Bay to Breakers is a race with a price 

Early morning every May, tens of thousands of people pack the streets of San Francisco, some prepared to race their hearts out with some of the globe’s elite runners, others bedecked in costumes and tossing tortillas.

But as the famous ING Bay to Breakers race approaches its 99th anniversary, its backers say its price tag is becoming a hefty one.

The ING Bay to Breakers is just one of several signature San Francisco events put in the spotlight by those who claim rising costs are making it more difficult to hold events in The City. In recent years, city agencies have coped with monstrous budget cuts by jacking up permit fees, security costs and cleanup fees — some say at the expense of San Francisco’s fun-loving culture. 

This year, the bacchanalian affair will take place on May 16. It comes with a multimillion dollar price tag and has lost money for at least two years running, according to Josh Furlow, vice president of event organizer AEG.

Among the biggest expenses are $286,000 for police and security, $51,000 in permits and costs to close the streets, and $40,000 for portable toilets, according to Sam Singer, who is providing public relations for AEG. The organizers also have to pay for the cleanup of tons of garbage along the route each year, he said.

Many of these costs have risen dramatically in recent years, he said. For example, the fee Bay to Breakers pays San Francisco’s Department of Public Works to clean up after the event has more than quadrupled since 2001, from $11,550 to $47,000.

Other signature San Francisco events have also struggled to keep going under the pressure of rising costs. The 35-year-old San Francisco Blues Festival was canceled last year because organizers couldn’t raise enough money. Founders of the How Weird Festival, San Francisco LoveFest and the Haight-Ashbury Street Fair have all said they fear increasing costs could kill their fun.

The North Beach Jazz Festival was canceled last year and, if it reappears this year, will be in a much smaller scale than previous years, said Kelly Edwards, marketing director for event organizer Sunset Promotions.

The problem is not San Francisco’s alone, noted Entertainment Commission Executive Director Bob Davis. This week, the New York Police Department asked all parades to limit their distance and time in order to limit the police presence and stave off cuts to other police services, he said.

“I’m from New York and I know how important those parades are to that city, so I think for all cities, it’s a balancing act,” he said. “I don’t think [San Francisco] in any way is trying to dissuade groups from doing things — all of these events are important. The City is working to come to grips with the cost and making the event work while still allowing The City to function and to work.”

For Bay to Breakers, city fees are just one part of the problem. A second financial strain is that only half the people who attend Bay to Breakers pay the $44 fee to participate. Last year, just 33,000 of the more than 70,000 people who ran or walked Bay to Breakers paid the registration fee.

“Now if we had 50,000 paying customers, this wouldn’t even be a conversation — we’d just be saying how successful Bay to Breakers is,” Furlow said.

Bay to Breakers has also become increasingly political, with neighborhood groups demanding a tighter rein on the race and die-hard fans objecting to more regulations on the free-spirited event.

This year, organizers have said they will limit floats to the 1.2-mile section of the route between the intersection of Divisadero and Fell streets and the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. This has received some criticism from participants with floats.

Furlow said it’s not surprising there are so many politics surrounding the event, because “people are really passionate and emotional about this event.”

“This literally is a parade of characters,” he said. “There is going to be personalities involved. But that’s why the company has been willing to stay with this citywide event. … Everyone puts a lot of work into it and we want everyone to have a good time.”

AEG, organizer of ING Bay to Breakers, shares the same owners as Clarity Media, which oversees The Examiner.

Counting costs

ING Bay to Breakers comes with a heavy expense as The City continues to increase fees and demand more services and control over the race.

99 Years running for the annual race
$286,000 Public safety costs
$50,938 Street closure and permit costs
$47,000 Cost to clean up trash
$40,000 Cost of portable toilets
35 Tons of garbage collected from race route in 2008

Source: ING Bay to Breakers

Footstock festival sees change in location

The annual ING Footstock festival that marks the finale of ING Bay to Breakers will not be held at the Polo Fields, as it has in years past.

Instead, this year it will be held as a street festival along the western end of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Golden Gate Park.

The festival will retain its signature music, food, beverage and merchandise offerings and will continue to be a rendezvous point for people who complete the course.

Josh Furlow, vice president for event organizer AEG, said the decision to move Footstock was made largely because participants complained about the distance from the finish line — near Ocean Beach — back to the Polo Field, about a mile into Golden Gate Park.

Also, the logistics of setting up the festival along a street are easier, and the fee to use the street is less, which will help the event save more money, he said. — Katie Worth

Staying the course

Bay to Breakers tidbits:

12 Kilometers
450 Participants who need first aid
2,000 Volunteers
33:31 Fastest the course has been run, by Sammy Kitwara of Kenya in 2009

Still running after all these years

With almost 100 years under its belt, San Francisco’s oldest footrace has a bevy of traditions, here are just a few:

At the start of the event, veteran racers toss hundreds
of tortillas into the air, a la Frisbees.

Runners and participants rival Halloween in their creativity and ubiquity.

Elite runners
Each year more than two dozen of the world’s top racers descend on San Francisco to compete for the honor of being the first up Hayes Street Hill and the first to finish the 12-kilometer race.

As the elite runners hit the course, they are joined by a bevy of Elvises who try to keep pace — for at least a block.

Some are as simple kegs in a grocery cart, others elaborate, human-powered works of art. This year, floats will be allowed along a 1.2-mile section between Divisidero Street and the Conservatory of Flowers.

Hayes Street Hill
The steep hill is a favorite among competitive runners and those trying to push floats.

Runners dress up as fish and, appropriately, swimming against the tide of racers.

Teams of 13 competing as one long centipede.


The ING Bay to Breakers footrace is nearing the end of its first century; this year marks 99 years for the annual event.

1912: The Cross City Race was created to lift spirits of San Franciscans during post-1906 earthquake reconstruction.
1940: The race sees its first female participant, disguised as a man; its first costumed runner, dressed as Captain Kidd, was last across the finish line.
1963: Race renamed to Bay to Breakers.  Only about 20 racers register.
1978: Centipedes — 13 runners connected as a unit — first run the race.
1986: Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Bay to Breakers as the largest footrace in the world, with 110,000 participants.
1992: Costume judging is held on the race for the first time.
1997: For the first time, more women register for the race than men.
2008: Every state but Rhode Island is represented in the race.

Source: ING Bay to Breakers

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