THE MARATHON PROJECT DELIVERS THE GOODS

After yesterday’s The Marathon Project in Chandler, Arizona (Dec. 20, 2020), NYTimes writer/runner Lindsay Crouse tweeted, “If I were wealthy first I would give a lot of money to charity and then I would put on another staging of @MarathonProj with $1 million to the winner, just to see what happens.” 

Lindsay’s tweet may have been tongue-in-cheek but in fact, she hit on a topic that has long haunted the sport of athletics, its lack of high stakes. Though athletics refers to itself as a professional sport, in a world where pro athletes earn millions, most runners who earn anything at all earn a few thousand. And even much of the money that does exist is kept hidden from public view, a vestigial remnant of the sport’s amateur past. 

Yesterday in the desert air of Arizona, the runners vied for $16,000 in prize money, with $5000 going to the winners, Sara Hall (2:20:32) and Martin Hehir (2:08:59).

The sense of drama that high stakes can confer on an athletic competition is rarely conveyed in running except at the Olympic Trials and the Olympics itself. And even there it isn’t money that is at stake, rather the Olympic distinction. 

An interesting question that may be answered in this pandemic year of 2020 is whether running can stand on its own as a sport rather than as a civic tale of mass participation where charity fund-raising, economic impact, and human interest stories make up the heart of the enterprise with the pro race merely an appendage leading the way. Can a simple race hold people’s attention? 

Yesterday’s The Marathon Project made strides in that direction. So did October’s Elite-only London Marathon as well as Eliud Kipchoge’s two Sub 2-Hour Marathon attractions in Monza, Italy, and Vienna, Austria in 2017 & 2019.

Elite-only has long been the model in Japan before Tokyo joined the Abbott World Marathon Majors in 2013 and created the first mass citizen’s race to go along with its professional field.

As presented by Ben Rosario, Josh Cox, and Big River Running Company’s Matt Helbig, TMP was limited to 90-plus runners split between the two sexes. It featured a robust pre-race media build-up including clearly stated goals to build public interest. The organization, though a one-off, was highly professional; and the coverage spot-on during which the race was the story. 

In point of fact, there were (relatively) high stakes on the line for many of the runners spinning around the 4.3-mile loop course as annual shoe contract obligation and bonus clauses were in play. But like the use of appearance money at the World Marathon Majors, the public is never privy to such dealings. 

The lack of financial import is part of what has made marathon running more of a public spectacle than an intriguing athletic competition.

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The lone nit I had to pick with the staging concerned the mileage/kilometer signage on the loop course. All the readings were presented for the 90-odd runners, not for the thousands of TV viewers. So when the men’s lead pack passed a sign in the first three minutes of the race that the camera saw looking backward reading 22 miles, what would a novice watcher think? Because it wasn’t explained, it may have taken a second or two for new viewers to understand that that particular marker pertained to a subsequent loop farther down the course heading in the other direction.  

Some old-timers may remember when the finish line tape and signage were pointed toward the winning runner, but be blank on the backside from the cameras’ POV. Finally, somebody suggested that you turn the tape and finish line markings around so the camera can capture the sponsor’s name for many thousands of viewers rather than to the single runner breaking the tape.

Double-faced signs and clocks have long been used in Europe. The fact that they never caught on in America indicates how the coverage of the sport has been less central than the participation, reinforcing the opinion that the sport can’t appeal to a broader audience, which may, indeed, be the case. 

The Marathon Project was, in its way, like a self-published book, prepared to make money, but not primarily designed to do so. TMP was staged by a coach, Ben Rosario (HOKA NAZ Elite), and an agent, Josh Cox, looking to get work for their clients in a Covid crushed industry. They invested their own money, then picked up some sponsors along the way to help defray costs.

But the question is, could a wealthy benefactor budget a marathon race to be like a big-time boxing match or MMA fight in which a small number of athletes (fewer than 100 like TMP) battle for a big prize bankrolled by a savvy promoter? The Sub2-Hour Marathon events captured a sense of that but focused their spotlight on a single athlete, Eliud Kipchoge, the recognized World #1 marathon runner. Will other ad hoc promotion teams be inspired by The Marathon Project?  Or are we just holding on till what’s left of normal returns on the backside Covid-19?

Whatever the future holds, The Marathon Project came off as well as the organizers could have possibly hoped. The Marathon gods smiled on the day with perfect conditions and the athletes performed beautifully led by Sara Hall’s #2 all-time U.S. women’s performance and MartIn Hehir’s impressive 2:08:59 victory, leading a record seven U.S. men sub-2:10.  The Marathon Project earned widespread praise and will be long remembered for its impressive support of the running game. 

Now, Lindsay Crouse, go dig up that million-dollar promoter and let’s see what, indeed, may happen. 

