Race Entry Fees - How Much Is Too Much?
In 1995 I had the opportunity to run in the famed Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa. It had been long time goal to make the journey to South Africa for this race. Needless to say, it required quite a significant cash outlay just to get to the race, some 8000 miles distant from Boston.
Posted Thursday, 12 September, 1996
In 1995 I had the opportunity to run in the famed Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa. It had been long time goal to make the journey to South Africa for this race. Needless to say, it required quite a significant cash outlay just to get to the race, some 8000 miles distant from Boston. After determining that I would indeed be accepted to run and making the necessary travel arrangements, the entry fee of $60 seemed almost incidental. As it turned out, that money came back to me and my traveling companion many times over. The Comrades association arranged for us to stay with a family in Durban. The Wilson family graciously took us in for five nights, providing meals, rides, and sightseeing without taking a cent. Over the course of the race's 56 miles, there was great support with all kinds of food, drinks, and volunteers. I would have gladly given $260 for what I received from the Comrades.
This week we learned the entry fee to the 1997 Boston Marathon will be raised from $50 to $75, $100 for foreign entrants. One's initial inclination is to believe that this fee is simply too steep. Some runners it would seem, will be priced out of the 101st Boston Marathon next April. Like most anything else in life, economics plays a part in both staging and entering road races. It is indeed a purchase on the part of a consumer, the runner, and a sale on the part of the seller, the event directors.
As a race director myself, I know well how much of a concern economics can be in staging an event. The list of costs associated with a race are many. Police details, hall and school rentals, race numbers, T-shirts, all kinds of supplies, it goes on and on. In addition, professionals in race management and finish line timing often must be hired. Some races are so big they must pay for volunteers, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Big races offer prize money and appearance fees to the top athletes. It all adds up, and very quickly.
Directors of small events working with limited budgets often try to keep costs as low as possible and pass the savings along to the runner in the form of low entry fees. Runners expecting a well organized event with few frills generally will go home happy if these modest expectations are met. Race directors of these small events usually undertake the task not to make money, but rather as a " labor of love ", a way to give something too the running community and keep the sport thriving. Directors of " mega " races operate on an entirely different agenda, as they must. Full time management professionals organize and direct these events. And make no mistake, these are not just races, they are certified events. The Boston Marathon is not just a race, but a week long series of events leading up to the marathon. Runners competing in these mega events, expect not only a well managed event, but additional " goodies " as well: a race T-shirt, a pre race pasta dinner, an expo, a post race party. The budget for all of this is huge, but then again so is the visibility of the race.
With increased visibility, specifically in terms of print and television media, comes increased sponsorship opportunities. Corporations are very eager to be a part of an event that receives big media coverage. Cash sponsorship is a large source of income to big races. Just how much varies from race to race. A Boston Globe article criticized the Boston Marathon earlier this year for not maximizing sponsorship opportunities. We do know that John Hancock forks over a cool $1 million a year to be the primary sponsor. Working the numbers, we know that a $50 entry fee last year times 40,000 runners equals $2 million. Scaling things down for 1997, a $75 fee times 15,000 runners equals $1.125 million. Add in all of the cash sponsorship, and you still have a multi million dollar budget to work with. And according to the BAA, they need every cent of it to put on the kind of event everyone has come to expect. (see Jack Fleming Interview).
As runners, we are consumers, whether we like it or not. When we sign up for a race, we are paying money for a certain service. The principle of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) certainly applies here. There is no shortage of races to run. If we don't feel an event is worth the price, nobody is forcing us to buy the product. Believe me when I tell you, race directors do everything humanly possible to have runners enter our races. The laws of supply and demand will ultimately determine how many and what kind of events runners get. Can we really complain with what is available out there? There were 17 marathons in New England alone last year, almost all of which offered a quality product. In addition, there are 5K's 10K's, half marathons, even trail races just about every weekend of the year within an hour's driving distance from anywhere in New England. There are even free races at Fresh Pond every Saturday and in Medford, Lynn, Brockton, and many other towns on summer evenings. We all can run as many or as few of these races as we like.
The problem, if there is one, comes with those " special " events. Over the course of 100 years, the Boston Marathon has developed a very unique niche in the world of running. Most of the general public that knows nothing about the sport knows of the Boston Marathon. They don't ask what your time was at Baystate, Hartford, or Cape Cod, they ask if you ran THE marathon. Runners don't feel validated as a marathoner until they complete they Hopkinton to Boston route on Patriot's Day. Folks train for years in order to meet the qualifying mark and gain entry into Boston. There truly is no substitute for running the Boston Marathon. As such, Boston doesn't face the harsh economic realities other races do. Whatever they charge for an entry fee, runners will surely pay, if somewhat begrudgingly. Boston requires a $15 USATF membership on top of the entry fee to the race; a large percentage of the runners pay for the USATF card without the slightest idea of what it is and where that money is going. There are other races that are similar to Boston in being immune to the laws of supply and demand: the New York City Marathon and the Mt. Washington road race to name two. None seem to engender the kind of emotion that Boston does, however. Henry Kettell, a long time Boston Marathoner put it well when he said " I'm only upset (with the entry fee increase) beacuse I care so much about the Boston Marathon. "
As much as we would like to think of the Boston Marathon as a public institution, it is owned and operated by the Boston Athletic Association, a nonprofit organization. We as runners can voice our opinions, but ultimately we vote with our feet. By supporting the race, we are ostensibly approving of its method of organization. Let's face it folks: if the BAA says the entry fee is $75, we'll pay the $75. If the BAA says the race is on Sunday morning, we'll run it on Sunday morning. But if that 8K in your hometown doubles their entry fee because the police demand triple overtime pay, you may just decide a run alone through the park feels just as good.