Marathons Are Back: Why Races Are Key for Brands Looking to Extend the COVID-19 Running Boom

With COVID-19 forcing people to find ways outside of the gym to stay fit, leading running brands have forged bonds with new runners and strengthened relationships with the experienced. As the world opens back up, the key to securing them all for the long haul might be in races.

“It’s our intent to become the best running brand in the world, and to achieve that goal, we have to be close to all kinds of runners — the new entrant to the marathon, the ultrarunner and everyone in between,” said Jeff McAdams, New Balance’s VP of global marketing. “Events are a direct touch point to them, and it influences everything we do to get to that goal.”

Industry insiders believe investing in races is a wise place for leading running brands to spend their time and money.

“There are two reasons that brands want to be at races. One is the exposure of being on the number bibs, race signing and so forth,” said Matt Powell, senior sports industry adviser with The NPD Group Inc. “Perhaps even more important is that it shows the brand is supporting the industry and supporting amateur runners. These events are really close to the core consumer, and that’s what makes them work.”

With more people lacing up their shoes to run than in recent years, brands in the space have an opportunity to get in front of newcomers and grow the community.

According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s 2021 Topline Report, 50.7 million people ran in the U.S. in 2020, a 1.2% increase year-over-year from 50.1 million 2019.

What’s more telling is the frequency at which people ran. SFIA found that last year there were 26.2 million core runners (people who ran more than 50 times). That’s a 4.5% increase over 2019. People were also going off-road with greater frequency, with roughly 11.9 million people engaging in trail running in 2019 — a 7.8% year-over-year increase.

Also, the report revealed running was in the top 10 among almost every age group — from as young as 6 and as old as 64 — for activities Americans intend to participate in during the next 12 months.

“No one knows for sure how many from this tidal wave of new runners that started over the past 16 months are going to show up at events, but we’re beginning to get some early reads that a significant number are,” McAdams said. “I think the combination of pent up demand and new demand for the sport is going to flood entrance into events, from 5Ks up to major marathons and ultramarathons.”

If the entries into the 2021 London Marathon are any indication, eagerness to get back to races is high. The London Marathon announced in January that it would host the first 100,000-person marathon on Oct. 3, with 50,000 runners hitting the streets in person and another 50,000 breaking a sweat virtually. Entries for the virtual race sold out within 11 days.

“We don’t know where race participation is going to end up, if there is going to be this big influx of people and then after one or two races things will go back to a more normal, pre-COVID situation. But I think we’re going to see a tremendous amount of participation, and [race organizers] are going to push the capacity to the brink because people want to be back so bad,” explained Todd Dalhausser, president of Altra, who sponsors events such as the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run in Colorado.

Although many large races have been canceled since COVID-19 hit stateside, brand leaders have learned valuable lessons while waiting for the pandemic to pass — for instance, realizing that sponsorship should be just as much about the journey as it is the destination.

Alex Vander Hoeven, GM at Asics Digital and Race Roster, explained, “We learned during the pandemic that races that had a brand that runners love attached were able to survive because they could offer different types of experiences that were engaging enough to keep [people] signing up for virtual challenges. We learned that there are new ways we can leverage these races to connect with runners.”

He added, “Now the way we look at sponsorship is we want to extend it past race weekend and become part of the runner journey — become part of the lead-up to race weekend or a virtual challenge or whatever it is that runners are signed up for through the event entity. The sponsorship opportunity represents so much more.”

Dalhausser agreed, and he reflected on another time running was booming — more than a decade ago. But at that time, the industry dropped the ball.

“In 2008, with the Great Recession, people turned to running because they couldn’t afford luxuries anymore, but they could afford a pair of running shoes, so we saw an influx into running. They were doing races that were cause-led that also turned into social gatherings,” Dalhausser explained. “But we didn’t keep those people in the sport. They moved on to different experiences. Now that we have that opportunity again, how do we keep them believing in the benefits of run? That’s the challenge.”

To emphasize those benefits, Altra has launched better-form running classes and nutritional educational sessions. “We can turn up the content and help them rely on us as a resource so they have a better experience when they participate in the sport,” Dalhausser said. “Digital is allowing us to do that at a much faster pace, with an opportunity to reach the consumer more frequently than showing up at a race expo with a booth.”

What’s more, Dalhausser said, the pandemic showed Altra that it needed to reevaluate the criteria it uses to determine the events it sponsors.

“Pre-COVID, it was, ‘We did that race last year, so we’ll do it again. We’ll put up an arch and some snow fencing because that’s great exposure for the brand.’ That’s not enough anymore,” Dalhausser said. “Because of the digital emergence, we want multiple touchpoints with the consumer. For us, that means we want to be there when you’re considering a race, helping you get prepared, helping host the race and to continue the relationship.”

For New Balance — which sponsors the New York and London marathons — today’s evaluation process means its logo will appear in fewer places.

“What we’re [striving] for are fewer and better partnerships. We’re not looking for logo placement in as many places as we can get it. If we say we’re only going to work with events that are willing to partner with us to do unique things, that really narrows down the field. We’d rather get involved with runners in a way that is real,” McAdams said. The executive cited the brand’s community-based brew pub for the 2019 London Marathon, and its charitable “1 for You, 1 for Youth” shoe donation program with New York Road Runners that launched in 2015.

Race sponsorship also benefit more than brands — the specialty retailers that carry their products get a big boost from them as well.

“I would say it’s our Christmas time,” Justin Burdon, co-owner of Heartbreak Hill Running Co., said of each year’s race seasons.

Of the different types of events people can participate in, the storeowner said marathons have the greatest impact on sales at Heartbreak Hill, which has three doors in Boston and one in Chicago.

“In Boston, March and April are big months for us, and in Chicago, September and October are big months for us,” Burdon said. “In the lead-up to the marathon, we do a lot of training for the community and the Heartbreakers [run group], so it’s important for us to be there for the community, and we also get a buildup in sales as people gear up for the marathon.”

How much of a sales gain does Heartbreak Hill experience? Burdon estimates increases of as much as 30% during months leading up to a marathon.

“Our training programs are 16-20 weeks, but the real impact [financially] we start to see is around eight weeks before the marathon. In the last eight weeks, people are getting their second or third pair of shoes for training, and they’re getting their racing [look] and their kit together, starting to think about what they’re wearing,” Burdon said. “And on marathon weekend, we see an impact on sales from visitors and people in the town.”

Much like the brands that it carries, specialty run retailers look to create engaging experiences to drum up excitement for the local running community.

At Heartbreak Hill, for instance, Burdon said the team is already prepping events unique to the store this month, in preparation for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon in October. Plans include a partnership with Take the Bridge, which hosts a series of short night races over city bridges, as well as a local art-driven event that is still in the works.

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