The Marathon Economy Is Bigger Than You Think

Love them or hate them, road races are big business for the cities that host them


When the starting pistol goes off at the 2017 Boston Marathon on April 17, more than 30,000 runners will bring their training, passion, excitement and athleticism to the streets of Beantown. They’ll also bring something else to town: their money.

So, too, will the 500,000 spectators, as will the 10,000 participants in the much more accessible 5K race. In all, it’s expected that this year’s running of America’s oldest marathon will inject an estimated $192 million into Boston’s economy this month (up from $137.5 million in 2012; all figures in U.S. dollars except where indicated).

That, according to the Associated Press, represents the equivalent of $311 for every person living in Boston.

As someone who frequently finds herself on “running vacations,” I can attest to the cost of travelling to races. There are the flight and hotel costs, meals, transportation for race weekend, and impulse buys at the running expo ­– not to mention the additional days spent in the location to make it seem like a better option than a Caribbean beach (hint: it’s not). According to Running USA, in 2016 this all added up to an average of $587 per person.


Running USA @ Statista 2016

Running USA data shows that as of 2015 were just over 30,000 running events (3% of which are marathons, 45% of which are 5Ks) and more than 17.1 million finishers in all race distances (this is to say nothing of those who register for race but for whatever reason don’t finish, or those who’ve come along to cheer). Marathons and other road races are big business for host cities.

In New York, which hosts the largest marathon in the world (with more than 50,000 finishers, a million spectators along the course and a cost of $33.9 million to stage), the estimated economic impact of the 2014 race – the last year for which statistics are available – was $415 million. Its 2015 revenue came in at $72.4 million. Meanwhile, The Bank of America Chicago Marathon, the second largest race in the world with more than 40,000 finishers, had an estimated $277 million impact in 2015, according to organizers.


Running USA @ Statista 2016

And those numbers are likely to grow. While registrations for road races have dipped slightly after an all-time high in 2104, the number of people who attended a marathon in spring 2016 nearly doubled from the autumn prior.

Even in Toronto, where the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon draws fewer runners than the elite U.S races – there were around 25,000 in 2016, including the half marathon and 5K races – there’s a large economic impact, somewhere in the range of $25- to $30-million.


Running USA @ Statista 2016

While the numbers speak for themselves, the sentiment along local courses may differ. The Boston Marathon, one of the most elite races and considered the toughest to qualify for, is an immense source of local pride. The number of spectators that come out to cheer on runners is equivalent to 80% of the city’s population, and the tragic bombing in 2013 only served to bolster the hometown pride and support.

In New York, the million-plus enthusiastic fans lining every mile of the course create an unparalleled atmosphere. Local residents serve coffee from the stoop of their brownstones in Brooklyn and church choirs energize flagging runners in Harlem, while visiting fans rush the subways, scrambling to catch their runner farther down the course.

In Toronto, however, entire stretches of the race are free of fans. At the Scotiabank Waterfront Marathon, the only passersby you’re likely to see at the 37-kilometre mark – a despairing stretch along Eastern Avenue – are the few cyclists and dog walkers who look like they didn’t realize that Toronto’s largest marathon was underway.

Beyond apathy, however, there’s an active disdain among Torontonians toward road races in general. The chief complaint is road closures though runners have reported actually being booed as they attempted to run 42 kilometres with their two human feet! The derision is enough to lead some to wonder if Toronto hates marathons.

If true, haters need to consider that from a pure economic perspective, a few days of traffic woes are worth the financial gain cities enjoy from hosting races. Then again, Toronto’s mayor has advocated for merging the city’s two marathons and has publicly stated he was willing to say no to marathons.

Contrast that with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, who openly welcomed the world’s runners to the Champs-Elysées and saw her city’s marathon set participation – and no doubt economic – records.

The Marathon Economy Is Bigger Than You Think
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