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Hancock may share Marathon role

Main sponsor says cost is skyrocketing

John Hancock Financial Services Inc. , the Boston Marathon's main sponsor, is considering how to attract more supporters to the race as its cost skyrockets.

Those discussions could change the complexion of the 111 -year-old marathon, which for years has relied on one company for the bulk of its funding. That structure allowed the Marathon to be relatively advertising-free compared to other races and gave Hancock premium billing on a renowned sporting event.

But now, executives from Hancock and the Boston Athletic Association , which organizes the race, said keeping the current financial structure is increasingly unrealistic because of the rising cost of travel and appearance fees for elite runners. John Hancock spends $4.5 million a year as the Marathon's main sponsor.

"That's probably about as much as we can afford to spend on this thing," said John D. DesPrez III , John Hancock's chief executive. "The issue is whether or not it wouldn't be a good idea to have some other sponsors in and participate."

DesPrez was adamant that his company does not plan on ending or scaling back its commitment to the race. Hancock's sponsorship lasts through 2018 .

The Boston Marathon has about 15 other sponsors, but Hancock, which started sponsoring the race in 1986 , is by far the largest. Hancock covers about 60 percent of the Marathon's roughly $6 million budget each year, which includes prize money, security, and cleanup costs for municipalities along the 26-mile route. The budget does not factor in expenses for elite runners, which Hancock handles directly.

Attracting elite runners is critical to maintaining the high profile of the race, said Guy Morse , executive director of the Boston Athletic Association. But it can cost as much as $500,000 in appearance fees and other expenses to lure a top marathoner, he said. Those fees increase between 5 and 10 percent annually, and there are at least a dozen races around the world competing for about 35 top runners. This year, John Hancock paid to recruit and train 24 runners.

Hancock and the BAA may raise more money by allowing companies to advertise along the Marathon route, even on the finish line tape, which right now is off-limits to corporate logos.

"It's very noncommercial right now by design," Morse said. "The vehicle that would allow us to change that would be introducing on-course signage, for example."

He said no decisions have been made about how the Boston Marathon will incorporate more sponsors. But Morse ruled out selling a title sponsorship that would allow a company to put its name on the race itself.

Other marathons have made that leap. In 2003 , the New York City Marathon got more aggressive about funding its race, signing Netherlands financial services firm ING Group as the title sponsor after other companies like J.P. Morgan Chase pulled out or scaled back their financial support. The race is now known as the ING New York City Marathon .

Mary Wittenberg , chief executive of New York Road Runners Inc. , the race's organizer, said it costs about $20 million a year to operate. Balancing the need for money with restrictions on signs on public streets is tough, she said, so her group looks to put sponsors' logos wherever they are allowed.

"Any camera-visible spot, we want our partners there so that they can maximize that opportunity," she said.

It is commonplace, she said, for marathons to have title sponsors and put company logos on finish line tape and in other areas on the route. Those are things the Boston Marathon has never done.

"Boston is the Augusta of our sport," Wittenberg said, comparing the Boston Marathon to the Augusta National Golf Club , where the Masters tournament is played and which is known for shunning public advertising.

John Hancock has a long reputation as a big sports sponsor, though a spokesman said it considers the Marathon a community service commitment rather than a sports deal. Still, the company has deals with the Olympic games and the Boston Red Sox. It paid for advertising inside the TD Banknorth Garden during Boston Celtics games until 2005 , and sponsored Major League Baseball until the end of last year.

Those deals ended after a 2005 review of John Hancock's sports marketing program by Manulife Financial Corp. , the Canadian company that bought John Hancock three years ago .

Keith Reed can be reached at reed@globe.com.

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