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A run for the money

City of Boston and charities are the real winners in this race

For last year's winners, Hailu Negussie, of Ethiopa, and Catherine Ndereba, of Kenya, the 2005 Boston Marathon could definitely be called a success. But the race wasn't too bad for the city of Boston, either.

Last year's 109th running of the Boston Marathon brought an estimated $88.5 million to Boston, according to Greater Boston Convention & Visitor Bureau president and CEO, Patrick Moscaritolo, and the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the race. With more than 20,400 runners and 700,000 spectators in attendance for the race, the events of the marathon, which span three days, are an economic boon to the region. Area hotels, restaurants, shops, and transportation all benefit from the influx of people who descend on the Commonwealth for the world's longest-running marathon.

"It's a huge impact," said Guy Morse, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association. "The cities and the state realize how important this event is to the economy."

To give you an idea of just how big the race is, the Boston Marathon ranks behind only the Super Bowl in the number of media credentials (1,200) issued for a one-day sporting event in the world, according to the BAA. When combined with other Patriots' Day activities in Boston, such as an early Red Sox game at Fenway Park, Boston is transformed into the center of the sports universe on the third Monday of every April.

"On Marathon Monday, the world is watching not just the Boston Marathon, but the community known as Boston and the state of Massachusetts," said Morse, now in his 22nd year as the executive director of the race.

The city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts recognize the importance of the race as well. Last year, Governor Mitt Romney signed a proclamation declaring April 18 to be "Marathon Day." Boston mayor Thomas Menino also praised the race.

"In a city defined by a rich heritage, the Boston Marathon is one of our most important and enduring traditions," Menino said in an official statement last year.

The Boston Marathon consists of numerous events over several days, culminating in the race itself, which kicks off this year on April 17 with the wheelchair start at 11:25 a.m. There is also a half marathon -- which had more than 4,500 entrants last year and is taken every bit as seriously as the main event by its competitors -- and a youth relay. Expositions and family activities take place throughout the weekend.

One of the secrets to the Boston Marathon's success is its longevity (2006 will be the 110th running of the race). Year after year, the city of Boston and the eight surrounding towns that are part of the 26.2 mile course can count on this event to generate revenue. In what has become a traditional exchange, the surrounding communities donate services like police forces to help the marathon run smoothly. In exchange, the Boston Athletic Association gives financial donations to each community.

"We have developed deep relationships, and that experience level makes this go so smoothly," said Morse.

The race would not run smoothly, or even at all, without serious financial backing up front. The BAA has an expense account of about $5 million every year to put on the race, money it must get from sponsors. It is fortunate enough to have a financial partner in John Hancock. Their 21-year relationship is the longest running sponsorship of any marathon by a corporation. The financial giant provides $575,000 in prize money and also donates more than $1 million to charity. Adidas, Gatorade, and Verizon are just a few of the 17 companies that sponsor the race.

The BAA has been a model of corporate efficiency in the last several years, operating every bit like a major corporation while retaining the goals of a nonprofit organization. Listed as a public charity, the organization increased its net assets from $3.5 million to about $4.2 million in 2004, the latest year that its tax records were available. The marathon took in about $2.5 million in entry fees ($95 per person) in 2004, which only covered about half of its expenses, but the BAA was able to make up for that difference in sponsorships and public contributions.

Several other annual events in Boston share a kinship with the marathon, despite the fact that not all of them are athletic events. The collegiate rowing regatta The Head of the Charles, First Night and the Fourth of July celebration on the Esplanade all face the same challenges of public safety and care of the participants. Because of its track record in raising corporate money, the Boston Athletic Association sometimes gives advice to the Head of the Charles on how to secure long-term sponsorships.

While the Boston Marathon is now an international event, the race has evolved considerably since its inception in 1897, when just 18 runners participated (10 finished).

But even as late as 1989, less than 7,000 people ran the race, and in 1995 there were fewer than 10,000 participants. The race did not truly become the event it is today until it celebrated its 100th running in 1996 with a record 38,708 participants.

