COVID-19 Impact Report: Restarting Mass Participation Events
by Conrad Wiacek
Sportcal looks into the impact of COVID-19 on the restarting of mass participation events.
28th September 2020, 10:40
Executive Summary

1. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mass participation industry has been profound

  • Over 50% of race organizers have reported losses of over 50 per cent of their annual revenue due to the cancellation and postponement of events.
  • Charities, which use mass participation events as key piece of fundraising, are seeing their donations plummet with the lack of events.
  • The London Marathon alone provides over $60m annually to charities, a shortfall that will directly impact on the activities of charities and not for profit organizations.

2. While events have slowly begun to restart, the appetite from competitors to compete is as strong as ever

  • Over 96 per cent of competitors have expressed the confidence that they will take part in an event within the first 12 months following the easing of lockdown measures and events begin to return.
  • All event organizers acknowledge that the ‘new normal’ will likely see significant changes to the nature of mass participation events, with a greater emphasis on safety protocols and social distancing.
  • Complete risk mitigation will not be possible, so clear lines of communication between race organizers and participants will be crucial to ensure that events are safe.

3. While events have slowly begun to restart, the appetite from competitors to compete is as strong as ever 

  • Over 61 per cent of competitors have admitted in taking part in virtual events, with this evidenced by the growth in usage of fitness app Strava.
  • Virtual events have allowed event organizers to fulfil some of their contractual obligations to sponsors, which will impact sponsor confidence moving forward and allow brands to enter into new partnership.


Mass participation events have become big business the world over. From major city marathons attracting elite athletes to smaller, localised events attracting the amateur runners and those looking for a sporting challenge, the mass events space has long been seen as an excellent way for people to keep fit and participate in sporting activities.

While events may used by many as a means of training with a competitive mind-set, building up their personal fitness, challenging themselves to beat personal best times or for a sense of accomplishment in completing a gruelling obstacle course, the mass participant sector is now a significant revenue generator, with the London Marathon alone said to generate in excess of $60m per year for charities. With this in mind, the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the sector is unprecedented. With most mass participation events hosting fields of thousands of competitors per event, all these events became entirely unfeasible in light of new social distancing and isolation rules to prevent the further spread of the pandemic.

While many sports are now either restarting or planning to restart in some fashion, the future for mass participation events has never looked more uncertain. With key questions to answer about how to run a socially distanced event and how to get people back competing in the events, this report will look at some of the actions taken by event organizers with a view to putting together a socially distanced event and how the mass participation space can hope to rebuild itself in the face of COVID-19.

COVID-19 Sector Impact 

Analyst Overview

Mass participation events have become big business in the UK and across the world and are now a staple part of people’s leisure and exercise routines. Large scale events such as the London Marathon generate upwards of $150m to the UK economy whereas smaller scale charity focused events such the Race for Life can generate revenues in excess of $50m per annum which is a significant source of revenue for charities such as Cancer Research UK.

With events such as the Royal Parks Half Marathon organized by Limelight Sports, through to obstacle events such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race events to charity focused events such as Run For Life right through to events aimed at getting people active such as the Couch to 5k events, every part of the sector has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even prestigious events such as the London Marathon have been postponed or cancelled outright, with the 2020 London Marathon now an ‘elite only’ event. As a result, the economic impact of the lack of events will be felt not only by the competitors and companies organizing the event, but by the host cities who rely heavily on the revenue generated by both competitors and tourists, some of whom will travel internationally to compete in some of the most high profile events.

While the event organizers have been able to make use of the digital space by creating virtual events, the reality is that mass participant events are aimed at having large fields. Over 700 competitors from 32 countries tried to survive 24 hours of brutal challenges and tests of fitness in the Spartan Race digital event called ‘The Unbreakable 24’, showing that mass participation events and organizers have embraced the possibilities offered through digital means. The Strava fitness app has seen both user count and data usage more than triple compared to pre-lockdown figures, as people record their fitness achievements throughout the lockdown period. While the Strava app provides a competitive element, the hope for many event organizers is that these digital experiences are merely a stop gap until the real business of mass participation events are able to restart. 

Event organizers have seen revenues decimated, but there is a plan for recovery



According RaceNation, the leading integrated event registration, fundraising and event day app, who conducted a survey of event organizers and participants in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of COVID-19 on the mass participation sector has obviously been significant. Over half (54.2 per cent) of Event organizers have estimated a business revenue loss of over 50 per cent, while 9 out of 10 race organizers (92.7 per cent) have reported a loss in revenue as a direct result of the pandemic. However, in order to mitigate those losses, over 70 per cent of event organizers will be looking to bring on additional sponsors in order to off-set these loss.


While all sporting events have been directly impacted by COVID-19, the reality is that mass participation events may have been hit the hardest. With no events allowed to take place due to social distancing rules, and without the support of huge media and sponsorship deals, many event organizers have struggled in recent months, with over half reporting losses of 50 per cent of revenue. With margins far tighter in this sector than in other sports, this sort of loss can realistically mean the permanent cancellation of certain events.

