One of the simplest methods to add flavor to a race is invite local talent to square off against one another. Nothing like inviting a few hotshots and letting everyone know about it. Ideally these rivalries happen on their own, but anyone who doesn't like boxing yet saw the Pacquiao-Mayweather match anyway knows the power of marketing. The rivalries need not be so elite. Early-bracket march madness fans know this. But it is extremely rare for races to extend invitations to specific runners. The philosophy is to either a) do nothing or b) put up some prize money and hope for the best. I have rarely seen a race website explicitly promote the attendance of competitive runners. Although not standard practice, it's an option worth testing.  

Sponsor a young runner: Make entry fees expensive, but with the knowledge that you are paying for more than yourself. For each entry fee paid, a young (high or middle school) runner gets to run for free. Most charities you never see where your money goes. Here you get feedback the moment they finish the race.

Lots of ideas out there, and here are but five. Maybe I'll update this if more come to mind. I'm sure they won't be brilliant, but hey, if even one new direction sticks... Let's just say I don't want to see any races out there fold.

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