The world of sports business is already well aware of the black market, counterfeiting and the problems both can cause. In mid-May, however, another issue came to light when race bibs for the sold-out Airbnb Brooklyn Half Marathon began appearing for sale online. And while it’s not a new problem, online sale sites and social media have allowed it to proliferate.
Just to be very clear, the New York Road Runners (NYRR), who sponsor the race, have official Rules of Competition which state, “Race numbers are non-transferable; you cannot give or sell your number or tag to another person or participate with an unofficial race number or tag.”
Yeah. Tell that to the people who wanted to make a buck. According to an article in Runner’s World, just before the race weekend, there were 35 race numbers for the popular New York 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.)”
It’s not just profit that motivates some people, nor is it the cache of the race. Transferring your race bib to a faster runner actually does raise the possibility that the illicit runner can qualify you for a more venerable race that requires a specific finish time, such as the Boston Marathon or the New York City Marathon. Competitor.com also noted that it’s becoming commonplace for injured runners to try to sell off their numbers so that their registration fees aren’t wasted.
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; however, certain conditions apply. Other races, such as the Boston Marathon, do not allow for deferrals.
According to the rules of the Brooklyn Half, 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.
The question then becomes whether and how organizers can catch rule-breakers.
Sometimes, it’s almost frustratingly impossible. The Runner’s World article notes that in the case of the Brooklyn Half, there are no visual differences between male and female bibs. (Some races accord odd numbers to one gender and even to another, or use different colored or tabbed bibs, for example, which might make it easier to identify at least overt rule-breakers.)
There are those who work to identify and stop race counterfeiting (like the ones detailed in these stories.) In cases where race bibs are identical, it can come down to comparing race times. For example a finisher who posts a far faster time than could be expected, might turn out to be a man running with a bib registered to a woman.
NYRR also uses race photos to catch violators, to Chris Weiller, NYRR’s Vice President of Media, Public Relations & Professional Athletics said in email to Runner’s World Newswire. “Our race scoring team reviews results from every race looking for a variety of timing inconsistencies, both in the race and compared to past history in other NYRR races,” he said. “Using current and past race photographs and video we can determine if the person we’ve identified with a questionable time is actually running with the correct bib.”
Facial recognition software increasingly is coming into its own as well, and may play a role in the future. Other possibilities such as race bibs that carry an image of the person who is registered may also help.
Yet the black market continues to proliferate at races, just as it does everywhere else. In most of the ads posted for Brooklyn Half bibs, sellers did not explicitly acknowledge that bib selling was wrong, but 23 of the 35 Craigslist posters and 17 of the 21 MarathonGuide.com posters did note whether the for-sale bib was for a male or female runner. Some noted they were seeking a same-gender buyer and others went so far as to look for a person whose finish time would be equivalent to what they would have expected to post.
The article noted, “One especially brazen seller offers an incentive for runners who can post a fast time using the seller’s name and number: The Craigslist poster offers to sell the bib for $90 and refund $30 if the buyer is able to run faster than 1:30—what the poster claims is his or her PR.”
Of course, the question becomes: why don’t race organizers simply search on these ads and pose as runners looking for a transaction?
Answer: They do. Weiller says NYRR monitors websites and social media to identify transfers before they happen and to send an alert, when possible, that reminds the would-be seller of the rules of competition. Still, “numerous runners have been disqualified from races and banned from future races for transferring bibs,” Weiller said.
As technology evolves, expect race registration to become more tamper-resistant and less susceptible to those who want to game the system. But in the meantime, there’s more at stake than simply a faster finish time. As Runner’s World has reported in the past, illicit bib transfers present other problems for race directors. Age-group results are inaccurate, and if the runner wearing someone else’s bib has a medical emergency on the course, responders don’t know how to treat the runner or whom they should contact.