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How marathons became a big business


Sweat Equity marathon excerpt
Photos: Facebook/NYCMarathon
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Jason Kelly, the New York bureau chief at Bloomberg and serial marathoner, dives into the (lucrative) world of wellness in his new book, Sweat Equity. This week, he shares with Well+Good an excerpt that explores the big business behind running races like the New York City Marathon.

In 1970, 127 runners suited up to run the first New York Marathon—four consecutive loops of Central Park Drive, the paved road that circumnavigates New York’s iconic park (55 people finished). Thirty‐five years later, in 2015, about 50,000 runners snaked from Staten Island to the finish line in Central Park, touching each of the five boroughs. It’s a massive, sprawling, annual autumn happening, bringing athletes from all over the world to test themselves on the largest stage in this particular sport.

Sweat Equity Jason Kelly excerpt
Photo: Bloomberg

That translates to massive economic power, mostly by virtue of bringing big‐spending visitors to cities, often for weekends when the city is otherwise without a convention or other major event. Economic impact often totals tens of millions for a marathon host city, and into the hundreds of millions for the largest races. It starts with the entry fee, which effectively ensures an affluent field.

The New York marathon, arguably the best‐known marathon due in part to its location and rich history, and the largest by number of runners (a record 50,530 in 2014), charges $255 for a non‐New York Road  Runners member (members, who aren’t guaranteed entry without completing a prescribed number of other NYRR races and volunteering for another, pay $216). Foreign‐based runners pay $347. The marathon has to operate a lottery for entries, owing to the massive number of entries. The high fees clearly aren’t scaring anyone off.

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Sweat Equity marathon excerpt
That’s in part because of the race’s participants. The average annual income for a participant in the New York City Marathon is reportedly $130,000. Put another way, that’s well north of double the median income of an American household (roughly $51,000).

An economist would point out that the price for the New York City Marathon (and many others) is inelastic. That is, demand doesn’t markedly change even when the price changes, in this case dramatically over a period of just a few years. (The nonmember rate was $196 in 2011. New York Road Runners increased it to $255 for the 2012 race, citing the need to pay more of its share of the traffic management costs.)

The average annual income for a participant in the New York City Marathon is reportedly $130,000

New York’s marathon is credited with an economic impact of about $340 million, a figure from a 2010 study that was cited around the initial decision to hold the 2012 race, even after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the region. The storm depleted public resources and set up a situation where the foot-race would divert men and women from cleaning up and piecing life back together for the region’s residents. The race was eventually canceled.

At least one writer has said the actual economic impact was less than half of that. Writing on Forbes.com, Patrick Rishe took issue with the figure, and made his own calculation of $144 million, including the runners and  spectators. While significantly less, I’d still argue that’s a lot of money generated by a bunch of people running through the streets of New York while 2 million of their friends and family cheer them on. A more recent NYRR study pegged the marathon’s impact at $415 million.

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Sweat Equity marathon excerpt

Anecdotally, a marathon is a festive weekend where happy runners gladly shell out hard‐earned money. For several years, I opted to skip the lottery and race‐day hassle of the New York City Marathon (getting from the northern suburbs where I live to Staten Island was a brutal way to start a day whose focus was a 26.2 mile run) in favor of running the Philadelphia Marathon. My own economic impact was roughly: train ticket ($150 round trip), hotel ($175), dinner ($40), taxis ($40), post‐race cheesesteak ($10). And that doesn’t include the traditional post‐post‐race visit to the Taco Bell/KFC combo on the way home from the Stamford Amtrak station, because, well, I just ran a marathon.

You have a large, captive audience of mostly affluent people who’ve demonstrated their willingness to pay not insignificant sums for the privilege of punishing themselves over a period of many miles and several hours

Since the mid‐1990s, long‐distance running pivoted from the fringe to the mainstream. The major marathons remain in the hands of local non-profits that nurtured the races from infancy over decades and in at least one case (Boston), more than a century. Beyond those handful (which also includes New York and London), a thriving for‐profit business of races is growing.

Turning races into a business feels like a somewhat obvious opportunity, if only for the demographics. You have a large, captive audience of mostly affluent people who’ve demonstrated their willingness to pay not insignificant sums for the privilege of punishing themselves over a period of many miles and several hours. Once you have them signed up, they’re more than willing to fork out more for a T‐shirt, sweatshirt, or sticker to remind themselves, their family, and friends of their accomplishment.

This is the second in Well+Good’s four-part Sweat Equity excerpt series—catch up on the first and second installments now!