By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek
November 4, 2013
The ING New York City Marathon certainly has had its challenges in the last year, from the on again, off again confusion surrounding Hurricane Sandy to the problems with entries being deferred to a title sponsor vacating its spot, and the ongoing search for new revenue in a challenged economy.
However as the 2013 race comes to life across all five boroughs of New York this Sunday, what is billed as the world’s largest single day sporting event appears to have gotten through its short term problems and has reset itself for a long run of success, and healing in the community.
“We are very excited about our future and learned a great deal from our recent past, and those lessons are what is making the race and our organization better as a whole,” said New York Road Runners CEO Mary Wittenberg at this year’s Bloomberg Sports Business Summit in New York in September. The race will be a swan song for longtime title sponsor ING Direct, which is going in other directions with its sports marketing platform when their agreement ends later this year. They will be replaced by the Indian technology firm, Tata Consultants, whose CEO is a running aficionado and has had the company involved in several marathon partnerships in recent years.
Having Tata on board will serve as another interesting sports branding coup for an event that has always managed to brand well.
The quandary this year’s race finds itself in is not on the business side, but on the charity side. A combination of a lack of new entries, the changing economy, and a shift to other platforms has found the fundraising spots usually available for the marathon at issue this year. Charities that normally have hundreds running for their cause have way fewer this year, and those who have spots have looked to come up with more creative ways to amplify their message and gain those valuable dollars for the causes.
One means of achieving this is partnering with high profile athletes and celebrities, who have leant their name and status to teams of runners to raise dollars for some very select causes. Sean Penn, for example, formed a team of Haitian runners who came to New York representing Haitian relief efforts, while former tennis star James Blake has a team running for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Yet another unique team was organized by Yankees star C.C. Sabathia and his wife Amber to help support their “PitCChin In” Foundation, which assists inner city at-risk youth in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area. The Sabathias really took the marathon opportunity to heart, chartering a bus for their six runners and getting them involved in assembling a large number of backpacks with school supplies for kids as part of their outreach; a great way for all involved to see how far their marathon efforts will go.
C.C. even got a key member of his business team, The Legacy Agency’s Russ Spielman, to take his first shot at the 26.2 mile course. “It really is a phenomenal effort that Amber and C.C. have put forth, and it’s something that I from a business perspective rarely get to see from both sides,” Spielman said. “By helping on the business side and the participation side this time, I really see what their efforts can do, and the impact that an event like the Marathon, can have on people.”
Organizing the celebrities and the charities fell to Sara Weinstein and Harrie Bakst, co-founders of Weinstein Carnegie Philanthropic Group, which works with celebrities and athletes to find unique platforms to raise money and build brands. Bakst’s close relationship with the marathon (he has run several times and is a cancer survivor himself) helped bring all the efforts to a positive head.
“CC is the perfect type of role model you want for a charity program like the marathon,” Bakst said. “He and Amber understand the power they can have in the community, and they find the best possible ways to drive interest, awareness and dollars for their work. It’s a great opportunity to work with them and a very unique experience for the runners as well.”
In addition to their ING NYC Marathon team, the Sabathias are also hosting the third CC Challenge in Central Park on November 9—the largest and most ambitious event their foundation hosts during the year. Thirty-two teams consisting of four to five members follow a series of hidden clues to solve puzzles and surmount light physical tests throughout the competition. The victor’s prize? The coveted “CC Cup.”
“All these events will go a long way in helping the Foundation raise the funds and create awareness for the programs that can help change the lives of young people, and that impact we can have is really priceless,” Sabathia added.
In no way is fundraising and brand building a sprint to success, so the ING NYC Marathon itself actually becomes a metaphor for the long haul that such celebrities as Sabathia and Penn are putting forth to assist others.
The efforts also show how this mega-event has rebounded from a year of chaos to again gain a foothold of success in sports business, both now and into the future.