Ahead of Boston Marathon and Amid Medals Controversy, Brands Gear Up

About 30,000 runners are expected to line up at the starting line of the April 15 Boston Marathon — each with the hope of finishing 26.2 miles later with a finisher medal around their necks.

The fact that those keepsakes will be stamped with the name of the race’s lead sponsor — Bank of America — has stoked a debate about what some see as the inevitable continuing commercialization of sports and others view as marring an historic sports event.

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While that controversy simmers, major brands are heating up their marathon-related marketing and special events to tap into apparel and footwear sales, as well as international exposure. Nike, New Balance, Under Armour, Lululemon and Tracksmith all have freestanding stores near the marathon’s Boylston Street finish line. And Dick’s Sporting Goods, the event’s official retail sponsor, is finishing its soon-to-open House of Sport store nearby.

Retailers and brands are vying for runners’ and their supporters’ spending power. As in years past, the 128th running of the Boston Marathon is expected to give the city an economic boost. With thousands of tourists and runners booking hotels, shopping and dining in restaurants, the weekend has generated a $200 million boost in years past, according to statistics from the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The recent debate about Bank of America’s imprint on the medals has drawn more attention to this year’s race. A Boston Athletic Association statement said, “The Boston Marathon finisher medals are made locally with recycled steel and ribbons. Just as they have for decades, we feel that participants will wear them with pride and cherish them upon reaching the finish line.”

Bank of America
Bank of America has a countdown clock and Boston Marathon props in its outpost near the marathon’s finish line.

Asked for comment regarding the decision to feature Bank of America’s name on this year’s medal, the B.A.A.’s statement said it “understands how much a finisher medal means to Boston Marathoners, and its symbolism of reaching the finish on Boylston Street.”

The medals are being made locally for the first time in years by Ashworth Awards, a North Attleborough, Mass., company. Chief people officer Morgan Ashworth declined to comment about the decision to feature a corporate name on the finishers’ medals.

Bank of America representatives did not acknowledge requests for comment.

Four-time Boston Marathon winner Bill Rodgers, who also has a signature online store, said that he found the decision to be “shocking.” Select sporting events like the Boston Marathon stand by name alone. “You know the Indy 500 is not the Indy 500 sponsored by Buick. The U.S. tennis Open is not the U.S. Open sponsored by Frito Lay. It’s not The Masters golf tournament sponsored by…[laughs].”

Rodgers noted that Bank of America is also the title sponsor of the Chicago Marathon and now sponsors two of the six major marathons. After signing a partnership in 2008, the race was renamed the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. The bank’s logo has been featured on the front and the back of the finisher’s medals since that time, said communications director Alex Sawyer.

Under Armour
Under Armour will host a private event with Sharon Lokedi.

Speculating that the B.A.A. chose an international company that would raise the visibility of an American sporting institution, Rodgers said the bank is a good sponsor in a lot of ways, “But at the same time I don’t know if they need [the logo] at the bottom of the medal like that. Some people like to see the words ‘Boston Marathon.’

“The contrast is striking. But maybe I’m stuck in the past. It’s a global sport now and Boston is part of it,” Rodgers said, noting that [at least a few of his first-place] Boston Marathon medals were imprinted with “American marathon.” He continued, “That was a real Boston medal. But there was no was no money. I didn’t get paid any money for 12 marathons, when I won them [including four in Boston.] I didn’t get paid a cent, but I thought I should have been [laughs.]”

Emphasizing how soccer and athletics — which includes marathoning, track and field, cross-country running and road racing — are gaining participants and fans, Rodgers said, “The shoe companies are still the driving force in our sport. I think the sport is going to keep growing and growing because it’s [about] people’s health and fitness.”

There are 1.1 million people who complete a marathon annually in the U.S. Another bonus for its future is equal prize money for women and men, Rodgers said. “How many other sports say it should be 50-50? I don’t see that in football or baseball,” Rodgers said and noted that professional soccer is an exception.

Controversy aside, he said, “No matter what, it’s the Boston Marathon and it is historic. That’s why people want to run it. But if they could raise that prize money, that wouldn’t be bad.”

