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Running into Problems

BAA is caught in a numbers game

Questions raised, historic marathon reaches crossroad

By Bob Hohler and Shira Springer
Globe Staff / December 19, 2010

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For 20 years, Greg Taylor has trained through the pain of unforgiving Minnesota winters to qualify for the signature road race of his life, the Boston Marathon. The spring ritual was all but sacred to the state welfare worker, who for two decades has never missed a start.

But for the first time next April, there will be no room in the race for Taylor. He qualified easily, but was shut out along with thousands of other qualified runners — by far the largest number of skilled racers excluded from the world’s premier marathon since its birth in 1897.

The 2011 marathon remains open, however, to a multitude of runners too slow to meet the race’s strict qualifying standards: charity fund-raisers, foreign tourists, celebrities, and thousands of others with connections to organizers, sponsors, vendors, licensees, consultants, municipal officials, and marketers peddling entries for profit.

Many of the most deserving marathoners have been denied entry to a race long championed by organizers as a showcase for the best runners. Still welcome are joggers who have run the 26.2-mile course dressed as Elvis, nuns, hamburgers, and cartoon characters.

After 115 years of managing the world-class race, the Boston Athletic Association has hit a wall. Too slow to adapt to the event’s evolution, the organizers face their greatest challenge since they commercialized the marathon 25 years ago: correct their flaws and catch up with the runaway growth of modern-day marathoning or risk degrading one of New England’s most revered institutions.

“If this were a company, someone would lose their job because they were not forecasting correctly,’’ said Amy Ryberg Doyle, 40, a mother of three who qualified for the 2011 marathon but was denied entry when registration for qualifiers closed in October in record time.

“They were not answering to the market or their customer base,’’ Ryberg Doyle said. “Leadership needs to change.’’

Indeed, the BAA, in the midst of an organizational review by the Globe, reassigned longtime executive director Guy L. Morse III to a less prominent role and replaced him, effective Jan. 1, with board president Thomas S. Grilk, a corporate lawyer who is part of a cadre of insiders who have controlled the marathon since the 1980s.

The BAA is a multimillion-dollar enterprise whose management of the race carries major economic and cultural implications for the city and region. Last year, the marathon made an estimated $122.7 million impact on the area, according to the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It’s all meant to be prospective,’’ Grilk, 63, said of the shake-up. “We need to make sure we do the best job we can going forward, rather than waiting for something to need emergency attention.’’

Qualified runners unable to enter the 2011 race contend the Boston Marathon already has reached a crisis point. Amid a torrent of complaints, the BAA is engaged in ongoing deliberations aimed at overcoming its lapses.

“We’re looking at ways to make the process more efficient and equitable,’’ said Morse.

‘BAA needs to reassess’ For all their mastery in producing the extravaganza — BAA organizers have managed each April over the last decade to safely shepherd an average of more than 20,000 runners a year through narrow country roads and bustling urban thoroughfares from Hopkinton to Copley Square — they have perpetuated a system that has begun crowding out the world’s most dedicated marathoners in part by failing to control a burgeoning field of non-qualifiers.

Last April alone, the BAA granted non-qualifying invitations to 5,740 runners in a field of 26,790. The invitational entries, priced at $250 each (nearly double the $130 fee for qualifiers), were distributed in allotments both massive — 1,000 to principal sponsor John Hancock, 500 to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, 498 to foreign tour operators — and minute enough to accommodate privileged runners connected to the BAA and its partners.

The financial windfall generated by the global giveaway has helped the BAA — a tax-exempt non-profit — run up a surplus greater than $8 million, a 200 percent gain from $2.7 million in 2000. Yet by saying yes through the years to so many non-qualifiers, the organizers hastened the day they would begin saying no to their core competitors.

“In order to control this race, the BAA needs to reassess and reel in the non-qualifiers,’’ said David D’Alessandro, the former Hancock president who in 1986 helped save the flagging enterprise by providing its first major sponsorship — and first prize money. “The BAA has been too kind to too many organizations over time. They have every right to pull back.’’

Boston is not alone in struggling with mushrooming marathon fields. The nation is experiencing its second great running boom — the first took off in the 1970s — and the number of Americans finishing marathons last year reached nearly 468,000, up almost 10 percent from 2008, according to MarathonGuide.com.

The boom was no secret to the BAA. As early as 2006, organizers began filling their quota of qualifiers (now about 21,000) before their traditional March cutoff. A small number of qualifiers also were shut out in ’07 and ’08 as the field reached capacity earlier and earlier. Then came a glaring warning sign in ’09, when the qualifying field filled in a record 66 days.

