Sunday, August 19, 2018

Crossroads #2: The Business of Racing


When I sign up for races, I think a lot about the athlete aspects of races, but not the business aspects. This past spring, there was one race and one tour that really got me thinking about the business side to racing.

This became obvious when I was at the Boston Marathon Expo with Erik in April. There were numerous posters, paraphernalia, and advertising ranging from the subliminal to the blatant that encouraged the runners to not just make the Boston Marathon something to check off the bucket list, but something to keep coming back for year after year. It was just enough to make those of us who hadn’t qualified feel salty and desire to push for a Boston Marathon qualifying time and those who had earned their start some impetus to earn it again so they will come back to Boston year after year. All this advertising is really good at making us feel that if we don’t do the Boston Marathon we are somehow lesser people. There were the banners everywhere with “#BostonStrong.” There were the posters that included every runners name. The most striking merchandise with this subliminal message was a peg board with room to carefully place a decade’s worth of Boston Marathon medals. And then there are the desirable Boston Marathon jackets that lured Erik, somehow, even though he usually uses his seam ripper to remove any visible brands from his clothing.


Just one example of the peg board...
Maybe these ones suit your decorating style better?

Many ski races are small and operate entirely on volunteer support. There are a few bigger ski races with full-time staff. The Birkie is quite good at advertising and has a monopoly on the upper midwest marathon ski race scene. They have a large budget and a decent amount of this can be spent on marketing which helps maintain its dominance.

A few weeks after I got back from the Boston Marathon, I went for a bike ride on the day of a local MS bike tour. Biking through the staging area at Minnehaha Falls, I was struck by the metal fencing and rows of Porta-Potties. There is so much infrastructure and time that goes into organizing a race or tour. Suddenly this all just made me really sick. Although disclaimer, this did come the day after I had spent 3 hours marking less than 3 miles of a course for a trail running race.

Porta-Potties at the start of the Boston Marathon (although obviously not this year). Photo: Canadian Running Magazine

With so many races and tours, marketers have to dig deep into the psyche of participants to make them choose their race or tour over all the others.

So let’s look into the business aspect of races and tours.

Races cost money. For the competitors there’s the entry fees, transportation, lodging (if staying overnight), equipment for the races and training (much more so in skiing than running), trail passes for training, fees for a training group, and on and on. For the race organizations there are the bibs, the food, law enforcement at road crossings, port-a-potties, shuttle buses, salary for non-volunteer organizers, marketing, etc, etc.

Races take time. There’s the obvious time for the participants but there’s lots of time for the organizers as well. Some are all volunteer organizations while others have several full-time staff. A fair amount of time goes into advertising each event. And for the volunteers there’s lots of time- setting up the start and finish areas, rest stops, handing out food, planning the event if no one is paid to do this.

Races use resources. Think of the rows of port-a-potties. Think about the cups and wasted food and gu packets lying on the ground, and orange gatorade stained snow. There’s the barricades. Think about the trucks hauling all this stuff around, spewing their diesel fumes.

Feed station mess! Photo: Shape Magazine

This list is by no means exhaustive but it is a start to thinking about not just the racer/tourer logistics, but the organization logistics as well.

Stuff

What are we really getting out of this? A t-shirt or hat (or socks if we are lucky), a medal, some kind of prize (if we are unlucky one of those ugly plaque-things and if we are really lucky- money!), and maybe a meal afterwards.

As the t-shirts, hats, medals, and even prizes accumulate these objects are becoming significantly less luring.

Why do we need an event t-shirt, a medal, or to all start together to feel accomplished? Given the MS ride was a tour only, wouldn’t it make more sense for participants to start from the closest part on the course to where they live to help decrease driving (I hate driving) and not have a rigid start? This would also eliminate the problems with parking at the start of an event and all those concentrated porta-potties.

