Great Run chief warns 2020 won’t be vintage year as axe hangs over race calendar

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The head of the company behind the iconic Great North Run has warned this year will not “go down as a vintage one” as the company faces the prospect of not putting on any more events in 2020.

Paul Foster, chief executive of the Great Run Company, said he expected to join businesses across the country in suffering “some serious financial impact” as it grappled with the likely cancellation of running races throughout the UK.

He was speaking to BusinessLive as the company awaits further government guidance on the short-term future of mass-participation sporting events, something which has already seen the iconic London Marathon moved from April to October.

“Everybody’s reasonably prepared for the autumn event season not happening,” he told BusinessLive.

“We had as our worst case scenario there being no events in 2020 and that is looking the likely scenario now.

“I’m not ruling out some smaller events, and there’s a faint glimmer of hope surrounding the bigger ones, but we have to plan as if there will be none and that’s certainly what we’re doing.

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“My bigger worries would be around 2021 at this point in time. I know we can ride out this year, it won’t be pretty but we will do it.

“We’ll get to the end of the year and it won’t go down as a vintage one. We will suffer some serious financial impact as thousands of businesses across the country are.

“We’ve been doing quite a lot of collaboration across the sector over the past few months in response to coronavirus and there’s a degree of confidence that we should, as an industry, be able to ride this out.

“It won’t be pretty and I’m sure there will be some businesses that will be highly distressed.”

The company had 18 separate events on its calendar at the start of 2020 but 10k races in Birmingham and Gateshead are among the casualties already while upcoming runs in Bristol, Manchester, Glasgow and Portsmouth are, for now, still accepting entries. It has cancelled two Great Swim weekends as well.

The firm is also behind the iconic Great North Run in Newcastle which was founded by Mr Foster’s father and legendary athlete and commentator Brendan.

Great Run Company chief executive Paul Foster
Great Run Company chief executive Paul Foster

Due to take place on September 13th, it will be its 40th staging this year if it goes ahead.

Last year’s event saw around 57,000 runners take to the famous course from Newcastle to South Shields but a huge question mark hangs over the 2020 race.

Mr Foster said: “The economic impact of the Great North Run on the North East region is around £31 million which is obviously a massive number.

“It is a global event with around 60,000 runners expected to do it this year and it is the biggest running event in the country.

“There is also £26 million pounds worth of charity fundraising connected to it so any decision to postpone or cancel it has to be taken really carefully.”

The economic impact upon host cities on race day can be huge and one only has to see how packed to the rafters bars and restaurants are to realise what an uplift they can bring to the local economy.

Will runners be able to return for the 2020 Great Birmingham Run half marathon in October?
Will runners be able to return for the 2020 Great Birmingham Run half marathon in October?

The Newcastle-based company carried out a study which estimated the figure was up to £50 million in total every year.

Around 200,000 people take part in Great Run events every year, making up 80 per cent of its turnover, with the remainder coming from its TV production arm.

Mr Foster said that side of the business had “taken a battering” as a result of the cancellation of sporting events including the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics where it was due to work.

More than half of the firm’s staff have been furloughed.

Looking ahead, Mr Foster, who has been in the post for three years, is hopeful that mass-participation running is just on a temporary break and will return stronger than ever in 2021.

“It’s clearly going to be linked to the success we have in fighting coronavirus – if we can come up with a vaccine then things will return to normal in due course but we have to be a little bit concerned that 2021 events could be under pressure,” he said.

“We do a regular running survey every quarter among our participants and in our latest results 94 per cent of respondents said they would enter an event next year assuming it’s safe to do so.

“Once government advice changes and we get a handle on the medical aspects of coronavirus and, if we are able to lift some aspects of social distancing, I do think there’s a public appetite for it to come back.

“I’m personally very optimistic that, if it does come back, it will come back strong.”

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