Putting the “Elite” Back in Racing

One of the big news items in the running world last week, among the American records and spring marathon elite fields, was the announcement by the Competitor Group, organizer of the Rock ‘n’ Roll series of races, that it was reinstating support for elite athletes in its events. This about-face came less than five months after the original competitor-groupannouncement drew condemnation and calls for boycotts from runners everywhere. How much that reaction caused the change is debatable, but top runners everywhere, especially Americans who figure to benefit most from the new policy, certainly got a belated Christmas present from CGI.

From a purely business standpoint, supporting elite athletes might be most accurately viewed as a feel-good type of philanthropy that engenders cheers from the masses in much the same way some shoe companies’ support of cancer research does. It’s a form of giving back, a sort of noblesse oblige that event (and equipment) companies do because they can, and should. But in the end, how much does it really benefit their bottom line?

There’s the theory that having elite athletes in your race garners more coverage in the local media than a similar-sized “people’s” event, but is that really the case? The Gasparilla 15K in Tampa eliminated appearance and prize money almost two decades ago and saw little if any drop in the amount of news coverage or number of entrants. And even CGI deduced early on in its life cycle that there was a minimum critical mass of elites, generally only two or three, needed to generate press interest, but anything beyond that was essentially wasted money. That’s the model they’d been more or less following for more than a year when they made the decision to axe support altogether last September, a fact which seemed to escape those who decried the move as the end of road racing as we know it.

And how much of a draw for the average mid- to back-of-the pack runner is the presence of elites? That question may be harder to answer definitively, and doubtless varies from runner to runner. There is some attraction among runners with “star power,” especially those who are well-known among and interact well with the common folk; Bill Rodgers and Ryan Hall both come quickly to mind. But whether being in the same race with a group of introverted Africans has the same effect is questionable; personally, I tend to doubt it.

Of course, the old bromide about running being the one sport where “you can be in the same race as Ryan Hall” is often trotted out as an aspect that makes our sport unique and appealing. Let’s dispel that postulate once and for all: the majority of runners are athletically, and often physically, in a different ZIP Code than those up front, and the only way you are “racing” against them is if they drop out and you don’t, the way I “beat” Jerome Drayton in the Boston Marathon back in the late ‘70s. A baseball fan catching a pop foul has more in common with Albert Pujols than the average runner does with the leaders of any but the smallest marathon.

The bottom line, however, is that anything that makes the professional running pie a bit bigger means American hopefuls will have a better chance at earning a financial sliver. Compared to any of the big pro sports running remains small potatoes (a topic for another post) so those prize money slices often amount to a near-starvation diet for the majority of elites. The more chances they have, the better.

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One thought on “Putting the “Elite” Back in Racing

  1. If history is any guide, CGI tends to offer but a sliver of proverbial pie. $1000 to win a marathon or even a half-marathon is chiefly a draw to domestic elites with careers outside of running and lower-tier US-based African runners. Often the half-marathons are catered time-trial publicity junkets for established stars. Might be more compelling to have better competition for the win, if not better talent. From memory, top results from CGI events tended to show a splintered field with huge gaps from first to tenth or even to fifth. I did an analysis of the Houston Marathon before, during, and after its suspension of pro elite field support (prize purse + appearance fees). At least for that race the field size shrunk significantly with the elimination of elite monetary support and grew again with its reinstatement. Houston is certainly a different animal than the typical CGI event — it never branded itself as focused on the back-of-the-pack completer party experience first and foremost like the latter long has — and thus the typical Houston entrant might feel more connection to the elites and atmosphere of an athletic contest, a sporting event than the CGI demographic would. It comes down to knowing your audience, and CGI has deliberately tuned its message to a certain demographic that the likes of NCYM, Chicago, and Boston do not give such tight focus. So, indeed, CGI might have suffered little in terms of entrant numbers and thus economics in the absence of a pro field purse.

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