You can learn a lot about economics from a simple dissection of a race entry fee. Why bother? Because by doing so you can better see what your options are and how to make better use of your running budget. It might remain a mystery exactly what is being done with the money that you pay as race fees, but you will see that it isn’t so much of a mystery as to why costs are getting higher.
The common list cited for race costs does not address the hidden factors which influence governments and charities. It doesn’t spend much time on the profit motive either, sliding over it quickly like the mention of it sullies the holy activity of running. However, you can take economics out of the conversation, but you can’t take it out of reality. The increasingly higher fees are completely rational. I didn’t say best or even good. But the evolution of the average race, and the cost to participate, make perfect sense if you take a look at a few things.
I suggest dividing the race entry fee into these categories: social, governmental, advertising, and organizational. At first glance it may seem that these categories overlap, but they mostly do in the sense of people having different opinions about what is necessary to have an acceptable and legal race.
-People like to be entertained, before and during the race
-People like to feel acknowledged for their presence and effort in the race
-People like to meet and talk with others about the race
-People tend to be drawn to well known or prestigious races
-People like to have food readily available
-The government likes to require permits that come with fees
-The government has a virtual monopoly on security and first response medical services
-People need to hear about the race
-People like to feel they are running for a cause
-Someone is spending their time and resources setting up the race
-Some equipment is needed in order to time and direct participants
When you look at the race entry fees broken down this way, you can see that a lot of the fees are the results of racers’ choices and the governmental issues. Let’s look at the list again:
-People tend to come to races that exhibit a certain atmosphere and energy
-People like their finishing medals or prizes
-People like the set up to accommodate interaction after the race
-People like to have food and water provided with minimal effort on their part
-People like photos of themselves racing, to prove they did it.
I am personally not terribly excited about any of my race fees going to pay some large cash prize to the top winners. I have gotten excited about my age category hat or mug, but if I have a choice of paying less and those not being provided, that is appealing. I know that there are some sponsors providing funds for this.
The music is nice to hear, but I run all the time without it. I think there is more energy from my fellow racers than from any music. There don’t have to be tents and vendors and a fair environment for the race to be, well, a race. And I can bring my own food and water. I do that on my own training runs, too. There is no reason the runners need to be dependent on the race coordinators for these basic needs. As for race photos, they don’t seem to be good at catching me in a photo-worthy situation. I’d rather have friends take photos, if available.
You can see that none of these things is truly essential to participating in a timed race. They are, however, things that have attracted people to races in the past, so event organizers have competed for sign-ups by providing them. Since they cost money, this has included some increases in fees for them.
-The government never has enough money to “do its job.”
-The government never uses its money efficiently
-The government is quick to see a potential source of revenue
I don’t put much stock in police departments (and the like) saying they don’t have enough money to help out with races. Does any government agency ever have enough money? Their spending habits seem to only be limited by their imagination. They have basically no incentive to spend efficiently. Is not the word “government” synonymous with both the words “waste” and “fraud.” As far as permits go, do they think people are incapable of gathering together without “their” regulation? And why do they need to charge for such a permit? To pay the people who decided to make it a law, the people in the office that process it, and the people who then get to boss us around? Whoever “they” are that know so much better how it all should be done? We already pay for the roads and government agencies through taxes. Even visitors are paying taxes as they pay for food and lodging near the race. Adding more fees to races is just another hidden tax to use supposedly “public” land and be taken care of by “public” services. Speaking of which, it is suspicious when the government creates a “legal” monopoly (legal by their own decree for them, but illegal for everyone else) and then can raise prices for their services whenever they say they “need” to.
The bottom line is that governmental entities are seeing the potential for making money with races, so they are finding “reasons” to raise their fees. There is nothing wrong with making money, when it is done by honest means. But when any group of people forces another group to use their services, it is not “making” money, it is stealing it. It is like a gang member coming into each store and telling the owner, “Pay us and we will protect you.” When what they really mean is “pay us and we won’t use physical force against you.” These governmental costs in race entry fees are no different than other ways that government comes up with for fleecing us. So, we have another whole category of the race fee that is not essential, except that all race organizers and participants would rather not be thrown in jail or fined further for not paying fees.
