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After nearly 40 years, John Hancock to step back from sponsorship of Boston Marathon

Insurer will sponsor its last race next spring; BAA says it’s begun talking with new potential partners

John Hancock sponsored its first Boston Marathon in 1986, and will take part in one more next spring.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

After a nearly four-decade run as business partners, the Boston Marathon and its lead corporate sponsor, John Hancock, are approaching the finish line.

Marianne Harrison, chief executive of the Boston-based life insurer, informed John Hancock employees on Wednesday that the company has decided not to renew its contract with the Boston Athletic Association as principal sponsor of the Marathon after the next race in April 2023.

Harrison wrote that John Hancock, which became part of Toronto-based Manulife Financial Corp. in 2004, has changed significantly since it began sponsoring the race in 1986.

“We have grown in size and scale and are more globally aligned than ever before,” she said.


Harrison delivered the news in anticipation of Marathon registration opening next week, and the announcement came less than two months after John Hancock severed another longstanding local sports sponsorship: its 30-year partnership with the Boston Red Sox. The signature John Hancock logo will come down from Fenway Park’s centerfield scoreboard after this season is over.

When she announced that move in July, Harrison said John Hancock planned to focus more on aligning its “future community investments” with Manulife’s new “Impact Agenda,” which includes health and well-being, inclusive economic opportunity, and environmental sustainability.

In many ways, John Hancock has been much more inextricably linked with the Marathon than with the baseball team. In 1985, when the corporate sponsorship was first unveiled, the Marathon’s prestige had been slipping in large part because the BAA didn’t offer a prize purse to attract professional runners. In stepped John Hancock executive David D’Alessandro, at the urging of then-mayor Ray Flynn, who worried the race was losing its luster. D’Alessandro, a marketer who would go on to become John Hancock’s CEO, engineered a sponsorship deal worth $10 million over 10 years. This contract has been renewed multiple times since, though neither John Hancock nor the BAA would disclose the current financial terms.


Rob de Castella of Australia broke the tape to win the 90th running of the Boston Marathon in 1986, the first year John Hancock sponsored the event. DAVID TENENBAUM/Associated Press

One key decision on D’Alessandro’s part, according to Boston Marathon historian Tom Derderian, was to accept that the world’s oldest annual marathon would not be called the “John Hancock Boston Marathon.”

“Hancock honored that tradition by not insisting that their name be in front,” said Derderian, who authored a definitive history of the race and was executive producer of a 2017 documentary about it. “They did save the race by allowing the race to become professional.”

Scott Stover, the BAA’s director of marketing and sponsorship, provided a statement that credited John Hancock for making the Marathon the “global and iconic race it is today.” He said that a search for a new principal sponsor is underway, and that the BAA is looking forward to partnering with an organization that “shares our passion for athletic excellence, community engagement, and growing the Boston Marathon to new heights.”

For now, John Hancock has one more Marathon on its calendar. Harrison encouraged employees to consider volunteering for the 2023 race or entering a corporate lottery for one of roughly 125 race entries available to John Hancock workers.

The Boston Marathon is unusual in that most runners need a qualifying time in order to register, and thousands more enter with bibs available for runners who are raising money for charity. Harrison noted that the BAA’s and John Hancock’s Marathon-related charity programs have raised nearly $460 million for local organizations since 1989. She hinted that the company would use its last race as sponsor to celebrate that legacy, and also to pay homage to the victims of the 2013 Marathon bombings.


“The Marathon has always been a collective celebration of persistence and resilience,” Harrison wrote. “Although our sponsorship will come to an end, we intend to make our final race as principal sponsor a special one, especially as we reflect on the tenth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings and honor the memory of its victims.”

It’s not just John Hancock that has grown over the past four decades.

The Marathon drew about 5,000 participants in John Hancock’s first sponsorship year but now sells out almost immediately, with a cap of roughly 30,000 runners. The marketing and sponsorship opportunities have become far more sophisticated as well, and the race today lists corporate sponsors ranging from Amazon and medical device maker Abbott to Citgo and China’s Wanda Sports Group. And the BAA now hosts a year-round medley of races, with thousands taking part in its 5K, 10K, and half-marathon.

In the 12 months that ended in June 2019 — the last year of available data before COVID-19 disrupted the Marathon’s annual schedule — the BAA reported $9.4 million in revenue from gifts and donations, out of $21.9 million in overall revenue.

“Now, the Marathon may be in a strong enough financial position, may be diversified enough, that they don’t need a single [principal] sponsor,” Derderian said. “The Marathon is way stronger financially and institutionally than it was in ‘86 when Hancock came in.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.