Boston Marathon boosts purse, accepts corporate ads

Updated: April 15, 2008, 7:35 PM ET
Associated Press

The Boston Marathon is breaking with a 112-year tradition, putting corporate ads on the start and finish lines to help its two main sponsors extract more value from ties with the world's oldest marathon.

Race organizers also announced Tuesday that they were increasing its purse by more than 38 percent, from $575,000 to $796,000, making it the richest of the World Marathon Majors events.

The changes in sponsorship ads highlight distance running's growing dependence on sponsors to provide lucrative prize money to attract leading athletes and raise its profile, said Guy Morse, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, the race's organizer.

They also demonstrate the need for support to meet operating expenses and make donations to the eight cities and towns that provide public safety and other services to runners passing along the marathon's 26.2-mile route, Morse said.

The arrangements were made under terms of existing contracts with John Hancock Financial Services and German sports equipment and apparel maker Adidas AG, and no new money was exchanged. However, the logo placement could form a basis for pressing for even more lucrative terms in future sponsorship contracts, Morse said.

Boston-based John Hancock helped the marathon evolve from an amateur to a professional event in 1986, and four years ago was acquired by Toronto-based Manulife Financial Corp. The company's new managers then began pushing to raise the company's profile at the race, Morse said.

Funding by John Hancock helped organizers guarantee the men's and women's winners $150,000 each for the April 21 race -- a record level in the majors, which include marathons in London, Chicago, Berlin and New York City.

The company's sponsorship expires in 2018. Adidas, which became another main sponsor in 1989, has a sponsorship contract through 2010.

"John Hancock is proud of its long history of supporting the Boston Marathon, ensuring that it remains one of the world's premier road races," president and CEO John D. DesPrez III said.

"Adidas is thrilled to be involved in this significant moment in Boston Marathon history," Ashley Williams, spokeswoman for the company's running business, said. The appearance of the company's logo at the start and finish lines as an indication of "the strength of our relationship," she said.

Bill Rodgers, a four-time Boston Marathon winner, said sponsors deserve recognition for their support.

"Sponsorship helped the sport grow, prize money helped the sport grow in the U.S.," Rodgers said.

Dorothy Ferriter, head of the marathon committee in Hopkinton, the town where the race begins, said she was wary of signs overwhelming the start but added it might be a reasonable price to pay for corporate support.

"It's not like they are up in the air, blocking anyone's view or anything like that," said Ferriter, who has been involved with the race since 1983.

Few other such venerated spots in sports remain free of advertising.

The finish-line archway at the Chicago Marathon is branded with logos of the main sponsors on its sides, and the last 300-400 yards feature A-frames with ads from other official backers. The New York Marathon's finish also is branded with the colors and logos of its main sponsors

Organizers of New York's marathon have been promoting its sponsors since 1976. In 2003, the financial services company ING became the marathon's first "title" sponsor, and since then, the race has been officially known as the ING New York City Marathon.

Race director Mary Wittenberg said the organization is proud to include the corporate sponsors.

"Good for Boston," she said Tuesday. "John Hancock and their partners deserve to be front and center and associated in a public way with what is the granddaddy of marathons."

Even Fenway Park's famous left field wall, known as "the Green Monster," has billboard-sized ads hanging above the seats that sit atop it, and ads along both sides of the scoreboard at the wall's base. The Boston Red Sox began advertising space above the wall in 2002 -- marking the first time signs were displayed there since the wall was painted green in 1947.

The Boston Marathon's ads, however, will be limited to those painted on the ground, the press bridge and the sides of the VIP sitting area, Morse said.

"That's significant for the Boston Marathon because it has been, by design, very much noncommercial up until now, and we are still going to be noncommercial relative to ... any other marathon," Morse said.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press