-There is always going to be some cost associated with spreading the word about the race
-Making the race about a charity seems to appeal to many people
-Some running clubs are using the race as a profit generating business activity for themselves
-Some race companies are just for profit
-Some races are brand names, which almost always brings a higher price
Some runners are mourning the “good old days” when race entry fees were maybe $5.00. They talk about when only “serious” runners participated. I think I know what they think they mean by serious runners, but from personal experience, I think anyone who is running is serious about it. You don’t run on accident. Trying to stigmatize some runners because they don’t run as fast is arrogance.
Unfortunately, the charity involvement plays off of that insecurity in people. The need to validate participation in a race because of not being a “serious” runner is subconsciously dealt with by running “for a cause.” This often means to raise money, although it is more often spoken of as “raising awareness.” I’ve always thought this was an interesting tactic. And kind of pointless, if that’s all they really mean. There are soooo many things we could “be aware of” in terms of illnesses and difficulties in life for people. But there is no real need for each of us to “be more aware” of everything. We are not being unfeeling if we are not constantly “aware” of all the hardship that everyone is experiencing in life.
The component of any race fee going to a charity is questionable for a couple of reasons. First, if you really want to support a certain cause, why not just directly give money? Why launder it through another organization? There can’t help but be significant amounts lost in the process for the bureaucracy of the arrangement. Secondly, there are reasons to wonder about the wisdom of giving to large, faceless organizations who are in the business of “charity.” You can quote all the reports about honesty and dollar amounts to me you want, but removing the personal contact between the real giver (not the volunteer getting paid by donations) and the real recipient removes important layers of relationship, evaluation, and ability to help most effectively. Government has done much to squelch this, and large charities are following the governmental model. Good intentions do not make for good results. This article shows how easily good charity intentions can go awry. In this example, it was easier to trace what was happening. The bad effects of other careless charity are more hidden in the whole economy.
I have heard some people complain that “races have gotten commercialized.” This must be the basic complaint when people don’t want other people to make money for their efforts and, gasp, if they advertise. It seems to be based on the perspective that trying to make money while providing a product or service is Vile. Selfish. Disturbing. It’s like calling a good student “too grade conscious” or a good musician “an overachiever.” It’s all word games that try to turn that which is good into something embarrassing. People are funny. They want a lot of what they want the way they want it, but they don’t want to pay for it or see it advertised. Until they want to find out information, that is.
Race organizers have been responding to a demand for a certain type of race event. They have been trying to let potential racers know about the events. If people start not wanting to pay for that, those races will not prosper. The more popular races end up costing more, partly because there is a higher demand for them. Many people are willing to pay more for those races. So far.
-There needs to be a designated course, with a start line and a finish line
-Timing is useful, because it can be hard to count people going over the finish line
-Equipment is always changing as technology improves
This is probably the most basic, necessary category for having a race. Otherwise, you could just go out and run by yourself. Until someone comes up with some technology where people all over the world can be timed on similar courses at the same time and say they are racing together. I think I might be onto something! With the advent of GPS watches, this might not be too far off. Would be hard for the government to regulate that! But, meanwhile and for those who still like the larger gathering of a race atmosphere, the runners need to know where to run. Most of them like to know how they place in the pack, no matter how much “just finishing” is an achievement in itself.
In my area, I am seeing some race organizations start to offer these few-frills types of races. It’s probably out your way, too. You just need to find the advertising about it….
Just like the farmer’s old blue jeans, road racing has become more popular. Now, not only the crusty old runners get out there, but a large variety of runners. They don’t all want to run the same distance, or have the same notoriety, or have the same snacks. They don’t all fit the same event or desire the same style. Word is getting around that quite a few runners want to run, but not pay quite so much. I think someone will come up with a “race event product” to tap into that market.