With the pandemic seemingly 'under control', Japan has been intent on life "with Corona". Restrictions on activities have lifted and race organizers are eagerly (or warily?) shaking off the dust on their dormant events. But it appears many runners have not yet come out of hibernation. Like Punxsutawney Phil who's just seen his shadow, they're biding their time - and with tightened purse strings.
Recently, there has been a significant uptick in marathons around Japan opening for registration. But something unexpected is happening - the number of registrations have decreased significantly compared to previous years. Also in related news, entry fees for many races, especially large-scale course certified marathons - have noticeably increased.
Entries are Down Nationwide
Let's take a look at the 2023 Osaka Marathon, one of only 24 events in Japan boasting official AIMS (Association of International Marathon and Distance Races) qualification and a course certified by the JAAF (Japan Association of Athletics Federation).
Registration for the Osaka Marathon was open until October 24, 2022 with a maximum of 28,620 general entries. In fact, the original deadline was in September. But with approximately 7,000 fewer registrations than the general entry quota, a second registration round was issued. This is significant because in the past, this was such a popular marathon that at its peak, entry was lottery-based with more than four times the maximum capacity applying for entry.
It doesn't stop there. The 2023 Kyoto Marathon typically sees approximately four times the number of applicants than entries available. The race is currently accepting registration until November 14, 2022 in its second round. Nearby, entry to the 2022 Nara Marathon was underwhelming and remained opened for two weeks - a far cry from its reputation as an ultra competitive first-come, first-served race registration.
Further south, the 2022 Matsumoto Marathon in Nagano gathered 5,500 runners - undermining the capacity for 10,000. And down in Okinawa, the 2023 Naha Marathon failed to reach their maximum of 20,000 runners. This was even after scaling down the race from 30,000 runners in its most recent edition in 2019 to 20,000 in 2023. In previous years, the Naha Marathon was lottery-based and applications were usually double the maximum capacity.
The current reality is that most large-scale city namesake marathons are struggling to meet their numbers.
Why is this Happening?
There's no single cause, but let's review the main factors thought to be in play :
It's All about the Money
So what gives with the price hikes? Race organizers have cited an exponential increase in costs, especially those related to COVID-19 preventive measures. Everything from purchasing hand sanitizer for volunteers and masks for finishers to renting automated body temperature screening systems.
Similarly, many races have decreased maximum capacities and/or implemented staggered starts in a bid to prevent congestion and accommodate increased physical distance among runners. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that without cost-cutting measures, holding a marathon today more or less equivalent to that of the past but with fewer people will likely incur an increased cost per runner.
It's always a bad time for price hikes but considering the current state of the economy, many Japanese households are tightening their pursestrings.
Food for Thought
Recently, Yoshifumi Bizen, an associate professor at Kokugakuin University Department of Health and Physical Education in the Faculty of Human Development surveyed runners who had participated in a ¥10,000 marathon. Based on 2,048 valid responses, an entry fee above ¥14,438 was considered "too expensive". If that's true, many race organizers are in trouble - or will be soon.
Finally, it's worth noting that the likelihood of making a profit from a marathon is almost non-existent for race organizers. This is especially true for city namesake races, which depend heavily on sponsors and local funding. Marathons and similar large-scale sports events often bring an influx of visitors ("sports tourists") and their money from which the surrounding local economy and tourism reap the benefits. After all, that is the primary objective for cities hosting large-scale sporting events.
Source: 市民ランナーの「マラソン大会離れ」定員割れ続出の背景に参加費大幅値上げ (published Oct 30, 2022)