Adeel at Complete Running wonders, “Is running a dying sport?” He argues that African domination has eroded American interest in running as a sport, and that it is only viable because of the participation factor.
Coupled with changing economics rooted in non-competitive enjoyment, the future is at best uncertain for running as a sport. It seems ridiculous to offer large purses when the competition at the front of the pack has little to no interest for most customers, the competitors sadly indistinguishable. The success of the Marine Corps Marathon, a prominent race with roughly 30,000 finishers and no prize money, testifies to this reality.
In my mind, running as a competitive sport is so strong right now that had Adeel not posed the question I would not have even imagined that anybody thought it was weak.
Ignoring Adeel’s fascination with everybody’s interest in Lance Armstrong running the New York City Marathon, which appears to be the inspiration for this article, his main point seems to state that the economics are not going to support running in the future. If American runners can no longer appear on the cover of sports illustrated, and television coverage is limited to doping scandals, then how can races afford to pay the winners of races? If we can not afford to pay the winners, then how will Americans stay competitive when the only motivation is amateur races and the Olympics?
I have no fear about either question. Perhaps Adeel lives in an area where competition is light, but as a competitive athlete I have never had any trouble finding somebody to strive against. Most people are happy to consider running an activity, just as most people enjoy playing a pickup game of basketball or baseball and use those sports to help stay in shape and have some fun. There will always be people who need to race and compete, though, and everywhere I have lived there have been strong, vibrant racing communities. Whether there is money or not, some people just need to win and will contribute to the sport no matter how many part time jobs they need to hold down. For example, amateur running was extremely competitive in the 70s, even though the AAU kept athletes from accepting more than a few dollars a day in meal money. A large number of those athletes could have easily made it as professionals had there not been something more important that they were striving for.
As for the economics, the purses will not be going away at any time in the foreseeable future. Even if there were no competitive Americans, but only runners out there as an activity, there would still be plenty of money to create a purse. Creating the purse would then serve to make some people more competitive, and we are right where we started.
Most races use their entry fees to offsets the sometimes not inconsiderable costs of organizing and directing a race, with any profits going directly towards a charity. The purses are not provided by race entry fees, no matter how much those can swell when some races cost on the high end of a hundred dollars and races swell above 20,000 or 30,000 participants. Purses are provided by race sponsors. Race sponsors want access to captive audiences that races provide. If you look on the back of any road race t-shirt, from your local 5k with a hundred runners to the marathon 5 states away, you will always see a list of companies that have provided something to that race. Maybe they donate the water, or maybe they donate the cash for the purse. They are marketing themselves to a group of people who will then walk around with their company’s name prominent to anybody walking behind them. They will have ads, brochures, and samples provided by the companies in their registration bags. They will sample their wares while out on the course.
Runners do not have to be competitive athletes to make competitive running economically viable. I have no fears that running is a dying sport, especially given how participation is increasing and more people are becoming involved.