In order to off set these potential losses, many organizers are looking to sponsors to bridge the gap. Will Golder, director of Race Nation suggests that for many brands, sponsoring a mass participation event may be a cost effective way of maintaining market presence without incurring significant costs, but the reality is that marketing spend for many brands will be cut as they try to offset losses caused by the pandemic. For those brands that see the opportunity, the mass participation community could be a key driver in their road to recovery.

Virtual events and races filled a gap, but participants aren’t planning to walk away from them completely



While many athletes and participants took part in virtual events such as the afore mentioned ‘The Unbreakable 24’ and the ‘At Home SuperHero’ series aimed disabled competitors, many participants missed the community aspect of the events and the feeling of competing and taking part in a community event. While many found that substituting their normal events for a virtual event allowed them to maintain performance, the fact that nearly 50 per cent of those questioned admitted that they would take part in virtual events in addition to their regular events should highlight to existing and potential sponsors how engaged this community is with their sport. Digital spaces and virtual events can be limitless in terms of numbers provided the technology is in place to support it, meaning the potential audience could be huge.


While the suspension of sporting events has obviously impacted mass participation events, like so many other industries, the mass participation community was able to ‘go digital’ and utilize new technologies and platforms to allow people to engage with and compete as previously.

With apps such as Strava, an app designed to track exercise output in a social media setting, seeing usage triple over the course of lockdown, the virtual space has developed to the point where now competitors from all over the globe are able to compete in what were previously localized events.

While many competitors will have missed the outdoor element, and the camaraderie associated with outdoor events, the digital space has provided some commercial support to race organizers. With many events not generating huge profits, the loss of revenue has directly impacted organizers with many in need of support in order to continue to provide races in future. The digital space allows many to fulfill commercial obligations to sponsors and partners.

There is still huge uncertainty, but participants are eager to get going again



Event organizers are pretty much evenly split in terms of their expectations for events returning, with many unsure as to how the future looks for mass participation events. While the consensus seems to be that events will remain the same size or even increase in terms of participation numbers, the majority of the three suggests that there will be fewer participants taking part in these events, which will certainly be true in the short term. However, with over 40 per cent of those surveyed looking to return to events immediately upon the resumption of events post-lockdown and with over 96 per cent willing to take part in an event within the next 12 months, the audience for mass participation events has certainly remained strong. 


For many race organizers, the uncertainty brought about as a result of the COVD-19 pandemic is creating doubt about how best to navigate the next few months with regards to the recovery of the sector. For nearly 40 per cent of organizers, they fear that there will be fewer race entries, with only 31.3 per cent of organizers expecting to see the demand for spaces increase. With obvious questions around safety and social distancing, these are legitimate concerns.

However, with over 40 per cent of participants looking to take part in events immediately, and over 96 per cent of participants looking to take part in some sort of event 12 months of lockdown measures being eased, it seems that the mass participation community is still engaged and eager to compete.

This should be reassuring news to both organizers and sponsors, who now know that the potential audience for their events and partnerships is still as healthy as ever, with only a minority advocating a more cautious approach, with digital events potentially filling this gap.

Charities have perhaps been impacted most by COVID-19, with donations drying up with no events



With 40% of charities reporting a loss of over 50% of their annual donations as a direct result of COVID-19, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the charity and fundraising space. With the London Marathon alone driving $60m worth of donations, it is evident that many charities will have to look at alternative ways to make up the donation shortfall. Therefore it is no surprise to see that over 59% of charities will look at creating additional events as soon as possible in order to plug this funding shortfall.


While the mass participation sector has been severely impacted event organizers, agencies, and partners as well as competitors themselves, charities are likely to see a significant shortfall in funding as a direct result of the lack of key events.

Findings from RaceNation show that only a handful of charities haven’t been negatively impacted, with the vast majority seeing donations fall. With many mass participation events, running for a charity is a way of gaining entry to an event such as the London Marathon. For smaller scale events running for a charity can be a way of motivating competitors to train and compete, with the charity obviously benefiting through donations.

This lack of funding is perhaps one of the least visible impacts of COVID-19, but the effects are likely to be felt in the long term. 

Event Organizers

Limelight Sports

The Royal Parks Half Marathon and Blenheim Triathlon are two of the best known events run by Limelight Sports, a UK based sports marketing agency and event organizer. With the COVID-19 pandemic ripping across Europe and the UK, Limelight Sports were forced into cancelling or postponing all their events. However, with over a decade of experience in organizing events, with the first Royal Parks Marathon taking place in 2008, the agency was able to draw on plenty of experience in developing their response to the pandemic.

