Ron Marinucci: Race Entry Fees
by Ron Marinucci, Jul. 8, 2012
An article in a recent issue of a national running publication asked if race entry fees were becoming too expensive. A quick check of some well-known American races was revealing, if not shocking. The Boston and Chicago marathons cost $150 to run. The New York City Marathon is $255. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Las Vegas runs up to $185, while its accompanying half is $175.
Closer to home, in Michigan, the Crim is now $55. The Free Press Marathon is $125 and its half marathon $110. Locally, some races still have entry fees under $20, but they are becoming harder to find. It’s not unusual for entry to local races to cost $30 to $35.
Gone are “the good old days” recalled by Motor City Striders president Ed Kozloff. “The entry fee for the first Free Press Marathon in 1978 was $5 and included a shirt. The dinner was $3.” But, he added, “This was quite an increase from the first Motor City Marathon in 1963 that cost 50 cents—or $1 with a shirt if you finished. And, it was a club, not a race, shirt.”
Nice though it might be, nobody expects a return to those days and prices. I suppose one can say, “If you don’t like the entry fees, don’t race.” But if running and, by extension, racing are inclusive activities, that’s not the point. It’s also simplistic to merely state that race organizers have, in general, become “greedy.” (I always hesitate to use that misused and misunderstood word, “greedy,” one that sparks so much hypocrisy.) That, too, is misleading and most times inaccurate.
I asked a number of veteran runners, most of whom are familiar with race organization, and race directors about rising entry fees. About a dozen chimed in, often with ideas some runners don’t or haven’t considered. I’ve cherry-picked some of their thoughts.
Randy Step, Tony Lipinski, Kozloff, and Karen Lewis each has organized and directed road races. Step, who organizes the many Running Fit events, from 5Ks to ultras, noted, “Runners are pretty value-conscious consumers. Perhaps it’s the nature of our sport, [one] that requires hard work and very little equipment.” His analysis focused on three types of races and their fees. “Local events put on by local [organizers] are still great deals for what we get. The pricing has perhaps moved up a bit over the years, but all in all, the entry fees are still less than a round of golf, a ski lift ticket, or other sport spending.” He thinks, though, that “the mega-event companies are definitely gouging the participants. But we have the choice to enter or not. I admit I’ve run in a couple of these events and once is interesting….” He also mentioned “the obstacle course races like Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash. “[They] came out of the gun gouging and people still flocked to them. Novelty is a strong attraction.” Step opined that such events “will be a short-lived fad. Once is enough, especially for purist runners.” He also noted, “They are getting tons of bad press for being non-green.”
Lipinski is the race director for Roseville’s Big Bird Run. “I see fees all over the map,” he said. “Reasonable fees,” he suggested, can range from $15 to $30, which is where he’s kept Big Bird entries. Amounts can depend on a number of factors, such as size—large or small race—and “if it is a fundraiser run or a run that complements another event.” He also noted that “Lower fees are often the result of being able to secure consistent sponsorship year after year. Fewer sponsors mean higher fees to cover the costs.”
Lewis co-founded and organizes the Feet and Friends Fighting Colon Cancer Run. “We have decided to keep the cost of entry reasonable, $25 early registration. Our rationale is people will solicit or donate additional money to the cause. We are still able to provide participants a nice tech shirt and quality awards.” Echoing Lipinski on sponsorship, she added, “All of our food is donated. What we have, we have. I don’t think people care what food is offered after a race [that is] 10K or shorter.”
Kozloff offered more. “This is the third running boom.” Fees, he noted, have gone up with each boom. It’s a matter of basic economics—supply and demand. “The chip and disposable chip have expanded the number of groups that can now conduct a running event.” He added, “When I talk to runners, the majority think many of the fees are too high, but they are still willing to go and be a part of an event that they don’t want to miss being a part of.” And he cited that, “While runners are interested in low-cost events, it’s questionable if they would be well-attended because of a lack of amenities and if it is even possible to have a major low-cost event…without frills.”
Dave Foley and Scott Hubbard have been familiar with Michigan running for a long time. Foley is a former editor of Michigan Runner. “I still race occasionally,” he said, “but race fees to make me re-evaluate the number of competitions I choose. We can long for the good old days of the ‘70s and ‘80s when $4 to $6 could get you registered in a small race and the biggies like Old Kent and the Crim would set you back $8 to $10. However, race directing is [now] a much more expensive proposition. Paying police, buying insurance, hiring a finish-line service—this was rarely done except for the major big city races. Now it’s standard practice.” He also pointed toward the changing nature, that is, demands, of runners themselves. “Refreshments seem more lavish.” He admitted, “And I love those new polypro-type shirts you receive. But they all cost money. And let’s not forget prize money and finisher medals. Neither was to be found until about 1990.”
Hubbard likely knows as much about Michigan road racing as anyone. He offered insights and posed some interesting questions. “There’s no question [fees] have skyrocketed in the past dozen years. I have no idea how races set [fees]. Some races charge a lot simply because others do. Every race has a different scenario. I’m tempted to guess, though, some events are making quite a bit of money.” Then he asked, “Is that good—or bad? Why shouldn’t they make money?” That’s a good question, one he followed with, “How much is too much money to make,” adding, “Should I begrudge them that?”
