Lessons learned: New York City Marathon 2012 and what went wrong during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

2011 NYC Marathon

2011 New York City Marathon

Marathons are big business. The sudden cancelation of this week’s New York City Marathon 2012 is certainly a testament to how much is at stake. Some say botched planning is to blame for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s last-minute backpedaling two days before the marathon was set to take place.  As a result, sponsors lost money (and face), local businesses throughout all five boroughs lost sales, and charities didn’t receive the support they anticipated. In the end, what are the lessons learned about what went wrong during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, especially in the case of getting a city back on track?

How much is at stake?

The New York City Marathon generates an estimated $340 million in spending by the runners and onlookers who traditionally turn out for the internationally renowned race – from hotels to food and shopping, the city has a huge stake in the race’s profits. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Then there are the television broadcasters and, of course, the sponsors, most notably ING, the race’s title sponsor that took the brunt of the heat during the controversy over whether the marathon should continue as scheduled on Nov. 4. The runners, many of whom partner with charitable organizations to ensure a spot on the roster, also pull in millions of dollars collectively – upwards of $34 million was anticipated this year, according to the New York Times.

In a November 3, 2012, post to the New York Times, “Costs of Canceling Marathon Are Uncounted but Immense,” Liz Robbins and Ken Belson report just how much Road Runners, the nonprofit organization that runs the event, underestimated the damage in a post-natural disaster situation. The organization, which relies on the revenue from the race for more than half of its annual income, is swimming in a sea of unforeseen circumstances.

“‘We have some insurance,’” Mary Wittenberg, the president and chief executive of New York Road Runners, told the New York Times, “‘but there’s going to be some heavy hits as a result of this.’”

A marketing disaster

This wasn’t the New York City Marathon of 2001. That year, the marathon went on as planned, almost two months after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. The rationale at the time was that the marathon would be a beacon of hope, a symbol of perseverance that ultimately was successful in bridging together communities. However, there is a significant difference between less than a week and two months after a tragedy. Staten Island, which was scheduled to be the starting point of the race, was one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy. Residents in this area were outraged that the city was reportedly spending money on generators to power the publicity tent for the marathon rather than in their neighborhoods.

Race organizers and city officials, namely Mayor Bloomberg, remained optimistic (or rather, insistent), that this year’s race could hold the same power. ING drew most of the criticism, although it did not have the final say on whether the race would go on or not, receiving hate mail and threats of boycotts for what many residents felt was insensitivity in a time of crisis.

Amby Burfoot, in a November 3, 2012, post to Runner’s World, “Analysis: How and Why Marathon Was Canceled,” argued for both sides and said that timing forced the right decision.

“Marathons are healthy events—inspirational, aspirational, good business for all—but they are just mass aerobic games after all. There’s a time and place for them. This weekend in New York was not the right time or place.” Burfoot wrote.

Hindsight is 20/20

The consensus seems to be that the NYC Marathon should have been canceled or rescheduled immediately after Hurricane Sandy. The delay in coming to that decision cost even more money than was necessary. Runners could have canceled flights and a rebellion may have been avoided. Race organizers tried to adjust the race route and politicians tried to make the situation a win-win, but, in the end, it just wasn’t possible.

In “Bloomberg Is Wrong On NYC Marathon” a November 2, 2012, post to The Record, Alfred P. Doblin, an editor and marathon runner, summed up what was perhaps the biggest lesson — don’t put sports ahead of real life.

“The small businesses that feed off of (the marathon) will make their money another day,” Doblin wrote. “Moving the race would be complicated. Runners have made plans, booked hotels and trained for months. Thousands of people will lose money. But millions of people lost money because of Sandy. Many people have lost their homes. Some people even have lost their lives. New Jerseyans and New Yorkers are in their own marathon – a long, hard road of pain and push is still ahead. We don’t need 40,000-plus amateurs. We are in the real thing.”

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