Outkicked: What’s a Boston Marathon Win Worth?

If Shalane Flanagan can have the laurel wreath placed upon her head in Boston, the pay-off could be huge. Photo: PhotoRun.net

For an American such as Shalane Flanagan, victory could mean a massive payday. 

On Monday, Massachusetts native Shalane Flanagan will try to become the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon since 1985. If she does, she stands to become one of the richest marathon runners—and maybe one of the richest female athletes—in the country. That’s because marathoners are collecting the biggest paychecks of any runners not named Usain Bolt. So big, in fact, that the event is luring runners from other events—the 10,000, cross country—to the point that those events are in decline. Maybe you’ve heard this story before. Fine then. Here, I’ll try to figure out how much money they’re making.

As best I can tell, there are four ways for top Americans to cash in on a major marathon win. The first and most obvious is prize money: Boston pays $150,000 to winners, New York $130,000, Chicago $100,000, and London $55,000.

There’s a nearly $100,000-range between London and Boston, and that reflects the second piece of the marathon cash pie: time, course-record, and repeat performance bonuses. London is stingy with overall winner’s checks (or better, cheques) but it more than compensates with prizes for fast times: last year, any man—no matter what place—who ran under 2:05 was eligible for an extra $100,000. Same for sub-2:18 women. A course record is worth an additional $25,000, and a world record $125,000 on top of that. Boston, which is officially ineligible for world records and doesn’t hire pacemakers, places far less emphasis on fast times: a course record is good for $25,000, but a “world’s best,” is only $50,000. New York splits the difference, offering $60,000 for sub-2:05 runs, and bumps it’s first-place prize to $200,000 for [delete runners] past winners.

From there, the calculations become a bit murky. All of the major marathons attract top talent with appearance fees, which range from a couple thousand for a 2:15 runner to hundreds of thousands for international stars like Haile Gebrselassie or the late Sammy Wanjiru. But the fees are confidential and vary widely, both from runner to runner and race to race. London, for example, seems to have a bigger appearance-fee budget than Boston and has paid upward of $250,000 for the biggest names (so has New York.) Several years ago, I was told of a top American being offered $150,000 to race Chicago. Should Flanagan or win Boston, her appearance fees could jump by as much as 50 percent, depending on how much she is getting now. In most cases, though, those fees are sharply reduced if the runner fails to finish.

But it gets murkier still. Most shoe contracts include a number of bonus clauses for winning races and making Olympic and world championship teams. An American like Flanagan could expect to make between $50,000 and $75,000 from her primary sponsor, Nike, for winning Boston, according to several people I contacted for this article. (Flanagan’s agent, Tom Ratcliffe, couldn’t speak to her contract, but confirmed in general terms that shoe-company bonuses might pay in the mid-to-high five figures for a major marathon win.) Many contracts include a rollover clause, with the bonus added to the athlete’s base salary for the next year, meaning that in some cases the bonus is essentially paid out twice.

By contrast, when runners get injured or just don’t run well, they’re often dinged by automatic contract reductions. Most shoe companies have some version of these reductions, although Nike, I’m told, is most aggressive, signing athletes to contracts that are lucrative up front but can fall apart if runners don’t perform at a high level right away.

That’s three. The fourth way for a marathon runner like Flanagan to capitalize on a win at Boston is looking outside the traditional shoe company model. After Meb Keflezighi won New York in 2009, his brother and agent Merhawi Keflezighi told me, he increased his sponsors from two to ten. Flanagan—who already has an endorsement deal with Nissan—could do even better. As a Massachusetts local, winning at Boston would almost certainly propel her into the mainstream of the New England sports community. I haven’t gotten any good estimates on how much, exactly, those non-traditional sponsors are willing to pay, but that’s because genuine American marathon stars are so rare: Keflezighi and Deena Kastor are the only U.S. runner with both Olympic and major marathon successes in 20 years. The market isn’t very well established.

Still, just for fun, here are some conservative guesses about what a Boston win would mean for Flanagan, both immediately and over the next three to four years of her career. Boston prize money ($150,000) plus appearance fee ($100,000), plus shoe company bonus ($50,000) equals $300,000. If she can somehow break the course record, she’ll pick up an additional $25,000.

Then, next year, she would receive an increase in her base salary of around $50,000. I’d expect her appearance fees to jump by as much as $75,000 at her next marathon, and increase for shorter-distance road races too, if she chooses to run them. If the shoe-company salary increase holds, or better, if she’s able to negotiate a stronger contract with Nike or another company, that could mean an extra $150,000 over three years. All told, even if she never wins a major marathon again and doesn’t pick up a sponsorship with Dunkin’ Donuts, a Boston victory might result in something like $750,000 in extra revenue over the next several years.

The wild card is non-traditional sponsorships and speaking fees. If she’s savvy and moves fast after winning, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her earnings start looking like other major female athletes in soccer or tennis, some of whom earn healthy seven-figure incomes. “[W]inning a race like Boston or New York, as an American,” Merhawi Keflezighi says, “opens the doors to communications with almost any company in the world.”

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About The Author:

Peter Vigneron is a senior contributing editor at Competitor magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at@PeterVigneron.

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