James Robinson, Chief Commercial Officer & Steve Dews, Innovation Director have outlined the agencies response to COVID-19, underlining the belief that COVID-19 will actually present an opportunity for the mass events participation sector, with people looking to re-engage with outdoor activities as soon as possible once safe to do so with Robinson suggesting that, “…we believe that mass participation events will thrive in a post-COVID-19 world. We are seeing a significant increase in people becoming active during lockdown…with the rise in participation during lockdown a real boon for the industry.”

While certain mass participation events like triathlon and cycling lend themselves to being able to be delivered whilst adhering to social distancing guidelines, allowing for staggered starts and able to take place over a weekend in order to maintain participant numbers, meaning that Limelight Sports see Triathlons such as the Blood Cancer UK Blenheim Palace Triathlon able to take place earlier than other than straightforward  running events.

One of the key parts of the mass participation space is sponsorship of the races themselves, which offer access to highly engaged audience. Limelight Sports believe that the approach of mass participation event organizers to sponsorship will need to fundamentally change, that the old sponsorship model is dead and that a model that is rooted in data and insights, one that can measure effectiveness and value, is key to unlocking future sponsorship investments by creating a model that taps into the communities that are built around mass participation events and providing access to those communities will be key for any future partnerships.

In the short-to-medium term, capacities will be reduced due to social distancing. As an example, the Blenheim Palace Triathlon is looking at approximately a 33 per cent reduction in event capacity, including spectators, who are limited to just one per participant. However one of the key challenges will be around the retail environment at races. Traditionally, many partners brands would be able to target competitors on the day and drive sales in this way. However, Robinson sees this changing significantly, saying that “…the nature of mass participation events means that retailers have ample opportunities to engage with and transact with the consumer, although a significant amount of that engagement is happening outside of the physical event weekend.  As such the only significant change you will see is an increase in pre-event retail marketing to the consumers with a greater emphasis placed on buying pre-event with a returns policy implemented on event day.” 

Spartan Race

Spartan Race is a series of obstacle races of varying difficulties and distances up to marathon distance. They are held in US and have been franchised to 30 countries including Canada, South Korea, Australia and several European countries. Additionally, Spartan Race is the owner and operator of the Tough Mudder series of events after acquiring the series in 2020. Typically, Spartan events draw thousands of participants for their 5K Sprints with 20 obstacles, but the company made significant changes to its operations in order to create the first socially-distant Spartan WW Motocross Park in Jacksonville, Florida. From eliminating spectators and certain obstacles to slashing the number of total participants to nearly 1,400—a 70 percent reduction of typical race capacity—Spartan Race have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by changing their events to ensure safety of participants.

With incredibly strict safety protocols and a redesigned course layout Spartan are still planning on delivering two key events in 2020. With considerable reductions to capacity numbers and heat sizes, along with having strict timings where racers are allowed on-site, the organizers have taken considerable steps to maximise the space and enforce social distancing. As an off-road event, Spartan Race have taken the idea of social distancing to the next level by taking steps to widen the courses to allow ample room for any over-taking.

Matthew Brooke, Managing Director, Spartan Race UK & Ireland says that “our well researched and consulted safety protocols will see significant restrictions on participant numbers, reductions to heat sizes, the expanding and widening of our courses (to afford racers more space), and also the regular sanitisation of our obstacles. All on site consumer touch points have also either been removed or restricted and participants will have designated time slots they are allowed on site for.”

The major challenge for Spartan as event organizers is the need to maintain the safety of those participants willing to take part. Measures such as restricted numbers, on site temperature checks and equipment cleaning will be implemented at each event. The new and modified operating procedures designed to maximise the safety of racers will require the intentional reduction of the event capacity by more than 60 percent of a once-typical Spartan event. Heat sizes will be drastically reduced to 50 racers departing every five minutes to allow for ample social distancing while the courses will be expanded in areas to allow more space for racers.

Delivering a safe event in confined spaces where social distancing is tougher to enforce is arguably more challenging. Brooke adds that “we have taken the hard decision to postpone our Twickenham Stadium event from December 2020 to next year. Thankfully being an outdoor and predominantly off-road event business, we are able to design and deliver events that aren’t spatially restrictive. For example, our new 2020 planning allows for much wider routes to maximise on course distancing. By also restricting arrival times and post-race dwell times, we are able to influence consumer behaviours to ensure a consistent turnover of racers that is safe and controlled.”

There will obviously be an impact on the commercial success and viability of these events, with partners and sponsors looking at how they maximise their investments when originally, they entered into partnerships with events that would have been far larger in terms of size, scale and even the number of participants taking part, which could force some into re-evaluating their partnership.

Brooke also sees the commercial impact of COVID-19 impacting the events, and agrees that the commercial landscape of mass participation events may be forced to change, something which he feels Spartan Race are well placed to deliver. He adds that “…the sports sponsorship landscape is changing and brands are now looking to maximise their exposure to fans through multiple touch points. Having such a strong global brand, and diverse, loyal Spartan fan base, we are still able to create multi-platform campaigns with our sponsors that drive meaningful exposure and tangible engagement. We have capitalised on virtual events, for example, by bringing on new partners to help us deliver the projects and reach audiences directly in their homes through a variety of channels, sending out promotional products, discount codes and valuable supporting content.” 