END

15 thoughts on “THE MARATHON PROJECT DELIVERS THE GOODS

  1. Even as a marathon runner, I watch very few marathons on TV.
    I watch Boston every year and sometimes watch it when I get home from running the race.
    I watch the Olympic marathon and have watched Tokyo once.
    To broadcast on TV they need to find a way to appeal to non-runners to increase audience size and thus sponsors.
    When I watch a marathon I am often on the edge of my seat, but for non-runners they don’t get it and therefor do not feel the drama and excitement.
    As a sport that is assessable to anyone, you would think that running on TV would have a broader appeal.

    1. To make marathons interesting to watch requires a level of conflict between recognized opponents that creates a dramatic climax and subsequently satisfying denouement. When anonymous athletes from faraway lands with no connection to the audience are the lone antagonists, no matter what speed they May achieve, the lack of rooting interest robs the enterprise of the human element that leads to dramatic engagement. Thanks for writing. TR

    1. Not likely. Each event is essentially a local promotion, not big enough to draw seven-figures from national sponsors and nor linked together into a national promotional opportunity. TR

  2. Good food for thought. Now what might have happened if the best 20 marathoners in the USA had participated in the 26.2 in Valencia? The half had 4 under the existing WR. imagine being 4th place and breaking the WR. The full marathon had its successes as well, with record numbers under 2:10.

  3. Watching on DVR and while great for the runners….as a TV program it was pretty tedious….I felt I was watching a long Sunday training run from my Boulder days in the 80s. At least we had well known runners then.

    A marathon is way too long for this kind of thing. USATF a couple of years ago had a national 15k with few crowds but someone came up with the idea of starting the women 5 minutes ahead, with prize money to ever finished first.. It was great to watch as Ben True caught the first woman with 300 yards to go. It was very dramatic.

  4. I watched on NBC SN. I was frustrated by the lack of information on the screen, like the mileage and the pace. Also when people drifting off the back in the men’s race there was no mention of where they were. There was no display of the leaders names And how far others or in the bag. No mention of Jared ward falling off or how far he was behind as an example.

    1. Dave,
      Thanks for the response. I can tell
      You from experience that covering a running event is a costly operation. It isn’t the Tour de a France where every cyclist seems to have his own camera bike.

      There are generally two cameras slotted for the lead pack with one of them drifting back to cover a fall-off or chaser coming on. That doesn’t allow for further coverage of other names. And since it’s a visual medium, producers like you to talk about what’s on the screen, not what you can’t see.

      It’s another example of the sport not being big enough to warrant a greater asset allocation. Hopefully, things can improve in the future.

      Toni

  5. Necessity is the mother of invention. Events such as yesterday’s race and last month’s Ekiden ‘became necessary’ because of this virus. Kudos to those who have thought outside the box and have come up with ways to keep our elites in the game.

  6. There was something like this in 1985 or so….a race for pure amateurs with the winner Jeff Smith getting $500,000! On ABC no less….lasted only once….came and went.

    In 1986 Gaymers sponsored a series of road races in Britain for professionals only and that lasted one season. And these were in the halcyon running days…

    1. Pro Comfort Series was the one in 1985. Entrants had to show that they had never won prize money before, I believe. I ran one of their Regional races In Wayland, Mass. One-time promotion, but it gained a lot of attention.

      I was Team USA manager in 1993 for a BBC produced three week series called The Northumberland Castle Challenge. International teams competed on courses centered on historic castles in the north of England and Scotland. TV showcased the castles while covering the races. Pat Porter was one of the members of Team USA. European teams went home between races, while the Yanks and the South Africans were put up in an old hotel, the White Swan, in some small town up north.

      I thought it was an interesting idea. And we had fun.

      TR

      1. I don’t think it was Pro Comfort ….in 1984 they had a series around the country open to anyone and the top 3 went to the finals in Honolulu…in Denver Rosa Mota won and the next 2 finishers the Tooby Twins from the UK.

        I remember the amateur race well….it was played up big.

  7. The elite-only approach has worked for many years in Japan…Tokyo under Tad Hayano’s leadership was the first big race there to go to a hybrid model of elites and masses. That said, the elite-only events have rarely had more than 6-8 International runners, and certainly have not had the deep, deep pockets for prize money, time bonuses, and appearance fees that the mass-entry endowed races such as WMM events have available. The Japanese elite races are generally owned and managed by media companies there, and they actually do a poor job of trying to recruit more than handful of sponsors, in contrast to the Tokyo Marathon, which I’ve heard has as many as 75 (!) different sponsors. That is where bigger budgets for smaller, elite-only events could be sourced to make up for the lack of mass entries with their three-digit entry fees. As with everything in sports, broadcasting and the broadcast fees are key to elite-only race budgets. Media company ownership of the top events in Japan assures that races will be televised at least regionally, if not nationally.

    Hats off to the Marathon Project organizers (Ben Josh, and company) and to the Hansons for their ekiden in October. These folks have at least created photo-types that, while still small-scale, can be considered by sponsors and media groups moving forward.

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