INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SPORT COMMUNICATION, 9(1), 36-41
Dave McGillivray directs the world’s oldest marathon, which attracts over 500,000 spectators each year. The Boston Marathon is New England’s most widely viewed sporting event and is ranked as one of the world’s best known road-racing events. No stranger to the running world himself, the 61-year-old Medford, MA, native has already run across the United States, run the Boston Marathon blindfolded, and climbed all 1,575 steps of the Empire State Building in 13 minutes and 27 seconds. McGillivray, an accomplished philanthropist and author of The Last Pick, a story about always being picked last for sports, has been director of the Boston Marathon since 1988. In this interview, we cover his responsibility in all aspects of communication, such as communicating with event participants (interpersonal communication) and event organizations (organizational communication), interacting with mass media, and marketing of social media. The interview also covers public relations and media relations surrounding the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Ahn: You have been the race director of the Boston Marathon since 1988. How did you get started in the position, and what are the biggest challenges that you face as the race director?
McGillivray: The year before I began there were some complications that occurred at the start, and the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) was looking for someone to clean up the start. That was my initial role, just to make the start of the race more efficient. I had started my own business 8 years before, so I was already in the event-management business. It was really great to get involved with the Boston Marathon and the BAA, so I decided to accept the offer as an independent contractor. The biggest challenge honestly is that it is 120 years old. I’m just the caretaker. It was here before I was the director, and it will be here long after I’m gone. So I’m just taking care of it. The event itself is so complex that not one person alone can manage it. You have to have a team. I helped put the team together. My role is to balance personalities and egos, which is a huge part of the business environment wherever you go. Early on I was the technician that put out road cones and barriers, but I had a vision for where I wanted to be. I saw the marathon in the seed, and I needed to have a sense of how things will work before they happen. A challenge is preventing problems before you know there is going to be a problem. A lot of people get credit for putting out fires, but my job is to prevent the fire in the first place.
May: When walking around Boston the weekend of the marathon, there are banners in various locations promoting a variety of different companies. Why do you think these companies choose the Boston Marathon to communicate their products or services to the participants and spectators? In addition, what are some hardships with having a large number of companies sponsor the Boston Marathon from solely a public relations perspective?
McGillivray: First, I think you have to look at what the objectives of each company are. I think associating with a healthy fitness-oriented event gives them a positive image. The companies themselves have to look at the demographics of the people participating and see if they would be a good match for what they are selling. The marathon gets a lot of exposure, nationally and internationally. The Boston Marathon gives these companies a strong opportunity to get their name out there. One of the hardest things is oversaturating the field with sponsors. I know a lot of races are guilty of it. There are just so many entities involved that companies can get lost. You need to have a delicate balance of who you want, and how many you want. To try to work on this we try have a sponsor summit where we invite sponsors and tell them what we’re doing, and then allow them to speak and say what they want from this. They tell us what their objectives are and what they’re looking for in return.
May: For the 2016 Marathon, runners needed to be 2 minutes and 28 seconds faster than the qualifying standard for their age group to be accepted. Because 80% of the field for the 2016 Marathon will be qualified runners, do you see the qualifying process changing in the future? If so, how will planning this race change?
McGillivray: The initial purpose of standards was to control field size. In and of it itself it became one of the strongest attractions of the event. It’s the only race in the world in which you have to earn the right to run. People call it the golden standard, the “holy grail” of marathons, or the bucket-list race. It gives ordinary people a chance to set sights on an achievable goal. They get to say, “I qualified for the ‘Super Bowl’ of running.” What started as a tactic to control the field size ended up creating interest in the event. This year, we turned away almost 4,700 people. As a runner that disappointed me. We don’t want people who ran 12 months ago to qualify, then apply and not make the cut. In my opinion, the only way we can control that is to tighten the standards, but that means not as many people will qualify.
Ahn: In 2013, there was a tragic bombing that occurred just before the finish line of the Boston Marathon. What was your reaction right after the bombing to help secure the public? How did you handle the unexpected situation with other officials?
