N.Y. Marathon Could Face Damage To Brand By Holding Race Amid Controversy
Could the brand of the ING N.Y. Marathon be damaged by its decision to race Sunday, just days after Hurricane Sandy devastated the tri-state region? The marathon, now in its 43rd year, has grown to become what is widely considered the premier road race in America. This year, it starts a new five-year deal with ESPN that has it appearing on live national TV (ESPN2) for the first time since '93. But critics this week have been fast to pounce on N.Y. Road Runners, the race’s organizers, for going through with the competition given the storm. Those making comments range from newspaper columnists and posters in social-media forums to politicians and CBS’ David Letterman, who joked during his show about the decision to race. Josh Cox, a professional runner who has competed in four Olympic marathon trials, wrote in a Twitter correspondence with SportsBusiness Journal, “I understand the financial implications for both the NYRR & NYC, but to ask an already taxed NYPD to work 26.2 miles isn’t the right allocation of resources.” He added, “I would love it if the NYRR would give an incentive for anyone who volunteered rather than ran. ... Imagine the impact if 10,000 runners took the opportunity?” N.Y. Mayor Michael Bloomberg Thursday insisted in his daily briefing that the police and fire departments would not be stressed come this weekend. Hayes Roth, CMO for branding company Landor, said that with Bloomberg giving his blessing for the race to proceed, NYRR could enhance the marathon’s brand if the race can be viewed as a symbol of revitalizing N.Y. “I would argue it is an opportunity to celebrate resilience and the New York spirit,” said Roth, whose firm is handling branding for the new World Trade Center. “It is not without controversy, [but] just weighing all the pluses and minus, I think it is a good thing to do.” Roth conceded that there are risks, from falling branches hurting runners in Central Park to the general discontent some feel about the city not having proper time to recover, like it did with the '01 marathon, staged two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
RACE CAN UNITE THE CITY: Runners’ World Editor-in-Chief David Willey said a marathon is unique in that it can unite a city unlike any other sporting event. But even Willey recognized the need for somberness. He noted, for example, that the magazine’s annual midtown party scheduled for Friday night -- happening just blocks from where a crane hangs damaged 90 stories above the city -- has been downscaled into a meeting place for runners to congregate. For the NYRR, which has grown exponentially under President & CEO Mary Wittenberg, the race is a major money maker, pulling in $30-40M annually, a sum that funds most of the nonprofit group’s budget. Themes of health and fitness, charity, and celebration adorn the image of the marathon, so the storm controversy is a significant challenge to overcome. The group is donating $1 million to storm recovery efforts. Title sponsor ING is donating $500,000. The marathon is not, however, letting any runners roll over their entry fee to next year should they choose to defer their participation -- whether because they cannot make it to N.Y. or because they feel racing is the wrong thing to do. Instead, any such runners will have to pay a new fee, an amount that commonly is in the hundreds of dollars. “That is wrong,” said Scott Lange, a veteran marketer who formerly was CMO for NYRR and now is with The Active Network. While he agreed with the decision to race, saying in effect that NYRR had no choice once the mayor gave his approval, Lange said the entry fee choice sends a poor message that the NYRR would financially ding runners who could not, or who choose not, to run. Willey, though, noted how expensive it is for the NYRR to stage the race, with the city recently having upped its tab for police. "The race,” he said, “has been under pressure with rising costs.”