World Marathon Majors Slashes Series Elite Prize Money by 69%; Are The Majors Dead?
September 28, 2022
Two days after Eliud Kipchoge christened the 2022 fall marathon season with a 2:01:09 world record in Berlin, the Abbott World Marathon Majors announced on Tuesday a drastic reduction in the series’ prize money for runners. The change will take effect immediately, applying to the current series, which began at the Tokyo Marathon in March (starting this year, the WMM seasons are based on calendar years rather than the multi-year format of years past). As a result, Kipchoge, who has all but locked up the 2022 WWM Series title, will receive $200,000 less for his efforts.
When the World Marathon Majors — which consists of Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York — launched in 2006, one of its signature elements was the $500,000 prize awarded each year to the men’s and women’s series champions. In 2017, WMM altered its prize structure, reducing the grand prize to $250,000 (but adding $50,000 for second and $25,000 for third) while increasing prize money for wheelchair athletes and adding a charitable donation component of $280,000.
Today, WMM announced that moving forward series champions will receive $50,000 each — just one-fifth of what was awarded last year and the same amount the wheelchair series champions receive. The prizes for second and third were also halved to $25,000 and $12,500, respectively, while WMM added prize money for fourth ($7,500) and fifth ($5,000). There was no mention of a charitable donation component (though the amateur runners at the World Marathon Major races raise significant money for charity each year).
Below is what the changes to the prize structure have looked like through the years:
|Years||M+W runners 1st (each)||Runners total||M+W Wheelchair 1st (each)||Wheelchair total|
The bottom line: prize money has been slashed drastically for elite runners. Series champions receive just 10% of what they did when the series launched 16 years ago and the total prize money for runners is just 20% of the amount in 2006.
Abbott World Marathon Majors’ Take — This a Good Thing as They’re Equalizing Wheelchair and Runner Prize Money
The official press release on the change in the series prize money (“Abbott World Marathon Majors to award equal prize money to Series Champions“) doesn’t even mention the $450,000 drop in money going to runners. Instead it focuses on the fact that the Abbott World Marathon Majors will be paying equal prize money to wheelchair racers and runners.
New WMM CEO Dawna Stone told LetsRun.com that the change in prize money is not an attempt to save money.
“We’re looking at this as a very positive thing that we’re doing, trying to build some equality in and awareness for these [wheelchair] athletes,” she said when reached via phone in London.
In addition to raising the wheelchair prize money by $30,000 thanks to now paying five deep in bonus money instead of three deep, she said, “I can’t give you all the details yet, but we are taking the additional funds [saved] and we are putting them into some special projects to build awareness for the wheelchair athletes.”
She explained the rationale behind the WMM’s decision, “The thing I would say is just know that we did this as a good thing, right? So we took this and said our six races really do have the best prize purses, the best appearance fees and so what can we do as Abbott World Marathon Majors to make a difference.”
As for changing the rules midstream and costing Eliud Kipchoge $200,000 she said, “I want to make sure you know that I personally approached a lot of the top agents and managers, including Eliud’s and sat with them, and talked about the rationale for doing this.” She said that the individual races collectively are doing such a good job in terms of prize money and appearance fees “that we wanted to focus as Abbott World Marathon Majors on an area that really we felt was underserved, which of course is wheelchair athletes. So we did approach the agents first and talk to them about the plans for if we make this change where those dollars will be going, what will we will be using them for, and so they were in agreement.”
Quick Take: The World Marathon Majors used the pro runners to build the brand, but has shifted further and further away from an emphasis on them
When the World Marathon Majors launched in 2006, the focus was primarily on the pro runners, with the aim of codifying Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York as the races where the world’s best marathoners would compete year after year (Tokyo was added to the WMM in 2013). And it worked.
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf,” said Mary Wittenberg, then head of the New York Road Runners and race director of the NYC Marathon.
The prize money for the series champions was huge ($1 million total) and the WMM planned for it to grow even bigger.
“It is the intention of the WWM by seeking sponsorship support to double the prize money purse to $2 million in future years for a $1 million prize for both the men’s and women’s champion,” read the press release announcing the WMM’s formation in 2006.
That never happened, however. Even though the series finally gained a title sponsor in 2015, Abbott, in the ensuing years, the World Marathon Majors have increasingly worked together to incentivize mass participation in all of their races by beginning the Six Star program (awarding medals to runners who finished all six marathons).
We can understand why, from a business standpoint, one might consider reducing the prize money going to the series champion. Frankly, the prestige of the title of “World Marathon Majors series champion” was never that important even to us at LetsRun.com. Quick, name last year’s WMM men’s series champ.
Congrats if you remembered it was Albert Korir.
The massive prize money mostly mattered to athletes in contention to win it and their agents. Beyond the epic duel at the 2010 Chicago Marathon between Sammy Wanjiru and Tsegaye Kebede, we can’t remember many times when the series title was a major storyline at a race.
We don’t think they should do it, but in today’s era, we aren’t surprised that the Abbott WMM equalized the prize money between wheelchair racers and the pros. But they didn’t do this by drastically increasing the prize money of wheelchair racers, they drastically slashed the amount of money going to the pro runners.
Reducing — heck even canceling — the series prize money wouldn’t have angered us that much if the money was still being put into the pro runner fields, but reducing it mid-season to the level of the wheelchair racers is nuts.
This is just the latest step in a gradual shift by the WMMs away from being focused on being an elite footrace.
The World Marathon Majors need to decide their path. Do they want to be a truly elite footrace and world-class sporting event that fans care about or double down on the path of trying to woke-wash away their stinginess?
Yes, the WMM races still support elite running by paying some of the highest appearance fees/prize money in global marathoning, but there is no formal minimum requirement of elite support for the WMM. With the majors in golf and tennis, everyone knows how much money is being paid out. With the World Marathon Majors, some races can really skimp out on their fields and/or prize money and still bask in the glow of being a ”major” — a brand that was built on the back of the elites.
And here’s what crazy. The World Marathon Majors are eyeing expansion — the Cape Town, Sydney, and Chengdu (China) marathons have all been announced as official WMM candidate races. We’re sorry, you can’t have eight or nine “Grand Slams” — that many events makes you a series of events like the Diamond League.
If the WMMs do go to eight events, it might be worthwhile to consider doing something radical — having a single sex of pros at each race each year so there would be four majors. Four highly-anticipated races is way better than eight watered-down ones.
In the short term, we feel bad for Eliud Kipchoge. With wins in super fast times in Tokyo (2:02:40) and Berlin (2:01:09 world record) this year, he was poised to be this year’s men’s series champion and take home $250,000, but now he’ll only get $50,000. The World Marathon Majors just used him to bring a massive amount of publicity to their events and then screwed him out of $200,000 after the fact. That’s a minor league move — not something worthy of the so-called majors.
After Kipchoge’s win in Berlin, we emphatically stated he now needed to run Boston and New York in 2023 so he could win all six “majors” and prove he could handle the hills. Now, we’re not so sure. Why in the heck should Kipchoge run NYC and give the WMM the ultimate marketing support when he was just stripped him of $200,000?
If the WMM title isn’t worthy of a big cash prize, why doesn’t Kipchoge go run Valencia instead?
Valencia isn’t part of the WMM marketing cartel but they’ve had some great fields in recent years and didn’t take the easy road out and cancel in 2020. If Kipchoge runs Valencia in 2023, how in the world would people not consider it a major?
Maybe we need to start reconsidering what a “major” marathon is.
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