What keeps the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon running?


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Sponsors of the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon -- and there are 72 this year -- can expect to receive a binder full of information after the May 5 event that details how many people saw their brands as a result of the marathon and how much that is worth in marketing terms.

That's the kind of thing done after major sporting events and if the marathon is to keep running, it needs to prove its worth. But keeping sponsors happy is only part of the business.

For this year's race, the staff has ordered 425,000 cups, 583 Porta-Potties, 7,600 bandages, 27,000 bananas, 27,000 Eat'n Park cookies, fencing, signs and a lot of other stuff that they have calculated must be in place for a successful weekend when 30,000 people will be running the streets of Pittsburgh.

Oh, and they've arranged with Green Light Wireless to add cell phone reception capability to make sure the city can handle the crush of tens of thousands of people trying to call or text friends as they meet up around the race or celebrate surviving the experience. Last year, the race-day load slowed service down noticeably.

Keeping runners happy is vital. Sponsors will provide 30 percent of this year's roughly $3.5 million revenue but participants account for 70 percent, according to Patrice Matamoros, executive director of the nonprofit that works out of offices on the North Side.

Ms. Matamoros, who tends to speak quickly as if she's in her own race with the rapidly approaching event, pays close attention to the numbers. "That's the only way that you can really determine success," she explained.

The Pittsburgh Marathon had to shut down in 2004 after the race lost its title sponsor and the city was struggling with budget problems. The race restarted in 2009. The term shoestring is not inappropriate for the initial operation.

Ms. Matamoros worked for free in the early days of the marathon revival, sitting in a donated cubicle and sometimes using her own credit card to fund the project.

Now 11 full-time staff members, three part-timers and several independent consultants are on the payroll. From about 6,000 runners that first year of the re-launched marathon, the number of registered participants has more than quadrupled and the organization has added other events year-round to help justify the ongoing infrastructure needed.

"If you're going to run something like this, you have to be a real business," said Meyer "Skip" Grinberg, president of the marathon's board of directors.

Not every business is so focused on one day a year, but that's the challenge of a marathon. Nationally, it's a growth area, according to Running USA. In 2012, 487,000 people finished U.S. marathons, the industry group said. That was down 6 percent from 2011, but Superstorm Sandy took most of the blame for the drop since it forced the cancellation of the ING New York City Marathon, the world's largest marathon with more than 47,000 finishers.

The thought of all the unforeseen things that could disrupt a year's worth of planning -- and Pittsburgh has had its own exciting moments, including a stray microwave blown up by police -- convinced the marathon's board here to invest in event cancellation insurance, Mr. Grinberg said.

The protection has its limits -- there are a whole lot of stipulations on what kind of triggers would actually qualify -- but it's better than nothing. "We've tried to learn from each race," he said.

To that end, the staff spends weeks after each event asking almost everyone involved -- from the runners to the Pittsburgh police to the sponsors -- what worked, what didn't, what has to change. It can be exhausting, Ms. Matamoros admitted.

But the results help determine the number of slots they'll offer the next year -- the base number that will be used for everything from how much water to order to how many medical stations will be needed -- and the feedback helps identify changes that might improve results.

This year, for example, they've ordered Water Monsters, bulk containers that spectators can use to get a drink from a spigot. Last year, for the first time, it was hot enough that those watching needed options beyond the bottled water sold at stands.

The staff uses formulas. It's best to have one Porta-Potty per 40 people and they need to plan for 39 cups per marathoner.

There will be 22 water stops spaced about 1.8 miles apart, on average. Starting at mile 20 of the 26.2-mile course, the water stops are set up closer together.

Research has shown that although cardiac events tend to be rare, the most significant risk comes within sight of the finish line. "You see it, you get excited," Ms. Matamoros said. "It sends a shock to your heart."

Armed with that information, announcers will not be exhorting people to hurry up and get the course done within a certain time.

Running the event is also a logistics business, getting materials and people to the right place at the right time. Deliveries of water for runners will start at 11 p.m. Saturday night before the race and continue until 4:30 a.m. Sunday. The company hired to make the deliveries will use two tractor-trailers, two forklifts and 12 to 15 employees.

A sign company hires as many as 20 people to help put up the needed markers to keep runners on course.

The marathon staff had to get fencing from a company in Illinois because they need so much -- 12,700 feet. It has to be 6 feet tall -- shorter fencing doesn't do the job of keeping hundreds of runners in their assigned corrals for the staggered starts. Fences will go up between Friday and Sunday morning at 4:30 a.m., with about 12 people on the job.

In a Disney-esque move, the team is planning to keep the waiting runners entertained before the race by trying to set a world record for Macarena dancing. The first year the organizers had 13 bands set up along the course, and now they have plans for almost 100 entertainment groups.

"We're trying to make the experience so people keep coming back," Mr. Grinberg said.

Those people -- and they've analyzed the demographics -- are 57 percent female. The sweet spot is women in the 25- to 44-year-old range, who tend to have post-graduate degrees. Of that core group, 39 percent have household incomes averaging $100,000 plus.

Sponsors -- and the 70 charities that build events around the marathon -- find that useful to know. "I think there is one limitation to describing the marathon in business terms. The organizers may limit how much it grows -- despite indications that they could easily sell more slots -- because they don't want to overwhelm the city's capacity or endanger their reputation with runners.

There's also the fact that the nonprofit relies heavily on volunteers. It'll take an estimated 4,000 to keep this year's event moving.

Even those who love helping at the event don't mind a few incentives, which is why there's a room full of polo shirts, bags, jackets, shoes and other marathon-branded gear ready to go.

"Every year, this room is the coveted room that we have to protect," said Ms. Matamoros, as she looked around at the boxes and shelves piled high. "It's a big incentive for volunteers. And we need a lot of volunteers."

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Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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