Yet the BAA was ill-prepared for the online stampede when registration for the 2011 race opened Oct. 18 at 9 a.m. The crush overwhelmed the computer servers, leaving hundreds adrift in cyberspace. About 20,000 managed to navigate the system and closed out the online qualifying field in 8 hours 3 minutes — a blow to thousands of others unable to apply.

By nightfall, panic set in throughout the American marathoning community.

“At 5:04 p.m., I received a frantic call from a doctor in Los Angeles who had been in surgery all day,’’ said David Watt, executive director of the non-profit American Running Association, whose subsidiary — the American Medical Athletic Association — received 130 invitational entries from the BAA for 2011.

The surgeon, who had qualified for the race, was able to buy his way into the event for $1,650 (the price included the $250 application fee, a $125 donation to a BAA charity, and a contribution to the medical association).

Overnight, the scramble for entry numbers went global, bringing into sharp relief their extraordinary value. As much as official marathon bibs are coveted by elite racers, they are treasured both by ordinary citizens who place running Boston high on their bucket lists and non-profits that consider the entries vital to their fund-raising campaigns.

“Those numbers are gold,’’ said Norman Stein, vice president of development for Boston Medical Center. “Everybody wants them.’’

Lucrative financial gain Since the BAA began granting charity entries in 1989, the program has created a bonanza for the region’s non-profits. All told, BAA-sponsored charities, led by Dana-Farber, have raised $106 million thanks to marathon runners. John Hancock’s charitable program, meanwhile, has enabled non-profits to take in nearly $25 million since the company began tracking the fund-raising totals in 2002.

Charities require runners to raise as much as $7,000 for a designated cause, and most non-profits require runners to submit credit card data so they can collect the balance of any fund-raising shortfalls.

The entry numbers are so lucrative that some non-profits have paid foreign tour companies as much as $1,800 each for them. In turn, the non-profits have recycled the entries to fund-raising runners, producing hefty gains for the charities.

The practice has been more common among non-profits unable to tap large quantities of charity entries. Boston Medical Center, for example, has long received a relatively small number of entries — only two for 2011, from its emergency medical services team.

“We’ve had to beg, borrow, and steal to accumulate numbers through the years,’’ Stein said.

The demand has enhanced the global market for non-qualifying numbers, a boon in particular to foreign tour operators. In England, the website for Sports Tours International, an official travel partner of the BAA, informs customers, “IMPORTANT — YOU NO LONGER REQUIRE A QUALIFYING TIME TO RUN THE BOSTON MARATHON!’’

What’s more, the company boasts, “GUARANTEED entries’’ are available for non-qualifiers. The price tag: $1,600 plus entry fee, which includes a race number, a roundtrip flight from London, four-night hotel stay, and stateside ground transportation. The company bought 35 invitational entries for 2011 from the BAA for $250 each.

Similar tour firms from Spain to South Korea are selling Boston Marathon numbers, which may explain why one of the last runners to finish the 2010 marathon was a South Korean man, in 6:24:50, nearly a walking pace.

Morse called the British company’s marketing campaign “problematic,’’ a form of misrepresentation the BAA aims to correct.

Yet the BAA has more than doubled the number of non-qualifying numbers it sells to foreign tour companies over the last decade, to 498 from 216.

“We’re always looking for ways to tamp that stuff down,’’ Morse said. “It could be a lot higher, if we chose to make it higher. The demand is there.’’

Giveaways on the rise Amid the relentless push for entries, Boston’s field of qualified runners increased to 21,050 last April, nearly double the total of 11,210 in 2001. Over the same period, the BAA heightened the risk of shutting out qualified runners by allowing the number of non-qualifiers to grow by 31 percent, to 5,740, up from 4,396 in ’01.

“People are going to have to understand that it can’t be an annual giveaway by the BAA,’’ D’Alessandro said. “Many of those organizations should not take the BAA and the Boston Marathon for granted, but they do.’’

The BAA’s allotment of charity numbers rose 48 percent over the last decade, to 2,515, while invitational entries distributed to an array of BAA-related individuals and entities — members, volunteers, consultants, vendors, past champions, and the media — jumped 32 percent, to 823.

For the lucky charities who receive entries, it’s a chance to raise their organization’s profile, as well as money.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for us to get the name Mass Eye and Ear out to a broader audience,’’ said Kristina Sym, coordinator of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary charity team, which received 50 numbers for the 2011 race from Hancock and hopes to average $6,000 in donations per runner.