One of the major challenges for all events heading into 2021 will be the availability of venues and locations in which to host the events. Due to backlog of postponed events from 2020, many venues will already be at the limit of events they can host in 2021 and with certain major events like the Olympics moving into 2021, the reality is that visibility and opportunity for many events will be lost with everyone attempting to make up for 2020 losses. While the appetite is there from both competitors and  organizers, there will be a limit to the number of events competitors take part in, which will have an impact on organizers in the short term, while long term there will impact on the viability of these races moving forward as partners and sponsors re-evaluate their marketing strategies. 

CSM Sport And Entertainment

CSM Sports and Entertainment are one of the largest sports agencies in the world, with mass participation events forming part of their portfolio. For them, the challenges moving forward will be in and around creating and organizing events in a post COVID-19 world. Christa Carone, President of CSM North America, states that learning about how to manage this effectively will be key to getting confidence back and resuming events. Supporting the findings of the Race Nation survey, she states “We’re learning a lot right now about bio-safe measures related to large gatherings, much of which will be applied to mass participation events in the future. As certain safety measures become more commonplace (i.e. our “new normal”) – like mask wearing and hand washing, we believe that mass participation events can be produced in a way that minimizes risk.” Carone also highlights one of the key ways sponsors will be able to drive and potentially add value to their partnerships, “…we’ll see brands owning the “’mask moment’ as part of their sponsorships (the “swag” item du jour).” 

Holly Millward, Regional Director of CSM Asia, highlights some of the challenges in returning to mass participation events, namely the support of sponsors and partners, stating that “…at the root of the process you need sponsors and partners to continue to see these platforms as viable investment products. Brands are certainly looking at digital first in the short term due to uncertainty, but we are confident that live events will return and with them partnerships.  It is a matter of time, confidence and risk mitigation in the medium term.” Millward takes confidence from the return of other sporting events, but acknowledges that mass participation sports are unique in terms of the nature of the events in terms of volume of competitors and proximity, making solutions like bubbles or closed door events simply unfeasible in the short term. While acknowledging that many are innovating to safeguard competitors and fans, sadly the nature of mass participation events means a vaccine is vital, stating that “I can’t see mass participation events return in original form before a vaccine is discovered.” 

However, David Sanderson, Regional Director of CSM Middle East, suggests that mass participation events will likely restart without a vaccine, but with conditions in place to protect as many people as possible. However, participants cannot expect organizers to be able to 100% guarantee the safety of all competitors, as individuals will have to be responsible and this is something that organizers cannot police entirely, so will instead look at limiting the numbers of older and younger age groups allowed to take part, staggered starts, enhanced safety protocols and mass pre-event testing of competitors. Sanderson also highlights that race capacities will have to be reduced and that city centre events may not be feasible due to the potential issues arising from spectators mixing as it will be difficult to enforce the same safety protocols for crowds of spectators as with competitors. 

The nature of mass participation events means that they draw in competitors from around the world, something that will likely have to be restricted in the short term. To this end, it is likely that these events will start at local or regional level to begin with, with restrictions easing as travel channels start to reopen. Giles Stanford, Director of Global Events at CSM Live, suggests that individuals will have to take responsibility as “Risk mitigation is not 100% possible, therefore each participant will need to be informed of those risks and how an event is operating to mitigate this, such as having multiple sanitation stations, walk-through misting and temperature checks.” Stanford sees the success of virtual events such as the Running World Cup as an alternative to physical events, with over 400,000 people from 234 countries signing up to take part, with COVID-19 actually acting as catalyst to drive interest and participation in digital events. 

With the rise in digital events as well as the proposed return of in person events, the future of mass participation events should be an environment that still benefits commercial partners. Millward adds that, “Irrespective of the platform on offer, the most important part of the process is to understand what the partner needs to deliver value…there is significantly more business value that can be attributed to better understanding the participants and fans, employing data-driven activation tactics, offering engaging content assets and delivering a compelling narrative.  It requires a shift in mindset for both rights holders and partners, but it is possible, and the future is still bright for investment.” 

With the opportunity for partners potentially enhanced through a more data driven approach, and with more data available than ever as result of the COVID-19 pandemic and competitors utilizing training apps, event organizers should be well placed to attract greater levels of corporate investment.

