Multiple people sent me the recent announcement from the London Marathon that it had acquired one of the top Marathon fields ever for this spring’s race, even despite 10,000M world champion Kenenisa Bekele opting instead for the Paris Marathon. Given that this is a ‘pure’ marathon year – no World Championships, no Olympics – I thought it would be valuable to think through how runners decide what races to enter in the fall, focusing on those in the vast London field. For the most part, we’ll use the Woodward/Bernstein theory of investigation: “Follow the Money”*
*This almost always works, but there is one major exception. The Ethiopian Federation likes to flex its muscles a bit, so often dictates that its runners must enter certain races if they plan to receive any ongoing support, whether or not it makes financial sense for the individual runner. The Kenyan Federation does not do this. The result is a race like last year’s World Championship Marathon, where the top Ethiopians were forced to run in Moscow, where there was limited prize money, as opposed to (or in addition to, in Tsegaye Kebede’s case) a fall marathon that had a large appearance fee on offer. The top Kenyan’s chose the payday, knowing there would be no repercussions. For similar reasons, Ethiopians have started to exert their dominance at 5,000 and 10,000 meter track distances – they are encouraged to win championships at those levels, while the similarly talented Kenyans are taking the significantly higher paydays that come with road racing (the difference between road and track paydays is at least an order of magnitude).
If we’re following the money, let’s figure out where it comes from:
- Race prizes: This is an easy one – win the race, win the money; come second, win a bit less money, etc., down the line. Races play the money aspect close to the vest, but you can often find data around winners money or total purses (i.e., the total amount disbursed in prizes). There are additional ‘bonuses’ available for special feats, often, as well. Some examples
- Los Angeles Marathon: $110K total prize available for each gender, $25K per winner, $12.5K for second, etc. They do a special challenge where the men are handicapped and the overall winner receives $50K. (See that trick? $110K is available to each gender, but they will only have to pay out $160K total because only one gender’s winner can win the challenge)
- Chicago Marathon: $100K for winners, $75K for 2nd, etc.;
- Prize money for times (men example, but same for women with comparable times) — $75K for course record, $55K for sub 2:05, $25K for sub 2:06, etc.,
- America! (ditto previous bullet) — $10K for top American, etc. down to 5th; $2K for Americans under 2:18
- Illinois! (Seriously, you get a few thousand dollars for being the top runner from Illinois)
- Appearance fees: “We will pay you this much money if you show up” (some require finishing, I imagine, and I would guess some are also dependent on time). These are extremely hard to find, and vary a lot depending on how well you negotiate. For the top runners, this will be high-six-figures, and I would be surprised if Mo Farah were receiving less than ‘millions’ to race the London Marathon (including his appearance last year for half the distance).
- Sponsorships: I confess I don’t know a lot about sponsorships, but imagine it’s a relatively seedy business. There’s a clear difference between being sponsored by a company like Nike, and a company like Skechers, but I would guess most of these contracts have a fairly low base-payment, but are highly incentivized. Nick Symmonds basically said as much in his announcement that he was switching sponsors from Nike to Brooks (from Runner’s World):
“The way that Nike is currently writing their contracts, I think, pretty much strips the athletes of all their rights, their ability to market themselves to potential other sponsors. The reduction clauses that they had were harsh and unnecessary.”
The reduction clauses Symmonds refers to are the inverse of bonus incentives. Athletes can have payouts reduced if they don’t meet specified goals, such as making an Olympic team. While he was constrained from discussing his situation, Symmonds says, “All the Nike deals that I have heard of from agents have reduction clauses and most other companies write reduction clauses into their contracts.”
- National federations: Totally dependent on the country – some countries (e.g., Australia) are more centralized and give their top athletes a living stipend etc., to make sure they are doing okay for money, but I think most top runners are from countries in which they are left to their own devices.
- Brand improvement: Not actually an income source, but vital for understanding why runners enter specific races. Per the above, appearance fees, sponsorships, and prize money are the three most important income sources, with appearance fees being a pretty clear number one. When runners are weighing their racing options, they must constantly consider how the result will affect their future market-ability. One of the reasons that British mid-distance runners (Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram) rarely raced each other in the early 1980’s is that it made no financial sense: As long as they entered separate races, always won, and occasionally broke world records, the paydays would keep coming in. As soon as one of them beat the other, the loser would be significantly less marketable, while the winner wouldn’t be all that much more marketable. This may be easier to understand from examples.
