Running: A way for Philly to get the most out of its premier races

Posted: June 01, 2014

We've got a running problem in the city of Philadelphia, and I have an idea how to fix it.

Last year, the Philadelphia Marathon was the eighth-largest marathon in the United States. That sounds great, but the economic impact of that weekend's series of races (which include a half-marathon and 8K) was $13.5 million, according to the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

That number is anemic. The Portland Marathon, which was the 10th-largest marathon in the country in 2013, brings in $25 million - nearly double that of Philadelphia's races.

(The seventh-largest marathon last year was the Boston Marathon, which may be an unfair comparison, but still: The Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau projected that the 2014 race would bring in $178.5 million to the region.)

This is bad - embarrassing, really. The Philadelphia Marathon shouldn't bring in so little money, or sell out a scant few weeks before race day when our own Broad Street 10 Mile Run requires a lottery. Part of the problem is race logistics, such as the date of the event hopscotching around November, marathoners not wanting to enter an event where the half-marathon is now the larger race, and crowding on the course. Even from an image perspective, the race looks amateurish. A recent revamp to the marathon website has filled it with low resolution and grainy photos, and the main e-mail address for the race is a Gmail account.

We can do better than this.

Right now, the Philadelphia Marathon is put on by the city with direction coming out of the mayor's office, and the Broad Street Run is put on by Parks and Recreation. Instead of pulling the marathon away from city control entirely, as I suggested last year, here's my new proposal:

Create a Philadelphia Running Committee within the Parks and Recreation Department, and let it put on both Broad Street and the marathon (plus the accompanying half-marathon and 8K).

Most big races are run by nonprofit organizations. The New York City Marathon has the New York Road Runners, and the Boston Marathon has the Boston Athletic Association. That would be nice here, but these organizations grew up with their events. NYRR was founded in 1958. BAA launched in 1887 before the modern marathon was even a thing. Creating a new nonprofit for the marathon here would be like trying to get to the Jersey Shore on a Friday in the summer in under an hour. You can't shove traffic out of the way, and you can't force Philadelphia to embrace big change.

Despite Broad Street's recent growing pains from the race field's growing 67 percent in five years (things such as not enough portable toilets at the start, too-big corrals, crowds jammed to the point of walking during the race), Parks and Recreation does a good job putting on the largest 10-miler in the U.S. It does it all on a very small budget, too. I've seen 5Ks that charge more than Broad Street's $43 fee (economic impact numbers for the Broad Street run were not available).

Having the city's biggest race events put on by two entirely different city departments is a waste - akin to the stupidity of having both Visit Philadelphia and a Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau promoting the city, each with its own slogans and budgets.

By combining race budgets and brain power, the city can make these events better, which will bring in more hotel and restaurant revenue, which means more tax revenue. Consolidation will give both races what they really need.

For Broad Street, that's more money. For the marathon, that's an experienced, full-time race director, not someone who works in the mayor's office and counts putting on the marathon as one of many job duties. The marathon needs someone like Broad Street director Jim Marino, who is a passionate advocate for his race, his runners, and his city. Even if he doesn't want to be the race director for the marathon, he can still oversee the Philadelphia Running Committee and hire someone for the marathon who has race management experience and Marino's passion for Philadelphia races.

Then, after this new group gets its footing, it can also put on a series of smaller races throughout the year, like the NYRR does, and either reinvest profits into the marathon and Broad Street Run, or give the extra cash to the Philadelphia School District, which is in desperate need of help.

A Philadelphia Running Committee would also, finally, create a hub of Philadelphia running. This city and region have many great running groups and running clubs, but there's only so much beer runners or a running store or a mentoring program can do. They need a united front, which is what this group would do.

The marathon has reached a tipping point. In 2013, it brought in $7 million less in economic impact than in 2012 (One caveat: The 2013 number came from the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau; the 2012 number came from Temple University's Sports Industry Research Center, which did not do an economic impact study for 2013. Still, that's a big difference.)

The sport of running is growing in leaps and bounds, yet our marquee marathon is backsliding. Philadelphia can't afford to lose that kind of cash, and the Philadelphia-area running community deserves better than to have its two largest events strangled by city bloat. I'm happy to high-five Mayor Nutter at both races, but his office isn't best serving the needs of Philadelphia running.

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