The first World Marathon Majors is about to conclude, with the final three competitions to take place in the next six weeks.
Though still little-known among the throngs of participants in endurance races, the WMM is shaping the way in which the professionals in the sport conduct business.
Five of the world’s largest marathons — Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York — teamed up and launched the series two years ago. The idea was to emulate the grand prix series of sports like tennis and golf, awarding points for top-five finishes in each marathon and a $500,000 bonus for the top-scoring man and woman over the two-year period.
“Right now, it’s a multi-tiered strategy,” Mary Wittenberg, president and CEO of the New York Road Runners and race director of the New York City Marathon, said in an interview at Reagan National Airport on Thursday. “Year One was about getting athletes talking about it. The second year is getting the media talking about it.”
But Wittenberg stressed that the challenge to gaining wider recognition is securing a sponsor for the entire series.
“It costs a lot to promote this series,” said Wittenberg, who as Mary Robertson won the 1987 Marine Corps Marathon to qualify for the 1988 Olympic Marathon Trials. “Somebody would need to work a number of markets.”
A global financial institution would be a perfect fit, except that New York already has ING, Boston has John Hancock and Chicago has LaSalle Bank. A global sports drink company would be a perfect fit, except that London has Lucozade Sport and Boston and Chicago have Gatorade Endurance.
Airlines? Chicago has American Airlines, Boston has JetBlue and New York has Continental. Running shoe companies? London and Berlin have Adidas and New York has Asics. Car companies? New York has Toyota, and London has Renault.
Wittenberg, an attorney by profession, sees potential in the pharmaceutical and technology industries, including Johnson & Johnson, a company she sees as the best fit.
“We’ve talked with them. They’re tied in with the Olympics,” she said.
As a fallback, she said, each of the five major marathons could pony up money from their own races to fund an ambitious global marketing/advertising plan.
“The [United States Tennis Association] spends a ton of money branding and promoting tennis,” she said.
Collectively, the group annually attracts more than 6.6 million on-course spectators, more than 250 million television viewers, 300,000 applicants and 155,000 participants. It also raises more than $80 million for charity worldwide and generates an economic impact of more than $450 million.
Meanwhile, the first WMM series will conclude with a runaway winner in the men’s race: Robert K. Cheruiyot of Kenya triumphed twice at Boston (2006/2007) and once at Chicago (2006).
The women’s race, however, could come down to the last blocks in New York on Nov. 4. Latvian Jelena Prokopcuka and Ethiopian Gete Wami are separated by 15 points, competing against each other at New York with 25 points for the win. Wami, however, also is running Berlin on Sept. 30, just 35 days before New York.
“I think already we’re just starting to see some impact on the way that athletes are running and racing starting to change slightly,” London director Dave Bedford said during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “The fact we have Gete Wami entered in both Berlin and New York tells you some stories. And I think the way [the events are] linked in with the World Championships this summer indicates we do have a property here of value.”
The conclusion of the New York City Marathon also will signal the midpoint of the 2007/2008 series.
“We have achieved across the board that there is a sport here, not just some individualized events, and we’ve strengthened our relationship with the media and athletes,” Wittenberg said. “What remains as an internal matter generally for all of us is the differences in our budgets and how to raise a lot of money to promote the athletes and the sport globally.
“Initially I thought more about this as a league; now I am thinking less about a league and more about an alliance.”
But how does this affect the tens of thousands recreational marathoners?
“That’s when it gets interesting,” she said. “How deep the alliance will go. And that will affect the back of the pack.”