The marathon has also made some qualitative changes over the years. Women were not allowed to run until 1972, two years after the race introduced qualifying standards of times less than four hours. But the biggest change may be the quality of the field, which has gone from a mix of local talent (Americans won 8 of 11 races from 1973 to 1983) to a field dominated by runners from other parts of the world. The last American male to win the marathon was Greg Meyer in 1983.

The business of running

Next to the success of the professional sports leagues in the United States, running pales in comparison in commercial revenue and popular appeal. There are no distance runners signed to $90 million endorsement contracts, as basketball star LeBron James is with Nike. But this year, the Boston Marathon and four other marathons are trying to change that.

"Running has always been secondary [to the professional sports leagues] in a lot of ways," said Morse, whose event is fully booked every year. "But there is a clear running boom going on. People are running for a variety of reasons, whether it be for fitness or otherwise."

Seeking to capitalize on that boom, the race directors from Boston, New York, Berlin, London, and Chicago have started the World Marathon Majors series, which links the major urban marathons financially. The world's top runners will earn points for their finishes in the five events, and the male and female athletes with the most points after two years will earn a $500,000 bonus.

"This is a giant step not only for the Boston Marathon but for the whole sport," said Morse. "This gets elite athletes to run more events, and the sport needs this additional dynamic to create more interest for the fans."

Running is so far off the radar that last year, when world record holder Paul Tergat won the ING NYC Marathon, the New York Times printed the headline "Kenyan wins it by a step". In many other sports, Tergat might be an international sensation, but in the United States, he is not a household name. Because the Summer Olympics take place only once every four years, it is difficult for casual fans of running to consistently follow the sport. This new series is trying to change that.

The race directors from each of these major urban marathons spent countless hours creating the World Marathon Majors, a task made increasingly difficult by the fact that they were working over two continents. Morse called the new partnership between the events a "natural evolution."

It might seem a little strange that the five major marathons, which are constantly competing for elite athletes and sponsorships, would work so closely with one another. In the business world, this might be akin to Microsoft and Google buddying up to share some of their secrets. Morse, however, doesn't see it that way.

"We acknowledge that we are very competitive, but we also have a lot more in common," he said. "We see ourselves as the major urban marathons with traditions and a history of success. Going into this, there was already a high level of respect for each other. We weren't forced together in any way."

While the events' organizers are still formulating what their relationship to one another will ultimately be, the sport, at least for the time being, appears to be in better hands as it moves toward the future.

Charitable contributions

Despite the direct financial impact of the marathon on area businesses, arguably the most important impact the marathon makes is on Massachusetts-based charities. Last year alone, the marathon raised about $8 million for charity, a figure that does not include the $1 million donated to charity by John Hancock. Over the past 12 years, the race has raised over $55 million for charities like The Jimmy Fund, Boston Medical Center, and The Greater Boston Food Bank.

Those numbers compare favorably to some other Boston charities with ties to athletics. The Red Sox Foundation, which is the most successful team charity organization in New England, has raised about $12 million in three years. As a multi-day sporting competition, the marathon also stacks up well. The PGA Tour's Deutsche Bank Championship, which is held in Norton, raised $1.5 million last year for local charities in partnership with the Tiger Woods Foundation.

Because of how much money the marathon generates for charity, the Boston Athletic Association must carefully choose the charities with which they will partner. The criteria for selecting charities are getting narrower and narrower, as the BAA tries not to duplicate a charity's purpose and attempts to get more local. Last year, 70 charities applied to gain an affiliation with the marathon, but only six were accepted. Those six will remain with the marathon for three years, joining 12 others to form the total of 18 charities that are associated annually with the race.

"Fund raising has become hugely important to us. It provides an emotional lift to the event and also raises huge funds for the charities involved," said Morse. "It's a phenomenon of great importance to nurture that aspect of the race while protecting the other major aspect of the qualified runner who deserves to be here."

The charity that has maintained the longest running partnership with the Boston Marathon is the Jimmy Fund. Last year alone, the Jimmy Fund raised $4 million through the marathon, out of about $50 million in total charitable funds raised in its fight against cancer. The long term partnership is important on both ends.

