ST. PETERSBURG — Though the number of runners competing in the downtown Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon in February was about half what race promoters and city boosters had predicted, a recent report shows the event had an economic impact of $7.8 million.
Runners, their families and spectators spent $3.8 million while in town for the race, which included a free concert by singer Flo Rida at North Straub Park. The $7.8 million figure includes what existing businesses spent within the area as a result of the direct impact of $3.8 million.
"That's the multiplying effect of that much money being put into the economy. Does a restaurant need to order more food? Are the people who make the hot dog buns going to have to make more of them?" said Scott Minto, author of the economic impact report and director of the Sports MBA Program at San Diego State University.
"We are thrilled with this economic impact. They only had eight months to promote this past year's marathon so we really think it's going to gain a lot of traction," said D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater. "We're looking forward to next year and working with (race promoter) Competitor Group to bring even more runners."
The report found that the race drew 5,000 competitors from outside Pinellas County. It accounted for 10,000 total out-of-area visitors including race supporters, spectators and employees in town for the event.
Much of the report was based on responses from 1,500 runners who filled out a survey that was emailed to all participants after the race. Their responses to various questions were averaged and those percentages applied to the entire field of 7,000 runners.
The 13.1-mile race accounted for 4,189 hotel rooms booked for one or more nights around the weekend, the report found.
In the days following the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon in February, an informal survey by the Tampa Bay Times of the three hotels race organizers said were the most popular among participants found just 200 rooms total had been booked.
Dick Conway, a Seattle-based economist and business forecaster, suggested economic impact reports in general be taken with a grain of salt.
"There's a lot of science to it but also a lot of room for error," he said.
Economics teacher Andrew Zimbalist was more critical. The professor at Smith College in Massachusetts and author of The International Handbook on the Economics of Mega-Sport Events questioned the validity of any report done by someone paid by the event's promoter.
"Most economic impact reports are very poorly performed," he said. "They are done on the basis of being hired and well paid by people who want to make (the event have) a bigger impact."
Though Minto is paid by Competitor Group to conduct several surveys and impact reports, he said he has no stake in the findings.
"It's a third party. I don't really care what kind of impact it may have," said Minto, who declined to say what the company pays for his work. "This is not exact but it's the best way we can do it. The sample size (of 1,500) is more than adequate when we apply it to the entire population of runners."
Pinellas County's Tourist Development Council spends money collected from hotel taxes to attract visitors. It gave Competitor Group $100,000 for marketing the marathon and is in a contract to do the same in 2013 and 2014.
The council awards $250,000 to the St. Petersburg Grand Prix, $150,000 to the Outback Bowl, $100,000 to the Transitions Championship golf tournament and $100,000 to the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl at Tropicana Field.
Of course, there can be negatives to huge turnouts for road races. After the Las Vegas event many of the 44,000 runners complained of a clogged race course, a shortage of water and post-run blankets, and chaos at the finish line. Participants took to blogs and Facebook lambasting race organizers.
Because the Las Vegas race was in December, the harsh reviews could have discouraged runners from traveling to St. Petersburg.
The St. Petersburg race, however, had a high turnout compared with other inaugural full or half marathons, according to Running USA, a nonprofit trade group. A new race at Disneyland hosted 10,212 runners. St. Petersburg was behind that with 7,021 competitors and ahead of a races in Hollywood, Calif., and Pasadena, Calif., each with about 6,000 runners.
Still, Competitor Group will make some adjustments in marketing the 2013 St. Petersburg Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon.
"The biggest difference is we've already started marketing St. Pete. In 2011 we didn't even announce the event officially until May," said Dan Cruz, Competitor Group spokesman. "We have such a successful race to go to the market with. The word of mouth has been exceptional."
More than 500 runners have already signed up for the 2013 race, set for Feb. 10.
After race organizers spent a weekend in St. Petersburg and learned how convenient the race course is to hotels, restaurants, museums and the waterfront, the focus of ads and other media will tout the city more than last year.
"We think that is something we can improve upon," Cruz said, "by telling the whole story about this winter destination and not just the 13.1-mile race."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or [email protected]