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The World Marathon Majors Are Born
The Big 5 City Marathons, World Champs and Olympics Unite Under One Umbrella
LetsRun.com
January 24, 2006

Yesterday the "Big 5" city marathons (Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, and New York) and the IAAF World Marathon Championships and Olympic Games Marathon became the "World Marathon Majors" and a "World Marathon Major Series" was launched that will reward a $500,000 prize to the top ranked male and female marathoners in these races over the previous two years.

The concept of the series is simple. Athletes will receive points for their finish places in the major marathons (25 points for first, 15 for second, 10 for 3rd, 5 for 4th, and 1 for 5th). Add up their points for their 4 best performances over the two previous years and the athlete of each sex with the most points wins the "World Marathon Major Series" and the $500,000 bonus that goes along with it. It's not quite that simple though as athletes are required to run at least one race each year. (For the full details click here)

Many of the journalists on the conference seemed to focus on the minute details of the scoring system and how athletes might try and game the system. However, we believe they were missing the big picture. In our mind the actual details of the World Marathon Major Series are irrelevant to all but a handful of runners (and we're not entirely supportive of a winner take all "series") as only one athlete of each sex will benefit directly from the series. One $500,000 award to the series winner will have will have very little effect on the actual individual marathons themselves or the races most athletes run, and at most will affect directly just a handful of athletes who have a chance to win the entire series. (Actually to be fair you could argue two handfuls. If you look at the men's statistics for the last 2 years and assume it takes more than 50 points to win the series (Evans Rutto would have won in 2003-2004 with 75 points and in 2004-2005 with 55 points) there were 9 male athletes both in 2004 and 2005, heading into the fall marathons at the end of the two year period with over 25 points who theoretically would have a chance to win the series if they won their fall marathon and an athlete ahead of them did not get any more points. With the uncertainties of the marathon, and all the money in the series going to one athlete don't expect too many athletes to be worrying about winning the points system. With the lack of depth in women's marathoning expect even fewer women to have a shot a winning the series).

The true significance of yesterday's announcement means that now for the first time all of the major marathons will be working together at some level to promote the sport of marathoning and distance running. By branding together, we hope this is the first step into bringing into the public conscience professional marathoning as a sport. Currently, each of the marathons is popular in its own city, but the public generally views the events as big local festivals, with almost no appreciation for the sport of marathon running, with its international stars. When Paul Tergat, the world record holder, and one of the greatest runners in the history of our sport wins the ING NYC marathon and the New York Times headline says, "...Kenyan Wins it By a Step" clearly our sport and its stars have a long way to go to reach the public consciousness.

The good news is that the major race directors are all actually admitting they are aware of how low the sport stands in the public consciousness (despite the amazing success of their individual events); they realize how much upside for improvement there is, and they have come together to try and do something about it. It's refreshing to see candor from some of the top brass in our sports instead of just PR driven positive hype.

Take the frankness of the following statement from Dave Bedford of the Flora London Marathon , "(Currently) we are viewed as major city marathons, but there appears to be no consistency, no understanding (with the public) why these things happen. They appear to be things that currently happen in our own marketplaces. 'Isn't that amazing, they (Boston, Chicago, NY and Berlin) have one, too.' ". Guy Morse of the Boston Marathon was also right on when he said, " ...our intent is that this is a long-term project that will benefit not only the elite athletes and our own collective and individual sports, but also the sport as a whole." (For a transcript of the conference call with the major marathon directors click here.)

So we are happy to see some of the top brass are admitting marathoning has room for tons of improvement and we are thrilled that they are evidently concerned enough to be working together to improve the situation. So yesterday's announcement pleases us because of that.

