RRM Forum


Organizing Running Events


 Interview with London Marathon Director David Bedford on the Event and Its Membership in the World Marathon Majors 

by Jim Ferstle

This is an extended version of the interview that appears in the June, 2007 issue of Road Race Management Newsletter.

Road Race Management (RRM): The London Marathon is part of the World Marathon Majors. How did this relationship among the races come about?

David Bedford: [It started] when race directors get together in a bar or for a meal or whatever in the build-up period. There became more and more times when people became interested in how another marathon did something, and as sort of a friendship developed so did an opportunity to be open and to be supportive. It became clear to me early on that although we were perceived as being the best marathon, that didnít mean we couldnít learn from what other people did. So, I suppose really, the World Marathon Majors came from that kind of activity. We, London, always had a good relationship with Chicago, with Carey, and with Mark Milde [Berlin Marathon director]. Those were always very open relationships. The New York relationship, while it was friendly, became far more open with us when Mary became race director, and I think that Boston has sort of come along with it. In other words, they needed a bit more convincing that there was something in it for them, although now they can see that there is.
So there are the usual growing pains of trying to make informal relationships formal. We now talk on a regular basis. We meet face-to-face on a regular basis, and we deal with issues within our sport on a regular basis, and together.

RRM: What have you done as this has become a more formal business arrangement?

DB: We signed a document of understanding about a year ago. Having done that, weíve then done a whole bunch of things together. We have appointed a marketing agency to find a sponsor for us. We have created contracts that have common provisions within our events. We have agreed on a code of conduct for athletes. We have got our medical directors together talking about common issues. And we have created a website that gives us a presence. Thatís happened in a year, and we will continue to develop all aspects of our sportó marketing, IT. I think IT is one of those areas where you can see an immediate benefit. If youíve got five individual races having to struggle with the challenges of their own IT and their own scoring, timing and scoring systems, you can see that thereís a massively lost resource in there. If we can come up with a common system and that system gets used five times a year, rather than once a year, then clearly you would expect to see significant improvement and development in those systems over a short period of time.

RRM: Technology is one area that does seem ripe for development.

DB: There are two elements to that challenge. One is how do you get the information, and two is what do you do with it once you have it. We will continue to look at alternatives when they come up. At the moment we are all using the Champion Chip system, but that doesnít mean that thatís the only system weíll come up with. We keep an open mind in the marketplace and are interested in whatís going on. But there are five of us interested in it now, so youíve got more chance of picking up new initiatives when youíre working with more people.

RRM: Youíve done all this within a year. Whatís on the horizon?

DB: The short-term goal is to make sure that each of our departments is interacting with its counterparts at the other events. At the press office in Berlin, for example, we had key members of our own press teams getting involved, being supportive. There are a lot of crossover benefits. There are a whole load of areas like that. That needs to be happening across all the areas so we all get the benefits. Innovation, things we havenít yet thought up, with the whole aim being that the profile and the perceived importance of marathon running in general and our five events in particular is increased, improved.

RRM: What about TV broadcasts and streaming video on the web?

DB: We are currently working with an outside partner to make sure that all of our events are available in areas where they arenít naturally televised. That needs to be consistent. It needs to be managed appropriately so that people get used to a common format. It makes sense for someone who better understands the market to be advising us as to which way we go with that rather than each of us trying to work it out ourselves. At the moment we are in discussions with TWI. We could obviously all make it available on our own through our own IT departments, our own websites, but where it should be available is on the WMM website, as well as our own websites, and it should be in a common format. 

RRM: Running has developed as a participatory sport. How do you merge and market the two elements of the sportóthe participatory event and the sporting event? How do you sell the sport, develop a fan base? Seemingly what you have now is a core community of participants, which is rather small, and the fan community which is potentially huge.

DB: Iím not certain that thereís a massive amount of difference between a participant and a fan. I donít think the running community is small. I think itís a large community. The challenge is getting to that large community. The only way youíre going to get to them on a regular basis is via webcast, etc. The New York Marathon has enough of a challenge getting seen coast to coast in the U.S. We shouldnít suddenly believe thatís going to get any easier just because theyíve associated with four other marathons. If this whole drive is successful and our stars become more identifiable by the general public then, of course, there would be a natural movement to hopefully be on television because thereís only a certain kind of person whoís going to go in and download or look at events live on the web. The running community is really what thatís for. A fan is not going to do that. A fan needs it simply to be in front of them. There are magazine programs that the WMM will fit into quite nicely because we are more than just an individual marathon. So, the five of us have more opportunity to get into magazine style programs on radio or TV, where the WMM story can be told on an ongoing basis.

