Sunday 25 August 2019

Sponsors join race to capture attention of our running obsessives

Runners at the 2017 Dublin Marathon Photo: Steve Humphreys
Runners at the 2017 Dublin Marathon Photo: Steve Humphreys

Rob Pearson

Ninety-nine per cent of us will never run a marathon, 26.2 miles is a trip too far for most, but last Sunday, a record 20,000 runners, joggers and walkers assembled around Merrion Square for the start of the 2018 Dublin City Marathon, the fifth largest event of its type in Europe.

As a member of the one per cent club, I have first-hand experience of the all-consuming nature of a marathon attempt. A typical training schedule lasts three to four months, requires 160 to 200 hours or 800km of running and comes with a high risk of injury and divorce. When marathon fever strikes, it strikes hard, and sponsors are investing huge sums to target the obsessed.

Six international marathons make up the World Marathon Major. These are Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, Tokyo and New York whose lead sponsors shell out over €30m. Attracting over 300,000 applicants in 2017, Tokyo is the most popular of the Majors but New York is the richest with sponsors Tata Consultancy Services handing over €11m for title sponsorship.

Closer to home, only twice since the inaugural event in 1980 has the Dublin Marathon been left without a sponsor. Current title sponsor SSE Airtricity, now in its fifth year of sponsorship, is using this and other big-ticket sponsorships, including the League of Ireland and the Arena in Belfast, as major brand positioning and awareness plays in an industry where loyalty is low and churn rampant. Previous sponsors of the event include RTé 2FM (1980-1988), CDL Smokeless Coal (1989-1991), Golden Pages (1993-1996), 98FM (1997-2000) and adidas / Life Style Sports (2001-2010). Each will have entered into partnership to satisfy their own commercial objectives but none has enjoyed such profile and high participation levels as the current sponsor.

During the 1980s Ireland was producing world-class runners. John Treacy, Eamonn Coghlan and Ray Flynn were household names, the country was in the grip on an economic depression and running boomed. The race was in its infancy and backed by long-time sponsor RTé 2FM it attracted between 2,000 and 9,000 competitors yearly throughout the decade.

Through the 1990s Sonia O'Sullivan flew the flag for Irish athletics but the once-vibrant pool of quality distance runners had dried up. The economy grew, the running boom ended and the future of the race looked uncertain. In 2001, and under the sponsorship of adidas, race entries stabilised. The event became the flagship of the newly-launched Dublin Marathon Series consisting of shorter five-mile, ten-mile and half marathon events. This opened the door to novice runners. In 2008, the economy collapsed and running boomed once again. This would be last year that entries for the race would fall below 10,000.

This year a record 38,000 took part in the Dublin Marathon Race Series and record numbers yield impressive sponsorship revenues. The series generated an estimate €250,000 from title sponsorship and additional fee and race support from secondary partners including Lucozade Sport, Asics, Tipperary Water, FM104, Amphibian King, Actavo and High 5 Nutrition. Sport Ireland's most recent Irish Sport Monitor reported that running is the country's second most popular sport behind personal exercise and ahead of swimming. Eight per cent of the population run on a weekly basis but we are not all running marathons.

Vhi is a brand that has harnessed the power of running to attract and retain customers. It is the title sponsor of the Vhi Women's Mini Marathon, and lead sponsor of parkrun, the organiser of weekly free 5km runs all around the country. Parkrun is symptomatic of Ireland's love affair with running and has experienced phenomenal growth since it landed here in 2012. In Ireland, parkrun boasts over 108,000 members, attracts 5,000 weekly participants and is managed by 600 volunteers across 80 venues nationwide. Brands caught wind of the phenomenon and began banging down parkrun's door before, in 2016, Vhi negotiated a deal to become their first major sponsor. With the running event scene approaching saturation point and the bulk of sponsorship spend going to the biggest and most established events, we are seeing an explosion of smaller bespoke and highly themed events.

Never has our nation been more aware of the benefits of an active and healthy lifestyle. Team sports are struggling to retain players into adult life with 42pc of us opting for individual exercise. The recession is over but the expected converse contraction of the running scene has not materialised and brands are wise to this enduring love affair.

The Dublin Marathon may be Ireland's flagship running event but it represents only the tip of the running iceberg.

Rob Pearson is an Associate Director with Teneo Sports, Ireland's leading sponsorship consultancy

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