“Team members have to have a strong commitment to Mass Eye and Ear and a passion for raising the funds.’’

The BAA’s giveaway has extended to cities and towns along the route and public agencies involved with the event. Their share of the invitational numbers rose 28 percent in the last decade, to 705, with the city of Boston last year receiving the most: 200.

Among the BAA’s insider giveaways were at least 18 entries to the private Hill School in Pennsylvania, the alma mater of BAA board member Frank Porter. For Grilk’s part, he granted five entries last April to faculty at the Holderness School in New Hampshire, which his twin sons recently attended, to honor a teacher who died of cancer.

While inspirational stories among the non-qualifying runners abound, the marathon has effectively evolved since the 1980s into two events: an elite competition and — depending on the observer — a parade, a freak show, or the epitome of the event’s historical distinction as “the people’s race.’’

Scattered back in the field each year are fun-loving runners in a kaleidoscope of costumes. In recent Aprils, they included Bob Babbitt, co-founder of Competitor Magazine, who was granted entry as a media member and ran as Elvis to promote the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon; Diana Dawson, a Canadian so thrilled with qualifying for Boston that she ran dressed as a princess; and Sam Novey, a Harvard senior who unofficially ran as a hamburger to promote b.good restaurant and raise money for a Boston middle school while he and teammates dressed as potato fries were accompanied by a film crew from the Game Show Network.

The more, the merrier, said former marathoner Ray Flynn, who was mayor of Boston when the race went commercial in 1986.

“We saved the marathon by professionalizing it, but it shouldn’t be over-professionalized,’’ Flynn said. “It’s very important that it continues to be not just for elite runners but maintains its special identity as an amateur event.’’

Others feel differently. While acknowledging the race’s fund-raising value, Tom Derderian, a former marathoner who wrote a history of the Boston race and coaches for the Greater Boston Track Club, expressed concern about the event becoming “a party on the pavement.’’

“If you buy your number and do whatever you want — wear a silly costume with your name on it and try to get cheers from the crowd — it becomes a weird thing,’’ Derderian said. “It degenerates pretty quickly into a freak show.’’

Competence will be tested BAA leaders said the overall performance of non-qualifiers has improved thanks to a requirement that charity runners participate in marathon training programs. Yet one of the only performance requirements for more than 3,000 runners who receive their invitations from entities other than charities is that they complete the course within six hours. Considerably slower than the 5-hour-30-minute qualifying time for women 80 and over.

“It’s a delicate balance that we’re continually trying to get right,’’ Morse said.

They have plenty of help. The BAA, in addition to funding a 15-member administrative staff, subcontracts a vast share of its obligations. The contractors include Interstate Rental Service, which last year billed the BAA $925,000 for logistical equipment, and the firm of race director Dave McGillivray, which received $273,000 last year for BAA events.

Hancock, though, handles a lion’s share of the BAA’s responsibilities, its supporting role unrivaled in the world of marathon sponsors. Under a contract that guarantees the BAA an estimated $1.2 million annually through 2023, Hancock’s reach extends from awarding prize money (more than $13 million since 1986) to underwriting local elementary school programs about Kenya, which has produced 25 Boston champions.

The financial services giant also recruits and hosts the Boston field’s elite runners at its Olympic-style athlete village. It pays appearance fees, helps fund the BAA’s payments to cities and towns on the course ($755,000 in 2011), subsidizes the BAA’s lease of its Trinity Place headquarters, and manages a charity program that this year will benefit 72 organizations.

Ubiquitous on marathon weekend, Hancock also sponsors the marathon’s sports & fitness expo, operates the marathon media room, and on race day provides nearly 500 volunteers to serve along the route. Another 100 employees run the course for charities.

Given the breadth of Hancock’s involvement, some observers wonder how much work is left for the BAA. James Gallagher, Hancock’s executive vice president charged with overseeing its Boston Marathon sponsorship, said Hancock steers clear of race management and the BAA’s governance.

“We trust them,’’ Gallagher said. “They’ve got very competent people, [including] Dave McGillivray, managing that race.’’

The BAA’s competence will be tested as the organizers begin the next chapter of guiding the world’s oldest annual marathon through its growing pains. The margin for error is thin. So, too, is the possibility of universal success

“It’s such a special event that everyone would love to run Boston every year,’’ said Babbitt, the marathoning magazine editor. “The BAA has to do the best it can to make everyone happy, and it’s impossible.’’

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com; Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.