RRM: The athletes, the stars, the talent. How do you promote that? How do you deal with the athletes who believe their only job is to run? Is there a responsibility to promote the sport?

DB: There is clearly a place in the marketplace for the person who adds nothing apart from an athletic performance. However, that person should de facto receive significantly smaller recompense for that than someone who sees the wider picture. Where we can, we have a responsibility to help our stars to better understand their obligations, to be more than monosyllabic, and to have clearer identities when they are competing. The vest issue, which is something weíve made quite a lot of headway on, is another example of that. If you put two people from one country in the same vest and they also look very similar, itís very, very hard for the sports fan to identify or care. That was the drive about the vests. It took a little while but the shoe companies now understand the principles and have supported the basic principles. You have to do more than that, but you have to put the basic fabric in place to allow the next stage to happen.

RRM: How do you feel about working with the athletes and agents from a marketing perspective? 

DB: Having been in the marketplace for such a long time, I know who the agents are. I know who the athletes are who will give more value than just their running performance and those who will only give their running performance. We have open conversations when weíre negotiating about the impact of thatÖ. And itís more than just getting the athlete when they go to a press conference to say: ďYouíre the greatest fans Iíve ever seen,Ē and ďI want to thank Flora the sponsor, because without them none of this could happen.Ē And every single one of them hasnít to thank God for a great performance either.

RRM: What about unions?

DB: Iím fine with that. I think a common set of principles is important. Weíve got new contracts and new code of conduct, which have been put together following discussions with agents. We would be fine if there was an agentsí body that perhaps said weíd like to propose some adjustments to the code of conduct because perhaps this is just a bit more onerous or whatever. But in reality there is quite a good relationship with agents. In fact agents can make our lives a heck of a lot easier. Agents are there for the long haul. Race directors are there for the long haul. Athletes come and go.

RRM: Fred Lebow used to say, ďWe make stars,Ē meaning that the event was paramount. Do you agree?

DB: The athletes should want to compete in our events because the conditions are good, the environment is good. There is interest from the city. There is a television profile. There is a high newspaper profile, and there is sufficient money to make the terms that people get better than they are at races that donít have all those bits and pieces. Itís not a coincidence that the events that are part of the WMM are the events that athletes were going to anyway. Some of these things were already in place.

RRM: Where do you come down on the debate over prize money vs. appearance money? Are some athletes perceived to be worth more?

DB: You donít have to have open prize money. You could take the view that a raceís worst nightmare is that the Olympic, World Champion, and WR holder are beaten by somebody who gets lucky onceósomebody youíve never heard of. You could argue that in order to be eligible for prize money you need to have performed up to a certain level at first. Nobody wants the underdog to win.

RRM: Really?

DWD: The agents donít want it. The athletes donít want it. The races donít want it. So, Iím saying that as a concept, youíve got to go into this more deeply. Itís true, we are the only sport that allows the common man to line up and take part in the same race; however, at the elite end, we have to have control over who we invite to take part in our races. There could be a smaller set of prize money. What you donít want, what you genuinely donít want is to have somebody coming out of nowhere and being treated the same way as your stars, in my opinion. Thatís not a WMM position.
OK, hereís the best example I can give of this. If you go back to the Carl Lewis, Linford Christie showdown, who knows how many years ago it was. Christie was second, Lewis was fourth. Who won? And I think we are in the business to manage, where we can, those kinds of situations.

RRM: Conversely, the nobodys who win do become somebody.

DB: We need to have more control. We already have loads of people who want to run in our events that we donít invite. I donít think thereís a massive difference between that and what Iím saying.

RRM: But the more you control, the more danger that you get a staged event.

DB: Thatís not true. The Olympic final is not a staged competition because the bloke that wasnít selected by his country is not able to compete.

RRM: Charities have taken over the mass participation element of the sport. How important is it for the big races to have that?

