This is the first of two posts about the finances of races, inspired by questions we’ve received from runners about the Portland Marathon. This post was written to help race participants understand what goes into putting on a race and how to judge the price tag on registration.
One of the most-oft asked question about the Portland Marathon is, “Why is registration so much?” And after the organization’s recent turn in the spotlight, runners have really been dissecting that question and have zeroed in on one line of the financials: compensation. This is a fair question; you as a consumer have every right to ask whether the things you buy are worth the price tag and whether the person behind it deserves your money. What runners and walkers are concerned about is whether or not the race director gets paid too much for putting on this race. But that’s a different topic, so I’ll address that in the next post.
I may take flak for saying this, but the increasing price of the Portland Marathon is partially the fault of us runners. Despite charging more than $100 for the early-bird price, the Portland Marathon has continued to attract thousands of runners and walkers willing to pay the price. They may grumble about it, but the big-race aura is appealing and really can’t be matched in the Portland metro area. Part of the issue might be that runners and walkers aren’t aware of other amazing full and half marathons in our area; the Portland Marathon is routinely one of the few events covered by local media.
So, before I get into the question of “Should the Portland Marathon cost so much?,” I’ll invite you to check out the race’s financials. As a non-profit, they have to publish some form of balance sheet, an area in which I’m not an expert. It’s easy to look at it and make assumptions, but knowing that the Department of Justice is inspecting the organization’s finances, I’m perfectly content to wait and see what they find (they’re smarter than me, for sure). But really, there is no direct answer to these questions. Just information to help you come up with your own answer.
Now onto my thoughts – there are just some ideas for you to chew on while we wait to see if that permit is approved. I’ve got a decent background in this field: I have a MBA in sports marketing, I’ve served the Oregon Road Runners Club (ORRC) as a volunteer race director for the past 8 years, and put on a for-profit race with a friend for 2 years (we barely broke even, and were happy about it). I was on the Portland Marathon Committee for a year (and left after I heard Smith say that they’d be charging $150 for the half marathon because people would pay it), and have served on the boards for Team Red Lizard and Oregon Road Runners Club. And of course, since starting Run Oregon in 2007, I’ve gotten to know a lot of local race directors and their events.
How much should race registrations cost?
As runners, we are torn between the purity and low barriers to our sport – for the price of some good shoes and a good sports bra (for half of us) – you can become a runner. There are hundreds of races to choose from, so it’s natural that those with marketing budgets can attract more people. But you don’t have to run a race if you don’t think it’s worth it. Deciding if it’s worth it can be easier when you know the expenses of putting on a race and having a fair perspective on how hard it is.
There are a good number of for-profit races in our area that I personally feel are worth the price. Go Beyond Racing puts on really good events for fair prices, and Run With Paula’s events have set the local standard for a fun event with good swag, while putting on an accurate, well-supported, and safe course. I will personally always recommend those two companies when someone is looking for a local race, because I know the organizers and I know, for example, that Go Beyond spends hours doing trail work and leading group runs; Paula puts on group runs and volunteers with the Union Gospel Mission.
There are also a lot of non-profit races that are fairly expensive; but they donate large amounts of money to their selected cause. For example, the Tilikum Trail Run is an excellent, challenging event, and they donate thousands of dollars so that kids attend camp, even if their families can’t afford it. Worth the price, in other words.
Consider this: A race I recently put on for ORRC worked out to cost us, per participant, about $17. Our per-participant costs included socks, chip timing, and food, and our somewhat variable costs were things like porta-potties and race insurance. We also had fixed costs including permits, a van rental, and pavilion rental. Luckily, ORRC owns a variety of race and street signage, and the timer we hire (Huber Timing) provides tablets for day-of-race registration and results. Plus, everyone from ORRC is a volunteer – we don’t get paid.
For that race, we offered about 30 free entries to high school students in a 10k training program, and roughly another 30 free entries to people who had earned them from volunteering or as prizes from other races. Other participants paid, on average, $25. We also donated a couple hundred dollars to Boy Scout troops and the West Linn High School band department. Doing the math, that’s not a huge profit margin for a race that attracts around 250 people. If we’d been putting this race on to keep the lights on, there’s no way we could have charged only $25 and still had finisher socks, Starbucks cards for awards, and some other perks.
Most really good race directors that I know put together their race’s expenses and then estimate how many people may sign up. As the calendar gets more crowded, this is harder and harder to judge. Registration prices need to be competitive, but if an organizer is putting on races to pay the mortgage, they also need to be fair with the amount of time and expertise they’re putting in and compensate themselves. Race organizing involves a lot of late nights, dozens of vendors and deadlines, multiple jurisdictions, and a lot of physical labor. Not to mention that all of this needs to be done with a smile. The ultimate goal is to maximize the number of participants and give them an experience that they feel is worth what they paid – not to get as much money as they can out of a participant.
It’s important to realize that race directing is a livelihood for some people. It’s unfair to lump all race directors together into the same pot. It’s equally unfair to demand that RD’s provide more and more (bigger medals, better shirts, post race spread, free beer, and so on) while not increasing costs along the way. Many people are totally fine with an accurate course, timing, an aid station or two, and a bottle of water at the finish. An equal (or probably greater amount) of people want/desire/demand more, and expect it for less.
So, when you’re looking at the price tag for a race, consider all of this, and really think about whether it’s worth your money. Know the race director – visit their social media sites and ask questions. Ask previous years’ participants if the swag was nice or just another cheap polyester shirt you won’t wear.
We live in a small enough community that you have the ability to find out whether someone runs a good show or not, and customer-ranking sites like BibRave.com (some of the founders of this site live in the Portland metro) and MarathonGuide.com (an outdated website design, but it’s been around for a while and has good info) offer reviews and runner feedback. Do your homework, and support races that put on a great race for a reasonable amount of money and vote with your wallet as to which races will thrive in your community.
So the big question isn’t, “Why does the Portland Marathon cost so much?” … but “Should it?” And you’re the only one who can answer that question for yourself.