SBJ/April 8-14, 2013/In Depth

Marathon sponsors go at their own pace

At first glance, the three major U.S. marathons — Chicago, New York City and Boston — appear crafted from the same business plan. All three races charge participants around $200 to enter, quickly sell out the tens of thousands of spots they offer, and raise millions of dollars for local charities.

All three boast top-heavy sponsorship portfolios dominated by financial services companies. Industry experts value both ING’s title sponsorship with the New York Road Runners and Bank of America’s title deal with the Chicago Marathon in the high-seven to low-eight-figure range. John Hancock’s deal with the Boston Athletic Association, which is for “principal sponsor” rights, is valued in the mid to high seven figures.

John Hancock has sponsored the Boston Marathon since 1986.
Photo by: Boston Athletic Association
Beyond these examples, however, the only thing the marathons have in common is the distance. Their organizational structure, and sponsorship inventory and activation, is as individual as the cities the events represent.

In Boston, John Hancock first stepped in as a sponsor in 1986, at a time when the Boston Athletic Association lacked the money to keep pace with a running industry boom and awarded no prize money to elite runners.

The Boston-based firm signed a sponsorship worth $1 million a year for 10 years. It wasn’t the first financial services deal for the marathon industry — the New York City Marathon had a deal with Manufacturers Hanover bank that began in the late 1970s. But the size of the Hancock deal was groundbreaking, as was the structure.

Hancock gained ownership of the race’s professional competition: Hancock marketing executives chose the athletes, paid for their travel and housing, and funded the prize purse. Hancock was the only sponsor with rights to activate around the pro event, which essentially involved only logos on the finish-line tape.

“Unless you came to the finish you wouldn’t see any signage,” said Tom Grilk, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association.

“Back then if you saw your logo on the cover of Sports Illustrated, that really meant something,” said Barbara Paddock, senior vice president at JPMorgan Chase, who oversaw Manufacturers Hanover’s sponsorship in New York. “It was a new kind of advertising; it was all about branding.”

Building relationships in Beantown

Twenty-eight years later, Hancock’s activation around the Boston Marathon has evolved beyond the finish-line tape. The company title sponsors the three-day health and fitness expo. Hancock displays 600 banners along the 26.2-mile course, and the finishing stretch down Boylston Street and the finish-line structures bear the company’s mark. Every runner receives a “passport” identification card emblazoned with the company’s logo.

Grilk said much of the elevation in branding has happened in the last five years, and other partners — such as Adidas,
Gatorade, Nissan and Poland Spring — have also seen their inventory rise.

“We don’t have a gold, silver or bronze level. There is no rate card,” Grilk said. “We tailor what we do to a sponsor’s needs.”

Most of Hancock’s activation still rests on the pro event, which it still oversees. Rob Friedman, assistant vice president of sponsorship and marketing at John Hancock, said the company’s ownership of the pro race is “soup to nuts.”

“The BAA has [the elite athletes] during their time on the course, but before and after, they are back into our program,” he said.

In the year before the race, Mary Kate Shea, Hancock’s head of sports sponsorships, recruits every pro runner who participates in the race based on his or her ability, profile within the sport and racing schedule.

Hancock coordinates travel and hospitality for all elite athletes. During race week, the athletes speak to Hancock employees, meet with customers and engage in community events, under the Hancock banner. The company’s internal public relations and marketing teams organize media for the athletes before and on race day.

Hancock receives approximately 1,000 entries into each year’s race to distribute to customers and employees; 150 employees also receive coaching from Greg Meyer, the last American to have won the event.

“There has been an elevation in the branding more recently, but we balance that against the general tradition of not commercializing the marathon,” Friedman said. “It’s more about establishing relationships during the marathon than advertising.”

Full integration in Chicago

Boston’s less commercialized approach is contrasted in Chicago, where title sponsor Bank of America touches nearly every aspect of the race’s organization.

The race’s 26 full-time employees, who work for organizer Carey Pinkowski’s company, Chicago Event Management, work inside Bank of America’s downtown offices. The marathon shared a similar relationship with former title sponsor LaSalle Bank, which Bank of America acquired in 2007.