DB: Itís vital for us. It does two things. One, it increases the income into our event, which allows us to plow significantly higher amounts of money into the development of the race. The fact that it is financially very successful for the charities themselves is naturally important, and most of us have an understanding of why charities are there and how they need income. In the global sense itís also more important for us in that an event that closes down the city for a day, that disrupts so many people, needs to have more as a counterbalance than that it shows the city off and itís nice for people who want to run a city center marathon. We have that. At last yearís [London Marathon], runners in the event raised £41.5 million for charity. That is understood by people who get disadvantaged by the city closing down. So, itís important because the event is not seen as merely an event for those people who are interested in running only. If London had gone that route and that route only, I would imagine that our numbers would be no better than they were in 1981 when the event started. Because the standard running community, if you take out the charity runners and take out those who are doing it for health-running only, and left it to the people who are just involved in the traditional running clubs, the event wouldnít be happening anyway. It would be dead. The best example is, that in this country, thereís hardly any other big city marathons. Youíve got smaller onesóa thousand here and a couple of thousand thereóbut, you know, [the larger ones] donít exist.
So thatís the impact on London. I believe New York, Boston, and Chicago have seen the benefits of a charity program and will be looking to get the same benefits from it as we do by developing their charity programs.

RRM: Was that a conscious decision regarding charities?

DB: Yes, it was a conscious decision back in 1993. We will have something like 13,000 people running directly on charity entries where charities have paid 300 pounds for that entry and where they will get back 2,100 pounds in money that is raised by those runners. Whatís the alternative? Charge someone else 300 pounds? Charge the overseas person 300 pounds? You can imagine what youíd get. So, weíve identified a new marketplace while other marketplaces are decreasing. The greatest pressure comes from people who want to run the marathon and want to raise money for charities. We have something like 100,000 UK applications from such people.

RRM: What is the percentage of the entrants to London who are ďcharity runners?Ē

DB: In simple terms, youíre talking about it being a third. Seventy-eight percent of people who run in the marathon are running for charity. If you take out the 2,500 overseas people who run in London, it goes up to 82%. The event has gone wider than one, what is it that you as a runner can get out of the experience, and, two, what you can do for someone else at the same time.

RRM: What impact will the upcoming London Olympics in 2012 have?

DB: I canít answer that completely. The London Marathon has been given the responsibility to organize the Olympic Marathon, the Paralympic Marathon and the race walks. It will mean weíll have a busy year because the London Marathon will also happen in that year. Whether there are any changes to the marathon in that year remains to be seen. The Olympic course is a lap course, with the exception of 200 meters at the start and four miles at the end. It starts on Tower Bridge. Essentially there are three 10K laps, and then four miles out to the stadium. You couldnít put 35,000 runners around a 10K lap course. You might have the option of saying run one lap of it. 

RRM: How important is the success of domestic runners at London? 
DB: Itís important. It helps, but what you mustnít start to do is to artificially adjust your fields so that your people get an easier chance of winning. Clearly, having a Paula Radcliffe winning or an Eamonn Martin, weíve had a number of British winners over the years. If that happened on a regular basis it would have less cachť to it. The fact that it does happen few and far between means you know that the person is seriously a great runner. That shouldnít hide away from the situation where we are definitely going through a low point with British runners, as indeed you did in the U.S. Itís helped a bit by your support programs and that some of the overseas people have come across to your country and are running in your colors.

RRM: LizYelling won a bronze at the 2006 Commonwealth Games and got her funding cut. Do you see a development role for London?

DB: Yeah, I think we have to be careful with it. We already spend probably $500,000 a year on distance running development programs in association with UKA (UK Athletics). We must, however, not assume that just because you give money to people they will run faster. When there wasnít money around people were running faster and doing a dayís work as well. So, I donít think that you can just assume that making money available is going to change peopleís attitude and performance. It needs to be cleverer than that. There is a school of thought that says by making money available too early, you actually create a false dawn of achievement, which stands in the way of the athlete going further.

RRM: Yes, I think part of the issue with Liz was that it wasnít just money, it was that she couldnít get massage services close to home and some of the basic support stuff necessary to train at a high level. 

DB: I donít know enough about her case, but athletes like that should have access to a basic set of support services. Thatís probably a far better thing than just giving money so they can have an extra two weeks holiday and a nicer car.

RRM: Do you see the events playing a larger role?

DB: Yes, I do. You should be able to have more impact by working with partners (thus the association with UKA) where there are additional resources that can be made available. Itís exactly the same as the WMM concept.

RRM: What are your relationships with IOC, IAAF, etc.?