If one actually looks at the details of the proposal, we think there are some problems with the $500,000 marketing gimmick and definitely do not want it expanded to a $1 million winner take all system. Don't get us wrong, gimmicks that bring attention to the sport can be good things. But try to think of any other sport that has a guaranteed huge prize bigger than the winner's purses of all the individual events combined that goes to one person and everyone else gets shut out . If a male athlete won all 5 Major marathons in a year (which is impossible), he would only win $430,000 in prize money ($125,000 from Chicago, $100,000 from New York and Boston, $65,000 from London, and $40,000 from Berlin). Yet by winning the series he stands to pick up $500,000. It doesn't make a lot of sense and isn't really fair. (note: London is regarded as the most competitive and richest marathon in the world, yet it pays "only" $65,000 guaranteed to its winner which shows the importance of appearance fees in marathoning. A top star can get in the reported mid six figures to run one of the major marathons)

Speaking of appearance fees, the worst kept 'secret' in professional running circles is that the top marathon stars make the majority of their money from appearance fees, and there are a few potential problems that could arise between the Series and appearance fees. Race directors of the fall marathons could be tempted to collectively low-ball appearance fees for runners who have only one shot left to win the big prize, figuring the athlete won't opt for a marathon outside of the series (prominent athletes do run races outside of the series, most recently Haile Gebrselassie running the ING Amsterdam Marathon), or even worse, race directors could set up a pathetically poor race to insure that the winner of the race also captured the series and the series' top prize. The World Major race directors talked about trying to secure a sponsor to bump the $500,000 series winner take all prize to $1 million. The conflicts above are two reasons why we believe the bonus definitely should not be increased to a million dollar winner take all system as it would just increase the incentives to game the system.

But the main reason we do not think the series bonus should be increased to a $1 million winner take all is because it isn't fair or equitable for the athletes who finish second and third. Additionally, it makes a mockery out of the prize purses of the marathons themselves. If it was $1 million, the races each would be giving $200,000 a year to the winner of the series, yet only between $40,000 (Berlin) to $125,000 (New York and Chicago) to the winner of their individual races. That is wrong.(And on a side note, shouldn't there be a floor to what a "major" can offer in prize money? $40,000 is a joke for Berlin.)

If the magical $1 million mark would increase the publicity of the sport multiple times over the publicity with the current $500,000 prize, we might be able to support it, but we do not think it will make that much a difference in terms of publicity. The only way 99.999% of athletes will benefit (everyone minus the series winner) is by increasing the popularity of marathoning and its stars with the general public. We think the extra million $ a year ($500,000 extra for the men's winner and $500,000 extra for the women's winner) a year could better be spent on marketing the sport and the major marathons. The race directors talked about their races being seen on television by 250 million people, yet the problem is virtually none of these viewers are in the richest television market in the world, the United States.

The Boston Marathon is the only marathon seen on live national television in the United States, and that comes on cable television. The ING NYC Marathon has a same-day one hour highlight show of the race on network television. This year's ING NYC marathon highlight show was seen by 1.5 million viewers which represented 3% of tvs that were turned on (see the data below, the marathon is #11NBC SPORTS SPECIAL.) which is roughly equivalent to a normal college basketball game on network tv.

Top Sports Events - Total Households
Rank
Program Name
Net
Day
Time
Household
Total Viewers
Length
Rating/Share
Audience
1
NFL MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
ABC
Mon
9:07 PM
11.0/19
12,140,000
16,511,000
191m
2
FOX NFL SUNDAY-SINGLE
FOX
Sun
4:05 PM
9.1/18
10,052,000
13,738,000
189m
3
CBS NFL REGIONAL
CBS
Sun
1:03 PM
8.0/18
8,828,000
11,834,000
201m
4
TEXAS 500(S)-11/06/2005
NBC
Sun
3:38 PM
5.1/10
5,643,000
8,066,000
225m
5
ABC COLLEGE FTBL GM-LATE
ABC
Sat
3:30 PM
4.6/10
5,097,000
6,787,000
221m
6
NOTRE DAME FOOTBALL
NBC
Sat
2:30 PM
3.7/9
4,084,000
5,282,000
240m
7
WWE SMACKDOWN!
UPN
Fri
8:00 PM
2.6/4
2,812,000
3,900,000
120m
8
TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP-11/6(S)-11/06/2005
ABC
Sun
1:00 PM
2.1/5
2,352,000
2,935,000
240m
9
HOME DEPOT CLLG FOOTBALL2
CBS
Sat
3:30 PM
1.9/4
2,075,000
2,543,000
215m
10
TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP-11/5(S)-11/05/2005
ABC
Sat
12:00 PM
1.7/5
1,884,000
2,319,000
210m
11
NBC SPORTS SPECIAL 11/6(S)-11/06/2005
NBC
Sun
2:00 PM
1.1/3
1,211,000
1,548,000
60m
12
CBS SPORTS SPECTACULAR-SA
CBS
Sat
2:30 PM
0.4/1
386,000
473,000
30m
13
CSTV COLLEGE FOOTBALL
PAX
Sat
6:00 PM
0.1/0
161,000
241,000
240m

