Let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? The Abbott World Marathon Majors just gave up, right? By announcing they have slashed their top series prize from $250,000 to $50,000, effective immediately, they’ve essentially admitted it’s over. They can’t do what they wanted to do when they began the series in 2006 as a “championship-style competition for marathon runners”, i.e. make stars out of the best runners in the world. Simple as that. We tried, couldn’t do it, here’s proof.
Nor have the top runners made any attempt to help in that regard, either. They, their managers, and coaches are just as much to blame for the current state of affairs. But that’s what this whole 69% reduction in the Abbott World Marathon Majors’ prize structure is telling us.
They can couch it as trying to equalize the wheelchair division with the runners, but that’s a red herring; nobody is buying that. The wheelchair division in major races has been shrinking over the last several decades, anyway, with the introduction of the hand-crank division, which is much easier to adapt to compared to a push-rim wheelchair.
When Boston, New York City, Chicago, Berlin, and London first proposed gathering under the self-proclaimed banner of World Marathon Majors in 2006, the concept was to elevate these five marathons to the level of the golf and tennis majors. And one way to do that was to raise the stakes to a professional level, as understood by the public. And that meant having seven zeroes on the top prize.
The original idea was to award $1 million to the top male runner and $1 million to the top female runner in the two-year cycle. But since they had no sponsor to help defray the cost, the five events made the total prize $1 million with a half-million going to each of the gender champions.
But except for the 2009-2010 series, when Sammy Wanjiru and Tsegaye Kebede staged their epic duel in Chicago for the half-million payoff, the WMM series never boiled down to a showdown with the top contenders vying for the big prize in one winner-take-all race.
Instead, the events argued about how the series always came down to either Chicago or New York in the fall as the determining race for the two-year cycle. That wasn’t fair to the spring marathons, they said, or when Tokyo entered as the early season marathon.
So they changed their format and began conducting their series on a rotating basis, beginning and ending with a different event for every two-year cycle.
That might’ve made it fair to the events, but it confused the bejesus out of the public. There was no way you could make an elevator pitch in 30 seconds that could explain how the system worked. Besides, you can’t have a series that comprises only marathons, because athletes can’t run enough of them in a calendar year to make it mean anything.
Then the real devastation hit when Liliya Shobukhova from Russia (2009), Rita Jeptoo (2014) and Jemima Sumgong (2017) from Kenya each tested positive for drugs after winning the half-million dollar series prize. And the events never got their money back. Nor could they tout their champions anymore, because now they were afraid they might not be clean.
To protect themselves in the future, the six AWMMs reduced the top prize by half to $250,000, and stretched the payments out over five years in case anyone new got popped for drugs. That way, the series could salvage some of its money. But it eroded the purpose of the prize in the first place to promote the sport. So they started promoting the six-star medal finishers and introduced age-group divisions. No problem with drugs there.
That’s how it came down from the event standpoint. But the events weren’t alone in this deal. We have to turn to the athletes, their coaches, and managers’ side of the equation, too. What have they done to improve the athletes’ marketability?
Boxing is a bootstrap sport, much like distance running. Many of the top stars in boxing come from impoverished backgrounds, too, many from Mexico, where Spanish is the first language. Yet boxing has still promoted their champions as stars by bringing them out of their cocoons every once in a while to stand up in front of the media and promote their fight. They also produce all-access, 24/7 television shows on HBO and Showtime that bring media into the training camps to gin up public interest. In other words, they promote their fights. Running has done none of the same.
Events send out a press release several weeks before the event, then stage a one-hour press conference on Friday before the race on Sunday. Unless you’ve got Eliud Kipchoge going for another world record, nobody knows who these people are. Therefore, nobody is rooting for anybody. It’s all an academic exercise, not a visceral, heart-clenching sporting contest. The athletes are essentially strangers playing for low stakes. Why am I watching this again?
And then with the super shoes and the drugs, nobody believes what they’re seeing anyway, so what is there to promote?
