The Economics Behind Marathons

There's no doubt that there's been a rise in the popularity of marathons and their accompanying half-marathons—especially in recent years. But if you believe these events are reserved for elite athletes, think again. There’s a marathon for everyone—from people who just want to have a good time to those seeking an obstacle course. And don't forget those who are checking races off their bucket lists.

These long-distance runs are so expensive, time-consuming, and in-demand that companies are spending money on races either for the prestige and the advertising of a permanent corporate sponsorship, or just to get a simple, lucrative return on investment. But just what are the economics behind marathons? And where does all that money go? Read on to find out more about the costs associated with these races.

Key Takeaways

  • Marathons are relatively inelastic, so even if participation costs go up, people will still take part.
  • The costs of putting on a marathon accumulate months before the race actually happens—from permits to advertising costs.
  • Organizers also have to think about the costs during the race including staffing, security, refreshments for runners, and race timing equipment.

The Dollars and Cents of Running a Marathon

Marathons are a relatively inelastic good, so even if the cost to participate goes up, people still take part. And they're normally willing to shell out a lot of cash for the experience. Some of the elite races charge participants different fees from selection lotteries to registration costs. And these charges can be quite hefty. The bigger the race, the bigger the cost.

Let's look at the New York City Marathon—one of the world's most coveted races. Prospective participants have to meet certain eligibility criteria before they can be guaranteed entry. The organization holds a selection lottery just for a chance to participate in the actual marathon. Then there's the registration fee, which depends on your status. U.S. residents who are members of the New York Road Runners group requires a payment of $255 registration fee for the 2022 race. That fee increases to $295 for residents who are nonmembers.

Before the Race

The costs of putting on a marathon begin to accumulate months before the race actually happens. First, the organizer has to examine a map and decide where to hold the race. Armed with a meticulously planned-out route, the organizer needs to get the necessary permits from the city and permission to use quasi-public spaces and any private property like parking lots.

Once the permits are secure, the organizer needs to consult a USA Track & Field Road Course Certifier about having the distance certified. After all, no one wants to be that person who holds a 25-mile marathon by mistake. The road course certifier charges a small fee for these services.

Finally, it’s time to start getting the word out to the public. Advertising costs can drop dramatically if social media picks up the race. But even still, organizers will still have to budget for radio, print, and online ad space.

During the Race

Race day is the most expensive part of a marathon. Not only does the course need to be set up with water tables, food tables, and portable toilets, it all needs to be done by people. If no one volunteers, the event organizer needs to hire and pay its staff for the day.

Race day is the most expensive part of a marathon because of the costs associated with hosting the event.

Staffing expenses come on top of the cost of having an on-site medical team in case of an emergency. This is an important requirement set forth by the insurance policy the race organizer will also need to buy. And let's not forget the immense cost of security to ensure crowd control. For example in 2018, the London Marathon spent £375,492 on police costs alone.

The racers who have paid a hefty registration fee to run are also an expensive part of the race. Participation t-shirts, bibs, pins, goodie bags, and medals cost the organizing bodies a good deal as well. Smaller races would have a higher cost per person as they can’t benefit as much from economies of scale.

Race timing systems are perhaps the biggest hidden cost to the racers. Usually consisting of a cheap radio frequency identification (RFID) attached to a race bib, a timing system can cost thousands. Hiring a company to time a smaller event can be cheaper in the short term, with machine and chip rentals costing a few dollars per runner.

Why Organize a Marathon?

The biggest source of revenue for marathons is the entry participation fee. For races organized as charitable fundraisers, high registration fees aren’t a large concern as the runner knows that any excess will go to help fight breast cancer or to build a new school track field. Races run in the name of a charity can attract big sponsors who want to give back to the community and benefit from supporting a good cause.

Corporations are incentivized to organize running events and prestigious marathons because of their popularity. As with all goods, the more popular and in-demand it is, the more an organization can charge. Realistically, the Boston Marathon, London Marathon, and New York City Marathon could double their prices, and although there would be an outrage, their limited good (racing spots) would be filled by people who value the experience enough to pay the inflated costs.

Some of the world's biggest marathons attract people from all over the world. That means big bucks for local economies. For example, roughly 30% of the drawing applicants accepted to run in the 2020 New York City Marathon (which was eventually canceled due to COVID-19) were international runners. Runners who come from outside the hosting metropolitan area inject a lot of money into hotels, food, and entertainment.

All of this is true for other less prestigious but uber-popular races. Some popular examples include the Rock n Roll Marathon and Walt Disney’s (DIS) Walt Disney World Marathon, as well as Color Me Rad, Tough Mudder, and other running events. Races that belong to the latter category also have the financial benefit of being untimed, which leads to more money for the organizer as well as the city itself.

The Bottom Line

While modern marathon racing is more than a century old, the participation numbers have increased wildly in the past decade. As more people embrace the healthy benefits of running, along with its low-cost and minimal barriers to entry, marathon organizers are shaping up to see their numbers continue to grow each year.

Article Sources
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  2. USA Track and Field. "Course Certification."

  3. Metropolitan Police. "Freedom of Information Request."

  4. Race Directors HQ. "Chip Timing Systems: Buy, Rent, or Build Your Own."

  5. New York Road Runners. "Drawing Procedure."