Now that that’s laid out, let’s look at specific examples from this year’s races:
- Mo Farah: Pretty clear – There was significantly more money to be made in marathons than in winning, say, the diamond league 10,000 meter championship, and London offered him a massive appearance fee to make his debut there. He’ll win whether or not he wins.
- Stephen Kiprotich: The reigning Olympic and World champion isn’t all that fast, but has those two titles. Besides maybe a national hero (Farah, Ryan Hall), the most marketable titles for getting appearance fees are, in rough order, “World Record Holder”*, “Olympic Champion”, “World Champion”, “Defending Champion”, “Course Record Holder”, and “Former Champion”. As with the New York Marathon last fall, the Olympic Champion probably in London primarily to pick up his appearance fee, and everything else is gravy.
- Tsegaye Kebede – Defending Champion: See above. This guy is just an animal, and has a habit of always running well and placing. Good appearance money, I imagine, and probably another $20-100K in prize money. Because he is able to run so frequently (just a physiological quirk), the opportunity cost of entering a race is lower.
- Wilson Kipsang: World record holder and Former London Champion (2012): See above. Furthermore, a win in London would give him a very strong claim to being “The World’s Best Marathoner”.
- Geoffrey Mutai: Probably the London runner whose motivations I understand the least. He has a ton of credentials, having won Boston and New York (twice), and run 2:03:04 in Boston (though not an official world record). He is, to me, the world’s best marathoner. He didn’t make Kenya’s 2012 Olympic Team, so perhaps doesn’t get the respect he deserves. I would guess his motivations for entering London are the following: 1) Big-time appearance fee – Boston is famous for low-balling appearance fees, so he may be getting paid more in London appearance money than he would make for winning Boston, 2) Thinks he’s the world’s best, and wants to beat direct competitors. Yes, non-monetary motivation (but probably improves his brand).
- Emmanual Mutai: Course record holder: Payday, probably – came 2nd in Chicago in the fall, so may see prize money too. Again, London probably the highest bidder.
- Spike Wells: They say great marathoners need to have an inner source of strength; what greater chip on one’s shoulder than to be nearly the last of Britain’s 2nd sons who falls victim to the archaic tradition of primogeniture. Beyond that, his shock of red hair puts him squarely in one of the few minority groups that Brits still openly disdain: the gingers. As with any athlete months away from turning 30, he must feel time’s winged chariot hurrying at his back, as those younger than him leap ahead of him. His military training will work to his benefit, his tequila habit to his detriment.
- Kenenisa Bekele: The 5,000 and 10,000 meter man was thought to be debating making his debut in London, but will instead run Paris. This makes sense. He’ll get a nice payday for his marathon debut, against a somewhat weaker field. It’s a chance to get a first major road payday, without sacrificing much of his future earnings potential. A win in Paris would make a potential showdown against the London winner (especially if it’s Farah) a big event. If he had entered the stacked London field, a respectable 4th or 5th place finish might have dented his future paydays.
- The Boston Marathon: “Woah, none of these guys is entering Boston?!” Hold your horses, America. Because Boston is weighted more towards prize money (vs. appearance fee), it tends to get its elites to sign up much closer to race day (after they see their best offers for appearance fees – e.g., Rotterdam may sway some people away from Boston). Also, Boston doesn’t really need elites this year – usually they are used as a pull for the race itself (to get viewers and advertisers), but that’s less necessary now, given the more ‘community/rebound’ theme of this year’s race. Lastly, I have no idea how last year’s bombing affected the BAA’s finances – cutting out the cost of attracting elite runners will drop more revenue straight to the bottom line.** Some high-level runners will decide to run Boston, because they know a win will increase future appearance fees (and there will be a not-terrible prize for winning the race itself), but there’s no reason to commit this early.
- The other Londoners: This is the group I’m most surprised to see in the race – 2011’s 10,000M world champion is debut-ing in London, while a spate of sub-2:05 guys who have had some modicum of success (Stanley Biwott, Feyisa Lilesa) are also entered. I’m a bit surprised that a guy like Biwott prefers London to a weakened Boston field (it’s possible he’s going to get paid to rabbit it; also possible he will switch away from London to either Boston or Rotterdam later on). Call this idea old-fashioned, but it’s possible that these guys think that they, and not Farah or Mutai or Kiprotich, are the baddest dudes out there, and that they can win the thing.
*Though races often offer prize money for winning a world record, the real prize comes in increased appearance fees – sort of like how the cost of a traffic ticket is less the actual cost, and more the increase in insurance money.
**This is the same reason Competitor stopped paying for elite athletes for its races. It has minimal effect on the revenue for most races whether or not elites run, but it is a significant cost center.