copyright 2005 Nielsen Media Research, Inc. The Information contained herein is the copyrighted property of Nielsen Media Research, Inc. Unauthorized use of this copyrighted material is expressly prohibited. All Rights Reserved. Data appeared on tv.zap2it.com

If you think those ratings were low, realize that these network television ratings are way higher than anything else for track and field (which usually is on cable or obscure network channels) and it's probably fair to assume the New York City Marathon (especially when you factor in the live NYC local coverage) was the most watched track and field/running event on tv in America last year. The marathon ratings were better than the ratings of the World Track and Field Champs, because the IAAF screwed things up and put them World Champs on PAXTV which is almost an infomercial station. Over 7 days of coverage, 1,478,000 households total, yes total, (summing the individual numbers each day, so many of these people are repeats) watched track and field. (If you want the individual totals email us). So the moral of the story is twofold: 1) network and major cable coverage is very valuable as nobody watches minor networks like Pax. 2) Don't let the IAAF handle the American television arrangements next time, let USATF get involved as they understand the television situation much better in the US.

So we think the extra million $ would be much better spent promoting the sport, rather than being given to an athlete who is already one of the richest people in the sport. The races could use this cash to go towards paying to get their races on network tv as a one hour recap or on live cable television. As running purists we want to see the races on live tv like Boston and were fortunate enough to see NY this year on Directv. A few options we have in mind for increased publicity: try to pay or convince ESPN to set up shop for SportsCenter at one of the big marathons (Boston on Patriots Day or right in the middle of Central Park for New York). This in turn might make it easier for a media coordinators to at least get footage from all the races on daily sports highlight shows. There has long been talk of there needing to be American stars for the sport to grow in the United States. Well guess what? Deena Kastor, an American, won the Chicago Marathon this year, and we'd be willing to bet most sports broadcasts in American had no mention of it.

In a decade, we hope that it would be inconceivably for a sports show not to cover the elite results at all of the major marathons. Was yesterday's announcement the first step in a long process of raising the sport's profile in the public's consciousness? Time will ultimately tell. But at the very least, we're pleased to see action, any action. Certainly more of the same inaction that we've been getting would result in the continued downward spiral of distance running as a professional sport in the public's consciousness. The fact that major players will loosely be working together at times is a step in the right direction. A marathon is a lot of steps, but as every runner knows they're each taken one at a time.

************
Extra item of note: Interestingly,
ING in 2003 announced a marathon series (with men and women combined) that would rank marathoners across a series of marathoners and give the winner $1 million (with places 1 through 10 getting money). The plan fell through after Chicago, London, Berlin and Boston refused to join the ranking system and London marathon director Dave Bedford said he would try and sue if London was used in the rankings without his permission (ING must have figured it wasn't worth having to try and defend itself in court and backed down). We wonder if this failed attempt by ING is what ultimately got the Big 5, uhh excuse us, we mean the Marathon Majors to start talking together about forming a circuit.

Bedford also said at the time, "We believe any rankings should be managed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and Association of International Marathons (AIMS) and have the support of all marathons." So we guess this proves that yesterday's announcement was not of a true ranking system, but rather a marketing and branding arrangement that hopefully will benefit the sport.


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