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Boston Marathon Bombing Puts Spotlight on Global Event Sponsorships

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First, there was the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy and the ensuing controversy and backlash against the New York marathon. Then a few months later came the terrorist attack that struck the Boston race.

All told, it hasn’t been an easy time for marathons. Yet the solidarity and determination of participants in this endurance sport, their supporters and their broad range of sponsors was nevertheless evident in London earlier this month, when 35,000 runners showed that their spirit was undaunted and that the race must continue.

And shortly after the race, organizers of the London marathon announced that they’d extended a sponsorship deal with Virgin Money, a unit of billionaire and huge marathon supporter Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, until at least 2017. The deal underscores the strong commitment that sponsors, including financial firms, insurance companies, shoe and apparel manufacturers, to name but a few, have for marathons, a commitment that’s only set to increase as the marathon industry becomes increasingly global.

Marathons aren’t only taking place in major world cities such as New York, Boston, London or Chicago. As economics and social moirés change across the globe, and more and more people take up running as a sport (in India, for example, running is becoming an important sport for women, too), today’s marathons are happening in such far-flung places as Mumbai, Madagascar, Kigali and Easter Island. Marathon tourism from the U.S. and Europe is on the rise and with it, the scope for increased sponsorship opportunities is also increasing.

Jayme Goldberg, co-founder of Pittsburgh-based SilverLine Athletics, a digital technology firm for the endurance sports industry, believes that sponsors of every kind have a chance of really upping their ante with the advent of social media, in particular the use of video technology.

Marathon sponsorship is not just about a company placing its name on a banner, or chalking its logo on the road at a mile marker, according to Goldberg. In the new avatar of sponsorship, leveraging social media to its fullest is becoming more and more important, said Goldberg, who is a professional athlete and runner and formerly served as chief strategy officer for BNY Mellon subsidiary Urdang Capital Management.

“With social media, sponsors, investment firms and others, can really engage in a race in very precise and targeted way that never existed before by customizing content for local events,” Goldberg said. “This increases their global footprint and gives them a local presence that’s meaningful to that event and its participants, and also helps build their brand.”

In Running USA’s 2013 National Runner Survey, 39% of participants said they were less likely to buy the products and services of companies sponsoring a race, while 32% said they would be more likely to buy the same. That leaves plenty of scope for companies to use social media to build up on the 32% of people who would purchase their products and services, Goldberg said.

Event sponsors that use social media can also seriously reduce their advertising costs even as they build larger and more dedicated audiences. Social media offers endless possibilities for firms to get their names out by customizing content related to a race, Goldberg said. The possibilities are endless, and can include messages related to training, self-defense for women, logistics and now, safety.

Besides, studies have shown that targeted messaging can result in participation rates in excess of 100%, because “everyone cares for information that’s related to the event they signed up for,” she said.

Thus far, though, most companies haven’t exploited low cost/high engagement benefits of social media as much as they should. Goldberg believes that video content is the most effective medium that companies should be using, but even though firms that sponsor marathons and other endurance sports events have been increasingly committing marketing dollars to targeted video production, the majority of video distribution has thus far been limited to broader platforms like YouTube, where statistics show that viewers don’t spend more than an average of 20 seconds viewing a video. Also, the endurance event industry is a fragmented market, Goldberg says, marked by the mismatch between event managers with a local focus and large corporations with a global focus that are willing to advertise through events.

There’s little doubt, though, that will determination are undeterred when it comes to marathons participation and sponsorship, so the marathon industry will only forge ahead and continue to broaden out.