McGillivray: I was back at the starting line ready to do my annual run of the course when I received a call about the bombings. I was brought back to the finish line, and when I got there it was an incredible scene. Everyone was evacuated, and my first thought was to go into the medical tent and see the victims. When I left the tent to go to the finish line I was stopped by a police officer who said I wasn’t allowed. I was surprised, so I told him I was the race director, and he responded, “This isn’t your race anymore.” And that was really when I realized that something really bad had happened here. My main concern was handling the runners that were stuck in Boston. I tried to help manage the chaos. A lot of upper management people were on lockdown in their hotels so we didn’t have as many personnel on the ground as we needed. I was recruiting volunteers to help, but I didn’t feel right because I was asking people to stick around when I didn’t know if I was putting their lives in danger. The main goal was to get people their gear and get them out. These people needed their gear because their car keys, train tickets, cell phones, or airline tickets were in there. All the while there was fear that there were still more packages. We dealt with that for 6 hours.
May: In the 2013 event, mass media paid considerable attention to the security issues at the Boston Marathon. As the director, what were the critical points to communicate with members of mass media regarding the event in 2013?
McGillivray: It used to be a road race, and that all changed. After 2013 there was a new normal. We now had to take our lead from public safety and they weren’t even sure what the rules were going to be. Going into 2014, the plan was brutal because we really didn’t know if anyone would want to come back. But the opposite happened; the world wanted to come to Boston. We increased the field size, to accommodate 9,000 more runners, to almost 40,000 people. So the new question was how do we maintain a level of safety with such a mass of humanity? It was difficult to try to figure that out because nothing was a given anymore in regard to public safety. Before 2013, we could have a truck in one spot and a tent in another spot and assume they were both safe, but we couldn’t do that anymore until Public Safety gave us the okay. We were all determined, and we were all “Boston Strong,” but that didn’t mean I had all the answers. For the runners, it was inconvenient for them because of the need to maintain a level of public safety. The days of checking in a bag at the start and picking it up at the finish line were over. For them, it was incredibly inconvenient to go the whole day without any of their belongings. We’ve had 2 years of incident-free races, but Public Safety isn’t backing off. I think as we get farther away from 2013, people are hoping security will loosen up, but I don’t see that. We take the lead from Public Safety. Whatever they say, we do. And I don’t see them loosening up.
May: How have your directing responsibilities changed since the incident at the 2013 marathon?
McGillivray: There was a time when 99% of my time was spent on logistics, and in 2014 80% of my time was involved in public safety and not the race itself. I used to think about the future, and how we can enhance the marathon and make it better. How can we make the marathon a better product? It hasn’t been like that in recent years, but it’s getting back to a place where I can be a visionary again. It’s difficult now because there is a delicate balance between maintaining history and tradition, while still staying up to date with what is going on in the world. The aftermath of 2013 was a lot about the survivor community and focusing on those who lost their lives. It was about paying tribute to that. There was not a lot of focus on the race and the competition side, but you have to remember, that is what got us here. We are all about the pursuit of excellence and we are slowly getting back to that aspect.
Ahn: Many sports organizations use new media (e.g., social media, mobile technology) to encourage participation in sport events. How do you think new media affect the promotion and advertisement of the Boston Marathon?
McGillivray: Boston is a unique event. You can’t just sit back and let people come to you, you need to get out there. I feel bad for traditional advertising, but that’s not where people are going. People are looking on their phones or tablets. It’s about being relevant and staying in their mind and making impressions. My company is not doing enough of it and that is my next move to get more involved in social media. However, my company is a vendor. It’s not my job to attract people to the event. My job is to manage people once they get to the event. But I want the event to be successful, and the more people that show up the more beneficial it is for me. So, I need to participate in the social-media environment to make sure the event sticks around.
May: Beyond directing the Boston Marathon, you are currently the owner of Dave McGillivray Sports Enterprises (DMSE, Inc.). Please explain the goals and objectives of the company.