Why do we (the collective we here, I’m sure this doesn’t apply to everyone) have to get something from the race or tour? Do we really need that T-shirt? Sure, we can wear it again and might make someone jealous which might make them do the event (good marketing scheme) but how many of us really need more t-shirts? Well, we can always make them into quilts...but how many quilts do we need? And what about those medals that go into boxes or hang on hooks- do we really need those? Have the race organizers tapped into something that we want bling or would we be better off without? I’ve recently been thinking about entering into the races where I’m least likely to win an additional award simply because I can’t keep getting all this crap.

One of my latest creations- both something I'm enjoying doing instead of racing while using up some of my racing paraphernalia (those are Birkie Age Class Bells I've used as the feet!)

Accomplishment

There is something less tangible we get from these events: achieving a goal. I don’t keep racing the Mora Vasaloppet for the wreath around my neck- I keep training and racing the Mora Vasaloppet for the journey and to see what my maximum potential is. I want to find out if I can be as good of a skier as I want to be.

And thus, what us hardcore racers are paying for, are getting out of this, is a sufferfest! We are paying to suffer!!!

That sounds harsh, but is largely truthful. If our goal is to race as fast as possible, we will be breathing hard and our muscles will be burning, but at the end we will be satisfied to have achieved a goal and we will certainly have an endorphin rush. So put another way, we are paying for an endorphin high!

There is also something incredible about being a part of something big and I have experienced this in the past in some of my larger ski races and running marathons. Anyone who has ever watched a popular marathon at Mile 20 can appreciate this as well, watching a steady stream of thousands of runners go by for hours.

So where am I at with this business on a personal level?

Since I already own a lot of equipment and am going to do some races anyway and hence am already going to pay for trail passes, it’s really the entrance fees, transportation, and lodging that I consider. It’s not that I don’t have the money for these races, but rather I’m questioning is it worth working X number of hours to suffer? How often can I put for the effort that will produce the endorphin high? And as I’ve more recently realized, I pay so little attention to the scenery that I could be racing anywhere and have started to like loop races. But I will say tons of cheering spectators does make any race significantly better. More concisely, lately I’ve been weighing the different factors of course, technique, distance, location, and spectators to judge if a race a good value.

There was one time Erik and I did a ski race near Montreal (the Marathon d’Oka) that was the best value race we’ve ever done. We brought home so much booty from that race (wax, cheese, more cheese, a ski jacket, t-shirts, hats, and that cat crap collector contraption) that it more than paid for our entry fee and transportation. I don’t think it quite covered our lodging though.

I’ve done at least a hundred races and this was the one exception.

Erik in Montreal's Mont Royal Park the day after he got this snazzy ski jacket in the raffle at the Marathon d'Oka.

The last few years I’ve been more selective about which races and tours to do, limiting my number and trying to only do those ones I want to do instead of feel I have to do. Between house projects, vacation, spending time with family and friends, and just wanting some lazy weekend mornings there are a limited number of races I can do each year. With most people having more commitments than I do, my real gripe is do we really need so many races and tours? There are multiples of these every weekend. They all cost money, take incredible time, and use resources- not only for the participants, but for the volunteers and organizations as well. Is this sustainable- for the participants, the organizations, and the volunteers? Is this the best use of our volunteer time? Are there other volunteer efforts that would be better as a society? Many of these events are charities, but if an event costs $100 per person and $50 of that goes into organizing (fencing, police, food, tents, porta-potties, t-shirts, awards), would it be better to just donate $100 to whatever charity of choice and instead just go do something outdoors that day at your leisure instead? Do we really need all the junk we get from races? Is anyone going to see that medal around our neck after we change our clothes?

My point is, where is the balance? How many races/tours are sustainable and how much is too much? Interestingly, in our capitalist economy, ultimately supply and demand will provide the answer!

From the Boston Marathon Expo: If you aren't savvy with a sewing machine, no need to worry, you can pay someone to turn all your t-shirts into a quilt, or maybe you will be a lucky recipient of a free t-shirt quilt!

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