Case Studies - Marathons

London Marathon Factsheet

  • Status: Postponed
  • Original Date: 26 April 2020
  • New Date: 4 October 2020
  • Number of Participants (2019): 42,906
  • Entry Cost: £39 ($49)
  • Money Raised for Charity (2019): 66.4 million ($83.2 million)

Sponsorship Portfolio (15 sponsors):

  • Title Sponsor - Virgin Money
  • Sponsors - New Balance, Abbott, Buxton, Lucozade Sport, Tata Consultancy Services, Amazon Audible, Holiday Inn, Tag Heuer, FedEx, Wanda Sports
  • Suppliers - Apogee, London Pride, Running Imp, South Eastern
  • Annual Sponsorship Worth: $25 million

London Marathon

London Marathon organizers were quick to respond to the escalating global disruption earlier this year, announcing its official race postponement until October on 13 March, the week much of UK sport was put on a hiatus. To date, the organizers remain ‘hopeful’ that the race can still be ran on its new date in October, but faces growing uncertainty, after a number of professional reporters and athletes announced their scepticism for the events in 2020, following news that the Great North Run had been cancelled, despite its original 13 September 2020 slated date.

In raising over $83 million for charity in 2019, one of the biggest losers from any disruption and any future cancellation of the event is the charitable sector, with the race in London being the biggest money generator for charities of any of the six biggest marathons.

Whilst the event officials have already spent millions on planning and organisation, the London marathon looks set to miss out on strong financial returns from sponsors and participation money. Using last year’s figures, the event in London could miss out $2,102,394 from entry fees, whilst corporate sponsors are also likely to look to invoke force majeure clauses in their contracts, to suspend and recoup sponsorship spend, which is currently valued at a total of almost $25 million. Further to this, another hug concern for the event organizers surrounds its title sponsorship rights, with current partner, Virgin Money having already declared their intentions in October 2019, that it would not be renewing its contract after 2021. The global pandemic has almost negatively financially impacted on every brand in every sector, meaning the search for a new title sponsor is not as clear or as easy a task as previously thought. Whilst finding a new partner itself remains tricky in the current market, negotiating a deal as strong as its current one looks particularly unlikely, and so plugging as much of its estimated $10 million hole in commercial worth (once Virgin Money leaves) takes on huge significance for the event.

The London Marathon is already a race which has historically looked to stagger the flow of participating runners, with three unique start points featuring in the city centre.

It has already been suggested that those runners looking to defer their place at the event may have to wait until 2023 for their place, with the organiser’s ambition of allowing others the chance of getting into future events. Further to this, the marathon could potentially be spread across two days in the future, offering a chance to distance runners better and potentially offer more chances for deferred/new participants.

Should the event successfully be able to be run in October, one of the biggest and most impactful differences to the event will come from the crowd. Typically the event in the English capital attracts around 750,000 spectators each year, making for great support and adding to the spectacle around the event. Despite the easing of social distancing measures in the England in recent weeks, the country continues to follow a number of safety measures, with sports such as soccer and tennis currently being played behind closed doors (no live spectators).

Berlin Marathon Factsheet 

  • Status: Cancelled
  • Original Date: 27 September 2020
  • New Date: NA
  • Number of Participants (2019): 46,983
  • Entry Cost: €125 ($141)

Sponsorship Portfolio (15 sponsors):

  • Title Sponsor - BMW
  • Main - adidas, Abbott, Giti
  • Co-Sponsors - Wanda Sports, Erdinger, Taiwan Exellence
  • Partners - Aok, Ultra Sports, Generali, Laserline, Lichtenauer, Here, Mall of Berlin, Hoffner, Sportograf
  • Annual Sponsorship Worth: $13.6 million
Berlin Marathon 

In June the event in Berlin was officially announced as cancelled, months after the German governments decision to prohibit all events and gatherings of over 5,000 people until 24 October – a full month after the original slated start date for the marathon. Expected runners at the event in 2020 have all been given two options, either to defer their entry to 2021 or claim a full refund. The Berlin marathon is commonly referred to as the quickest of the global marathons, thanks to its relatively flat course and average temperature’s of between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius in September, and as such its cancellation will serve as a big disappointment for those chasing records, particularly, current World Record holders Brigid Kosegi and Eliud Kipchoge. One of the big revenue losses for the event organizers comes from its undelivered contracts with its sponsors, which will see the German event lose an estimated $13.6 million in sponsorship money, with its partners looking to withhold scheduled payments. In particular the focus for the race organizers will be on maintaining positive relationships with its biggest partners, especially title sponsor, automobile manufacturer BMW, which has been held the rights since 2011. Further losses for the cancelled event are likely to stem from the loss entry fee’s, which when using last years numbers, would stand to generate $6,624,603. 

