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45,000 runners will take part in the 2010 Bank of America Chicago Marathon, the largest race in the United States. With over one million spectators expected along the course, the Windy City will see an estimated $140 million in revenue.

Marathon pumps $140 million into economy

by Heather Wright
May 04, 2010

Major One-Day Sporting Events

On Oct. 10, thousands of runners will converge on Chicago to take part in the annual Bank of America Chicago Marathon. With their family and friends in tow, they will lace up their sneakers, pin on their runner’s bibs and open their wallets, contributing an estimated $140 million to the city's economy.

Since its inception in 1977, this event has become a major economic engine for the Windy City. This year, 45,000 participants are projected to run in the largest race in the United States.

It is also one of the country’s most popular foot races: According to officials, the 2010 race sold out in a record-setting 51 days.

It isn’t cheap to run 26.2 miles in Chicago. With a $135 entrance fee, the marathon generates more than $6 million dollars from runners alone. On top of that, partnerships with top-tier brands like Nike, American Airlines, Gatorade and Volkswagen bring in residual income and provide in-kind donations such as free T-shirts and on-course refreshments.

But the real cash is generated for the city, and it comes from participants, their families and the estimated 1 million spectators who crowd the race route each year. They stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and buy souvenirs; they pour money into the local economy.

“It’s huge for the city,” said Karen Vaughan, manager of communications at the Chicago Office of Tourism. “It is great for the hotels because so many people are coming in, they are eating at restaurants, they are out in the neighborhood. It has a great impact.”

Once the province of elite athletes, marathons are now accessible to anyone with the grit, tenacity and foolishness to train for and run a 26-mile race.

As this popularity grows, more and more cities are trying to grab a piece of the marathon pie. According to Running USA, there were 88 marathons in the U.S. that had at least 1,000 finishers last year, up from the previous high of 77 in 2008.

Ten years ago, there were only 41 stateside marathons with 1,000 finishers or more.

With the availability of races multiplying, runners can be selective in choosing which city and course they run, placing a huge importance on organization and execution.

In 2007, the disaster that was the Chicago Marathon made global headlines. Thermometers reached 87 degrees that day, a rarity for early October in Chicago, and race officials were ill-prepared to deal with the heat-wave.

They ran out of water, had to call emergency services in from the suburbs and ultimately cancelled the event mid-race, angering runners, some of whom were less than a mile from the finish line.

At the end of the day, one man died, more than 300 required medical attention and fewer than 25,000 of the 45,000 registered runners crossed the finish line.

In 2008, the Chicago Marathon put into place an event alert system to provide up-to-date course conditions and deal with any emerging changes as they take place.

Obviously, organizing a premier running event is no walk-in-the-park. These events require meticulous planning, thousands of volunteers and well-thought-out contingency plans.

At the top of the heap are the Big Five: the New York, Berlin, London, Chicago and Boston marathons, which make up the World Marathon Majors, pre-eminent destinations for rookie runners and elite racers alike.

The prestige in running in (and qualifying for, as is the case with Boston) one of these events continues to raise the popularity of all of them, and helps bring a large number of international racers to Chicago.

“The world comes to Chicago for this event,” said Tim Maloney, Illinois president for Bank of America. “We certainly make every effort to make this race the gold standard for marathons in the U.S.”

The Big Five brings together 150,000 participants and 5 million spectators, while raising an estimated $80 million for charity and generating a combined economic impact estimated at more than $400 million.

These are large sums for single-day events.

According to the New York City Sports Commission and New York Road Runners, the ING New York Marathon is the city’s largest-grossing one-day event, generating $205 million in economic impact. The Boston Athletic Association estimated the economic impact for the 2010 Boston Marathon to be $122.7 million.

For Chicago, the pressure is on to make this year’s event a big success.

The past two years have been tough on Chicago tourism: hotel occupancy is down and the city’s once-booming convention sector has taken a big hit as businesses rein in discretionary spending.

The tough economy, coupled with the loss of the 2016 Olympic bid, puts this year’s marathon in a position to help—both financially and emotionally.

According to Bank of America, race participants stay in city hotels for an average of 2.7 nights, making up an estimated 50 percent of the tourism impact during race weekend.

The desire for downtown lodging means that runners will be shelling out more than $200 a night, especially since rates are markedly higher over race weekend.

 For example, the rate for a king room at the Hilton Chicago, the marathon’s partner hotel, starts at $459 per night on race weekend ($324 with the runner discount).  Hotel officials said they typically have 100 percent occupancy that weekend.

In addition to helping out the local economy, the marathon is a huge fundraising opportunity for local charities.

“Last year, we had about 8,000 runners who signed up to run for 123 different charities,” Maloney said. “They helped raise over $10 million dollars for local charities.”

This year, there are over 150 charities registered for the race and Maloney is “hopeful we will exceed what was a remarkable number in 2009.”

To help these charities reach their fundraising potential, the Chicago Area Runners Association helps train participants who are running with a fundraising goal. Last year, they helped train 1,038 “charity athletes” to run the Chicago Marathon.

“Many of the smaller charities didn’t have a source to go to for training,” Kristina Olokowski, community relations manager, said. “So we help them do what they do best—fundraise—by taking the training component off their back.”

Last year, the runners association helped raise $2 million for 64 different local charities. This year, it expects the number of charities to increase to 92.

While individual runners can raise money for their charity of choice, Bank of America takes this opportunity to support its youth-fitness initiative.

“This year, we will donate $320,000 to local youth athletic initiatives,” Maloney said. “Our focus and support for running is linked with our support for after-school activities.”

These funds will go to youth-related programs at Chicago Run, Special Olympics and MGR Foundation, which provides health and well-being support to disadvantaged Chicago communities.

“It’s a feel-good,” Olkowski said. “Everyone gets involved. It’s a perfect way to showcase our city while raising money.”

With a route that weaves through many of Chicago’s neighborhoods, the marathon provides a unique opportunity for runners to see the city from a different perspective and to interact with residents as they pass by their homes.

“The race really highlights the city’s neighborhoods,” Vaughan said. “People in Chicago are really proud of their city and really love their city. They are excited about events that bring people in.”