Marathons have seen tremendous growth in recent years. According to the National Runner Survey
, the sport has grown from 25,000 finishers in 1976 to 518,000 finishers in 2012. As more participants look to marathons for challenge and fitness, communities are discovering the races have great economic value. In some larger races, thousands of affluent runners converging on a city for a weekend can mean a $200 million impact.
Marathon organizers say while they're not necessarily complex events, they require lots of planning and preparation. A successful race needs an exciting course in an appealing destination, effective marketing and a lot of local support and volunteers.
Thousands of runners equal a big economic impact
There were 850 marathons held across the country in 2012 with 93 of those races hosting more than 1,000 finishers. Many of the country's largest marathons have well over 20,000 runners with some of the largest including the Chicago Marathon (37,475), Honolulu Marathon (24,069), Marine Corps Marathon (23,591) and the Boston Marathon (21,616).
Rock 'n' Roll Marathon
is the world's largest marathon running series. It is organized by San Diego-based Competitor Group, Inc., and features marathon and half-marathon races in 23 cities with more than 500,000 runners with more events being added every year. Dana Allen, Senior Vice President of Business Development for the Competitor Group, says the races can deliver a huge economic impact for host cities. According to studies from George Washington University, their races have had impacts of $183 million in Las Vegas, $39 million in Phoenix, $72 million in San Diego and $45 million in Nashville.
"[In the past] there was a bit of apprehension and almost disbelief that a marathon could drive that kind of economic impact. But they now realize it," she says.
Allen says while most observers might just see running, there's a lot more to them. In a large marathon, typically 60% or more of the participants are from outside the destination. They travel to the city, spend two or three nights in a hotel, eat out, book tours and visit attractions before or after the race. Many runners also bring their families.
Allen says marathoners also tend to be rather affluent and good spenders. Competitor Group's survey shows that the average household income of a Rock 'n' Roll marathon runner is $116,771. Overall, the National Runner Survey reports that 76% of marathon runners have a college degree and 73% have an annual household income of at least $75,000.
"The demographic is fairly affluent. They come in town for a few days, stay in decent hotels and spend a bit of money. When you've got 15,000 runners, it really adds up," she says.
Runners seek scenic course, excitement
Marathons are unique events due to their size. Whereas a football or basketball game might be localized to an arena or stadium, a full marathon can have tens of thousands of runners spread out on a 26.2-mile course. Marathon organizers say an appealing course in an exciting location can make or break a race.
Craig Sweeney is Race Director of the Louisiana Marathon
. Held in January in Baton Rouge, La., the race is entering its third year and has almost doubled its attendance annually. Sweeney says the race grew from 2,800 runners to 4,500 runners in its second year and this year he is expecting between 7,000 and 10,000 runners. He says cities don't necessarily have to have million plus populations to attract big crowds and that culture and the destination is what matters.
"They pack 92,000 people in Tiger Stadium here and if Fargo, North Dakota, can attract 20,000 runners, there's no reason we couldn't do it. We expect to be there in a couple of years," says Sweeney.
Sweeney says it took more than a year of preparation to get to the first race day. They started by meeting with state and local tourism leaders. Next was strong branding with a good name and a logo that would help build the brand around Louisiana's unique culture, food and music. Then they started building buzz through social media and designed a course that would travel through some of the most scenic places Baton Rouge had to offer.
Allen says one of the most important elements of a successful marathon is a beautiful course in a popular destination. While marathon running is growing, it is still a niche activity - according to Runner's World, less than .5% of the U.S. population has run a marathon. So even in a big city, there are rarely enough marathon runners to sustain a large race, one reason why successful races work so hard to draw runners from across the country.
"If people are going to spend the money to get on a plane, stay in a hotel and go to a new city, it has to be somewhere they really want to go. The appeal of the destination is very important," says Allen.
Race directors also work hard to design a course that is reflective of the destination and incorporates landmarks and attractions. In New Orleans, the course runs through the French Quarter and down historic St. Charles Avenue. In San Antonio, it runs past the Alamo and Spanish Missions. And in Las Vegas, the race features a spectacular night finish on the Strip. Whether they're die-hard competitors or just running their first marathon for the accomplishment, participants want to experience the destination.
"No one wants to be running past a bunch of factories and warehouses, they want a course that is a reflection of the city," says Allen.
Volunteers and sponsors critical to success
Having a good cause or a fundraising aspect can also raise the participation in a race. Wain Rubenstein, Race Director of the St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend
, says fundraising is growing to be a major driver in the sport. Many marathons dedicate a large portion, if not a majority of its proceeds to certain charities. In 2012, the 18,500 runners and supporters of the St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend helped raise a record $6 million for the hospital. Nationwide organizations such as Team in Training have helped drive thousands of participants in marathons. In the past 25 years, more than 570,000 race participants have helped raise $875 million for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Most marathons organizations operate with small staffs and rely on thousands of volunteers for expos and race day. Rubenstein has an operations committee of 37 people, most whom are runners themselves. They rely on volunteers to work the expo, distribute race numbers, hand out water and offer assistance along the course. The larger the race, the more people are needed to help. Sweeney says the Louisiana Marathon will have about a thousand volunteers this year but would anticipate needing up to 3,000 should the race hit 20,000 runners.
He says it's especially helpful to reach out to non-profit organization as they can gather large numbers of people. Sweeney says a small donation to a church or non-profit group can go a long way in gaining support, especially if their church or office is on the route. Organizations enjoy being involved because it also garners publicity for their own organization.
"You have to be strategic about it. You work with [the groups] an instead of saying you need 1,000 volunteers you say you need so many groups because they'll produce so many volunteers," he says.
Like many large marathons, Memphis has added events and activities to create a bigger weekend for participants and their families. Most marathons have a half marathon options but others have been added 5K-distance races as well as kids runs. Rubenstein says and extended weekend of events along with a good post-party is critical for any marathon to succeed.
"People don't just run, eat a banana and go home. They try to include other events that may appeal to others as well. They offer a lot of amenities and appeal to people who may not be able to do a marathon," he says.
Allen says the half-marathon distance is what has really been fueling the growth. Some big races, such as Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon, only have a full 26.2-mile distance race but most marathons now have a half distance as well. At the 2012 Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Marathon & 1/2 Marathon, more than 22,000 people ran the half while 3,500 ran the full. The popularity of the half distance has been so dramatic that some of their events (including those in San Jose, Cleveland, Dallas and San Francisco) only feature half-distance races.
"It's just a more achievable distance for most people and the training is something that can be incorporated into a regular schedule," says Allen.