Months of training, buckets of sweat and tears along with strains, pulls and calluses all precede marathon day. Despite the grueling nature of long-distance races, we can’t get enough of them. To suggest long distance road races—marathons, half-marathons, 8Ks and 5Ks—are popular would be an understatement. According to Fortune, “There were 1,200 U.S. marathons in 2014, four times more than in 2000.” Forrest Gump, with his coast-to-coast marathon, was ahead of his time.
When something becomes fashionable guess whose interest is piqued? The street race phenomenon has caught the attention of blue chip companies, both here and internationally. The National Football League and the Olympics rake in millions of company-sponsored dollars because well-off businesses love associating with well-followed sports. And no marathon organizer captures the mix of big stages, big brands and big dollars better than the World Marathon Majors. The marathon business—make no mistake, it’s a business—creates thousands of jobs and generates millions in revenue dollars across the globe each year.
Thousands of men and women descend upon marathons in New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Boston, London and Berlin every year. Some run to challenge themselves. Some compete for cash prizes and trophies. Others do it to raise money for a charity they love. Whatever the reason, marathoners can find no bigger stage than the six metropolises that play host to the Abbott-sponsored World Marathon Majors. The buzz, the scenery and the crowds make each of them feel like the Super Bowl. The races are no longer simply about men, women and their will to cross the finish line. Major corporations—like Virgin Money, BMW, Bank of America and TCS—sink big bucks into them to gain exposure and be associated with all the excitement.
Corporations follow the money. Painted logos cover every inch of NASCAR stock cars because fans show loyalty with their wallets. Alcohol brewers sign up to be the “official beer of this-and-that” just to be linked to the sports we fawn over. These investments, often-hefty ones, are returned in spades. How’s that possible given marathoners lack of fan followers? According to GGI data, median household incomes of runners has crossed $100,000 and nearly 8 out of 10 runners are college-educated. That’s a target demographic you want to thrive in. Headline sponsors cover city streets, race swag and marketing materials with their logo. Other supporters associate themselves with marathons by sponsoring booths, tents as well as food and snack tables. Yet another angle is to tie your brand to individual stars. Runners donned in brands like Nike and Under Armour are often sponsored—registration fees are paid for and free gear is provided—creating brand ambassadors. It’s clear that marathoning has transformed from pure, long-distance running contests to a big business event.
The BMW Berlin Marathon press guide has a dozen runners on the streets of the historic German city. It’s a beautiful way to market Berlin. The press guide also has ten corporate logos on page one and page two proving it’s now about more than just running. And it’s no longer just about sponsorships. Richard Branson formed Virgin Sport to compete with established powerhouse Competitor Group Inc. in the world road race circuit business. Need more proof that dollar signs pave the streets marathoners run? When private equity firms get involved, you know it’s about much more than wholesome family businesses. Competitor Group Inc.—the folks that put on the 30-plus city Rock n’ Roll running series—is owned by Calera Capital. The Ironman Series of triathlons is owned by Dalian Wanda Group, a 100,000-plus employee Chinese private investment company. These investment companies, and others like it, see the potential of long-distance running and want to be there every step of the way.