An emailed press release today informed me that the PRRO circuit was “easing its bonus purse eligibility.”
I’m proud of them, I suppose, but I needed to read the whole release to figure out what the original bonus purse eligibility had been.
One of the common themes when carping about distance running’s relatively low profile in the American sports landscape is that Running Needs a Circuit. Or a league, or a tour, or something to compare with NASCAR or the PGA Tour or the NBA. All kinds of formats get proposed, but none of them ever happen, mostly because road races are independent organizations with no real national governance, and none of the formats offer the races much to make up for the degree of autonomy they would have to give up. Beyond that, distance running puts strains on athletes not found in car racing or golf; few runners are capable of racing at a high level for several weekends in a row.
The other reason they never happen is because two road racing circuits already exist, and very few people care.
When I was working at Runner’s World, there was a reader survey done which revealed that more Runner’s World readers claimed to read Running Times as well than Running Times claimed to have readers. This was probably due to sampling error (or, by now, my faulty memory) but it suggested to us that RW and RT had close to total audience duplication. The question was asked, “Should we just buy them and absorb them?” That idea was rejected, finally, because as long as RT existed, but remained relatively small, it was a disincentive for others to enter the running magazine business. After all, RT was trying to compete with RW already; surely there wasn’t much room left in the market, right? (Of course, RW did buy RT less than ten years later, but under different leadership with different ideas.)
This thinking was pretty attractive, but it relies on a leap of logic – that RT not winning significant market share from RW meant that competing in the running-magazine market would be an uphill fight – which isn’t necessarily true. RT’s existence only proved that there was limited room to compete with RW in the way RT was trying to compete. The question to ask of new running magazines was not, “Why do you think there’s a market for a new running magazine,” but “What are you doing which will give you a greater share of the market than RT has?”
So I’m not inclined to dismiss new running circuit ideas out of hand. But I do suggest that reasonable skepticism be applied, specifically this question: Why is this circuit going to be a greater success than the PRRO and USARC put together?
Neither of these circuits is a failure; if they were, they wouldn’t have survived as long as they have. However, they both have limited definitions of success. USARC is run by USATF and is essentially a circuit of national championship road races. As such, it focuses exclusively on American athletes. There is a point system for placing at series races, double points are awarded for the marathon championship, and the athlete with the most points at the end of the circuit wins an extra check, $6,000 in 2008. There are lesser checks for second and third. I’d be surprised to learn that any athlete earned more from the USARC itself than from prize money in the races necessary to win the USARC check, but it’s also worth noting that the athlete’s sponsorship contract may match all these winnings.
The PRRO may have been the incentive for the USARC. If you can think of a big road race, probably in the spring or summer, with a large field and about ten Kenyans in the lead, it’s probably a PRRO race. Boilermaker, Peachtree, Cherry Blossom, and Bloomsday, plus the World’s Best 10K in Puerto Rico, were the PRRO races in 2008. The PRRO offers a “bonus purse” (eligibility for which is the subject of the press release mentioned above) of $35,000, significantly higher than the USARC. However, the PRRO bonus has been won by runners from East Africa so consistently in the last two decades that relatively few people in the USA (probably fewer than a thousand) know or care who won last year. Aside from the size of the prize purse, the major division between the PRRO and USARC is that the former is all-comers, and the latter is for Americans only.
Now that I’ve laid out the pitfalls of the existing systems (which, I should add, work just fine for their own purposes,) we need to ask those who propose new circuits or schemes for team competition: why is this going to be more exciting and more involving than USARC and PRRO?