The Boston Marathon’s search for a new primary sponsor might also lead to a new name.
Such as “The Dunkin’ Boston Marathon.”
Or perhaps “The Boston Marathon presented by Moderna.”
Those are only hypotheticals, but with John Hancock departing as the race’s principal sponsor after next April’s race, the Boston Athletic Association may be headed for a very real crossroads between the event’s long-term financial security and a tweak to its 135-year-old name.
“If we go back in time, John Hancock saw the event’s positioning the same way the BAA wanted to see it, and that was great for that time and era,” said Jack Fleming, acting CEO of the BAA. “We’re in a different time and era. And we’re just getting started with what this will look like next.”
The last time the BAA went on the hunt for a primary partner was 37 years ago.
Then, when the race was losing its luster and the BAA’s president feared that intrigued sponsors such as McDonald’s and Coors were going to “steal our virginity” by overcommercializing the race, John Hancock saved the day. It agreed to keep its name and signature logo in the shadows of the race’s name, its sponsor, and that ubiquitous unicorn logo.
The future holds three possibilities: another principal sponsor like John Hancock, a presenting sponsor like the Moderna example, or a title sponsor like Dunkin’.
Considering the race’s rich history, the enviable demographics within Boston and the seven other towns along the route, plus the 30,000-plus participants themselves — along with the fact that nearly all of the other major international marathons already have title sponsors — the next sponsor will want to share space with the Boston race.
“All three likely will be in play when we go into the negotiations,” said Fleming. “Right now we’re very open to getting to that point of hearing what’s also important to the sponsor and what their partnership would look like — and scope and terms matter as well.”
Jonathan Jensen, a sports marketing professor at the University of North Carolina and a sports sponsorship consultant, believes the BAA will turn to a title sponsor over a presenting or principal sponsor.
“If you put yourself in the shoes of the Boston Marathon, do you take what is going to be less money and add a presenting sponsor or go with a sponsor who is going to be willing to pay more to be the title sponsor,” said Jensen, who estimates that a title sponsorship deal would cost approximately $3 million- $5 million a year with both the BAA and next sponsor seeking at least a five-year deal.
The Hancock deal
David D’Alessandro was vice president of corporate communications at John Hancock when he sat down for a breakfast meeting with BAA leaders in 1985.
Already beset by a financial brouhaha in a prior sponsorship attempt and a serious decline in field quality (England’s Geoff Smith won the 1985 race by five minutes, even though he walked to the finish line with leg cramps), the BAA, as D’Alessandro recalled, “was really extra sensitive, for good reason.”
So when D’Alessandro asked Frank Swift, then president of the BAA, what he meant with the “steal our virginity” remark, Swift told him, “We don’t want to overly commercialize the race and we don’t want to give away any rights to selling goods and service.”
Reading the room, D’Alessandro got John Hancock to retreat to principal sponsorship status from the title sponsorship that it sought.
“The challenge at the time was to form a partnership here that didn’t try to squeeze every dollar out of the BAA; that’s how it happened,” said D’Alessandro. “It wasn’t because we had the best bid [$10 million over 10 years], it’s because we empathized and sympathized with their viewpoint.”
As Fleming noted, the BAA recognizes that the sponsorship landscape in 2022 is different from 1985.
It’s a reality-based observation.
“I think it’s going to be very hard for them to avoid title sponsorship,” said D’Alessandro. “A ‘bluebird’ might fly into BAA headquarters and drop $50 million over five years or something without a title sponsorship, but it’s going to be hard. It’s more likely hard-nosed sponsors are going to try and muscle a title sponsorship and get into the merchandise and everything else.”
Off the top of his head, D’Alessandro mentioned three potential sponsors — Moderna, State Street Bank, and Vertex — as plausible Boston-based candidates.
“I think the BAA should take the longest-term deal they can get for the maximum amount of money with the least amount of commercial penetration — let’s call it the ‘semi-virgin’ deal,” said D’Alessandro with a laugh. “If they can get one. I don’t know if they can.”
The degree of difficulty is high.
“It’s a three-corner shot on a pool table; it’s not easy to do,” said D’Alessandro. “It’s possible, but I think the BAA will find itself being pressured to give away more commercialism than it has in the past.”
Ideally, a partner
Jensen predicts that Boston sports fans will be “desensitized” enough to accept a named Boston Marathon, especially in the likely event that the new sponsor takes a respectful approach to history.
“If the sponsor focuses on, ‘Hey, we’re going to come in, we’re going to be deferential to the history and the legacy of this event, we’re going to make it better, we’re going to promote the event’ … then I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of backlash,” said Jensen.
“Whether [the new name] becomes a part of the common vernacular, I think that will take some time to determine.”
Fleming described the pressure points that the BAA and its potential partners will test during the courting process.
“No. 1, we want a sponsor that’s going to be a partner, one that’s going to work with not only the BAA but appreciate the iconic stature that the signature event has,” said Fleming. “Boston is very important to the sponsor and to us.”
Partnering with a Boston-based company, as John Hancock once was (it’s now owned by Manulife from Toronto), would be ideal.
“It would be wonderful if a Boston-based company came forward and was identified,” said Fleming, “[or] a company that may want to come into Boston or a company that views Boston as very important to its business.
“But, we have to be ready for the possibility of someone who’s not Boston-based or doesn’t have the Boston headquarters as also being an excellent possibility and fit.”
While John Hancock never got naming rights, D’Alessandro was able to secure a logistical legacy that should stand the test of time no matter what company joins the race.
The 1985 marathon ended on Boylston Street in front of the Prudential Center, home to the race’s then-sponsor Prudential, also a competitor of John Hancock.
With John Hancock’s skyscraper at Clarendon and St. James Streets, just off Boylston and about four blocks away, D’Alessandro scoured the map of the 26.2-mile course. He straightened out a loop in Ashland that allowed the BAA to move the finish line in 1986 some 300 yards down Boylston in front of the Boston Public Library, close enough to John Hancock headquarters.
“I think the community loves it as it is, where it is,” said Fleming. “We could make a small adjustment here or there but we’re really not looking to do that.”
Michael Silverman can be reached at email@example.com.