SBJ/November 19-25, 2012/Opinion

In marathon drama, how sponsors stepped up, stumbled

As a result of Hurricane Sandy, the mood in New York the past two weeks has been subdued and sad with hints of resiliency and a theme of “We will band together.” It is unreal to hear the stories that bring the pictures to life. It is just incredible how huge the footprint on this storm was from New Jersey to the east end of Long Island.

Often among sadness is the backdrop of sport, and often there is the undercurrent of business. This was the case with the cancellation of the ING New York City Marathon. The decision was made too late, with little or no communication to participants. Remarkably, the runners were officially notified of the marathon cancellation Saturday morning by email, 17 hours after the announcement. Numerous sponsors and exhibitors told me they learned of the cancellation from runners at the expo, via Twitter and via Facebook.

It is unclear whether the New York Road Runners, the race’s leadership, will weather the storm, literally and metaphorically. But where do the marathon’s sponsors land in this mix?

NYRR faces questions about sponsor agreements for the NYC Marathon that was never run.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The sponsors should have been ready for the scenario. The storm had been predicted five days earlier, and an emergency plan should have been prepared.

How did sponsors do in response to the cancellation?

They got it right

Poland Spring: They do a terrific job supporting major marathons, including New York, Boston, and the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon series. For them, the cancellation was a gift. Imagine handing out water while the people of Staten Island were dealing with toxic water. Or, imagine the runners throwing away cups of water from the runner aid stations when first aid stations lacked water a few miles away. Poland Spring was prepared. It announced via Facebook a donation of the 200,000 marathon bottles to relief agencies. Poland Spring also provided 3.7 million bottles of water to the New York metro area.

PowerBar: Used Facebook to announce that it was diverting product earmarked for the marathon to affected areas. Moreover, its Facebook page covered the efforts of the runners and volunteers.

Runner’s World: The magazine was the destination for news, a stream of tweets and up-to-date posts, relevant and accurate content for those starving for information.

The Rudin family: The longtime sponsor pledged $1.1 million to the cause.

They fell short

ING: ING is the title sponsor of the marathon and its logo is incorporated into the trademark that must be used. It is also the sponsor that has gotten off the easiest but deserves the most grief. To its part, ING has pledged $500,000 to the relief efforts and matched company employees’ donations. But where were representatives when the marathon was canceled? A one-line statement was issued.

A number of major marathons are titled by financial services companies. For example, if a similar disaster had occurred at the Chicago Marathon, I am confident Bank of America and Chicago Event Management would be at the podium together. Similarly, the leadership of John Hancock would be visible with the Boston Athletic Association at press conferences for that marathon.

Questions from participants and spectators were posted on the ING Facebook page, but there was no response from ING. As title sponsor, ING had a role in this drama, and the company should have been arm-in-arm in communication.

Asics footwear and apparel: Asics was one of the main sponsors of the marathon. It perhaps had the most to lose, with an estimated $4 million in merchandise that is dated “New York City 2012.” One would think that Asics, a Japanese company, would be most sensitive to the plight with recent disasters back home, but Asics was slow afoot. Its website read “Good Luck Runners” through the Monday after the scheduled race.

Asics posted on Facebook that it was donating 100 percent of the proceeds from Saturday sales at the expo to the relief efforts, but more than a week after the event, we still had not heard the amount of the donation. Asics would have been better off making a cash donation or contributing the apparel to those in need versus making a donation tied to sales.
 
Moving forward

As the NYRR decides whether to refund runners’ money, there is also the issue of sponsor agreements. This is more difficult, as many benefits were realized prior to the race. But, race-day media, impressions and consumer engagement during the event were key items that were not delivered. So what path does the NYRR take?

My strategy would be to hold next year’s ING NYC Marathon over two days: run the 2012 race on Saturday and the 2013 race on Sunday. Make it a one-time event so that it does not affect fall marathons such as those events in Chicago, the Netherlands and Philadelphia. The considerable revenue generated for a November Sunday would pale in comparison to a two-day race for 100,000 runners. For the sponsors, it would deliver incredible product sales, awareness and trial to active consumers from all over the globe. A year after the Olympics, and a year before the FIFA World Cup, this would be the perfect world stage to celebrate running.

A gesture that would go a long way? Donate all entry fees for the Saturday race to recovery efforts in New Jersey and Long Island.

It has been a long few weeks for the NYRR, and it will take months for it to work out related issues. But while business is often the backdrop, all of these decisions are not the top priority. That belongs to aiding the plight of the people affected by this horrible storm.n

Dan Schorr (Dan@Start2FinishMarketing.com) is the CEO of Start2Finish Marketing, a Boston-based consulting and experiential marketing shop that connects brands to active lifestyle consumers through endurance sports.
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