Why an IT services firm sponsors the New York City Marathon

Typically, major marathons are sponsored by financial services companies not IT services companies. Here’s a look at why TCS decided to sponsor the New York City Marathon and why it’s working.

city marathon runners ts
Credit: Thinkstock

In 2013, TCS signed an eight-year deal to be the title sponsor of the New York City Marathon.

It was a blockbuster deal -- and a bit of a surprise. The marathon's previous sponsor had been ING, and major marathons tend to be sponsored by financial services companies: John Hancock has Boston, Bank of America has Chicago, Virgin Money has London.

But TCS? An IT services company? From India?

"It's a little perplexing," says Douglas J. Olberding chair of the department of sports studies at Xavier University.

[ Related: Why event sponsorships give tech giants bang for their bucks ]

But for a nonprofit that puts on dozens races a year, and a global brand with a nearly 50-year foothold but little brand recognition in North America, it's been a fruitful match.

The 2016 New York City marathon, to be run on Nov. 6 by nearly 50,000 people [including this writer], will be the third to have TCS attached to its name. We asked TCS and the New York Road Runners (NYRR), which puts on the race, how it's worked out so far.

Big, but unknown

Despite being a $16.5 billion company and one of the top IT services companies in the world, Joseph King, head of marketing and communication for TCS in North America, says that the company had a problem here: nobody knew who they were, despite being in New York City since 1972.

"We're a lesser-known brand, and with our company having an Indian origin, we thought it was even more important to establish our brand identity in New York and North America," he says.

Olberding agrees. "They're a global brand but people don't know them. They do a lot of business in the United States and the title of the New York City Marathon is one way to create awareness and reinforce their image as a global brand," he says.

Title sponsors tend to be "companies that sell to individuals. So you see shoe companies and banks and what they're getting is access to a market, and marathon runners tend to be highly engaged," Olberding says.

That same thought is behind TCS getting into the marathon game. Aside from having its name put on everything from marathon-specific branding and marketing to race shirts and Tiffany's bracelets, TCS would be getting their name in front their true customers. "So many [runners] are CFOs, so many of them are business and IT leaders, it made good sense and it was a good match for us," says King.

This isn't the only race it sponsors either: It as partnerships (if not always title sponsorships) with races in Amsterdam, London, Boston, Chicago and Mumbai.

Tech exchange, app development beyond race day

While the marathon is what King calls "the crown jewel" of the partnership in New York, TCS doesn't just pay the NYRR to tack the company name onto the marathon. It's a year-round partnership that has included app development and technological improvements.

In 2014, NYRR launched a marathon-specific app that not only engages runners but their family and friends by letting them track runners (I ran the race for the first time that year, and my friends could see how I was doing from the comfort of their couches, and my mom knew when I'd be coming up to where she was waiting on the sidelines of the race).

In 2015, the app had more than 272,000 downloads, and saw a 700 percent increase of usage on the day of the marathon. It was the number one sports app in the Apple store on the day of the marathon last year, says King.

For the 2016 race, the app will have improvements, including the capability to automatically update a runner positions rather than making users refresh the app to see where their runner is, and the capability to track up to 20 runners instead of 10.

They've also created a race specific app for the United Airlines NYC half, which is held in March.

"The joint objective with NYRR is to make it the most technologically advanced marathon in the world for runners and spectators," says King. TCS is also working on apps that bring an element of augmented or virtual reality to the expo and "maybe even to the telecast to push the envelope there."

In the next two months, NYRR also plans to release a new year-round app that's not race specific. "It's an opportunity to engage with us, register for races, get results, and build on that for different phases, connect to training and other content," says Michael Capiraso, president and CEO of NYRR.

During the 2016 marathon, TCS says it plans to introduce a new tracking device that will analyze performance metrics, says King. "Some of the athletes are going to be running the race to introduce what's capable of running technology in the field of performance metrics beyond what average pace per mile you're running and your heart rate but all the other data that's available," says King.

The data, he says, will help runners improve gait and stride. He wouldn't say which athletes would be using the new technology, but that he expects it to be a mix of elite athletes and members of the TCS's team running the race that day.

Aside from apps, TCS has also helped NYRR create new technology for their youth running efforts, helping them upgrade their software systems in all schools that are part of those programs so teachers can better track and reward progress.

Apps and software are not things that most people see (and runners shouldn't be seeing on race day because they're running not playing with their phones), but these things matter for the future of both companies. Capiraso of NYRR says that the TCS partnership has worked so well because they are aligned "with our vision and how we can be technologically advanced for the running community and their real interest in community and supporting community efforts."

This story, "Why an IT services firm sponsors the New York City Marathon" was originally published by CIO.

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