"We always look for longevity in our partners," said Suzanne Fountain, executive assistant to Jimmy Fund chairman Mike Andrews. "Our relationship is fabulous and it continues to grow. Hopefully, we will continue to partner for a long time."

Andrews also stressed that a wide range of people can contribute to the Jimmy Fund through the marathon without being world-class runners. In addition to the half marathon, many participants choose to walk all 26.2 miles to support their charity.

The success of the charity aspect of the race boils down to individuals. In order to enter the marathon without achieving the proper qualifying time -- the qualifying times vary by age group and sex, but an 18-34 year old male would have to earn a time of 3 hours and 10 minutes in a comparable marathon to gain automatic entry into Boston -- runners can sign on with a charity and must raise a certain amount in order to participate. For some, like first-time Boston runner James Campbell, this amount can be up to $3,000, which goes directly to the runner's charity of choice.

"I see the fundraising as mentally inspiring, touching, and motivational," said Campbell, who also works for Firstgiving, a group that is coordinating fundraising efforts for the marathon through Massachusetts General Hospital. "It's important on so many levels to give back and help others in need, and this is a great platform to help raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer."

Some runners raise funds in excess of what is required for their participation. Elyse Topp-Poirier, who will run her fourth Boston Marathon for charity in April, raised $10,000 in her first year for The Home for Little Wanderers, a children's home from which she was adopted when she was three months old. Topp-Poirier did not plan on running the marathon this year, but when her father was diagnosed with cancer last year, she committed to running for Massachusetts General Hospital with a goal of raising $15,000. The charity aspect of the race motivates her.

“I remind myself that although 26.2 miles is really hard, it doesn't compare to the struggle that a lot of people who have terminal illnesses or no homes and families go through every day," said Topp-Poirier. "This year, I will think of that in context of my dad.”

Most of the runners who raise money do so through the official charities selected by the marathon. However, many more participants run for charity even if they have earned a spot in the race by qualifying. Money raised in this fashion is not included in the $8 million that the race raises for charity, but it figures to add hundreds of thousands more to the total.

It's all about the running

Visitors to the BAA's office near Copley Square cannot miss the true purpose of the race, which is to provide a forum for world class runners to showcase their talents year after year. The marathon's offices are filled with cases of medals, pictures, and newspaper clippings honoring past champions. The enormous silver trophy for the winners -- who get their names engraved on its side not unlike the winners of the NHL's Stanley Cup -- sits on a pedestal on the right side of the entry way to the offices.

"There is a huge increase in the quality of the runner who is now qualifying on her own," said Morse, who has seen his field become more and more international as the years have gone by.

The fact that the Boston Marathon is first and foremost an athletic competition is not lost on the race's director. Morse, who considers himself a runner but has never run a marathon, has always loved the competition of the race.

After graduating from Northeastern, Morse worked at the Prudential Center, former site of the finish line, from 1974-1984. During that time, he volunteered at the race every year, wanting to be around the event any way he could.

In 1984, the Boston Athletic Association posted an ad for the job he has now, but at that time "it didn't even have a title," said Morse. Morse got the job, and has remained with the Boston Athletic Association ever since, helping it grow from a local organization into a major player in the world marathon scene.

"There wasn't a job," he said. "I was just at the right place at the right time. It was [supposed to be] a temporary position."

Morse credits his time as a volunteer to getting hired, and because of that, he is acutely aware of the important role that volunteers play in organizing the race.

"The backbone of the race is our volunteers -- over 7,000 of them -- who are the front line to the runners," he said. "The only reason I'm sitting here is because I was a volunteer."

Despite the tremendous impact that the marathon has on the city and on many organizations, in the end, it is an event about individuals.

"Runners are a unique breed," said Morse. "They're a hardy and dynamic type of individual that brings a lot to the table."

What the runners bring to the table is $88.5 million of revenue for the city of Boston, $8 million of which goes directly to charity. When you combine the efforts of 20,400 runners, 7,000 volunteers, and 700,000 spectators, the Boston Marathon goes a long way in helping the city of Boston, one step at a time.

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