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With the World Marathon Majors series, racing searches for market share by incorporating a season and standings

September 24, 2006|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Few would question the athleticism and toughness of marathoners, but from a sports marketing perspective, their sport long has been relegated to Rodney Dangerfield status.

Corporate sponsors generally are attracted to sports in which the top athletes are constantly in the spotlight and the seasons are clearly defined. But the grueling pace of marathons limits runners to a handful of races each year, and weather dictates that contests be clustered in the spring and the fall, so it has been hard to cobble together a cohesive season that attracts consistent media coverage.

And, as Amby Burfoot, a Boston Marathon winner and executive editor of Runner's World magazine notes, "There's no World Series, no Super Bowl, no concluding event for marathons. Except for industry insiders, who are aware of the national and international scope of running, most people see marathons as local or regional events."

That might be changing.

Marathons in New York, Boston, London, Berlin and Chicago constitute the World Marathon Majors series, which opened its inaugural season in April with the Boston Marathon and the London Marathon. The two-year cycle will reach the halfway mark by Nov. 5 with the New York City Marathon.

The series will split a $1-million purse between the top male and female runners after the 2007 New York City Marathon. Runners are awarded points for their finishes during the races, with the top male and female marathoners splitting the bonus money.

The self-proclaimed five best marathons in the world are hoping to create an easily identifiable series of races that will help marathons claim a bigger slice of the sports marketing pie. As it stands, few outside of the marathon community recognize such top-flight runners as Kenya's Robert Cheruiyot, who leads the men's division in the World Marathon Majors, or Mammoth Lakes resident Deena Kastor, who leads the women's division.

"Our events are the marathon's equivalent of the tennis Grand Slams, baseball's World Series and the major contests in other sports," said Mary Wittenberg, race director of the New York City Marathon. Marathons and other road races have an alluring demographic for companies marketing upscale goods and services. Nearly 30 million Americans run, and the 8 million who run competitively have about 12,000 events nationwide from which to choose. Subscribers to Runner's World magazine have a median household income of $91,180 -- a figure that jumps to $130,000 for the New York City Marathon that last year drew more than 300 corporate chairpersons and chief executives.

That the five races reached an agreement after two years of negotiations surprised some observers. The major races compete fiercely for corporate sponsors and elite runners who demand as much as $500,000 to show up.

"It's safe to say that our first allegiance is to the integrity of our individual races," said Guy Morse, executive director of the Boston Marathon, which has been sponsored by John Hancock Financial Services for 22 years.

Almost all marathons have title sponsors and a cadre of supporting corporate sponsors. But the series hopes to provide an opportunity for sponsors that would advertise their goods and services across the five races.

"A shoe company would be a natural, but we all have different shoe company sponsors so that kind of deal wouldn't be tampered with," Morse said.

The group is courting such sponsors as electronics, pharmaceuticals and telecom companies.

The marathons have mutual interests, including the need to keep their events free of the performance-enhancing drug scandals that have marred other sports and events. In June, the races adopted a zero-tolerance policy that bans elite runners from competing if they are convicted of a drug violation. The prize money and rules are designed to lure top athletes to the participating races but not to increase the pressure to resort to performance-enhancing drugs.

"We didn't want to, say, offer $10 million to the runner who wins all five marathons in a year because that might encourage athletes to do things we don't want them to do," Wittenberg said.

And though the initial series is limited to what most runners describe as the world's top marathons, other races -- including Los Angeles -- might be added if the series proves popular with runners, corporate sponsors and media outlets.

"We're at five today," Wittenberg said, "but our organizations are all looking forward to the next stage of our evolution."

greg.johnson@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Marathon world series

The World Marathon Majors is a two-year series. Athletes are given points for finishes in a maximum of four races during the 2006-07 season. Athletes can earn points by competing in a maximum of four qualifying races, which include the five participating major marathons, the International Association of Athletics Federation marathon and, during Olympic years, the Summer Games marathon.

*--* Top male runners after two races Plc. Name Country Points 1. Robert Cheruiyot Kenya 25 1. Felix Limo Kenya 25 3. Martin Lel Kenya 15 3. Benjamin Maiyo Kenya 15 5. Meb Keflezighi United States 10 5. Hendrick Ramaala South Africa 10 7. Khalid Khannouchi United States 5 7. Brian Sell United States 5 9. Alan Culpepper United States 1 9. Stefano Baldini Italy 1

*--*

*--* Top female runners after two races Plc. Name Country Points 1. Deena Kastor United States 25 1. Rita Jeptoo Kenya 25 3. Ludmila Petrova Russia 15 3. Jelena Prokopcuka Latvia 15 5. Reiko Tosa Japan 10 5. Susan Chepkemei Kenya 10 7. Galina Bogomolova Russia 5 7. Bruna Genovese Italy 5 9. Kiyoko Shimahara Japan 1 9. Berhane Adere Ethiopia 1

*--*

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* Upcoming events: Berlin Marathon, Sept. 24; Chicago Marathon, Oct. 22; New York City, Marathon, Nov. 5

Source: World Marathon Majors

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