27 June 2012

For Profit

I’ve got a love-hate relationship going on. The battle has been raging in my head for months, even years, as I’ve contemplated this article. The battle is not resolved; in short, I cannot take a side and will leave my conclusion vague. It’s just not a black and white topic. Let’s consider for-profit road racing (or for-profit racing in general). Is it an answer to market demand, or a perversion of a relatively pure endeavor that simply lines someone’s pockets?

First, full disclosure: I’ve profited from a racing event. I was paid for my services as an announcer at last year’s local triathlon, and would have done same this year if not for a scheduling conflict. Second, in today’s hyper-charged political atmosphere it seems prudent to state the obvious; I’m in favor of capitalism, though I’d like to see it take a bit more ethical path at times. I’ve nothing against business or earning a fair wage for one’s work. Without that concept, we’d all be in trouble.

Let’s look at the typical local club or charity race. The proceeds land in the lap of a non-profit organization of some sort, be it the local running club, which presumably pours those funds back into its mission, or the charity, which we’ll presume is legitimate and worthy. Let’s be clear that even in the smallest races, someone makes a profit. The shirt vendor, the medal vendor, the port-o-john service firm, even the hired-in-announcers, they all provide something that is needed. The investment they made to be able to provide those services wasn’t free. It’s only fair they be compensated for services they render. And in larger non-profit races, paid staff are the norm, and with good reason. You can’t pull off the Boston Marathon by volunteering nights and weekends.

In short, there is a cost of doing business. Sponsors and donations help, but at the end of the day there are things you have to pay for, because you cannot convince the entire global supply chain to sponsor each leg of their path down to your event. So when we refer to a non-profit race, we’re not fooling ourselves into believing that we’ve got some lily white angelic enterprise devoid of accounting. But at the end of the day, what’s left over goes to what we define as the public good.

Now let’s look at the typically for-profit race. From a business standpoint, it’s entirely the same thing. Vendors must be brought in, services must be procured, expenses incurred. It’s really no different. Many of these races even elect to allot a portion of the proceeds to a charity, to give the impression of (or do real) public good. But at the end of the day, what’s left over goes to the benefit of an individual or individuals.

Is that wrong?

One can argue about motives and resulting services. There’s a for-profit race series that drags its carpeted bags into Worcester now, as they’ve done for a few years. This year they elected to expand their event, adding a full marathon and a 5K to their existing half marathon. Knowing the history of this particular promoter, I choose to stay far, far away. But multiple reports from the scene came rolling in, and the picture wasn’t pretty. Six port-a-johns for well over a thousand racers. Complete mayhem at the start. Lack of marshals on the course. Awards delayed, not as advertised, not posted, heck, results not even posted. More than one person whom I’d warned about this event, but had chosen to run it anyway, came back saying, “Well, you told me so.”

It’s easy to point at this and insinuate that the promoter was cutting costs to line his pockets more thickly, and perhaps he was. But that’s a shallow approach that, while it may or may not be true in this case, doesn’t stand the litmus test. There are non-profit races that are poorly executed as well, and which suffer from cost-cutting in order to raise more funds; the pocket lined more deeply in that case is a charity, but we still expect a good product. And there are for-profit races that are well run.

I like to think of a race as pure competition, but the reality is that for most it is not really a race but an event with little competition involved, and the staging of said event is, in the end, a service. (How shall we entertain ourselves this weekend? Shall we go to a concert, or to a road race?) The for-profit promoter is, after all, providing that service. Shouldn’t he or she get paid for that?

One can argue about marketing and value. I cringe at the ads I see in running publications, where running comes in a distant second, third or even fourth, in the priority of what is being billed. Party! Bands! Visit our theme park! Pay to embarrass yourself in our mud pit! Be a rock star! Best schwag! Did anyone remember the fact that it’s a race?

Here it’s pretty accurate to point at the for-profit industry as the pusher of these agendas. Are they sullying the sport? Maybe yes, maybe no. I can’t fathom why people would pay to be chased by zombies, whatever they are, but more amazing to me is that people actually pay to be the zombies. As Don Henley sang in The Last Resort, “…Jesus, people bought ‘em.” Are you more angry at the spammers and telemarketers, or the fact that there are enough people that actually respond to spur them on? Are you more annoyed at bizarrely marketed “races” or the fact that people will pay far too much for a half marathon that claims to be an “excellent value” on a glitzy website?

