NEW YORK — About 50,000 runners started the New York City Marathon on Sunday — and they were the lucky ones. Only 17 percent of those who had entered a drawing that fills a third of the field were selected, and applications for those spots were up about 20 percent over the year before, according to race organizers.
But not every race is so popular. Road races have hit the wall. The number of finishers in events in the United States has fallen from a peak of about 19 million in 2013 to just over 17 million in 2016.
High fees, a glut of race options and competition from other fitness activities have shrunk the fields at many races.
“It’s possible we got too big too fast,” said Rich Harshbarger, chief executive of Running USA, an industry group. Road races saw 300 percent growth in the number of finishers from 1990-2013, with a concentrated boom from 2008-2013. As participation recedes, Harshbarger expects some races to fold.
“We’ve still seen supply outstrip demand, and I think that’s going to change next year,” Harshbarger added.
Businesses that grew up around the boom have suffered, too. In June, Competitor Group, which operated the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon race series and book and magazine publishing divisions, was acquired by Dalian Wanda, a Chinese real estate conglomerate that also owns Ironman.
Last month, the magazine Competitor folded, and Competitor Group’s other publishing interests were sold.
Finish Line Sports sold its specialty running division in January, and the Rodale publishing company shuttered Running Times magazine last year. City Sports, an apparel retailer that catered to runners, filed for bankruptcy in 2015.
Most of running’s decline has come in what Running USA labeled the “other” distance — nontraditional events like mud runs and color runs. They account for about 1 million of the lost road-race finishers, Harshbarger said. He added that the problem was not necessarily that fewer people were running, but that they were doing it less often in organized events that charge fees.
“Events that aren’t professional managed or professional produced are going away, and then those left in the market are forced to get more creative,” he said. “Now everyone’s got bands on the course and beer at the finish line, so what’s new?”
Road races are also experiencing competition from things like studio classes, group yoga and CrossFit. High fees for races have also become an issue. In 2006, the average 5-kilometer race cost $13.50, according to Road Race Management, an industry publication; now the average is $34. In 2006, the average marathon cost $69.97; that is now $123.
In a 2017 survey, Running USA found that 20 percent of runners expected to decrease their race participation. Half of the runners in the survey said they thought that races were too expensive and that cost was a top 10 factor in deciding whether or not to register for a race. The survey also indicated that 6 in 10 runners would participate in more races if fees were low.
Phil Stewart, president of Road Race Management, said that prices had grown so quickly because people kept paying them. But now races are starting to see price resistance.
“Back when you could enter a road race for $10 and you could enter a marathon for $25, the sport really had no appeal or very little appeal for for-profit businesses,” Stewart said. “But then we moved into an era where people would pay $85 for a half and $135 for a marathon. That’s when you really had all the for-profit groups, and it just transformed the model.”
Stewart specifically cited the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon race series, which put a heavy focus on the social experience of running events and charged high prices for it. (Fees for races in its 2017 Las Vegas race series are $79.99 for the 5K up to $179.99 for the marathon.)
Jean Knaack, executive director of the Road Runners Club of America, said that running is “at the plateau.”
“While we’re seeing the decline on the event side,” she said, “people are still staying active in their clubs.”
The athletic event industry is expected to grow by 1.7 percent over the next five years, according to IBISWorld, a market research group. The category comprises running, walking, cycling and multi-events like triathlons, with running events making up 41.8 percent, said Rory Masterson, lead analyst at IBISWorld.
“There’s been a significant increase in variety of events,” Masterson said, adding that road races would have to keep battling for participants — and dollars — within that realm.
Knaack said she expected the big, marquee races — like marathons in New York City, Boston and Chicago, and 10-mile races in Washington and Philadelphia — to remain in demand, even if they are expensive. The New York City Marathon, for example, costs $295. The Boston Marathon, which will cost $185 in 2018, has also had increased demand, with 2,000 more runners applying for qualifier spots for the 2018 race than did for 2017.
“Those races are still selling out, which is a testament that the sport is still strong,” Knaack said. “But they can’t get any bigger. I think people are still gravitating toward those races because they know they’re going to get the bang for their buck.”
Not every road race, she added, will have such robust support.
“A lot of what happened is during the massive rise, you got a lot of opportunists that hopped in thinking that I’ll put on an event and make a gazillion dollars,” she said. “That’s not how the industry works. Just because you built it doesn’t mean that people will come.”