Athletics: Road racing appeal on the wane in the US; high entry fees, glut of events, new activities cited as reasons for declining interest

Runners exit the area after finishing the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon on Nov 5, 2017.
Runners exit the area after finishing the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon on Nov 5, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - About 50,000 runners started the New York City Marathon on Sunday (Nov 5) - and they were the lucky ones.

Only 17 per cent of those who had entered a draw that fills a third of the field were selected, and applications for those spots were up about 20 per cent over the year before, according to race organisers.

But not every race is so popular. Road races have hit the wall.

The number of finishers in events in the United States has fallen from a peak of about 19 million in 2013 to just over 17 million in 2016. High entry fees, a glut of race options and competition from other fitness activities have shrunk the fields at many races.

"It's possible we got too big too fast," said Rich Harshbarger, chief executive of Running USA, an industry group.

Road races saw 300 per cent growth in the number of finishers from 1990-2013, with a concentrated boom from 2008-2013. Now, as participation recedes, Harshbarger expects some races to fold.

"We've still seen supply outstrip demand, and I think that's going to change next year," Harshbargerhe added.

Businesses that grew up around the boom have suffered, too.

In June, Competitor Group, which operated the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon race series and book and magazine publishing divisions, was acquired by Dalian Wanda, a Chinese real estate conglomerate that also owns Ironman.

Last month, the magazine Competitor folded, and Competitor Group's other publishing interests were sold.

Finish Line Sports sold its speciality running division in January, and the Rodale publishing company shuttered Running Times magazine last year.

City Sports, an apparel retailer that catered to runners, filed for bankruptcy in 2015.

Most of running's decline has come in what Running USA labelled the "other" distance - non-traditional events like mud runs and colour runs. They account for about a million of the lost road-race finishers, Harshbarger said.

He added that the problem was not necessarily that fewer people were running, but that they were doing it less often in organised events that charge fees.

"Events that aren't professional-managed or professional-produced are going away, and then those left in the market are forced to get more creative," he said. "Now everyone's got bands on the course and beer at the finish line, so what's new?"

Road races are also experiencing competition from things like studio classes, group yoga and CrossFit.

High fees for races have also become an issue.

In 2006, the average 5km race cost US$13.50 (S$18.43) according to Road Race Management, an industry publication. Now, the average is US$34.

In 2006, the average marathon cost US$69.97. That is now US$123.

In a 2017 survey, Running USA found that 20 per cent of runners expected to decrease their race participation. Half of the runners in the survey said they thought that races were too expensive and that cost was a top-10 factor in deciding whether or not to register for a race.

The survey also indicated that six in 10 runners would participate in more races if fees were low.

Phil Stewart, president of Road Race Management, said that prices had grown so quickly because they could - people kept paying them. But now, races are starting to see price resistance.

"Back when you could enter a road race for US$10 and you could enter a marathon for US$25, the sport really had no appeal or very little appeal for for-profit businesses," he said. "But then we moved into an era where people would pay US$85 for a half and US$135 for a marathon. That's when you really had all the for-profit groups, and it just transformed the model."

He specifically cited the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon race series, which put a heavy focus on the social experience of running events and charged high prices for it. (Fees for races in its 2017 Las Vegas race series are US$79.99 for the 5K up to US$179.99 for the marathon.)

Jean Knaack, executive director of the Road Runners Club of America, said that running is "at the plateau". "While we're seeing the decline on the event side," she said, "people are still staying active in their clubs."