Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Racing Industry

 I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately. Some of my off-season planning includes deciding which races to run next year and that invariably brings me around to outfits that are in the business of putting on races. The nearest comparison I can think of is a concert promotion company. While the mode is different, both are basically in the entertainment industry.

I ran my first foot race in 1978 in my hometown of Greeley, Colorado. The United Bank Fun Run was the biggest race in town for years and it's 5 plus distance went over well and pretty much anyone who was part of the fledgling running community at the time was there.

In 1983, I ran in my first Bolder Boulder. It was the first year for that race's wave start and though still only its eighth year, it was a big deal. The venue through the streets of Boulder, the finish at Folsom Stadium, and the field of world class athletes all made it (and still do) the big race it is today.

What these two races, along with the myriad of others I ran over the years had in common were their amateur status. Though I suspect someone was "working" on the Boulder race just about year round, there really was not the professional organization behind it that's there now. The Fun Run was an all  volunteer event from the race director on down.

Today, of course, that has changed. My first event of the season was Summer Open Sprint which is produced by Without Limits Productions. The Creek Streak in July was organized by a non-profit but nevertheless professional organization called Your Cause Sports. Both the TriRock and this weekend's Rock & Roll Half Marathon are productions of Competitor Group, Inc. The big race in Boulder that I'm considering for next summer is one of dozens run by the World Triathlon Corporation.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Events that were once organized for fun and charity by volunteers who did it in their spare time are, more and more, professionally produced events. While some still do benefit charity, many have become for profit endeavors and include full time paid staff.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing. I actually appreciate the fact that there aspiring to elevate races to big events. Furthermore, doing so still has not seriously damaged the community-organized races as anyone who runs in their local Turkey Trot or July 4th race can attest. The issue with professionally produced events comes in the gap between the quality to which they aspire and the actual results they produce.

Past readers of these pages may recall my thoughts about race directors. I've also had more than a few things to say in my various race reports. This is not because I am an overly negative person or particularly enjoy delivering criticism. I'd like to think it's because I've spent my adult years as a good critical thinker and the thoughts I express here just reflect that.

In any case, when it comes to an event produced by an organization like the one of the ones mentioned above, my expectations increase. The first, and probably most blunt reason is cost. Races, triathlons in particular, are expensive affairs. No doubt, the overhead is not cheap either. Even with an army of unpaid volunteers making up the majority of an event-day staff, I have no doubt that equipment, event permits and most significantly, insurance all add up. Still at the end of the day, the production company is making a profit. My question is, did they really earn it?

I don't mean that in the "do they deserve it:" category since that's a far more subjective value judgement. Instead, think of it like the professional baseball player who hits .210 for the season but still pulls in an eight figure salary. Does his lackluster performance really rate the salary that drives things like ticket prices and television contracts? Unless he has some other intangible "wow" factor, probably not.

So in that vein, what does one get for a race entry fee from $130 and up? Most of us spend hundreds of hours and even thousands of dollars on our sport. We think about a race months ahead of time and the anticipation leading up to race day builds along with our expectations. From a hassle free packet pick-up to an enjoyable post race experience and everything encompassed in between, there has to be value for what I get.

Nordstrom is more expensive than most other department stores. Certainly more so than a Macy's or Dillards. What sets them apart? In other words, how do they get away with being pricier? To some extent it's due to higher quality merchandise (though some items have also become largely commoditised). More so, however, it's because they are unrivaled in the quality of their service. When you make a purchase at a Nordstrom store, you know they appreciate your business. The company is resplendent with stories of outstanding customer service.

Successful companies like Nordstrom got to where they are because they executed successfully. By the same token, an event production company risks losing participants due to sloppy execution of their events. This is only compounded by a high entry fee.

It's my hope that as the sport continues to grow and evolve, the more skilled, participant-focused companies will thrive while those that clearly aren't up to snuff will fade away. Such is the way of the open market place. In the triathletes and distance runners, these companies have a target market that is willing to spend big money, highly engaged in their sport and likely to generate return business. Shouldn't they have to work hard to generate more to their bottom line?

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