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Marathon Inc. : Businessman Bill Burke Is No Athlete. But He Knows How to Run a Race.

February 22, 1987|GREG CRITSER | Greg Critser, a contributing editor of Inc. magazine, writes about business and politics in the West.

IT'S 8:45 ON A BRIGHT WINTER MORNING,and the World's Champion Salesman is already well into his pitch. "See that picture up there?" he says, gesturing briskly to a 10-by-14-inch full-color photo depicting the start of the first City of Los Angeles Marathon last March. "This year we're gonna have twice that many people." Twice that many? Twenty thousand people? "That's right, man," he says. "And that's conservative, man. That's conservative."

The World's Champion Salesman--as his friends and business associates call William Burke, president of Los Angeles Marathon Inc.--is always talking numbers. Big numbers. There are the 3,500 marathon-related billboards that have popped up all over Southern California in the last few weeks; the 75 million Coca-Cola cans emblazoned with the event's logo; the 6 million Vons supermarket bags displaying the same; the 1.5 million television viewers who will tune in the event. Above all, there is the $4 million in product, sponsorship and license revenues he hopes to bring into his 2 1/2-year-old organization.

Curly-haired, slightly cherubic, fond of describing himself as "black, over 40 and over 30 pounds overweight," Bill Burke, 47, can talk nonstop about the L.A. Marathon, forever looking at what's next for what he calls "an international marketing event with legs." This morning he is on the telephone to a producer about plans for a half-hour television special, "The Making of a Marathon," which he hopes to syndicate. As he listens, Burke strikes a pose that has become familiar to the dozens of volunteers and staff members swirling about LAM Inc.'s Century City offices: He swivels in his chair and nods his head knowingly. "I'd like to have the budget by Friday." Enough said. Click.

Another call: This time it's his marketing manager announcing that he's just landed a major new sponsor: AT&T. "Great. Great," Burke says, his soft-featured face screwing into a cupid smile. "Now go get me Tecate (as a sponsor) and I'll give you a gold pin." Click. He turns and exclaims: "We're the best-sponsored marathon in the world, man. No, forget that, man. Best-sponsored event. Period."

Forgive Bill Burke the hyperbole. It would be hard for anyone to be modest given what he's put together. In less than three years, amiable, smooth-talking Bill Burke has brought Los Angeles into the ranks of major city marathons. He's done it with a mixture of political connections, marketing savvy and persistence--and not a little showmanship. When the runners gather at 9 a.m. next Sunday near the Coliseum, Burke's promotional imprint will be everywhere: There will be official uniforms for the marathon workers, official film advertised at eight of the 16 entertainment centers along the route, an official drinking water, an official camera, car, juice, vitamin--even an official pasta.

The point is not that the L.A. Marathon has become too commercial; it is a commercial. In fact, it has almost nothing at all to do with organized sports. Unlike its counterparts in Boston and New York, the L.A. Marathon has no roots in the local running community, no runners' advisory boards, not even a local running club as a sponsor. Instead, the L.A. Marathon was created out of thin air, legislated into existence almost overnight by a City Council still intoxicated by the "spirit of the Olympics," not to mention the prestige and money that the event brought to Los Angeles. And while such glamour events as Boston and New York command sizable corporate sponsorships, none can match the L.A. Marathon for its ability to mold itself to the needs of Fortune 500 companies, marketing firms and public relations outfits. "The Los Angeles Marathon was created from a top-down process, rather than the usual bottom-up fashion," observes Jeff Darman, a noted road-racing expert. "It's not as much a race as it is a marketing organization."

Burke likes it that way. "This race is not for the runners. This race is for the people and the City of Los Angeles," he says. "This is the first major city marathon operating today to be run entirely by the non-running community. Sure, we may not know every

thing about a timing device, but we are highly analytical in our approach to problem solving, and when sponsors are spending as much money as they are with us, they appreciate that."

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