I can tell you this. The initial African domination of the early 1990s came during our Road Race of the Month series on ESPN. We were having a hard time getting good interviews from the top runners from Africa. And with a fresh wave coming over every two or three months, there was no reason to improve because nobody was going to be around long enough to make it worthwhile. Again, laissez-faire, no regulation to the sport.
So, one year in the early 1990s, we were covering the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta for Road Race of the Month. That year, our lead cameraman was filming the wheelchair competition. Scot Hollonbeck was out front with Californian Jim Knaub sitting in his draft. At one point, Hollenbeck looked up and asked the cameraman, who was right in front of him, “where is he?”, meaning Knaub.
“I was still naïve, and I thought he was asking as a safety issue,“ remembered Rich Jayne, our series producer. “So I said, ‘he’s right behind you’.”
Knaub instantly flashed angrily at Rich and said, “who is he, your ‘effin brother!?”
Good thing it wasn’t a live show. We were just videotaping the race for later airing. But Knaub’s sudden exclamation, with the F-word included, was, in its way, thrilling. And we said to ourselves afterward, these wheelchair athletes are camera-ready, type-A personalities! Maybe that’s why some of them ended up in a wheelchair, but we can do something with them.
Not long after, we began a new show on ESPN called In Pursuit that covered disabled athletes all over the world. We did that show for three or four years, because they gave better interviews, had better stories, and were willing and able to tell them. The runners were not. ESPN wanted us to drop Race of the Month and only do In Pursuit because it got better ratings.
Again, some of that is cultural and we have to be sensitive to that. But as a professional athlete, you work on your weaknesses, not only your strengths. If you’re not a good closer, train more on the track to improve your kick. If you don’t naturally have good media skills, you work on those. It’s part of your job. And the sport has to help, too. But if it’s never required, what do you expect young athletes to do?
You don’t think if Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers were still at the top of the running game, there wouldn’t be more than $1 million going to the AWMM series champion? You don’t think if Rob de Castella, or German Silva, Toshihiko Seko, Grete Waitz, Cosmas Ndeti, Joanne Samuelson, Hendrik Ramaala, or others in the once rich stew of international marathoners were still bubbling to the top of the game, there wouldn’t be more than $1 million in the World Marathon Majors prize purse?
Go ahead, ask a non-running friend to tell you anything about the top runners preparing to run this Sunday’s London Marathon.
OK, we may know that three of the five fastest marathoners in history are there: Ethiopia’s 40-year-old Kenenisa Bekele (2:01:41 – 1st, Berlin 2019), Birhanu Legese (2:02:48 – 2nd, Berlin 2019) and Mosinet Geremew (2:02:55 – 2nd, London 2019), with defending champion Sisay Lemma (2:03:36) fifth-ranked behind Kenya’s Amos Kipruto (2:03:13 – 2nd, Tokyo 2022).
|But they lost women’s world record holder Brigid Kosgei to injury, and Brit star Mo Farah also is a no-go in the men’s race.|
|Defending champion Joyciline Jepkosgei (2:17:43) of Kenya tops the list of five sub-2:18 women, which includes Ethiopians Yalemzerf Yehaulaw (2:17:23 – fastest ever women’s marathon debut, 1st, Hamburg 2022), Degitu Azimeraw (2:17:58 – 2nd, London 2021) and Ashete Bekere (2:17:58 – 2nd, Tokyo 2022).|
They are all fast as hell, but from a marketing standpoint, all fast ciphers, with no obligation to help promote the game. With yesterday’s announcement by AWMMs, we see the consequences.
Speed, alone, doesn’t get it done. You need rivalries, and storylines, and high stakes. And those need to be created and nurtured. You can’t wait for them to just – Poof! – show up out of the blue. $1million could be a useful tool, though a meager one. $50,000 is just a waste of money. Might as well just give out a big trophy.
Last week in Berlin, there was a meeting staged between the new Abbott World Marathon Majors CEO, Dawna Stone, and three of the top managers in the sport.
“We were there to meet her and find out where do we go from here?” said one manager, who asked to remain anonymous. “And we were a little surprised, because we had never had any such meeting with Tim Hadzima, the previous general manager of the World Marathon Majors.”
