Organizers trying to make marathons more fan-friendly

Updated: April 17, 2006, 1:13 AM ET
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

A group of 20- and 30-somethings walked outside a New York City bar and watched as two runners passed them along the 2005 ING New York City Marathon course. Later, they cheered and screamed as they watched TV screens show Hendrick Ramaala drop to the ground after falling one second short of victory.

Paul Tergat's one-second win over Ramaala in the New York City Marathon was one of the most exciting finishes in marathon racing.

Paul Tergat
AP Photo/Kathy WillensPaul Tergat's 2005 New York City Marathon win over Hendrick Ramaala, right, might be the spark for a marathon revolution.

So, why didn't more people embrace the event? Why didn't it receive more buzz? It was a question many organizers asked themselves. And fresh off the heels of that thrilling finish, race directors of the world's largest marathons pooled together to try to make marathon racing more popular, particularly in the United States.

"We all believe that we have to really play up the unique aspect of our sport, in that the masses are participating in the very same event, on the very same road, as these great stars," New York City Marathon race director Mary Wittenberg said. "There's a lot that will naturally pull us together, and we're going to keep pushing on every front until we get to a point where there's great fan identification with our top stars."

One of the biggest challenges in marketing marathons is top runners only compete in a few races a year. So, the first idea was to encourage as much participation as possible by the top runners. Monday's Boston Marathon will mark the start of a two-year, 11-race series called the World Marathon Majors. It includes two Boston Marathons, two London Marathons, two Berlin Marathons, two Chicago Marathons and two New York Marathons. In 2007, the marathon event at the IAAF World Championships Marathon in Osaka, Japan will also be included.

The runners earn points by placing first through fifth in these events, with the male and female point winners to split a $1 million bonus. The goal is to get a sponsor for the series, which could lead to the subsidizing of a much larger bonus. Each runner has to run at least one race per year, and the runner's top four races are counted in the standings.

"We want this thing to work," said Guy Morse, Boston Marathon race director. "We want this thing to be fine-tuned as we go forward. That's why our point system, for example, is so simple to understand. The criteria, too, for the races in the future is going to depend on how the series rolls out, how successful it is, and what really does make sense."

The marketing plan's success could depend on an American citizen winning a big-time marathon in this country. There hasn't been an American winner in a major U.S. marathon in more than two decades. Perhaps it is because the prize money for each of these races (the top three finishers Monday will receive $100,000, $40,000 and $22,500, respectively) aren't worth it to elite American athletes who might have a chance to use their skills to excel in much more lucrative sports.

The $100,000 prize is a fortune for a runner from Kenya, where workers earn $15 a month in salary, and money from one big marathon win means a lifetime of wealth.

Greg Meyer's win in 1983 marked the last time an American-born male won the Boston Marathon. A year before, Alberto Salazar won the New York Marathon, and no American has done that since.

Still, there are factors and runners that can increase the chance of an American winner.

• Khalid Khannouchi won the Chicago Marathon in 2002. A Moroccan native, he became a U.S. citizen in May 2000.

• American Meb Keflezighi, 30, grew up in Eritrea, a small country in Northeast Africa, but has been living in the States for the past 18 years. Keflezighi finished second in the 2004 New York Marathon and won a silver at the 2004 Olympics, the first American to medal in the event since 1976. His personal best of 2 hours, 9 minutes and 53 seconds would have landed him in first place in the last three Boston races.

• Last year, Deena Kastor became the first American-born woman to win the Chicago Marathon in 11 years.

• Over the last three decades, marathon running has surged in popularity. In 1976, the 26.2-mile race was completed by 25,000 Americans. This year, more than 400,000 will cross finish lines, and top marathon organizers will reject thousands of applicants.

Another factor in the plan's success is the development of great stories that will enable the sport to leap past the box scores in the sports section. Like the story of Marla Runyan, a legally blind runner who, over the past four years, finished in the top 10 in the New York City Marathon, the Boston Marathon and the Chicago Marathon.

Issuing odds on the race is a brilliant idea recently executed by Dave Bedford, race director of the Flora London Marathon. Those who want to bet on next week's race can now place one through the country's most well-known bookmaker, William Hill.

Finally, there is the challenge of actually watching the race itself. But race directors hope that by giving elite runners unique, clearly colored tops, viewers and announcers will be better able to identify the top competitors in a packed race. This could eventually lead to the runners actually wearing specific jersey numbers that they would keep over time.

The next project would be to make sure all races are properly televised. One American television partner airing all of them would be ideal, but as of now, the London Marathon will not be on any American television channel, despite the explosion of niche cable stations.

When asked in a conference call what it would take to get the race on television in America, Bedford jokingly replied, "run the women with no shorts and tops."

Following a marathon live is challenging; leaderboards are not posted around the courses, so spectators have no idea who is coming down the road. Then, when they do come, one can barely see them, since they are running so fast. This is an obstacle that marathon running cannot overcome. That said, the measures race directors are taking to market the sport is a step in the right direction.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com. He ran in the 2004 ING New York Marathon.

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter

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