Owner Bill Burke of New Orleans’ based Premier Race Management says hopefully, it will have runners singing a new tune.
“The move to February was to avoid the weather of three years ago,” Burke said. “The new USTAF-certified route is to optimize our resources and make the course more enjoyable.”
As part of the new route, the course’s start and finish will be in the same spot – on Lamar Street between the Mississippi Museum of Art Garden and the Jackson Convention Complex.
The move is a cost-saving measure, for sure, but it’s also about convenience.
“As a runner, you’ll do your warm-ups on the green space and then walk into your corral. The athletes know, ‘I pick up my packet at the (Art) Museum and that’s where the post-race party is. The start? That’s where the finish is. A race this size? It’s the way it should be. I’m trying to stamp a few things on this event now that I’ve owned it a few years.”
In Burke’s 42 years in business (he helped advise the Blues in its founding days), he’s produced over 1,200 events. The largest was a four-year contract to produce the Bay to Breakers 12k in San Francisco, a race with 38,000 athletes. He owns the National Women’s Half Marathon Series with events in 13 cities across the country in 2020. In total, Premier Race Management will produce 19 events this year, five of them in Burke’s hometown, New Orleans.
Burke hosted three Olympic triathlon trials that sent teams to the Athens Olympics and Beijing games. He said that experience gave him a “tremendous amount of pride”.
In 2017, icy spots on the Blues course forced the races’ previous owners to cancel the event. It’s a predicament some races never come back from, but Burke said the race is hanging on, at “an even-keel,” participation wise. “I’ve canceled six to seven races (in my career), two because of 9/11,” he said, “so I understand.”
Burke’s first year of ownership was in time for the 2018 Marathon.
“The worst part has been managing expectations,” Burke noted. “Not only following a cancelation but after the loss of a major sponsor.”
The race’s history (13 years-old in 2020), began with the foundation of Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s funding.
“That sponsorship was immense in the community, not just from a money standpoint but from the volunteer standpoint which is important in a community event this size. When you lose that suddenly, it takes quite a while to get that back.”
The race has not replaced the finances it had before. Burke said it may be some time before that happens, if it ever happens. Gone are the days of harmonica and CD-filled swag bags.
“The general population of local runners don’t understand the financial difference between the event today and the event five years ago,” Burke said. “Logistics are key, but you don’t get there without the money.”
Continental Tire has extended its contract for three years and funding from the Mississippi Development Authority is secured. “They are the foundation of our finances,” Burke said. “Let me make that clear. But we’re trying every day to land new financial sponsors or in-kind sponsorships.”
Burke cites the relationship with local ABC television affiliate WAPT as a bright spot in moving forward. “Very few cities size of Jackson devote three to three and a half hours of live TV to cover a marathon and half marathon,” he said.
Looking forward to future Blues events, Burke would like to see music play a bigger role. “That had been the hook for many years,” he said. “I want more bands on the course and a post-event party. Maybe it doesn’t end at noon. The band keeps going and the beer keeps flowing. But it takes money and good weather.”
Heading into February’s event, Burke said he needs volunteers. “Contact me. Give them my email,” he suggested (it’s firstname.lastname@example.org, by the way).
Volunteer or spectator, there’s room for everyone.
Burke said, “I can understand you didn’t train for a marathon, a half, or a 10k, but come out and enjoy festivities with everyone else in one of the largest participatory events in the city.”