The message the managers expressed to Stone was that the whole AWMM series had got lost over the last 3 to 5 years. And the managers wanted to share with her why they believe it got lost, and what they might do to pitch in to help get it back on track, including holding up their end of the bargain by developing better media skills with their clients.
“She was listening and very engaging,” said the manager. “But then she said, ‘unfortunately, it’s too late. Something already is being announced’.”
Then she told them about the radical reduction in the prize structure.
“This is a real slap in the face,” the manager told me. “Why go in this direction? If you reduce the prize to $50,000, it’s no incentive at all.“
It’s as simple as simple can be: running isn’t about elite competition anymore. Think about it. Who pays the bills? The people who run 4 and 5 hour marathons who spend hundreds of dollars to enter. So if you cut the elite series prize from $250,000 to $50,000, where is the consequence? The people in the back of the race have no idea who the frontrunners are, or care.
Except for the cognoscenti, nobody even knew that Eliud Kipchoge was going for a world record in Berlin last week. They might’ve heard about it afterwards, but nobody knew ahead of time, because there was no promotion.
More people in America know about Joey Chestnut stuffing down 74 hotdogs in 10-minutes on July 11, 2018 on Coney Island than they do about Eliud Kipchoge running 2:01:09 in Berlin on September 25, 2022.
I’m telling you, this is like a Benjamin Button sport. They start with $1 million and now they’re down to $50,000? How’s that for a trend line?
20 thoughts on “WORLD MARATHON MAJORS SLASHES TOP PRIZE”
Tony, great piece. Wow. Can’t believe you said it.
Toni, perfectly written article. As an Abbott World Marathon Majors Six-Star Finisher myself (New York City Marathon 2017) I can tell You that the Majors Series though still very popular, has lost credibility over the recent years even before the pandemic. Many of these Major Marathons aren’t even shown on TV of any kind here in the United States. I watched Eliud break 2:02 at Berlin 2018 on NBC Sports and couldn’t even watch his recent feat anywhere this past Sunday as FloTrack was not available for Me and many others to access. And Yes, more people know who Joey Chestnut is than Eliud Kipchoge who hands-down is the Greatest Athlete Ever. That’s how sad it’s become. Many of these Marathons are now choosing quantity of runners over quality of athletes and it’s all a “money and numbers” game. No doubt, the inevitable expansion of the World Marathon Majors Series in 2025 to Sydney and Cape Town, and possibly sooner, to Chengdu (which no disrespect, is not even worthy of being considered as a Major but I know the real reason why, no need to discuss it here) will further dilute the quality of the Series even further. I’m happy that the Series exists. I just wish it wouldn’t be losing its true soul.
Chengdu, China? I knew that they wanted in and Mike Nishi was just in Australia on an assumed exploratory visit, but Cape Town? Why not Rwanda or Ethiopia two countries that have a stronger tourism industry and infrastructure?
Amanda Stone, Abbott’s new czar reminds me of the Profit Series.
The Profit is an American documentary-style reality television show broadcast on CNBC. In each episode, Marcus Lemonis typically offers a capital investment and his expertise to struggling small businesses in exchange for an ownership stake in the company.
In true investment management I would include Canada by 2025, especially the city of Montreal for sure, the profit is needed on that deal. Live broadcast might not be possible, but a rebroadcast using independent videographers could be a viable project.
Toni, I could write a dissertation on this saga; however, the event producers in Chicago, and New York for the rest of 2022 must provide these elite athletes with some additional commentary that is nothing short of tragic news, unless they are able to allocate additional funds into the awards accounts. $250,000 to $50,000, ouch!
We have a trilogy of issues that influence what happens with funding of national and international sporting events.
