By Pete Williams
For years Philip Porter has shaken his head as public officials around the country have cited dubious economic impact studies to justify massive public spending for sports events.
So when St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster touted an economic impact of as high as $12 million for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon that the City Council approved Thursday night, the University of South Florida economist got out his calculator once again.
“Let’s say you have 25,000 runners,” Porter said Friday morning. “That’s $480 per person, which might be possible if everyone came from out of town. But the vast majority of these people will be local. They’ll enter the event and go home. At most they’ll buy a meal somewhere.”
Local race organizers were out in force Thursday night to protest Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon organizer Competitor Group getting $30,000 in city support, including police and road closures – expenses race directors typically foot on their own – for the Feb. 12, 2012 event.
Given the money being made during this running boom, in the middle of a recession, the question is why any running organization is given a dime in public funding.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, featuring rock bands along the course, is the most popular national marathon and half-marathon series. Half marathon fees average $90. With a typical field of 25,000, that’s $2.25 million in gross revenue, not counting sponsorship dollars.
“For an investment of $30,000, we could have a $12 million return,” Foster, citing the economic impact study, was quoted by The St. Petersburg Times. “I don’t know why we’re still talking about it.”
Here’s why we’re still talking about it:
When a race is put on by a local promoter – such as Chris Lauber of the Halfathon series or Dawna Stone and Matt Dieter of Women’s Running, both of which were on hand last night – the money is supporting local businesses. Competitor Group, owned by New York private equity firm Falconhead Capital, is based in San Diego.
The approval for the Rock ‘n’ Roll event came on the same day Pinellas County announced plans to lay off 1,100 teachers as part of an ongoing budget crisis. Different budgets, to be sure, but still hard to justify.
But the $30,000 is not the most ridiculous or ironic expense approved for the race last night. Actually, it might not rank in the top two.
The St. Petersburg/Clearwater Sports Commission, according to The Times, will spend $100,000 to promote the race by taking out ads in national running magazines.
Want to guess what Competitor Group’s core business is?
Yep, they produce national running magazines.
Oh, sure. One of those magazines is Triathlete. The other, Competitor magazine (for which I spent 2010 as a regional editor), does technically cover other endurance sports, though it focuses on running. (At the end of last year, editors were told to write only about running.)
Hopefully the Sports Commission won’t be spending money on Competitor Group magazines. But given Competitor’s strength in that area, why should the Commission be spending any money on magazine advertising at all?
Maybe the Sports Commission could buy some ads in Women’s Running, the magazine published by Dawna Stone!
Somewhere Wendy Johnson, who died last year, is shaking her head. For years, Johnson lobbied the City of St. Petersburg to let her Motion Sports Management company stage a half marathon in St. Pete. City officials resisted, not thinking there was a market.
By the time the city came around, other local organizers were in the bidding. Stone eventually got the contract and now has a three-race national women’s running series, anchored by the November half marathon in St. Pete.
Now St. Pete is all about staging half marathons, even though the Rock ‘n’ Roll event will come just three weeks after Lauber’s Clearwater Halfathon and three weeks before the wildly popular Gasparilla Distance Classic in Tampa.
The Rock ‘N’ Roll event also will compete with the popular Chilly Willy Duathlon, which has been around for nearly a decade and is held in St. Petersburg on the same Sunday in February at Fort DeSoto Park. The Chilly Willy does not receive a dollar from St. Pete or the county. It’s a safe bet the portly Mayor Foster has never heard of the Chilly Willy Duathlon.
You’d think Foster would have learned from the City of Clearwater, which got little beyond traffic complaints for all the money it paid to host the Ironman 70.3 for the last five years. By the time that deal ended last year, the Tampa-based World Triathlon Corp. didn’t even put “Clearwater” on one piece of official race merchandise.
Remarkably, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard couldn’t wait to sign up to host the year-end event for the new Ironman 5150 series.
Let’s hope Competitor at least gets the marketing right and doesn’t refer to St. Pete as “Tampa” the way ESPN does whenever Tropicana Field hosts an event.
Speaking of The Trop, perhaps the most incredible aspect of the Rock ‘n’ Roll deal is that Foster and the city asked the Tampa Bay Rays to allow the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon to hold a health and fitness expo at Tropicana Field for free. That, according to The Times, was valued at $60,000.
Imagine the response when that came across the desk of Rays’ president Matt Silverman, himself a marathon runner.
Silverman and his colleagues have spent the better part of the last 18 months trying to get Foster to let them speak with Hillsborough County about a possible stadium. Foster won’t even entertain the notion.
Granted, only in the warped world of stadium leases does a city have to ask permission from a team to hold an event in a building the city owns. The Rays have no choice but to go along, though it would make for wonderful theater if they refused.
Porter, the USF economist, won’t be the last person to raise an eyebrow over Foster’s generosity with Competitor Group.
“This is the same mayor who tells the Rays to take a hike on the stadium issue,” Porter says. “Now you’ve got an event where mostly local participants are paying entry fees that are being exported. If this is anything like Gasparilla, there’s no economic impact at all. People will wake up at home, go do the race and drive back home.”