I often get inquiries from various groups about them wanting to put on a new road race. The first question they typically ask me is, “How much does it cost to put on a road race?” Now there’s a loaded question if I ever heard one. I facetiously reply, “Well, how much does it cost to build a house?” Obviously, it all depends on what they want to create, what their expectations are, and, most importantly, what is reasonable based on their resources and level of support.

Either way, most people who have never produced a road race probably have very little idea what it actually does cost and what the typical expenses are to do so. The first reaction by those who have never done this before may be that the organization or the producer or the beneficiary is making money hand over fist. However, these folks are usually just uninformed of the many expenses associated with producing a race.

The first serious question I ask those inquiring is, “Why?” Why do they want to do this? And then, what are their goals and objectives? It seems gone are the days of putting on a road race just for the sake of putting on a road race. And, for the most part, gone are the days (maybe with the exception of a few) when folks did it just for the love of the sport. How many races do you know of today that don’t benefit anything but the participating runners themselves? Not many. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a fact. At a recent race management conference, I asked the 200+ race directors in the room how many of them managed a race that had no beneficiary and two raised their hands.

As such, fundraising for a charitable cause seems to be the key element and objective of most races today. Thus, the pressure can be greater to acquire more sponsors or recruit more participants so that the total money raised is greater. The challenge then sometimes becomes balancing the quality of the race with the greater focus on raising as much money as possible for the beneficiaries.

There are numerous variables that impact what an event may cost. A partial list could include:

  • The number of participants registered for the event.
  • The vision of the event and level of professionalism you want to display.
  •  The venue where the event is being conducted (some are much more expensive than others).
  • The “give back” (ROI) to the participants: t-shirt, food, entertainment, timing and scoring, etc.
  • The race beneficiary and how much it is expecting to receive. 

Over the years, my experience has taught me that the major expenses in a race along with the percentage of the budget each could be may look like this:

  • Advertising, marketing, and promotions (10%).
  • Race equipment rental (20%).
  • Police coverage (10%).
  • Medical coverage (5%).
  • Participant and volunteer t-shirts (10%).
  • Timing and scoring (10%).
  • Management fees (15%).
  • Miscellaneous and charity (20%).

A general rule of thumb that I have always gone by is that race expenses usually equal what the total entry fee revenue is if one doesn’t spend too extravagantly or include the “luxury” items like pre- or post-race parties, prize money, appearance fees, etc. For example, if you have 1,000 registrants at $30.00 per person, then you might expect that the race expenses total around $30,000, unless you really cut corners. Where a “quality” race begins to make money, reduce risk, and give a greater contribution to a charity is from its cash contributors and budget-relieving sponsors. Thus, without sponsorship, it is very difficult to net any profit and the event is very risky to produce, especially if you don’t hit your participant projections.

As such, this brings us back to the initial question as to why someone would want to put on a race to begin with. Races are very labor intensive. Whereas a runner only needs to worry about themselves, a race director has to worry about hundreds or thousands of participants and volunteers. Years ago, many agencies and groups were able to “donate” their time and services to events like road races. Now, with the economy so tight and with the proliferation of events these days, these entities now need to charge for their time. 

If races don’t require participants to raise a minimum amount in pledges like a walk-a-thon or bike-a-thon usually do, most races generally don’t raise as much money as people think they do, as they are becoming more and more expensive to produce. 

Whatever happened to the simpler days of car washes and cakes sales as fundraisers?