So whether a race is run by a non-profit or a profit organization, there’s a wide range in quality of execution and value for the dollar. There are gems and duds in both categories. The appeal of any race is a collection of all attributes, including the organizers’ attitude. Are they in this to stage a great event for runners, or are they in this because it’s a way to make money? Attitude comes through loud and clear to anyone who takes more than a passing glance at these events. But there’s no law on defining the right attitude, and many don’t look deeper than that passing glance.

But there is an ethical issue of for-profit ventures drawing lifeblood from non-profit resources. No race survives without the contribution of many, including both race volunteers and the general public which allows it to happen. I’ve yet to see any race, non-profit or profit, where every staffer is a paid employee. No, they’re volunteers, recruited to donate their time and efforts for “The Cause”. The Cause might be just that they want to help provide a race for the runners. The Cause might be that the for-profit race does donate to a charity they like. The Cause might just be because they enjoy the activity. But think about it: they’re working for free so that someone can walk away with profit in their pocket. There are words that describe such an employer-employee relationship, and wars have been fought over them. Perhaps that’s a stretch, but it’s something to think about.

And then there is the issue of the general public’s willingness to allow these events to happen. Rare is the race held entirely off-road on private land. Most use public streets and therefore by definition disrupt public activities. The public allows this to happen on the expectation that this is a public event for public good. The public might take a dim view knowing that their inconvenience was caused by someone’s money-making enterprise.

I am reminded of two relevant tidbits. The first is the appearance in this area several years ago of drop boxes from a firm that collects and remarkets used books. The firm has an interesting business model: their service is the remarketing, and they “buy” the books by paying non-profit groups to host their drop boxes. So non-profits benefit, books are recycled, and people have a source for both disposal of and purchase of such books. All good. Except that they weren’t too clear at first about the fact that they’re a for-profit company. Make that less than totally transparent, and the drop boxes that use the word “donate” leave people feeling duped. Make that known, show the value in what you do, and all is well, though the word “donate” still seems a little misused.

The second is a political cartoon from the 1992 Presidential election, when Ross Perot made a go of it. Sadly, I can’t find an image of this classic doodle (apparently even Google can be foiled) but it showed a man walking away from a mailbox apparently having just mailed a political donation to Mr. Perot (this being the days before online fundraising), looking somewhat regretful, with the caption along the lines of how he just realized that he’d sent money to a billionaire.

And so it goes in the road racing world. What are you supporting? To whom are you sending your money? Where is it going? What is their motivation? What is the quality of the product you get in return?

As for me, I make exceptions, but make a solid effort to target club-run events. Support your sport, hang with the people who love running in and of itself without glitter and glitz, and you’ll save a heap of cash in the process.

As in the rest of life, caveat emptor.


  1. Read it, loved it. Thanks for writing it.

    I'm going through a new revelation of "where is my entry money going towards?" and just started some light research. I was shocked (to say the least) to read about two of the biggest short races, Color Run & Warrior Dash, as being largely for-profit (not in the means of paying vendors) and taking in millions of dollars each year - even to go as far as having a charity logo on their website that has nothing to do with donating any proceeds. Have you found any websites that would offer a list of not-for-profit races? I'm surprised at how little I'm finding. Thanks a bunch! MaryAnn Crawley - Redington Beach, FL, but born & raised a Masshole from Lowell :) Go Bruins!

    1. MaryAnn,

      Thanks for the comment but mostly thanks for being a smart consumer in our sport! Spread the word, we need more people to be wise to what's happening. I heard from a friend that the guy behind the Spartan races appeared on some TV reality show seeking big money funding, much of which would go to him. I didn't see it so I can't speak authoritatively, but ... oh my.

      As for findig races that are put on for the runners, not for the coin, start with the club scene. Local running clubs are, in my view, generally the best place to seek out real races - both the ones they put on themselves and the ones you'll learn about from their members. You can get a list of local clubs on the Road Runners Club of America web site www.rrca.org. As a fine example, you're from Lowell, home of the Bay State Marathon, a fine example of a local race BY runners FOR runners - they print that right on their shirt. Great event!

      Thank you again for reading!



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