I registered for a community fun run/walk not long ago and as I was walking away from the entry desk, I checked through my race packet. Race number? Check. Safety pins? Check. Flyers for multiple upcoming races? Check, check and check. 

And then – paper. Lots of paper. Coupons, advertising circulars, take-out menus, subscription postcards for magazines and business cards for local establishments. As I was heading for the exit, I heard the person behind me complain, “This is all ads. Didn’t we used to get more stuff in these things?”

Admittedly, we did. I can recall when things like socks, sweatbands, can koozies, pens, packets of energy gel, sunscreen and lip balm were routinely tucked into those bags. These days, not so much.

And that’s not really surprising. Event organizers are scrambling for sponsors, and some sports events’ major sponsors have dropped out. And those who are able to keep their sponsors are often faced with the choice of having funds that potentially could defray the cost of the event – or gimmes to put in the swag bag. It’s not surprising that many organizers are opting for the former, rather than the latter.

When you get right down to it, companies just aren’t buying as many inexpensive souvenirs to be used as giveaways. A colleague who works in promotional merchandise, noted that trends in merchandising have changed. Slap bracelets, key chains and so forth are not as popular as they once were. Why? Because companies know they’ll get tossed as soon as the recipient gets home. Items have to have inherent value in order to be useful as promo pieces these days. Companies tend to invest in putting their logo on more expensive merchandise (earbuds, thumb drives, etc.) and they save those for events to which they have made a sizeable sponsorship donation – and in which people have paid significant funds to register.

Many times, organizations that sponsor events, particularly smaller events, do it in exchange for publicity, meaning having their coupons or other materials dropped into the swag bag. Those bananas and cereal bars at the finish line? The trade-off was the coupon or the take-out menu.

Generally, people just go through the swag bag and pull the materials they want, and discard what they don’t. And as long as they put their trash in the can (and not on the ground), organizers have done their part.

Sometimes, though, companies really want to give out freebies, but the choices on a bare-bones budget are limited.  I think my head-scratching moment came when I went through a race packet and came across a postage-stamp-size piece of fabric (honestly, no bigger than 1” x 1” square) that was marketed as a way to vanquish fingerprints from the screen of a smartphone. Nice, but – where to store something like that? And while I appreciate the gesture, I can’t say the item made it home with me.

In this day and age of sustainability and cost-cutting, goodie bags are an endangered species. Increasingly, people are coming home from smaller events empty-handed. And maybe that’s a good thing.