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New Platform Seeks to Legalize Race Number Switching

27 Jul, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Event Directors May Find it More Work than Help, However

Schlepping larger-than-carry-on-size bags onto airplanes. Bringing your own food into the stadium. Selling or handing off a race bib to someone else when you can’t make the race.

All three are commonly practiced despite being against the rules (much to officials' annoyance), but if a fledgling program takes flight, there might be a bit more leniency on the third item on that list.

According to an article in Runner’s World, a new website called BibSwitch is aiming to make the common practice of bib swapping a legitimate part of the running community—and a beneficial one for everyone involved.

The platform was launched in the fall, and is intended to be an online buying-and-selling marketplace for race bibs, open to the running community. The platform would work a bit like eBay, by helping to handle the transaction and collecting a fee in return.

The issue of switching race numbers, however, is one that is fraught with problems, including, according to Runner’s World, safety issues, skewed standings and crowding on the course. For that reason, it’s almost always against the rules of every race.

Not that it stops anyone. According to another article in Runner’s World, just before the Airbnb Brooklyn Half Marathon this past spring, there were 35 race numbers for the popular event listed for sale on Craigslist and another 21 on MarathonGuide.com. They ranged in price from $50 to $150. (A bib cost $65 for members of the New York Road Runners and $85 for non-members when registration opened on January 28. The race sold out in less than an hour.)

Sometimes, transferal of bibs takes place because the original runner becomes injured and doesn’t want to see his or her registration fee go to waste. Sometimes, it’s something a lot less ethical. Transferring a race bib to a faster runner actually does raise the possibility that the illicit runner can qualify the original bib owner for a more venerable race that requires a specific finish time, such as the Boston Marathon or the New York City Marathon.

What BibSwitch intends to do is create a marketplace for the legitimate transfer of race numbers, and to remove the possibility of scalping and mark-ups that accompany the illegal market. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Unlike, say, eBay, where a person simply pays electronically for an item and has it shipped, the logistics of races are complicated. Even if a user posts an available bib on the site, and another user shows interest in purchasing that bib, BibSwitch still has to contact the race’s director and get permission to initiate the swap. If given approval, only then will BibSwitch be able to make an official match and transfer funds.

Even after all that, race directors will still need to enter the updated information into their records and to make sure all necessary paperwork, including waivers, is filled out in advance of the race. And there may be a distinct window of time during which this is all possible in the lead-up to a race.

So really, it’s not as easy as it sounds, and BibSwitch has yet to get fully off the ground with a sale.

Runner's World notes the site’s founder, Edina Leiher, says she is trying to get the word out about her service, but that some race directors refuse to speak with her. Ultimately, she hopes the platform will become a common avenue for people who are registered for races that currently do allow transfers, but don’t know anyone personally who wants to buy their bib. “These conversations are happening all over the Internet—on message boards, eBay, Craigslist,” she said. “We want to get rid of the black market and offer a legal alternative.”

Most race fees, once paid, are non-refundable, although event owners set policies in varying degrees of stricture. In some events, runners who legitimately can’t make a race may be able to petition organizers for a deferral until the next year’s event. The Brooklyn Half is one of these and so is the Baltimore Running Festival; however, certain conditions apply. Other races, such as the Boston Marathon, do not allow for deferrals at all.

Some races also have strict penalties for bib-swapping. According to the rules of the Brooklyn Half, for example, if the organization learns that a runner has transferred a bib to another runner (and race organizers do not care whether this was done by sale or by gift or whether the original runner was injured), the runner who gave up the bib will be disqualified from the race in question and could be banned from future NYRR events.

While BibSwitch’s operations would mean that race directors would know about legitimate transfers, it can’t address the darker issue of paying a faster runner to wear another’s bib and qualify him or her for a more prestigious race; however, runner recognition technology is becoming more prevalent and the problem may see a dramatic decrease in years to come.

Now, if only they could do something about those oversized carry-ons people are dragging onto airplanes.

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