Marathon Marketing

I love Meb Keflezighi (pronounced kef-LEZ-ghee), but that wasn’t going to stop me from racing him. After a hard fought battle, he prevailed, finishing third. (2:09:56). We didn’t shake hands afterwards, but I didn’t take it personally. I was a few hundred back (2:53:14) and it was probably hard to find me amongst the crowd of 36,856 people that crossed the line at last year’s ING New York City Marathon. I can’t race Meb this Sunday so instead I’ll yell for him from mile eight, a half-block from my apartment in Ft. Greene. He’ll probably be wearing his knee-high socks and glasses and whizzing by at a 4:57/mile pace in the lead pack. I’ll shout, “Let’s go Meb!” and surely no one else will know who I am yelling for Keflezighi is a two-time Olympian with a silver medal from the 2004 Athens games, currently the best American marathoner, and certainly one of the fastest distance runners in the world. Yet virtually no one knows him. Some quick research using Google Trends suggests that people are more familiar with other top ranked American athletes such as surfer Kelly Slater or speed skater Chad Hedrick than they are with Meb Keflezighi.

But if over thirty million Americans run and eight million of them run competitively, why isn’t Meb more popular? Promoters of the new World Marathon Majors believe it’s a marketing problem. In early 2006 the race directors of B.A.A. Boston Marathon, Flora London Marathon, real,-Berlin Marathon, LaSalle Chicago Marathon, and ING New York City Marathon linked together to create a new “unified global circuit of the sport’s best and most prestigious 26.2-mile championships.”

Here is how it works: Runners earn points by placing among the top five at qualifying races (1st= 25 pts., 2nd= 15 pts., 3rd= 10 pts., 4th= 5 pts., and 5th= 1pt.). A maximum of four qualifying races will be scored over a two year’s period so it is designed so that runners will compete in one marathon each spring and fall for two years. Boston and London are in the spring while Berlin, Chicago, and New York are in the fall. Each male and female winner of the series receives a grand prize jackpot of half a million dollars at the end of the two year period.

Even though elite distance runners often average 150+ miles per week and can easily reel off a 20 mile day during off months, the 26.2 mile race still takes a heavy toll on their bodies. The general race strategy for pros is to run hard for twenty miles and then start a blistering 10k race. To remain injure free and maintain their health and long term running potential, most elites run no more than two marathons per year, one in the spring and one in the fall. There are of course exceptions like when Meb Keflezighi placed second in the NYC marathon (2:09:53) in November of 2004, just 70 days after winning the Silver medal in Athens (2:11:29).

The new series began on April 17th, 2006 at the 110th running of the Boston Marathon, and the first two year cycle will end on November 4th, 2007 at the ING New York City Marathon. Don’t expect a halftime show other than a few interviews of sweaty runners wrapped in emergency blankets, but by the conclusion of this Sunday’s marathon, we will be the halfway mark for the initial two year series.

Promoters of the five-race series hope the WMM will bring increased visibility to the sport of marathoning. New York Road Runners’ director, Mary Wittenberg, believes these races are on par with what “Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and P.G.A. Championships are to golf” (Never mind the sexist implications of golf’s Masters). The organizers are not blind to the fact that the series should draw more hungry sponsors eager to tap the well-heeled running demographic. The median household income of NYC marathon runners is over $130k.

But is it the lack of a league that is what’s keeping people from worshipping marathoners? Or is it instead like my reaction to cricket? The sport is too difficult to understand. Probably not. Nothing is more fundamental and accessible than running. It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest sport, and unlike speed skating or surfing, you have a sense of how to do it even if you hate running. Is there not (yet) enough controversy? Some juicy scandals might help grab our attention. But “performance-enhancing” remedies are more and more commonplace, and head butts are now so passé. Maybe a sport dominated by skinny Kenyans running sub-five-minute miles for 26.2 miles is just too difficult to relate to for us sedentary Americans. It is hard to say exactly what relegates distance running to the obscurity of bull riding.

But I think that if promoters really want to break on through to big-time visibility, they should follow this Nascar-like model even more closely. They’ve already adopted the point system in which each individual race becomes part of a larger whole. For the WMM to attain the popularity of Nascar, though, they need to create a cult of personality where marathon champions become household names like Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch. Wouldn’t everyone benefit if racers exchanged some barbs and bumps before, during, and after the big races? Surely we’d all know and love Meb if we could simply hate Paul Tergat.

Keflezighi may have little interest in being famous after all. Aside from his new Mastercard advertisement, he seems very humble and content with being out of the spotlight (especially if you ignore the inaccurate quotes from the NY Post indicating he claimed to be the best distance runner the U.S. has ever had. But it may only be a matter of time before Meb and the other WWM leaders, Deena Kastor, Felix Limo, Haille Gebrselassie, Gete Wami, and Rita Jeptoo will become popular decals on the back windshields of American pick-up trucks. Credit to the WMM promoters will be more than due when we see the first depiction of the spikey-haired Calvin peeing on the racing jersey of Meb Keflezighi. Until then, it’ll only be running enthusiasts like myself who are yelling for Meb.

Maybe the marathon just needs somebody to come back from cancer. Lance Armstrong gets to run with Alberto Salazar, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and Hicham el-Guerrouj. Is this part of the marketing push?

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/03/sports/othersports/03lance.html

— Slowandsteady    Nov 3, 12:46 PM    #

yeah cancer never hurts publicity. I wonder if Lance dopes up for this race.

— Sid    Nov 3, 01:45 PM    #

I didn’t know half this stuff about marathons. Well done Tys. I wonder if part of the issue is tv… Americans like their sports packaged, screened, & Joe Bucked.

Brian    Nov 9, 01:00 AM    #

Meb came in 21st. A terrible showing for him. Apparently he suffered from food poisoning and lost his luggage too. Strange.

— Tyson    Nov 15, 01:12 AM    #

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