So what do you get when you buy a marathon?
“We bought a 6 x 10 trailer, 500 cones, and about 30 metal signs,” joked Mike Lindemann, one of the new owners of the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon.
What the local group really bought is “the privilege and opportunity to direct and put on and organize and foster this event,” said Jan Seeley, another new owner.
The sale of the marathon was announced last week. Mark Knutson of Go Far Events, based in Fargo, N.D., sold the marathon to a group of six individuals -- marathon co-directors Lindemann and Seeley (Lindemann is co-owner of Body n’ Sole Sports in Savoy and Seeley is publisher of Marathon & Beyond magazine); Tom Coleman and Jedd Swisher of Campus Sportswear; Greg Reynolds of Reynolds Towing; and Blaise Aguirre of Boston, who is Seeley’s brother-in-law -- and Christie Clinic.
They’ve formed a corporation, C-U Marathon LLC, that owns the marathon, and it is hiring Lindemann and Seeley to continue as directors.
Seeley said Knutson was approached this summer by a Texas company interested in the Fargo Marathon, which Knutson’s company manages. Some time later, the Texas company began talking with him about the Illinois event.
The Texas company, US Road Sports and Entertainment Group, owns the Miami Marathon, Georgia Marathon, Chicago Half-Marathon (run in September), Sarasota Half-Marathon, Escape to Miami Triathlon, and a 13.1 Marathon series of eight half-marathons, including one in Chicago in June.
Seeley said she researched the company, and “they seem to do a good job.” But those involved with the marathon felt strongly that local ownership was important. When Knutson told Seeley and Lindemann about the offer to buy the marathon, they asked for time to try to make an offer of their own.
“He was very excited about the prospect,” Seeley said.
The public name and face of marathons are the title sponsor and the race director. It’s often not apparent who the owner is. Seeley said owners can be small groups of individuals, nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies.
For example, the New York City Marathon is owned by the New York Road Runners Club -- both huge organizations unto themselves, with full-time staffs, “like of Fortune 500 company,” Seeley said.
The Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis/St. Paul is owned by Twin Cities in Motion, a nonprofit organization that owns and organizes several shorter races throughout the year.
The Illinois Marathon costs more than $1 million to put on, Seeley said. Costs range from traffic control by local police and T-shirts and medals for runners to marketing the event and providing port-a-potties.
“All the bills are ours now,” Seeley said.
While attracting large sponsorships can be an advantage for a national company, “the local ownership will be looking out for local interests,” Seeley said. “There’s just no guarantee a national company will do that.”
For example, she said, if such a company were to strike a sponsorship deal for all its races with a national sporting goods retailer, then a competing local retailer -- like Body n’ Sole, which sponsors the Illinois Marathon -- would be out.
Local ownership can only help in attracting local sponsors and keeping them on board and happy, Seeley said.
“We all worked our personal friendships and connections to bring in people who we thought would be good and would benefit,” from a sponsor relationship, she said.
For 2011, the marathon has 13 hotel partners. They are designated as official Illinois Marathon hotels and listed on the race website. In return, the hotels will give back some of their proceeds from the race weekend to the marathon and the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau to help fund the 27th-Mile post-race celebration.
The marathon started out bigger and grew faster than Knutson had expected, Seeley said. The population of Illinois, the proximity of Chicago and the large alumni base of the University of Illinois all contributed. The marathon has been heavily marketed at other Midwest events, Seeley said.
But Knutson’s focus was on the quality of the race, and that won’t change.
“Each year, it’s a new challenge. What can we do to improve the race, keep a step ahead and make it better,” Lindemann said, noting next year’s event will include a 10K race and the I-Challenge for runners who do the Friday night 5K and either the half or full marathon on Saturday.
“Our wheels are churning,” Seeley added. “We’ve all talked about the communitywide impact on health and fitness, and how can we foster that more.
“We don’t want this to be corporate. We want it to be down-to-earth and grassroots. We want people to have a relationship with the race. We’re going to be as passionate about it as we were before.”