Tokyo Marathon Factsheet  

  • Status: Cancelled for general public (with entry deferrer until 2021), with the Elite race ran as expected.
  • Original Date: 1 March 2020
  • New Date: NA
  • Number of Participants (2019): 37,952
  • Entry Cost: 18,200 JPY ($170)
  • Money Raised for Charity (2019) - 585,570,468 JPY ($5,445,710)

Sponsorship Portfolio (26 partners):

  • Premier Partner - Tokyo Metro
  • Major Partners - Starrts, Yamazaki, Asics, Pocari Sweat
  • Main Partners - Kintetsu International, Dai-Ichi life, Seiko, Toray, McDonald’s
  • Active Partners: Mizuho, All Sports Community, Kokumin Kyosai Corporation, Konica Minolta, Salonpas, Daiwa Securities Group, Bandai Namco, Westin Hotels & Resorts 
  • Supporting Partners - Nihon Kohda, Koyou Rentia, Shimzu Octo, Fanplus, Dole, Sagawa, Fod, Mitsubishi
  • Annual Sponsorship Worth: $8.8 million
Tokyo Marathon  

Despite being the first of the six major marathons scheduled for 2020, the event in Tokyo was not able to avoid the negative implications brought about by COVID-19. Unlike most of the other global marathons however, the event in Japan was able to go ahead in early March, just weeks before the big outbreak and cancellation of sporting events globally (particularly in Europe and North America). Had this marathon been staged outside of Japan/Asia, then it is conceivable that the event would have been able to have gone ahead in its entirety, however Japan became one of the very first countries to battle with the issues of COVID-19, with its first confirmed case coming in January. As a result of the virus, the event organizers took the decision to restrict the race to elite runners only, with the event limited to 176 athletes and 30 wheelchair athletes. News of this announcement was made only on 17 February, a few week ahead of the event on 1 March, meaning the last minute changes are likely to have resulted in huge financial implications for its scheduled non-elite runners, particularly those based outside of Japan, who will have lost out travel and hospitality expenditure. Further frustration for non-elite athletes will likely have been felt after the event organizers’ decision to allow them to defer until 2021, but under the knowledge that they would again have to pay the ($170) entry fee. Before the event cancellation to the masses, race officials appeared confident of that the race would be to go ahead as usual, with safety plans having been discussed to offer surgical masks to runners and volunteers as protection against the virus. Reasons for the decision to not offer refunds stem from its expressed terms and conditions that participants agreed to when signing up for the race, which outlined that refunds would only occur due to naturally occurring phenomenon such as strong winds, fire and earthquakes, for which COVID-19 has not been deemed to be included as such. For the race organizers, this has saved millions, of which most had already been spent on preparation for the 2020 race. Further to this, enquiries made alongside the Tokyo Marathon Foundation, uncovered that the new global virus had been judged to fall outside of the terms of its insurance policy, which could have potentially covered up to 90 per cent of its spend. 

With the event able to have been run, the Tokyo Marathon is likely to have salvaged more expected financial income than any of the other major international marathons from commercial partners. With 26 named partners in its sponsorship portfolio, the Tokyo Marathon stands as the most commercially backed, in terms of partner volume, for which the majority are made up of domestic brands. However, according to Sportcal estimates, the event stands as one of the lowest earning of the marathons from sponsors, which can be attributed to its lack of title sponsorship, which itself represents a multi-million dollar opportunity for other marathon races. Whilst the Tokyo Marathon has been able to provide some level of competition and race activity, it should be suggested that its commercial partners will have looked at reducing its payments for its commercial rights, with its full-scale event not carried out, as would have been agreed. 

Boston Marathon Factsheet   

  • Status: Cancelled
  • Original Date: 20 April
  • New Date: N/A
  • Number of Participants (2019): 30,234
  • Entry Cost: $180 (US runners) $240 (international runners)
  • Money Raised for Charity (2019): $38.7 million

Current Sponsorship Portfolio (17 brands):

  • Principal – John Hancock
  • Apparel – adidas
  • Partners – Amazon, Gatorade, Poland Spring, Clif, Samuel Adams, Citgo, Tata Consultancy Services, AT&T, Abbott, JetBlue, Infiniti, Wanda Sports, Hyland’s Leg Cramps, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Almond Breeze
  • Annual Sponsorship Value: $15.5 million

Boston Marathon 

On 13 March, officials at the Boston Marathon announced initial plans to postpone its race in 2020 amidst growing fear of the potential impact of the COVID-19 worldwide. Early plans saw the event moved from 20 April to 14 September, this was however only the case until 28 May when it announced the full cancellation of the race for 2020 as the impact of the virus in the States became truly felt. It’s cancellation in 2020 marks its first cancelled event in its entire history since 1897, with the event even continuing to be staged throughout World War Two. In cancelling the event, all scheduled runners have been offered full refunds and have been offered the opportunity of participating in its ‘virtual event week’. Its virtual race for 2020, is due to take place throughout the second week of September, in which people will have to run the 26.2 miles within six hours (with proof), whilst participants will be able to listen and take part in non-running events online such as panel discussions and interviews with former race winners. With no event being run in 2020, the two biggest losers from the cancellation stand to be the charitable sector and local economy. In 2019, the race was able to generate over $38 million in charitable donations, a which will likely fall significantly, despite valiant efforts by many to continue to raise funds for their chosen charity through other means such as the virtual Boston Marathon. For the local Boston economy however, the ramifications of no marathon are huge, with the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau (GBCVB) previously putting estimates at $200 million for boosts to the local economy during marathon weekend. This generated money stems from the popularity of the event which typically attracts over 500,000 spectators to its streets, on top of its race entrants, for which all contribute to the money generated through spend on hotels, restaurants, cafes, bar and shops. At a domestic runner price of $180, the Boston Marathon stands at the cheapest of the three major American marathon races. Using this price of $180, alongside the 30,234 number of runners in 2019, the Marathon would likely have generated in the region of $5,442,120 from entry fees alone. Other losses for the event will come from sponsorship, with its official partners likely to suspend payments and/or recoup previously paid payments following the news of a cancelled race in 2020. The race generates an estimated $15.45 million from its 17 sponsors and will likely be a big loss of income for the event. 