DB: We all believe that a relationship with the IAAF is important. When we put our WMM concept together we included the existing major championships as part of it. At the moment, as an example, thereís a working group looking at the future of road running to make recommendations to the IAAF. I sit as a member of the cross country and road running committee. Mary Wittenberg has been invited to join as the representative for WMM. The line with AIMS is somewhat more complicated. Three of us have actually left AIMS. The rationale for that is that AIMS doesnít actually do anything, and there were some serious concerns about its governance. AIMS, in our opinion, wasnít prepared to do enough about those concerns. Two of our members are still members and that is absolutely their right. With New York and London being founding members of AIMS, anyone who looks at this must say there must be something seriously wrong with AIMS to have two founding members take that position. We have not made our concerns any more public than those words Iíve said there.
Weíre not trying to pretend weíre a governing body. Again, we shouldnít attempt to punch beyond our weight. But we are a group that from time to time can use our joint strength in being heard in certain political areas. 

RRM: Youíve weighed in on the drugs issue, for example by effectively banning athletes who have been convicted of serious doping violations from the WMM events.

DB: Itís a statement. Itís a marker. The fact that it is there demonstrates that it can be done. Itís not just people talking about it on websites, but there are actually people doing something about it. Have done something about it. Itís easy to talk when youíve got no responsibility.
Weíve also proposed that the IAAF pick up on this and ban people from their events. Our proposal was a life ban, but they didnít want to go that route. They should seriously consider making people who have been guilty of the serious offense not available to take part in IAAF competitions. So, now this topic is in the right place. Itís in the political environment. Seb Coe has said that he supports that position. Those decisions will happen. Itís the IAAF Council and the IAAF Congress where those debates need to happen.

RRM: Getting back to appearance money/prize money. Is the correct form developing?

DB: Thereís an open market out there, as well as the fact that we are part of a self-help group (WMM). We also at certain times are competitors to each other. What weíre not is a cartel. Therefore, we have to take account of market forces from within our group and also from outside our group and deal with those as appropriate. The business of road running has a common set of principles of appearance money, of prize money, of bonus money, so thatís something that has settled down. We have common contracts now and that is very much a part of our new contracts, but that doesnít stop an individual marathon from doing something else. If a marathon thinks that a Mercedes car should be there in addition because that works in with their marketing program, then that isnít to say that everybody else has to do it. But I dare say that if Mercedes wanted to give a car to the winner of each of the WMM that would be something that would work.

RRM: Can you comment on discrepancies between whatís available to top runners and professional athletes in other sports, such as golf or tennis?

DB: They are richer sports. Our sport, by and large, is a sport for cheapskates. Athletes and athletes lower down the food chain are part of that market. We have a sport which has virtually no interest in its history. We donít have massive collectors of memorabilia. If you look at gold itís exactly the opposite. We have people who whinge about an entry fee to a race when itís half the price for entry into a stadium where you can sit and watch a football game. The marketplace is the marketplace. I think we can make a difference in that marketplace by creating opportunities for more income, but, in truth, only when the marketplace becomes more valuable will there be significant increases in what people can earn. That will require the efforts of the athletes and others. They are partly responsible for the state of our market. Iíd like to give every one of them a million dollars because for every million dollars we give to them weíve raised another million dollars for the event. I would love us to be like motor racing, but letís stay real here. Going forward, we have to be logical and sensible. Live in the real world.

RRM: What ďgoodiesĒ do the runners get?

DB: They get free travel to the start. They get free travel to the finish if they drop out. They get free training guides. They get free water and sports drink on the course. They get free timing. They get a free result confirmation(post card with finish time). They get a medal, a t-shirt and a goodie bag with food items to help them recover, and in most cases, they get the greatest days of their lives.

RRM: The goodie bag just has items from the sponsors?

DB: No. At times we purchase items to go in there to be sure that their recovery is important. The bag that they get at the finish is things they need at the finish. We also have a bag at the exhibition that they get. That tends to be more sponsor led.

RRM: Do you have trouble with bandits?

DB: We appear to be on top of the eBay activity because we areó through fair means or foulóable to find out who people are and we cancel the number. So, we are fairly successful at that. We have people out on the course looking for photocopied numbers. Who knows how successful we are with that. We do catch people. Do we catch everyone? We donít know. All you can do is what you can do.

RRM: Those who get caught get a lifetime ban?

DB: When we know who they are, yeah. But, again, youíve got to live in the real world here. 

RRM: Do you have a time limit?

DB: No, not really. The roads will reopen after eight hours. But then, there are still people out on the course. They, then, become prudent pedestrians. When they get to the finish, they get a time and a medal and go away happy.

Copyright 2012 Road Race Management, Inc.

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