1981 Boston Globe: Early days of Corporate Marathon Sponsorship


If the Shoe Fits…then Advertise it

Runners will be showcasing many products

By Joe Dinneen

Globe Staff

The Boston Marathon is undergoing a subtle change.

One of the great pure amateur events, the Hopkinton-to-Boston run is being taken over by corporate-sponsored clubs who use the event to showcase their products.

Some of the major shoe companies who manufacture running shoes, shirts and shorts sponsor runners who wear their products and represent their clubs.

Gone are the days when the team prize would almost automatically be won by the hallowed BAA or the Greater Boston Track Club. Marathoners who once wore the colors of these and others are now wearing the footgear and clothing of such firms as Nike, Adidas, Puma, New Balance and Reebok.

Jack McDonald, Boston College track coach and founder of the Greater Boston Track Club, said that this year almost all of the top 100 runners will be representing companies, most of them shoe firms.

“The shoe companies will probably be the most visible thing you’ll see on the jerseys of the top runners,” McDonald said, “except for Bill Rodgers, and he’ll be representing his own clothing mart.”

Rodgers will wear Tiger shoes, which are manufactured in Japan, but will still run under the colors of the GBTC, although he will be wearing clothing from his own firm with the logo “BR.”

The GBTC has had a virtual lock on the team prize, winning it for seven straight years until last year, when the Atlanta Track Club earned the title. But McDonald wistfully observes that such a situation is history and companies will be the future victors in that phase of the Marathon.

The GBTC was formed by McDonald and others because the BAA had become “basically a long-distance group which revolved around the Marathon, and we were a bunch of track runners who wanted to stay closely involved with the colleges.’

With the demise of the BAA and Knights of Columbus track meets, interest in track and field dwindled in this area, McDonald said, “and so we invited a bunch of track guys to get together, and what happened was the GBTC.

“We named our club Greater Boston because of the Greater Boston Collegiate Conference and wanted the coaches of those particular colleges to help us out.

“And it worked quite effectively. We used the BC outdoor track, the Tufts, BU and Harvard indoor tracks and the coaches who had the expertise – Billy Squires, Billy Smith, Irwin Cohen, David Hemery – and they all helped us out.”

The purpose of the club was “to give postgraduate athletes – guys out of college – an opportunity to run, to be coached, to have a reasonable schedule and to represent a team. It was very successful.”

So successful that athletes from all over the country joined and ran under the GBTC colors. The shoe companies chipped in with running shoes, shirts and shorts, bags, etc., and sponsored GBTC members in national events.

But a year or so ago, the shoe companies hit upon the idea of tying in with athletes who would represent their corporate image, wearing their products from head to foot.

“The running shoe companies initially were trying to make sales,” McDonald explained. “And a big part of this with the athletes was on the promotional level. They would give athletes shoes, bags, that kind of thing, to keep them interested. It was really a great idea by the shoe companies to get the top athletes.”

The companies did not violate an athlete’s amateur standing because there was no cash involved, McDonald pointed out. “It was like here, test these shoes for us,’ because at that time you couldn’t advertise, Bill Rodgers wears so-and-so’s shoes.’ ”

Now the rules are more flexible, McDonald said. “In fact, nobody knows what the rules really are . . . the AAU and the new governing group are changing.”

The idea to have marathoners wear corporate products actually was a carryover from professional sports. Pro football, basketball, hockey, baseball and soccer players long have endorsed items, especially footwear. The first shoe firm to form its own team was Nike. “They were giving shoes to a lot of athletes around the company,” McDonald explained, “and they decided to form an elite team, making qualifying standards for the team. They called it Athletics West . . . it is based out in Oregon.”

In this area, New Balance was the dominant firm. New Balance supported the GBTC, sending local athletes to the nationals, the New York Marathon, Hawaii and other events. In return, the athletes would wear the New Balance shoes and jerseys. “The jerseys would say Greater Boston,’ of course,” McDonald said, “but every shirt would also carry the New Balance logo. Everybody was happy about the arrangement.”

Last fall, New Balance decided to strike out on its own. “It was sort of sad in some ways for the old clubs . . . Greater Boston and the BAA . . . because the companies promoted their own club and selected the best athletes from around the world.”

McDonald estimated that some of the shoe firms carry a roster of 50 or so athletes. Included would be such athletes as women high jumpers or men’s milers. The companies enter athletes in many track events. They might have as many as 30 road runners, McDonald said.

In the Boston Marathon, the prize being sought is the plaque awarded to the winning team (the one whose three top finishers post the lowest score) representing a track club, or now, perhaps, a corporation. Individuals will be given a tie tack or money clip or a similar commemorative item which will proclaim “1981 team prize.”

Promotion director Charles Flanagan of New Balance reported that the firm will be represented in the Boston run this year by Greg Meyer, Randy Thomas, Garry Bjorklund, Peter Pfitzinger and either Jim Donovan or another runner.

All are established runners. Meyer recently won marathons in Detroit and Rio de Janeiro in times of 2:13 and 2:16. Thomas was fifth in the Boston in ’78. Bjorklund won the Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., last June. Pfitzinger did 2:18 in winning the Skylawn Marathon. Donovan, from Wellesley, clocked a 2:16 in taking 16th place in Boston in ’78.

Athletics West (Nike) will be represented by John Lodwick from Dallas, “and he will be a factor,” reported company representative Bob Sevene. Athletics West also will be represented by the two top women runners, Patti Catalano and Joan Benoit.

Reebok, located locally in Hingham, will be backing Bob Hodge from Norwell, second two years ago, and Terry Colton, who will be flown in from England. A 3000- and 5000-meter star, Colton placed 29th last year in New York, his first marathon ever.

Boston Marathon director Will Cloney acknowledged that the corporations are shoving the track clubs aside to showcase their shoes, shirts, shorts, etc. But he has no resentment.

“I think it was kind of inevitable,” he said. “They have been doing it in skiing for years. And we have no control over it as long as they are registered Athletics Congress runners. They cannot run in our race unless they are registered as Athletics Congress runners. And they all have a registration number, so it is perfectly legitimate.”

One stalwart who refuses to endorse any product by wearing a particular brand of shoes is veteran Johnny Kelley, who will be running in his 50th Boston Marathon. He has his favorite, of course, but refuses to play the endorsement game.

“I’ve had shoes sent to me from all over the world,” he said. “I won’t live long enough to wear them all out. I don’t want to sponsor anything or anybody because I don’t want any headaches.”

The companies’ backing of athletes in the Boston Marathon this year is probably only the tip of the iceberg. McDonald summed it up: “The Marathon is still amateur and is still one of the greatest amateur events in the world but not quite as amateur as it used to be, if you know what I mean . . . it has changed a lot.”