CHICAGO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - For years, cities like New York and London have hosted the premier events in the world of marathon running, but now runners are finding relative comfort at smaller venues like Philadelphia and Copenhagen.
These second-tier races are still a grueling 26.2 miles long, of course, but their smaller fields mean a shorter wait to cross the starting line and faster times, both factors that appeal to runners.
Glen Wiener, a New York attorney, has run the New York Marathon three times in the past, but this year turned to Philadelphia, which hosted 8,000 runners in bitterly cold weather on Sunday.
“There are certain things you can do at a smaller race, like have a food tent at the finish and serve chicken soup, which you can’t do with a marathon with 40,000 runners,” Wiener said of his first marathon outside New York city.
As major marathons like New York, with its 39,000 runners and millions of spectators, struggle to meet demand -- it received 104,000 applications this year -- smaller marathons are mushrooming.
The San Antonio Marathon in Texas had a sold-out debut on November 16 and new ones are planned in Seattle and Las Vegas next year, adding to the approximately 400 marathons a year in the United States and about 800 worldwide.
“The market now for marathons is growing insanely, and Philadelphia has certainly benefited,” said Melanie Johnson, the executive director of the Philadelphia Marathon.
Philadelphia, in its 15th year, sold out for the second year running this year, despite raising registrations by 20 percent to 8,000 runners.
About 407,000 runners finished a U.S. marathon in 2007, up 2.3 percent from a year earlier, and 36 percent since 2000, according to data from MarathonGuide.com (http:/www.marathonguide.com), an industry website.
The sport is also growing in Europe. The Copenhagen marathon in May drew 8,500 runners, nearly double the number from two years earlier, as European runners seek alternatives to the mega marathons in London, Berlin and Paris.
“More people are running marathons because it’s like a Mount-Everest type challenge on people’s life to-do list,” said Mary Wittenberg, chief executive of New York Road Runners and race director of New York’s marathon.
Those same people are also often competitive, affluent professionals that sponsors, which provide funding for the races, want to attract.
Sponsorships are relatively cheap, costing anywhere from $5,000 to $250,000, depending on the commitment level.
“Endurance sports have a fantastic demographic,” said Ray Bednar, senior vice president and global sponsorship executive at Bank of America, the title sponsor of the Chicago Marathon, the second largest in the country.
“Sixty-three percent of the people participating in marathons have a household income between $50,000 and $200,000, so you’re getting a mass affluent segment.”
Dutch financial company ING Group NV, the title sponsor of the New York marathon through 2010, also supports races in Atlanta, Hartford, Miami, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.
“Running was and continues to be undersponsored, so that provided us with an opportunity to really jump in and start to own a sport,” said Ann Glover, ING’s chief marketing officer for the Americas.
Sponsorship spending on U.S. marathons will reach $84 million in 2008, a far cry from the $832 million generated by the National Football League, but still up 8.4 percent from the preceding year, according to IEG SponsorshipReport.
Next year, the economic downturn may scare off sponsors. Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, lost sports apparel maker Nike Inc as a secondary sponsor, and General Motors Corp’s Saturn brand, which spends its sponsorship dollars only at marathons, will cut spending significantly in 2009.
The total U.S. market for endurance sports -- principally running, cycling and triathlons -- stands at $1.3 billion and is rising, according to Competitor Group Inc, the leading U.S. marathon organizer. The sector boasts more than 3.4 million active participants in the United States.
The sport has even attracted the attention of private investors like Falconhead Capital LLC, which acquired Competitor Group in January.
Between shutting down streets along a 26.2 mile course, setting up water and medical stations, and building starting and finishing areas to accommodate thousands of people, a successful marathon hinges on a city government’s buy-in.
A marathon can even pay for itself. Race registration fees typically range from $70 to $125, but the real money for cities comes from hotel stays, restaurant visits and other tourist dollars.
Philadelphia officials estimate their race’s impact on the city at $11 million. By comparison, this year’s New York marathon, which is owned by the non-profit New York Road Runners, brought the city about $235 million, while Chicago’s generated $130 million.
“Marathons are excuses for mini-vacations,” said Victoria Schreiber, who clocked her best time in five years on Philadelphia’s flat route through its historic areas on Sunday.
“Destination becomes a decision factor,” said Schreiber, a 37-year-old marketing director from New York who has traveled to Big Sur, California, Paris and Prague for races.
With so many marathons springing up, races are coming up with ways to differentiate themselves, and tap into the niche market of runners who prefer more intimate courses.
“They’re like off-Broadway to Broadway,” said the New York marathon’s Wittenberg, comparing smaller races to the smaller niche theaters that thrive when major Broadway plays sell out. “There are plenty of aficionados who prefer off-Broadway.”
Many second-tier marathons, including Philadelphia, Hartford, Ottawa, and Grandma’s in Duluth, Minnesota, have found the surest way to increase participation in their full marathons is to tack on a half marathon.
Those shorter distances can still give a runner the same feeling of accomplishment with far less training. They also draw women in a sport where full marathons are about 60 percent male.
“What that has created is a basic appeal to female runners,” said Competitor Group Chief Executive Peter Englehart.
Next March, Walt Disney Co is inaugurating a half marathon marketed to women called the “Princess Half Marathon” at Walt Disney World in Florida.
The entertainment giant hosts a series of races, including a full marathon, at its various parks for runners of all ages, including one for infants dubbed “Diaper Dash.”
“We’re always looking to fill those gap periods and drive attendance to the resort,” said Kathleen Duran, head of Disney’s endurance sports business.
Running in Philadelphia, Wiener said he missed the huge crowds that line the course in New York and boost the runners as they grow weary. And, he said, the wind off the Schuylkill River slowed his time, so he needed the hot soup provided at the finish.
“There are trade-offs,” he said.
Reporting by Ben Klayman and Phil Wahba; Editing by Eddie Evans