(28-Apr) -- With no action on the field of play and many events cancelled, this is a good time for marathon race directors to re-think different aspects of how their events are organized. One area for possible consideration is their elite athlete compensation plans, especially their time bonus structures which are likely based on out-of-date data.
PHOTO: Brigid Kosgei of Kenya setting a new world record for the marathon in Chicago last October, clocking 2:14:04 (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)
It is now an inescapable truth that the new "super shoes," which utilize carbon plates with foam midsoles which allow for superior energy return, allow athletes to run faster than they could with conventional racing flats. That's great for the athletes, but not so good for event organizers who offer time bonuses, usually without third-party insurance. Most marathon bonus structures were created based on historical data which have been made quickly obsolete by the improved shoe technology.
According to the website Alltime-Athletics.com there have been 219 male marathon performances at 2:06 or faster throughout history, and 42 of them (19%) were achieved during the 15 month period from January, 2019, through March, 2020. On the women's side there have been 183 marks of 2:22:00 or better, and 33 (18%) of those were achieved during that time. Nearly all of these marks were achieved using the new super shoes.
Moreover, the benefit of the super shoes goes right down the finish order to the merely elite, sub-elite, and even recreational runners. The depth of fast times in some recent marathons has been staggering.
"Prior to this year, never had a single marathon produced 14 sub-2:08 performances," observed Robert Johnson of LetsRun.com in an opinion article on March 6. "There have been three super-elite marathons so far in 2020, and all three have produced 14 or more sub-2:08's: Dubai, 14; Seville, 14; and Tokyo, 17."
The shoes are competition-legal, World Athletics recently ruled, as long as the midsoles are no thicker than 40mm and the shoes are commercially available (not prototypes). But the historical data used by event organizers to determine their time bonus structures have yet to factor in the super shoes, exposing organizers to significant financial risk.
For instance, the 2019 Virgin Money London Marathon paid out a massive $1,030,000 in time bonuses ($667,000 for men and $363,000 for women). The first three men --Eliud Kipchoge (KEN), Mosinet Geremew (ETH), and Mule Wasihun (ETH)-- earned time and record bonuses of $125,000, $100,000, and $100,000, respectively, in addition to their prize money (and any appearance fees and personal bonuses specified in their individual contracts). There was no limit to the number of athletes who could earn time bonuses; as long as the athletes ran the times, they got the bonuses, regardless of place.
Of course, London is one of the world's top marathons and has a multi-million dollar elite athletes budget. But even slightly down the food chain, races are also shelling out big money for time bonuses. The Mainova Frankfurt Marathon paid EUR 118,500 in time and record bonuses last year (about USD 133,000 at the time) when the first six men broke 2:09 and the top six women broke 2:26, including women's champion Valary Jemeli Aiyabei of Kenya who ran a course record of 2:19:10 and picked up EUR 50,000 in time and record bonuses. The 2020 Chevron Houston Marathon paid $52,500 in time bonuses (plus $128,000 in the accompanying Aramco Houston Half-Maraton), and the 2019 Volkswagen Prague Marathon shelled out EUR 190,000 (USD 213,000 at the time) in time bonuses.
What should race organizers do now? There are several ways to tighten up their time bonus programs while still retaining the positive impact they have for athletes, media and fans:
. Reduce Bonus Amounts - Reassess, and possibly reduce, the dollar amount of each bonus in their bonus table. Is a sub-2:06 or sub-2:24 still worth what it was five years ago?
. Shorten The Bonus Schedule - Only offer bonuses for truly fast times and "saw off" a few of the lower rungs on the bonus ladder for times which used to be noteworthy but no longer are. For example, does it make sense to offer a time bonus for sub-2:10 when 28 men achieved that in one race in Tokyo last month?
. Limit Bonus Depth By Place - Only offer time bonuses to the top-x number of male and female finishers (top-3, top-5, etc.) to limit the overall financial exposure. The TCS New York City Marathon limited time bonuses to the top-5 men and top-5 women the last several years (not counting smaller bonuses for local athletes).
. Limit The Total Bonus Pool - Set a fixed dollar amount for total time bonuses for each gender, and when the limit is hit the next athletes in the finish order don't receive bonuses.
. Shift To Private Bonuses - Save the bonus pool to reward only certain athletes and do it through private contracts thus limiting the number of potential bonus winners. This can be helpful for rewarding national-level athletes with more modest goals who would not be capable of earning bonuses for very fast times. However, organizers lose the media value of paying a big bonus that could be publicly-reported.
. Offer Just A Winner's Bonus - Offer one big bonus which is only available for the race winners (break the course record, break a specific time, national record, all-comers record, etc.). See if a sponsor might want to cover it in return for promotion so the risk can be off-loaded. A specialty-risk insurance company might be willing to take on a single time or record bonus, also.
. Plow The Bonus Budget into Prize Money - Time bonuses could be eliminated altogether with that money added to the prize money purse. Races face no additional race-day risk if they only use prize money because the actual payout will always be equal to the budgeted amount. This is a good strategy for races with tough courses and/or no pacemakers where athletes generally run for place, anyway.
As shoe designers from different companies continue to incorporate similar carbon plate and bouncy midsole foam technologies, a new base level of performance will be established and perceptions will be changed. Eventually, times which seemed eye-popping just a few years ago will become the norm. Bonus schedules should be re-calibrated to reflect this.