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Los Angeles Marathon : They Have Money, but Not Enough for Some Elite Athletes

February 18, 1988|JULIE CART | Times Staff Writer

How can such a highly identifiable race as the Los Angeles Marathon have an identity problem? Ask different people in the running world what they think of the L.A. Marathon and they will likely ask you these questions:

--Is the L.A. Marathon a people's fun run, a big-time elite race on par with the New York Marathon or is it a masters' race?

--Is it a well-financed deep pockets marathon or is it a young race still struggling to make a profit in its third year of existence?

--Do the organizers care more about advertising and marketing than they care about bringing the best runners here?

The March 6 race has been called the fastest-growing marathon, the largest first-time marathon (1986), the race with the most celebrities and the largest single sporting event for charity in the city.

Race organizers say the L.A. Marathon has finally hit the big time, yet the elite athletes, male or female, in the race are scarce. Right now, the focus of the race seems to be in the masters' division.

And, while the marathon is adding sponsors by the handful (there is an official vitamin), questions have been raised about whether the money should be spent on the more than 4,000 billboards the race organizers have bought, or on big-name runners.

In a sense, the Los Angeles Marathon has been ambushed by its own bravado. More and more, the marathon organizers seem to be marketing whizzes. There are more than 20 race sponsors.

But, while the L.A. Marathon representatives have been boasting of a sold-out sponsorship package, with assured financing through 1991, agents for elite athletes are wondering where all that money is going.

Don Paul, an agent for former L.A. Marathon winners Ric Sayre and Art Boileau, blames race director Bill Burke for bragging about the marathon's riches while crying poor when it comes to paying athletes appearance money.

"He can't claim on the one hand that he has eight six-figure sponsors and then say on the other hand that they don't have any money for appearance fees," Paul said. "What is a marathon supposed to be? Is it supposed to be an athletic event, or is it supposed to be a showcase for its advertisers?"

The L.A. Marathon is in the third year of a deal with KCOP (Channel 13). Burke calls the deal: "The second-best deal in the world for an ongoing (road racing) event. New York is the best."

Mercedes-Benz of North America is the marathon's major sponsor, and has a five-year deal that will pay a reported $5 million in cash and considerations.

Said Burke: "I believe that we got the best five-year sponsor agreement in the history of marathons."

Burke recently negotiated a five-year contract with John Hancock Financial Services. The contract has been reported to be worth $500,000 a year in cash and services. The insurance group will also pay to bring top runners to the race, at its own expense.

Burke said the actual deal with Hancock was "not even close" to the reported figures. When announcing the deal with Hancock, Burke had said, "It brings instant credibility to attract elite athletes." Yet he said the money will not be used to pad the elite athlete budget.

Where is the money going? Burke said it's going to pay old debts.

"With the increase by Mercedes-Benz as our presenting sponsor, that put us in striking distance of breaking even," Burke said. "Hancock will put us at break-even or at a $50,000 or $100,000 loss. That's as close as we've ever come.

"I have not taken 10 cents in salary in the 2 1/2 years I've been here. We are about paid off. My attitude is increase the overhead, because we'll never have enough people. Every idea I have takes three or four people."

Fred Lebow, director of the New York Marathon, agrees that a fledgling race must pour money back into the organization to improve.

"What Bill Burke is doing, putting money back into the event, is right," Lebow said. "Last year, we cut $150,000 from appearance fees and put that back into the race. The reputation that a marathon gets is from the multitudes, not from the elite athletes. The elite athletes are taken care of."

Burke agrees and says his first responsibility is to the average runner and to the fans who line the course. In fact, the bidding wars in road racing have escalated to such a level that in last year's race, Lebow restructured his budget to place more resources into prize money and less into appearance fees.

"Appearance fees are a necessary evil," Lebow said. "It's more often that an athlete takes advantage of a race director than the other way around. I've had instances where an elite athlete takes the appearance money, and he knows he's in bad shape. He's back in the pack."

Lebow estimates that 10% to 20% of his budget goes to obtaining elite athletes. These costs may include appearance fees, hotel rooms, round-trip plane tickets for the athlete and a coach or spouse, and a per-diem allowance.

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