Other runners shared their views as well. Lewis chimed in as a runner. “I have forgone races if the price is more than $30, mainly races shorter than 10K.” It’s not just the entry fees, but “travel time, gas, etc.” She suggested a way to cut costs. “The Riverbend Striders…have an option of shirt or no-shirt, at a reduced cost.” Often, Lewis doesn’t take the tee shirts, especially “the cotton ones. I have way too many to wear.” But she admitted, “I do love tech shirts.” When she helped organize the former Fantasy of Lights Race in Ann Arbor, costs were kept down by offering things other than shirts. “We decided to give out gloves which were a big hit and pleasant surprise to participants. Another year we had knit headbands. I also did a couple of trail runs in Grayling and they gave out nice non-cotton socks. Everyone needs socks!” Regarding fees, “I will pay more for races of longer distances, ten miles and beyond. For a half marathon, she surmised, “I probably would not pay more than $50 if local, but possibly more if it is out of state. I have not yet decided not to do a marathon based on cost. [They are] usually out of state, so that’s just the price to pay for an adventure.”
Riley McLincha has experience as a runner and race director (the Dalmatian Run). About the current state of entry fees, he remarked, [They] “seem pricey to me, but races are getting bigger. The market seems to say that prices are not too high.” Citing his own efforts, he noted, “5Ks can be put on with shirts, refreshments, timing and awards, nothing fancy, for entry of $15. We only care about breaking even.” Cutting back on food is another option for lower costs, he thinks. “It’s never the kind of food I want after a run. When I take it, I usually give it to someone else.” But, he noted, “I’ve seen organizers of triathlons put on just a run and the cost is much higher than run organizers charge.” And, “yes,” he’s passed on some races due to high registration fees.
Elite runner Monica Joyce charged, “Anyone who has put on a road race knows the expenses that can be incurred. Costs might not be realized by most runners.” She cited some, “insurance, city permits, police, barricades, printing for flyers and tee shirts, cost of tee shirts, awards and medals, supplies such as paper cups, and timing systems.” Reminding runners, she said, “Participants expect so much these days, so they should be prepared to pay for it.” And Joyce recognizes the hard work required to hold an event. “I hope all the races can make some money for all the time and effort put in over the months!” Noting that “times are tough” for both runners and race organizers, “Sponsors are not willing to give hand-outs as in the past.” Her advice is, “Pay the entry fee or don’t run.”
Stu Allen sends out an e-mail newsletter for Flint-area runners. He’s of two minds regarding current entry fees. “Some entry fees have got out of hand. Others do a really good job of returning value to the people who participate in their events.” He cited a recent trail race in Lowell. “The entry fee for the 100K was $62, $50 for the 50K. Each runner got a high quality jacket, suitable for winter wear, and a shirt. The course was almost entirely on trails, which were very well-marked. And stations had food and fluids. At the finish the race director and his wife and family were grilling hot dogs and other goodies. Finishers got medals and almost everybody got some sort of award, even if it was a super-sized whoopee cushion. I believe every person who ran this race got more than his money’s worth in swag, support, and awards. I am sure that every nickel they took in for entry fees went back to the runners.” But he added, “I see lots of other races that cost at least twice what I paid for this one that don’t give you much for your money. Some folks are out to make a quick buck and think that putting on a race is an easy way to do it.” Allen also noted “a no-tee shirt” option, the advantages of finding sponsors “to help foot some of the bills,” and the importance of community relations. “The races that have been around for a while have learned that they must deliver a good experience to get repeat customers.”
Jerry Mittman has run more than 850 races on practically every continent. He called entry fees “a mixed bag,” with “a good number of ‘value races…’ with an entry fee of $20 or less.” He cited a number of local races that fit this criterion. His best “value race” was a half marathon he ran in Rabat, Morocco in April—he ran the race and received a shirt, hat, and medal for $3.60! Mittman noted, “Once the fee hits $25 or more, I question whether the race is really worth it. I will look at alternative events or skip the race. I have run enough races in my life that I don’t have the feeling that I must do another—and I definitely do not need another running shirt!” He admitted, “There are many races that I will not do any more because the fees have gotten too high. Some of these events have gotten to be much more than a race and fees have gone up. That may be what some people want, but I am interested in a nice basic race without a lot of frills and extras.” A fee of $20, he thought, “is reasonable,” with a no-shirt option to reduce fees further. He also suggested “a senior discount on more races. This would encourage seniors to stay active and recognize the contributions they have made over the years in terms of registration fees.”
Harry Plouff runs and organizes races with the Mt. Pleasant Striders. He “runs marathons all over the world. I use www.marathonguide.com and look for bargains [on fees].” The current state of entry fees, he said, “has gone crazy.” But, he admitted, “They charge what the market will bear.” He remembered, “This was once a poor person’s sport. All he needed was a pair of shoes, shorts, and a few dollars. With the interest in running and especially people having a marathon on their bucket list, race fees keep going up and up.” The Mt. Pleasant Striders “sponsor numerous races, never charging more than $20, always giving group and family discounts. Fees need to match the purpose of the race. Some are fundraisers; others are fun runs.” Strider fun runs are $1, $2, or $5, depending on cost.” For big events, he noted, “Things have gotten out of hand, like the New York Marathon over $200 [and] still filling up in a day.” He reckoned, “Races need to break even or show a small profit. [But] money should not keep people from enjoying our sport.” Drawing from experience he revealed, “Everyone wants the Striders to help them run a race and earn money for their cause. Quickly they see that by the time you buy shirts, medals, awards, race timing, results, food, drinks, etc., you have to charge over $20 and then hope people show up.”
Like most things, the issue of race entry fees has many angles. Race directors must consider runners and runners must do likewise, consider race directors. Ultimately, I hope both make decisions that will help running and racing to continue to grow.