Sponsors (sponsorship dollars) are used to defray the cost of hosting the event, the cost of producing the event (operations), and the more tangible things like t-shirts, post-race supplies, signage, etc…
I would assume that some of the sponsors fee besides Abbott Pharmaceutical goes towards the travel expenses, housing and per diem for elite athletes, their agents, families, special guest of the venue…
Registration fees in general pay for race timing, numbers, pins, course management, salaries, and wages across the board, including city, park officials, police, streets and sanitation and often rental equipment that is used before and during the run.
So, what is the third leg? Awards and prizes, $400,000 per series.
Money for performance and medals.
This is somewhat of a lure for the elite runners and the individual recreational amateurs who receive a medal. They can buy their own photos of the finish line, always optional.
So where are we at with this, really?
Does an amateur runner who participates in a marathon give a rat’s ass if American, European or East African receives prize money, or individuals in the wheelchair division, let’s not now forget about the new binary division?
Currently some age division winners get some “change” thrown at them, but it’s not enough to quit their jobs and run professionally. And does that money come from Abbott?
I will get back to that comment later.
Abbott Pharmaceutical, or perhaps Amanda Stone, former CEO of Running USA and the new appointed czar for the Abbott World Marathon Series declares with the CFO of Abbott Pharmaceuticals that they “want to go in a new direction”.
Couldn’t this have all waited until after the New York City Marathon, the final marathon in 2022?
Who threw the Elite Athletes under the bus?
While the producers of the Abbott World Marathon Majors in Boston, Chicago and New York signify that their events have an economic benefit and economic impact in their cities raising money in the hundreds of millions, who really cares?
So, what is the elephant in the room?
Running is not a spectator sport.
In Europe, Cross Country running has an appeal and following of the top performers all year around.
The cross-country runners look like the audience, or vice versa.
Does it all come down to market segment?
Did Abbott Pharmaceutical “brass” think that the East African Elite Marathoners were going to “assimilate” or have market appeal to the 97.5% of the other marathoners who do not identify with them, by race, ethnicity, language or cultural?
Would it have made a difference if the East African Elite Marathoners were featured in commercials using products of consumer brands like (cars, appliances, sportswear, smartphones, etc…) that in general Americans use?
This is what the NBA, NFL and MLB does.
Regardless, did the foundation of the monetary award(s) to foreign elites bring any value at all to the urban marathon market in Boston, Chicago, or New York?
In Chicago the storylines on WMAQ (NBC Channel 5) the broadcast media sponsor for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon follows local athletes, their storylines, running history, and benefactors of their efforts which are likely to be charitable causes. Losing weight, challenges fighting diseases and illnesses or overcoming some other deficit in their life.
These stories more than anything else have helped grow the size of Chicago from a mere 20,000 in the 80’s to the 40,000 – 45,000 avid runners (recreational amateurs) marathoners today, not the inclusion of Elite East African Marathoners.
Those stories drive the popularity and the inclusion of common runners to transcend from 5K fun runs to longer distances including half marathons and of course the pinnacle of running, the marathon.
Language is a consistent and an identifiable failure to connect at least the East African Elite Marathoners with the “market segment” of amateur marathoners in all the cities.
Meet and greets at expos, and visitations at schools engage others and has a minimal entertainment value; however, those activities do not raise the commercialization, publicity, or popularity of East African Elite Marathoners. Life size posters might be inspirational, but if many of the “skinnies” walked the streets of the hosting city who will really know them?
So now a reduction in prize money.
Was this simply an attempt to reduce the top awards to make them equal to the wheelchair divisions, which has even a lower market segment and overall interest.
This debacle boggles the mind.
New prize fund for elite and wheelchair athletes competing in AbbottWMM Series XIV:
Place Series XIV Men Series XIV Women Wheelchair Series XIV Men Wheelchair Series XIV Women Total
1st $50,000 $50,000 $50,000 $50,000
2nd $25,000 $25,000 $25,000 $25,000
3rd $12,500 $12,500 $12,500 $12,500
4th $7,500 $7,500 $7,500 $7,500
5th $5,000 $5,000 $5,000 $5,000
Total $100,000 $100,000 $100,000 $100,000 $400,00
Running begins with a disadvantage due to a lack of “moments” or highlights. The acrobatic catch. The knock-out punch. The twisting flip. Those are all visually stunning. What was the most exciting part of Kipchoge’s run in Berlin? Oh, he ran very, very (and almost imperceptibly) fast (and alone) and put his hands in the air before breaking the tape. An 8 year old can do that. This is why close races with sprint finishes have to be the foundation of the sport. Great visuals like Heartbreak Hill are good too, but put the camera BEHIND the runners so viewers can see and appreciate just how big the hill is. That’s what the Tour de France does.