New York City Marathon Factsheet    

  • Status: Cancelled
  • Original Date: 1 November 2020
  • New Date: N/A
  • Number of Participants (2019): 54,205
  • Entry Cost: $255 (New York Road Runners members); $295 (non-members); $358 (International runners)
  • Money Raised for Charity: Charity Partner had goal of $50 million for 2020

Current Sponsorship Portfolio (21 brands):

  • Title – Tata Consultancy Services
  • Founding – New Balance, the Rudin Family, United Airlines
  • Strategic – Abbott, Bedgear, Biofreeze, Foot Locker, Gatorade, Honey Stinger, Hospital for Special Surgery, Michelob Ultra, Poland Spring, Volvo, Wanda Sport
  • Contributing – Chiquita, Dunkin, Apples from New York, Snyder’s of Hanover, Tiffany & Co, UPS
  • Annual Sponsorship Value: $34.5 million

New York City Marathon

Despite having the latest start date of any of the major international marathons, with the original 2020 race scheduled for the start of November, race officials opted against competing with the growing risks of COVID-19, with infection rates in the United States remaining some of the biggest globally. The race was officially cancelled on 24 June, over four months ahead of the planned race, enabling it to cut its losses before having to make further payments for the event, for which its ability to be staged in the later months of 2020 appeared to only growing more and more uncertain. There would have been a potential for the marathon to have been run, after being stripped back to elite-racers, as was the case in Tokyo in March, however have decided against such a race, citing fears of safety in relation to spectators gatherings and their ability to bring international runners over to the States. The cancellation represents the second time this decade that such action has had to be taken on the event, with the race previously having to be cancelled in 2012, just days before the start of the race, due to city continuing to feel the after effects of Hurricane Sandy. 

In 2014 a report released by the New York Road Runners found that the New York City Marathon generated an estimated $415 million to the local economy, after hosting over 258,000 guests, as well as attracting an approximated 2 million spectators. These numbers represent a big loss for the city, which has been one of the most badly affected in the United States by COVID-19. Further to these losses in the economy, the event organizers are set to miss out on substantial revenue generated from sponsorship income, with its partners likely to seek compensation or reclaim/suspend payments towards the 2020 event, under force majeure. One of the major questions for the race officials moving forward will surround trying to negotiate a terms for a new title sponsorship deal, with its current (estimated) $12.5 million a year deal with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) due to end in 2021. 

Last year the race attracted over 54,000 runners to the streets if New York, making it the biggest of the six international marathons for its volume of participants; and with entry prices ranging between $255 and $358, the event also stands as the most costly. Using the minimum price of $255 and the number of runners from 2019, the race is able to generate $13,822,275 from runner fees alone, a significant loss of income for the event organizers in 2020. 

Chicago Marathon Factsheet     

  • Status: On 13 October event organizers announced that the 2020 edition had been cancelled, with expected runners able to receive a refund or defer entry to a future race (in 2021, 2022 or 2023)
  • Original Date: 11 October
  • New Date: N/A
  • Number of Participants (2019): 45,000 (approx.)
  • Entry Cost: $205 (US runners) $230 (International runners)
  • Money Raised for Charity (2019): $27.1 million 

Current Sponsorship Portfolio (26 brands):

  • Title Partner – Bank of America
  • Official Partners – Abbott, AdvoCare, American Airlines, Biofreeze, Gatorade, Molex, Nike, Tata Consultancy Services, Wanda Sports
  • Supporting Partners – Goose Island, McDonald’s, Athletico, Aquafina, Mariano’s
  • Associate Partners – BluePlate, CulturaLink, Deloitte, Hilton, Michigan Apples, Millennium Garages, Now Foods, Park Grill, Pods, Stryker, White Claw
  • Annual Sponsorship Value: $15.5 million

Chicago Marathon 

On 13 July 2020, the race organizers announced the event in Chicago had been forced to be cancelled in response to the ongoing public health concerns the country is facing from COVID-19. Scheduled runners for the event have since been given the choice of receiving a full refund or deferred entry into the race for 2021, 2022 or 2023. Its cancellation in 2020 represents only the second time the event has not been run in its history, with the first such race being cancelled in 1987, after its main sponsor, Beatrice Foods dropped ended its partnership in 1986, and the event organizers were unable to find a replacement sponsor.

