SBJ/April 17 - 23, 2006/This Weeks News

Boston Marathon kicks off series

In the fall of 2004, representatives from five of the world’s biggest marathons — London, Berlin, Boston, Chicago and New York — gathered at the Warwick Hotel in New York City, hoping to create something bigger — a unifying competition that would combine the strengths of each race.

The World Marathon Majors five-race series won’t
pay enough to change plans of elite runners like
Paula Radcliffe (below), some say.
The result was the formation of the World Marathon Majors, which debuts today with the 110th Boston Marathon. The series will pay the winning man and winning woman $500,000 each year.

“This is the launch of our sport’s most significant initiative,” said Mary Wittenberg, race director of the ING New York City Marathon. “It will be the sport in its most global nature.”

The creators hope the series will command attention in the running world similar to what the majors such as the Masters in golf and the U.S. Open in tennis have generated for those sports.

The individual races have put up the funding for the first $1 million purse and hope to expand it to $2 million in the future once a title sponsor is secured. The group began its hunt to fill that opening six weeks ago.

Athletics Management and Services, a Dutch company, is overseeing the effort. It faces the challenge of finding a sponsor that doesn’t compete with any of the major sponsors of the individual races, which will continue to secure their own sponsorships such as John Hancock in Boston or Flora in London. Its major selling points are the more than 300,000 applicants that the marathons receive worldwide, the 240 million-plus television viewers and the more than 5 million spectators that the races attract.

“It’s a Nextel Cup-[type] opportunity,” Wittenberg said. “The title role in an event that’s revolutionizing a sport is not an opportunity that comes by often.”

Carey Pinkowski, director of The LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon, said the series has been approached by parties interested in securing the title role and believes it will fill the spot soon. He would not disclose what the asking price is or what category the group was pursuing, saying those details and a possible television package will be firmed up after the marathons meet in London on April 24-25.

Though this is the first marathon series of its kind, its creation was not a surprise, said Andrew Suozzo, a DePaul University professor who taught a class on the Chicago Marathon and has a book on the subject due out in August. He said the rapid growth of marathons in the 1990s made a series inevitable because of the benefits it provides.

“If you just have a single marathon, it’s an event, it comes and it’s over,” he said. “If you have a series, every time one of them takes place it automatically refers people back to the other marathons. It’s a way of grabbing public consciousness.”

Skeptics have praised the publicity and interest that the series has garnered but have questioned its structure. The competition will span two years, meaning the first prize will be awarded at the 2007 New York City Marathon.

The winner will be determined by a point system. Each of the five races in the series will award 25 points for first place, 15 for second and 10 for third. Runners can compete in as many of the races as they want, but only their best four results count. Elite marathoners typically run two, sometimes three, marathons a year.

“When you throw the name ‘circuit’ out there, the expectation is that you’re going to provide a series of performances that coalesce with a champion,” said Steve Miller, president of Devine Sports, which runs the Los Angeles Marathon. “They have a good plan, but it requires multiple performances and that’s tough in the reality of the business.”

The purse may not be appealing enough for athletes, either, said Tim Murphy, CEO of Elite Racing, which runs more than six half and full marathons nationwide. Runners can receive six figures to appear in a race, and top athletes such as Olympians Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe can earn more than $500,000 just for running. He doubts the series will influence their race plans.

While that may be true, focusing on which races the athletes participate in misses the point, said Merhawi Keflezighi, an agent who represents marathoners Jon Rankin and Olympian Meb Keflezighi, his brother. Ultimately, the series is about raising the visibility of the sport, he said, and the purse will achieve that by adding drama where it’s never existed.

Adam Zocks, vice president of Elite Racing, doubts the drama will mean much to the average marathon runner, though. “It’s not a sport in which most participants follow the pros,” he said.

In the minds of series organizers, this is the beginning of a truly global property, one that could expand into Asia or India, especially if a marathon such as Tokyo gained traction and high participation numbers, Wittenberg said.

“People can run anywhere in the world,” she said. “As countries grow and communication improves, there’s just an incredible opportunity for our sport, and we believe we’re onto something very big.”

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