McGillivray: I started DMSE around 30 years ago with the intent to combine passion with vocation. I always enjoyed helping out with health and fitness sports. Back then, it seemed silly to try and earn a living doing that, but I knew at the time someday the world was going to wake up and get it. It all goes back to the vision. The most important person in the world is oneself. People have to understand that. As a result, they have to take of themselves. There is no more important a job than that. On an airplane if you need an oxygen mask, you have to put it on yourself first before your child. You have to take care of yourself before anyone else. My theory, at that point in time, on running was selfish. I was doing it for me, and running away from my family. Now, I think it’s unselfish. I put myself in a position where I don’t burden anyone else to take care of me. I can be healthy enough to take care of other people. Someday people are going to get that. One way to do this is to have a target, or a magnet. That magnet is the event itself. People say, “I want to do that, I have to earn the right to get there,” and someone has to manage that. That’s what I do. “This is going to be a big business and I want to help pioneer it.” It’s a niche, and we’re good at what we do, so we don’t have to sway.
Ahn: You wrote The Last Pick, a story about always being picked last for sports. How did this motivate you to become a runner and, eventually, become the director of such a prestigious race?
McGillivray: When I was younger I had this passion about wanting to be an athlete. I saw athletes on TV, went to sporting events, and saw them play. And I said to myself, “I want to do that.” Unfortunately, I was short in stature and it worked against me. When my friends bucked up for sides, I was picked last, hence the title of the book. I made some teams, but anytime we worked out I was working harder than everyone else. I was always in the lead when we were running laps, so since I can’t get cut from running, I decided I was going to run. Then I started starting setting goals and challenges for myself, and that’s when I set my birthday run and ran my first Boston Marathon when I was 17. I’ve run triathlons, I’ve run across America, and I’ve run for 24 hours straight. I just really enjoyed challenging myself physically because I wanted to be athletic. That’s how I built my own self-esteem and why I started getting into the competitive side of running.
May: You coordinate various community relations activities including charity events. Please explain how you got involved in this and why you stay so dedicated to these charitable events.
McGillivray: My motto is when you give, you receive even more in return. Fifteen years ago, I started the Hike for Hope for the Lazarus House at Merrimack College. This year when we did it, we had an agreement that I would manage it and get paid a fee for it. I had a sense they weren’t raising as much money as they had in the past. They had given me my final management fee check, and the night before= the race I couldn’t sleep. A deal is a deal and I did the work, but I couldn’t take the check. The morning of the race, I gave it back and said, “Your folks need it more than I do.” That’s just the way I feel. You have to get a sense for where your place is in life. Mine is to give back as much as I can. It would’ve been nice to have the money, but I also felt really at peace with myself that I did the right thing. There is no check for doing the right thing. My goal is to put on a quality event because then people will show up and fundraise for it.
Ahn: What advice would you give to students looking to work in the sports industry after they graduate?
McGillivray: Nothing comes easy and a lot of it is research. When someone writes to me and says they’re interested in sports marketing, I tell them, “You have to find a way to give me a target. For me to help you, you need to come to a conclusion about what you’re after.” A lot of people are afraid to do that because they don’t know what they’re after. There is a career in everything. For me, I am a runner. You could work for the John Hancock special-events division and work for the Boston Marathon from that side. You could work for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute Marathon team. They do so much fund-raising, and someone has to manage that money. You could work for a footwear chain or an apparel company. There are so many different ways to approach sports marketing and I don’t think people see that.
Once you have identified the target, you need to look at everything that is related to that. A huge part of that is networking. If I receive an email that says “Dear Sir,” it’s unlikely I’m going to respond. If you use my name, I’ll give it a little more thought. If you say a mutual friend’s name, now I feel obligated to respond; otherwise my friend will be upset. Another important aspect is internships; 9 out of 10 people I’ve hired interned or volunteered for me first. People want to come in, and it doesn’t cost me anything so I’m thrilled. Then when the internship is over, if I really liked the work you did, I’ll want to hire you. You get yourself in the door, and now they want to hire you. The most important part, however, is being determined. If you want to be somewhere, you need the determination to get there.