Boston Marathon
Fans lined up for photos near an Adidas outpost at last year’s event.

Determining the appropriate extent of commercialization has been an issue in sports marketing for decades, according to The Sports Business Group’s president David Carter, who said “it only seems to resonate with fans and consumers, and in this case elite marathoners, when the consensus is that a marketing overreach occurred.”

“In this case, it feels like a breach not only in tradition, but also the sanctity of the accomplishment. Perception is everything in marketing, and taking such a hallowed treasure as a finishers’ medal and tweaking it for corporate marketing purposes diminishes both the physical stature of the medal and of B.A.A.’s marketing message,” said Carter, who is also an adjunct sports business professor at the University of Southern California. “Brands must fully appreciate the importance and impact of personal achievement if they hope to authentically immerse themselves in sports marketing. There is a stark difference between a local 10k and one of the most important marathons in the world.”

For the 32nd year, Adidas will be the official footwear and apparel supplier of the Boston Marathon, and will once again sell an official collection at this year’s pre-race expo and at select local retailers. Executives at the activewear giant declined to comment about the medals for this year’s finishers.

Adidas is the apparel sponsor of the B.A.A.’s upcoming 5K race this weekend, which will feature 10,000 runners. There will be a handful of panels with Adidas-sponsored athletes and partners, such as one that will be hosted by Katelyn Tuohy at the Heartbreak Hill Running Company, a local specialty store.

Executives at Dick’s Sporting Goods, the official sponsor of B.A.A. events, declined to comment about the medals. Marathon finishers will get a good look at the company’s Dick’s House of Sport at the Prudential Center, which is steps away from the race’s finish line. The 120,000-square-foot location used to house a Lord & Taylor for decades. The retailer is playing up that proximity with a large “See You at the Finish Line” ad in one of street-front windows of its Boylston Street location, and a faux finish line outside of the second-floor entrance that connects the store to the Prudential Center shopping mall.

Dick’s will mark what will be its first urban location for a House of Sport with a grand opening April 19 to 21. The outpost will be the brand’s 14th House of Sport in the U.S. A rock climbing wall is on the ground floor and shoppers will also find golf bays with TrackMan simulators and a multi-sport cage for baseball, softball, lacrosse and soccer.

MUNCY, PENNSYLVANIA, UNITED STATES - 2022/11/21: A Dick's Sporting Goods store stands at the Lycoming Crossing Shopping Center in Muncy. The Christmas holiday shopping season in the United States traditionally begins after Thanksgiving. (Photo by Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
MUNCY, PENNSYLVANIA, UNITED STATES - 2022/11/21: A Dick's Sporting Goods store stands at the Lycoming Crossing Shopping Center in Muncy. The Christmas holiday shopping season in the United States traditionally begins after Thanksgiving. (Photo by Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Executives at Puma, which has a corporate office in Boston, declined to comment about the medals controversy. The company expects 400 people to turn up Sunday for a 3-mile “Forever.Faster” shakeout run in Boston. Puma-sponsored athletes Molly Seidel and Dakotah Lindwurm will lead the run, as well as Rodgers, who will be part of a panel discussion afterward.

Marathon Sports, a 22-store operation with a location near the finish line, declined to comment about the medal controversy, according to senior marketing manager Jessica Moran. The retail chain will hold shakeout runs, athlete meet-and-greets and pop-up events around the Boston Marathon.

Whoop, a Boston-based wearables company, is drafting off the marathon mayhem with a range of digital, out-of-home advertising celebrating the marathon. On Sunday, the company will host a “Shake Out” run with its partner Dan Churchill, a performance chef. After that cardio intake, there will be a brunch and Q&A session at Whoop’s headquarters. The company will also have an activation space on Monday to promote its free trials, and sell Whoop accessories and apparel sale. Hyperice will provide recovery-boosting services.

Under Armour will offer limited-edition customization in its store, finishers’ jackets and a New York Sports Club-supported recovery zone in its multilevel store. There will also be a private event with one of its sponsored runners, Sharon Lokedi.

New Balance will host a few special events this weekend, such as a group run that will leave from its Newbury Street store.

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