Bank of America used last year’s Chicago Marathon to pay tribute to military personnel.
Photo by: Bank of America
The race has become one of Bank of America’s three “jewel” events, alongside Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game and the Bank of America Sprint Cup race. While Chicago Event Management has a small public relations staff, the bank’s in-house public relations and marketing teams handle the majority of pre-race publicity. The bank also uses its long-standing relationship with Octagon to develop activation at the event.

“This one, specifically, the bank has a position of ownership, and we want to continue to have stewardship,” said Charles Greenstein, senior vice president of global sponsorship marketing at Bank of America.

Each year, approximately 400 Bank of America employees run the race, and 1,000 others volunteer. The race also brings hundreds of clients to either run or watch in the hospitality tent.

Each year the race invites its partners to a summit to discuss activation and new inventory with management and the Bank of America marketing team. New inventory and activation opportunities are available to partners based on the tier of their sponsorship, with Nike, Volkswagen, Merrill Lynch, Advocate Health Care, American Airlines and Gatorade having priority behind Bank of America.

Greenstein said Bank of America has not finalized its full activation for the 2013 race, which will be held Oct. 13. The bank is undergoing a brand relaunch this month, and creative from that effort will likely be used at the race, he said.
Last year the bank activated around a campaign called “Express your Thanks,” which paid homage to military heroes. The bank constructed an enormous American flag out of signed red, white and blue water bottles, and ran a social media campaign asking for photos that paid homage to men and women in uniform.

“There will still be a message aimed at the military,” Greenstein said. “We don’t know what the thematic will look and feel like yet.”

ING at the finish line?

The New York City Marathon’s relationship with title sponsor ING fits the more traditional partnership model in endurance sports.

“They are looking to be sponsors, not owners,” said New York Road Runners CEO Mary Wittenberg. “ING has the
benefits of being involved in strategic meetings without the responsibility of being in management.”

ING’s activation around the event has evolved with the bank’s needs. The bank has targeted retirees with the “What’s Your Number” campaign, children’s charities with its “Orange Laces” program, and its business-to-business efforts with a major spot in the race’s hospitality and VIP areas.

ING complements the campaigns with four cheer zones along the course, where representatives hand out sunglasses, plastic clappers, cowbells and vuvuzelas — all painted bright orange.

For 2013, the bank is reissuing its campaign from 2012 (last year’s event was canceled because of Hurricane Sandy), which centered on a social media push called “Runner’s Nation” that includes an online forum for discussions about running. Four participants will document their own training in a series of Web videos.

ING will sponsor a Runner’s Nation-emblazoned food truck, which will distribute free food and swag throughout Manhattan in the four days leading up to the race. And at the health and fitness expo, ING will again feature its “runners lounge” area. However, this year participants will be able to create custom videos to share via their social media pages.

Only once during ING’s 10-year title sponsorship with the New York City Marathon did Wittenberg fear the financial giant would not renew its deal. In 2009, during the depths of the financial crisis, NYRR had asked for a greater financial commitment from ING for its second renewal for title sponsorship of the race. However, Wittenberg said, “We scaled back our wants.”

Scaling back wants and evolving tactics may not be enough to preserve the relationship beyond 2013. The original deal, done in April 2003, was signed with ING Global. However, subsequent deals have been signed with the bank’s American financial group.

In November, ING’s American financial group filed for an IPO, after the Dutch bank continued to divest its foreign operations to pay back its 10 billion euro bailout from 2008.

ING released a statement to SportsBusiness Journal regarding the future of the title sponsorship, saying only that the company is focused on making 2013 a great race.

“We also continue to evaluate our sponsorship and brand activities,” the statement said. “Given our long and positive relationship with the race, we’re interested in keeping the dialogue open with NYRR.”

Wittenberg said the NYRR has always thought of the ING deal as a 10-year relationship, and that the company never entertained other potential title sponsors during that time.

“We have always known that this point would be a natural point to consider what makes the most sense going forward,”
she said. “We are talking to ING as we consider other options for 2014 and beyond.”

Fred Dreier is a writer in New York.
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