Greàt job Toni as usual.
Ghostman Paul Daley
From the get-go WMM was a bad idea poorly executed. Never mind the elevator pitch, it would take a transcontinental flight to explain how the series scoring overlapped in each 2-year cycle. (OK, we’re going to count the last half of last baseball season and the first half of this one to determine two playoff teams, then this whole season for two more, ad absurdum).
The boxing analogy is good but you should have taken it further to MMA. Here’s a sport with a miniscule history that dominates the feed on my ESPN app every time there’s a major fight. Guarantee you more casual runners know who Connor McGregor is than Kipchoge – all because of a massive promotion machine. Running may have gone pro back in the early 80s but the people in charge of the sport remain truly amateur, in the most perjorative sense of that word.
When I was covering the sport for Running Times finding a top African who had anything unusual or even interesting to say in the pre-race pressers was like stepping across a $100 bill on Boylston Street. I can’t imagine things have gotten any better.
Oh well, at least the registration numbers for races, especially the big marathons, is back to pre-COVID levels. So in that regard the sport is healthy. I hope you are as well my friend.
Amen, Toni. I’ve covered this sport and worked in a running shoe company for 40 years. This is the most transparent and truthful point of you ever said/written. Nobody cares about the elites because nobody can relate to them in any way. And they change with every race, every marathon.
Thank you for writing this.
“Nobody is rooting for anybody. No one knows who these people are”
That is the biggest problem in distance running as a business. All other successful sports have charismatic alphas that the average fan can aspire to follow and identify with even if they can never reach that level of performance. Unless you are super involved (Tony), most running fans can’t name the top distance runners at any point in time and don’t follow their exploits.
Well stated, Toni. And you (and we) have stated so many, if not all, of these reasons in the past. I feel exactly as you do. They’ve thrown their hands up in the air, and pretty much stated, “We give up.” Incredibly sad.
Brilliant column, Toni. Sad, embarrassing, heartbreaking, but yet all true. You said it perfectly.
I have no idea who is running London or Chicago. None. And frankly, I’m not sure I care that much. I’m as into the sport as anyone and to be frank, I couldn’t name 5 of the top 20 marathoners I’m the world right now. I was hoping the AWMM would bring all parties together to make a concerted effort on this front, but clearly that hasn’t happened. And no one party is to blame—everyone has a part in it. The athletes themselves (who just want to run and get paid), the agents (who just want to show up, get paid and go home because their athletes don’t want to do anything extra), the events themselves, (who sort-of try, but are only relevant for a couple weeks/year), the Federations (who see nothing in it for them, so they aren’t going to invest time or money into this) all need to get together to figure this out. Its about marketing and how do we package this sport in a way that people care.
Look—I don’t have the answer either, but your boxing analogy is a good one. Heck, pro wrestling has a bigger following that running…. Why? Because the market themselves brilliantly. If we didn’t have Kipchoge right now, the sport would have nothing. But we’ve done NOTHING to leverage the greatest marathoner in the history of the world to elevate our sport. Given this announcement, clearly the sport has actually gone down in relevance during the reign of the greatest runner of all time. That’s mind blowing.
Hope you are well my friend. I’m going back to work on elevating the sport at the HS level which is a bit less complicated.
Thanks, Josh. We will all keep truckin’, though. We owe that to the sport that has given us so much. Stay well.
Having won the first open prize-money race in 1981 I had hope for our sport! This piece from Toni Reavis just makes me sad and tired . As always he is correct in his analysis .
Truly extraordinary to see you comment here 🙇♂️