LOS ANGELES — Days before the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco last month, tickets for the half-marathon portion of the sold-out race were being scalped on eBay.
The race, in its second year, mushroomed from 9,000 participants in 2004 to 15,000 this year, and reflects the rise and popularity of women’s-only athletic events.
The runners represented a growing crop of sports enthusiasts to which athletic companies are eager to market: women seeking to uncover their inner athlete. Female-centered events are gaining in popularity as a marketing tool for companies to help not only nurture new enthusiasts but new customers.
“One of the approaches we have taken the past year [with marketing] is really micro-segmenting the business,” said Darcy Winslow, general manager of fitness at Nike. “We’re looking at specifically what [sports] women are doing, understanding their motivation and then researching products from a performance perspective and figuring out how to bring it to a retail environment that is inviting.”
The key to wooing this woman is in the details, said Winslow, adding, “We’re learning each time what women are drawn to.”
Services and products are pretty sure bets, many firms are finding. At the Nike Expotique set up at Union Square before the race, lines snaked out the tent for free marathon services ranging from foot massages to gait analysis and manicures. Runners could buy Nike shoes and accessories at the booths and at the overflowing Niketown store across the street, which had dressing room waits of 20 minutes.
On race day, the course had a decidedly female bent. There were “pedi-Cares,” free Luna bars and a sterling silver finisher’s necklace provided by Tiffany & Co. — anyone who finished either the half or full marathon received one from a tuxedoed gentleman holding a silver platter.
“The necklace is definitely a draw,” Winslow said. “For one runner, her mantra that got her through was, ‘The necklace is mine.'”
On race day, several groups of women cheering the racers held up posters with the slogan, “Think Tiffany Necklace” and received loud cheers from runners.
Danskin offers many prerace events and services for its popular women’s triathalons that have been held for the past 16 years in cities across the country. To commemorate the 100th race, which took place in Seattle this year, Helzberg jewelers gave every 100th finisher a Helzberg diamond eternity pendant.
Goodies and gifts aside, Nike’s Winslow and Danskin chief executive officer Carol Hochman said there’s something even more enticing for women than the promise of bling or a little blue box: no men.
For Theresa George, a Los Angeles resident and first-time marathoner at the Nike event, the hook was, indeed, that it was a woman’s event.
“I like that it was supportive and that I wouldn’t have a million men running past me,” George said.
Hochman said she thinks it’s one of the main reasons for the popularity of the 123-year-old company’s event.
“It keeps the races at a different tone and timbre without men,” said Hochman. “It’s a much more collegial race and it really is about women supporting other women to get through the event.”
Danskin’s triathalons have grown from 200 participants since its inception to 23,000 women participating at eight locales: Boston; the Jersey Shore; Disney World in Orlando, Fla.; Chicago; Denver; Austin, Tex.; Orange County, California, and Seattle.
“A number of our races had to shift venues because there has not been room,” Hochman said, “and only a few races have room left to grow.”
Other athletic firms don’t directly host events, but have increased sponsorship of women’s-only events. New Balance has been a sponsor of the popular Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure series supporting breast cancer research since 1991. It also sponsors the Girls on the Run program for young women and last year became involved with O magazine’s Live Your Best Life tour.
A spokesman for the National Sporting Goods Association said the growing popularity of women’s sports in high school and college has encouraged sport companies to take notice.
“Women want to continue being athletic as they get older, particularly as women’s sports get more exposure,” he said.
Another important by-product of many of these events is the money they raise for charities. This year’s Nike event raised $14 million for the Leukemia & Lymphoma society. Both Danskin and New Balance raise money for breast cancer research.