The city of Chicago had expected to attract an estimated 1.7 million spectators to its streets on race weekend, offering great atmosphere its approximated 45,000 runners (based on 2019’s figures). These numbers have helped the marathon event generate substantial sums for the city’s economy each year, in which race officials valued the local economic impact at $378 million in 2018. Losses from entry fees can expect to be in the region of $9,225,000, based on the typical estimates of 45,000 runners and minimum entry fee cost of $205. Much like the other cancelled major international marathons, officials in Chicago will expect to face losses from its official sponsors, who themselves will scrutinise force majeure clauses in their contracts to withhold payments. In total, the race in Chicago generates an estimated $15.5 million from its commercial deals, with its most lucrative deal coming with the Bank of America for its title sponsorship rights. In light of the decision, the race organizers have followed the initiatives taken by other marathons in declaring its current aim of creating a virtual version of the event. 

The Future for Mass Participation Events 

To date, the London Marathon remains the only one of the six major World Marathon Major (WMM) races still scheduled to go ahead in 2020, whilst the race organizers still have yet a number of obstacles to overcome before this becomes a reality this year, not least having the world avoid a potentially threatened second global wave of the pandemic. The size of these races makes them some of the hardest events to future plan for, given the hundreds of thousands of spectators associated, on top of the participants. For smaller mass events such as Parkruns and Spartan races, there is potential to strip back the product and introduce viable safety measures, offering a smaller and less congested events, moving to a more localised product. But when analysing an event such as the New York City Marathon, which has hundreds of thousands/millions associated with it, any scaling back will still leave uncontrollable mass entrants involved. Mass numbers will therefore still remain a permanent feature of these races, with little difference likely to be felt between 50,000 and 25,000 participants. To this end, these races can never be totally safe, and so runners will have to face up to this fact and choose to compete knowing the risks. However, there are a number of measures which can be introduced which will likely shape the future of these events for the next two or three years.

Less time will be spent at these events, whereby usually participants will look to turn the race into a weekend away, with trips to bars, restaurants and hotels common before and after the event, there will be a concentrated focus on managing these types of interactions, with event organizers reducing the amount of unnecessary interaction. By this I mean we should expect to see more of its services move online, such as registration, sending pins, numbers, t-shits and medals over mail.

Whilst it can be expected that the number of applications for each marathon will likely drop in 2021, expect the cost of entry fees to increase, as organizers look to ensure their ability to cover operational costs. For an event such as the London Marathon this will be seen as less disastrous compared to others, with the London event costing £15 ($19) cheaper than the average price of the ten biggest marathons in the UK (£54 ($68)), and some $156 cheaper than the New York Marathon for domestic runners. Applicants for the London Marathon for 2020 had only an 8.74 per cent chance of success in the ballot, after achieving a record number of applicants (457,861), and as such it appears that the race could profit from increased entry fees. On the flip side, this could be seen as a severe deterrent for other global races, which are already in the hundreds of dollars, for something which people can and have been doing for free. Some may also become disenchanted with a rise in prices should the event have to be stripped back to suit health and safety, offering a lessened experience. 

In looking to recoup any potential lost income from 2020, the marathons themselves will likely look to stay busy in the sponsorship market over the next 24 months, with adding more brands partners a great source for additional income. Whilst the market for sponsorship may have become more difficult and fragmented in recent months, sponsorship will remain a big source for a marketing drive, as companies look to rebuild after COVID-19. More sponsors and greater brand involvement could also become the new norm, as the races themselves look to offer more stations along their routes, for things such as water, food source, hand gel and wipes. 

Will these events be able to attract the same levels of volunteering? The act of free help, goes a long way for these events in keeping its costs down, but with the threat of COVID-19 still around, are people likely to be as open to offering their services, potentially exposing themselves to catching the virus. One potential driver for getting more people involved with the races, from a runner and volunteer perspective, could be the desire to help charities, which have been hugely affected over the past few months, not least from the lack of marathon running in 2020. There has perhaps never been a greater reason for someone to want to get involved in a charitable set up, with so many in need of funds. 

Potential solutions that could come into affect over the next few years:

  • Split or pro-long race events. As is the case with the Athens Marathon, due to be held in November 2020, in which they have announced plans to split its 10,000 participants into two groups of 5,000, in which the second group of runners will start their runs one hour after the start of the first group. Further to this, races could be stretched further into the weekend, with events opting to hold its race over the course of two days or even greater periods of time, although this will inevitably result in increased expenditure on things such as advertising, police/healthcare personnel and road closures.
  • Look to reduce travel, becoming more of a domestic based race, in a bid to reduce air travel and further spread of the virus globally. Whilst races will likely continue to continue offering its elite race, this field can be lowered to a select few, whilst non-elite runners could be kept to nationals of the event.