Competitor Group drops elite funding, while other race series take opposite route

The owners of the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon and half-marathon race series have pulled their elite athlete funding program, spurring a debate about the value of paying for top talent at participatory races.

The owners of the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon and half-marathon race series have pulled their elite funding program, spurring a debate about the value of paying for top talent at participatory races.

Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis
Olympians Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis. Photo: Richard Sibbald.

Competitor Group, the owners of 83 races in North America, including the Rock ‘n’ Roll Oasis Montreal Marathon and Half-Marathon, announced last week that they’re eliminating support of elite athletes in their North American events.

Top Canadian marathoner Reid Coolsaet has run a couple of the Rock ‘n’ Roll events along with training partner and fellow Olympian Eric Gillis and says he can understand the logic behind the decision, but also stresses the value to having elites generate excitement about an event.

“If you’re running the race, for some people the elites at the front aren’t a big deal,” Coolsaet says. “We are already done our race and off cooling down when many are crossing the finish line. But if someone faster than me shows up at a race, I get excited that they are there, and I hope I inspire others in the same way. Races will miss out on that if they don’t bring in an elite field.”

Participants in the Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Marathon. Photo: Aaron R. Fulkerson.
Participants in the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon. Photo: Aaron R. Fulkerson.

Competitor Group CEO Scott Dickey responded to initial criticism about the announcement on Toni Reavis’s blog, saying, “Competitor Group is at it’s core a health and wellness company dedicated to promoting and enhancing an active lifestyle. Lifestyle is the key word, not Sport. Rock n Roll marathons have always been about the journey, the commitment, the personal dedication required to train and finish a half or full marathon.”

Canada Running Series race director Alan Brookes, who maintains a strong elite presence at his races, believes the elite and participatory components can coexist.

“We target three groups: competitive runners, healthy lifestyle participation runners and charity runners,” Brookes says. “They’re all important, and they feed off each others’ energy. It’s a wonderful thing! As Nelson Mandela said, ‘Sport has the power to change the world. It brings people together like nothing else can.’ There’s room for everyone, and indeed, this is the special, democratic nature of running. I think this model is unfolding as the best one for city-marathons and road races, globally, to produce the huge, mass spectacle with everyone on the stage, major media coverage, and major community engagement and interaction.”

But Brookes is happy to see the dramatic growth of running over the past decade that has allowed a diverse group of races to thrive. “Now there are not just traditional road races, but mud runs, Spartan obstacle runs, charity fun runs, colour runs, Rock ‘n’ Roll Music runs and more. This has been an evolution, and a good thing.”

Brookes says his model that includes running as a sport as well as a lifestyle and a platform for community fundraising has helped turn competitive athletes like Reid Coolsaet, Ed Whitlock and Krista DuChene into more-widely recognized rockstars in Canada.

Coolsaet says Competitor Group paid for his hotel, travel expenses and prize money when he ran the Virginia Beach Half-Marathon in 2011 to prepare for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.

“Sometimes, I don’t blame races because they don’t feel like they don’t get enough out of bringing elites in,” Coolsaet says. “They feel like elites are not promoting themselves, but the races are also not promoting the elites. They don’t do a Q&A at the expo or have runners hang around for other promotional activities. The biggest and best races in the world are able to do everything for everybody.”

Brookes says this model is currently booming in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Frankfurt, Prague, Tokyo, Toronto Waterfront, and bursting onto the scene in Asia. “Two years ago, Tokyo had 330,000 applications for 30,000 places in a World Marathon Majors, big-city, room-for-everybody road race,” he says.

Competitor Group CEO is confident in the company’s new approach. “With regard to RnR, we will always welcome the elites, we are just not going to spend in excess of 7-figures annually to simply have them show up,” CEO Scott Dickey adds. “It represents a disconnect from the brand and the very promise of participating in a RnR event. We’re going to reinvest those dollars into entertainment, the experience, more staff to execute more flawlessly, and in our continued efforts to increase participation.”