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Economy Hits Marathon Appearance Fees

Boston Marathon
AP
Boston Marathon

A great piece written by my producer Tom Rotunno...

Don’t be surprised if the 113th running of the Boston Marathon turns into a sequel for Chariots of Fire. Only this time, it is anyone named Cheruiyot who is on fire. There's four-time Boston winner Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, Evans Cheruiyot and Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot.

No matter how the Cheruiyot’s (who are not related) perform, you can bet a Kenyan will vie for the top spot today. A Kenyan has won Boston 16 out of the last 18 years.

While the Cheruiyots are the talk of Beantown, the news for the many other Kenyan runners is not as good. The global credit crisis may be starting to leave its mark on the world of marathons. It’s not because three of the five largest marathons in the world happen to be sponsored by financial companies: the New York Marathon by ING Bank, Chicago Marathon by Bank of America and Boston Marathon by John Hancock Financial (London is sponsored by the food manufacturing company Flora and the Berlin Marathon by the German retail chain Real Hypermarkets). Most of those races have long-term contracts locked in and appear to be safe for now.

It’s actually the lower- to mid-tier marathons that might be feeling the strain.

Gerard van der Veen is an agent with Volare Sports, an athlete and sports event management company based in the Netherlands. The company represents as many as 25 Kenyan runners. Van der Veen told the East African newspaper that while the major marathons are currently not affected, the mid-tier marathons like Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna are feeling the crunch. According to van der Veen, the races at this level are losing sponsors or cutting budget -- sometimes by as much as a third. He’s advising his runners to expect drastic reduction in appearance fees and earnings, somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 percent.

Boston Athletic Association - Boston Marathon
Boston Athletic Association - Boston Marathon

One runner feeling the pinch is Elias Maindi. The winner of two lower profile international marathons, Maindi was scheduled to run the Vienna Marathon April 19th. He tells the BBC that he was told to stay home by his booking agent because the usual appearance fees just weren’t there. Organizers of the Vienna marathon have not publicly addressed the issue of budget cutbacks but, in what is believed to be a first for a major international marathon, the elite field in Vienna this year was limited to top athletes making their marathon debut.

Europe isn’t the only spot where marathon race prizes might be shrinking. At one time, Asia was a nice alternative to the major international marathons. While the larger races offered prizes in the $100,000 to $120,000 range, many of the Asian marathons were offering prizes of $80,000. While not enough to attract the top marathoners it was a nice bounty for up and coming runners. With the financial crisis being felt globally the size of those prizes are also now in doubt.

The problem with marathon appearance fees as we see it is that it certainly helps a sponsor to bring big runners to their races - it just helps to draw more attention. But while appearance fees directly translate into money in terms of ticket sales and television ratings for golf and tennis events, remember, watching the marathon in person is free and marathons don't get big ratings. So there's no incremental revenue to be generated by paying these guys to show up.

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com