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From Marathons To Mud Runs, Endurance Events Boost San Diego's Economy

From Marathons To Mud Runs, Endurance Events Boost San Diego's Economy
From Marathons To Mud Runs, Endurance Events Boost San Diego’s Economy
The recent court ruling overturning funding for the San Diego Convention Center expansion has some worried that the city's tourism industry could take a hit.

The recent court ruling overturning funding for the San Diego Convention Center expansion has some worried that the city's tourism industry could take a hit. But a new report out Monday points to another way San Diego attracts visitors: through races like marathons, half-marathons and triathlons.

Vince Vasquez, a senior policy analyst at the National University System Institute for Policy Research, found that 134,000 people competed in San Diego endurance events like marathons and triathlons in 2013, and says those races created about $64 million in economic output and directly or indirectly supported 583 jobs.

U.S. Marathon Finishers

  • 2000: 353,000
  • 2013: 541,000

U.S. Half Marathon Finishers

  • 2000: 482,000
  • 2013: 1,960,000

U.S. Triathlon Finishers

  • 2007: 798,000
  • 2013: 2,262,000

Source: Running USA and Sports and Fitness Industry Association

Endurance Events Report
A report on the economic impact of endurance events in San Diego County.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

That's slightly more than the estimated 130,000 who attended Comic-Con. The annual convention is reported to bring $178 million in economic impact, although some economic researchers say it could be less.

Vasquez found participation in "endurance events," which includes everything from marathons to mud runs, is growing.

"It's a multibillion-dollar industry for endurance events and this whole lifestyle industry is something that San Diego embraces really well," he said.

Vasquez is talking about runners like Scott Greenwood, who lives in Iowa but will travel to San Diego this weekend to run the America's Finest City Half Marathon. He was also here for the Carlsbad Half Marathon in January and the La Jolla Half Marathon in April. Greenwood said he stays with his daughter when he's in town, but still spends between $500 and $1,500 during his stays, which usually span multiple days.

"We try some of the local restaurants, we've been to the San Diego Zoo and do a lot of sightseeing," he said. "This time we'll be going down to the beach a lot."

San Diego's mild climate means the region can host races all year, which sets it apart from most other cities. East Coast cities are too cold to attract many racers in the winter, while cities in the South and Midwest are too hot and humid in summertime for many competitors, Greenwood said.

"Vegas is not a place you want to be during the summer if you're running 26 miles," he said.

Vasquez analyzed participant data from all publicly listed San Diego events to find out where people are coming from. He found a third of event participants in 2013 came from outside San Diego County, and that about 20 percent came from outside the "drive market," meaning nearby counties like Los Angeles and Orange. The rest are in the "fly market," meaning they likely take a plane to get here.

Using findings from endurance event research in other markets, he estimated that 80 percent of "drive market" participants stay in hotels and 90 percent of "fly market" participants do. But, he says, the numbers could be higher, because people who come to town for races want to take care of themselves.

"You don't spend all this money and all this time training for an event to sleep on an inflatable mattress at your friend's apartment the night before," Vasquez said.

Vasquez also cites statistics from the nonprofits Running USA and USA Swimming, which show a majority of amateur athletes have bachelor's degrees and report household incomes over $75,000, which means they have more disposable income to spend on restaurants and at attractions like SeaWorld or the San Diego Zoo.

Vasquez said his results show these races are good opportunities for cities to make money, and are worth local governments' support. That means a willingness to close roads during the race, or help promoting the events.

Right now, San Diego's Tourism Marketing District promotes a few local races, including the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon & Half Marathon. Vasquez said other races should apply for these funds and could make their events bigger.

"There's no reason why say a La Jolla Half Marathon couldn't be twice the size it is now," he said. "There's no reason why other events couldn't have 50 percent higher attendance, or 75 percent higher attendance in future years."

Neil Finn has been the race director of America's Finest City Half Marathon since it started 37 years ago. His race field is currently capped at 8,000, and he said it couldn't get any bigger without changing the waterfront course, which he doesn't want to do.

"If I had to, I would; but it wouldn't be a choice," he said. "Now there's gotten to be so many other half-marathons in different places in the city that we wouldn't want to lose our uniqueness of the course we have. Because other people are dying to have that course."

Finn said the city is very supportive of his race, which requires some road closures in Point Loma, Harbor Island and downtown. Thirty percent of his runners are from outside the area, and he said they come to run his unique course.

"You start at the Cabrillo National Monument and people have the bay on one side, Pacific Ocean on the other, and it's the only day of the year that people can be out there that early," he said.

He said his runners rent more than 600 hotel rooms each year. And, he points out, a lot of his race spending goes to local businesses.

"It costs almost half-a-million dollars to put the event on, and a lot of the money is going to suppliers in and around San Diego," he said. "We have 105 buses, six different bus companies here in San Diego. Some of our T-shirt printing is done here, party rental companies, ambulance providers. We have 268 portable toilets. A lot of expenses like that."

Vasquez said he hopes his findings will encourage other local governments to launch races as well.

"One of the things we saw was the missed opportunity for the East County and the South Bay that have incredible trails, have places they can use to host these events and they're not hosting them," he said.

If cities like Imperial Beach or El Cajon began races, they might also attract other San Diego County residents to their cities as well, he said. But it will take the cities being willing to work with event organizers.

"If an event organizer tells them we want to make this an annual event, but we need help for the first three years or five years to get off the ground: Can you give us discounts? Can you help us promote the events? Can you work with us to make sure the event is successful and then we can return the investment with sales tax revenue or people staying at local hotels?" he said. "It takes somebody within the local community to put that deal together and connect local officials with event organizers."

If Vasquez is right, the streets in every San Diego community could be filled in the coming years with amateur athletes running down their dreams. And spending their money.

KPBS tried to check Vasquez's research methods with other local economists, but they were not able to comment before this story aired.