Monday, Dec. 1, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
The financial gasping and wheezing that has accompanied the Las Vegas Marathon in recent years suggest a problem that Nevada runners and fans would rather not consider as they approach Sunday’s annual race.
Maybe a marathon just won’t work here.
After all, the company that runs the marathon, Devine Racing, needed to sell the Los Angeles Marathon for an amount reported to be at least $10 million to dig out of a financial hole.
Devine Racing did not pay the winner of last year’s Las Vegas race his $24,000 prize money for eight months. The year before, the winner didn’t receive his check for nearly a year. Devine also owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to dozens of vendors and agencies, including nearly $10,000 to the Nevada Highway Patrol.
Given that history, the question becomes: Was the problem Devine Racing, or was it the idea of holding a big-time marathon in Las Vegas?
Here are a few indicators.
As bad as Devine’s performance has been, the company did succeed in expanding the race after taking it over in 2005, suggesting it has greater potential.
Before Devine, the marathon was run by a local group, drawing 5,500 runners in 2004. Last year, 17,000 runners participated and 15,000 are registered for Sunday.
Devine will not manage the race after this year. A company that operates successful marathons across the country is taking over. San Diego-based Competitor Group Inc. thinks it can eventually draw as many as 30,000 runners to the course, with its starting line on the Strip.
The 2009 race will be renamed the Rock ’n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon, joining a lineup of nine marathons the Competitor Group will hold next year across the country.
In those races, the company features unique courses — near the Alamo in San Antonio, through Music Row in Nashville and along the ocean in Virginia Beach — coupled with rock bands lining the roads and big concerts at the end.
Peter Englehart, chief executive officer of the Competitor Group, acknowledged the formula will need some tinkering in the next year for it to work in Las Vegas.
“We usually do a big headliner rock concert,” Englehart said. “But in Las Vegas there’s concerts every night.”
Not to mention the Cirque shows, the comedians, the magicians and the ever-present allure of the casinos.
Competitor Group’s record gives the Las Vegas running community good reason for hope.
The Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in Arizona and an event in Nashville each drew 31,000 runners this year. In June, 22,000 runners competed in the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego.
Last month the company’s first event in San Antonio drew 30,000 runners, thought to be U.S. record for inaugural road races to be held annually.
Englehart and others with the Competitor Group say they can leverage their reputation and use marketing to draw marathoners to Las Vegas.
Amby Burfoot, editor at large of Runner’s World magazine, called the group “the best in the game.”
Burfoot said the Rock ’n’ Roll marathons are typically smoothly run, entertaining and can be used as qualifying races for serious runners trying to get into the Boston Marathon and other prestigious races. Rich Benyo, editor of Marathon & Beyond, said Competitor Group’s marathons “are well-organized, they have reasonable financial backing, and by integrating Las Vegas into their stable of well-run races, the fabled ‘next level’ should be a distinct possibility.”
The “next level” means more runners, more publicity and earning the respect of runners who travel around the country to run 26.2 miles in unique settings.
“After the top three to five races, you have this secondary level of races,” said Burfoot, who won the 1968 Boston Marathon and ran the race again this year. “I think that’s where Las Vegas wants to put itself. The sky is the limit because Las Vegas is Las Vegas.”
Seventy-eight percent of the people who ran the Las Vegas race last year came from out of town and Competitor Group is working on a marketing strategy to lure even more runners to Las Vegas.
Typically, between 50 percent and 70 percent of Rock ’n’ Roll marathon runners don’t live in the host city, Englehart said.
That figure would likely be higher in Las Vegas, given its smaller local market and attraction to tourists.
The attractions of Las Vegas can make a race compelling not only for the athletes, but for family and friends coming to town to show support.
“They are looking for an experience that will give them the ability to travel and something their spouses can appreciate,” said Jeff Calloway, a longtime marathon coach, former Olympian and a columnist for Runner’s World. “It’s a package that makes it fun.”
Englehart is banking on the idea that his company’s blueprint will work in Las Vegas. “Our formula involves long weekends, traveling to places with flat terrain and combining entertainment,” Englehart says.
That formula might or might not work in Las Vegas. The answer will come next year.