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SBD Global/February 17, 2017/People and Pop Culture

Hangin' With ... Spartan Race Founder & CEO Joe De Sena

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Last year's race in Jablines, France, was one of many in Europe.
JOE DE SENA is the founder & CEO of obstacle course racing series Spartan Race. Since launching in '10, Spartan Race has exploded in popularity, both within the States and overseas. It now boasts more than 1 million global participants and more than 5 million social media followers. This year, 170 Spartan Race events will be held in more than 30 countries, including 80 in Europe, with Berlin and Carcassonne, France, among new hosts. The company now has 250 employees in 30 countries, and De Sena said the goal is to eventually have a presence in 42 countries. De Sena has recently zeroed in on Asia, where he lived in '90. "Had you asked me then, 'Would you invest in China?' No way," he said, before marveling at how much the country has changed since. The company's founder, who participates in many of the races, and his family moved to Singapore in '15 before making a move to Tokyo late last summer. He spoke to SBD Global about Spartan Race's int'l expansion, what sets it apart from other OCR series and the Spartan brand.

On recent additions ...
Joe De Sena: I moved to Asia last year with the family, and the goal was to grow out Asia. ... We just figured, "Here's an opportunity to move here and really be the tip of the spear to try to get Asia going." We did. We've got Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong. We're about to light up Thailand. We added Indonesia. I just launched Japan. [We also have] South Korea.

On the appeal of holding races in Asia ...
De Sena: It was third world [in '90]. What they've done since 1990 over here, and all across Asia, it would just blow your mind. It's the most populated part of the world. The next bunch of Olympics are taking place in Asia. All the focus from a sponsorship standpoint, wanting to crack into these markets, is here. It's really logical to be here. Difficult, but logical. 

Notable sponsors/media partners:
  • Reebok
  • Marriott
  • Panasonic
  • Yokohama Tires
  • NBC Sports
  • Hearst Media
  • South Korea's Chosun
  • Singapore's MediaCorp
On the challenges of adding races throughout the continent ...
De Sena: In the United States, we can put on 60-65 events. Japan, for example, can only handle three, maybe four. Thailand can maybe handle two. The Philippines will handle two. Those are countries in and of themselves. It's not like I can have a team that spans Asia. I've got to have a Philippines team, a Thailand team, a China team, a Hong Kong team, a Taiwan team, so they all have their cultural nuances. They've all got their language barriers, and the way they do business is different from border to border. It's not easy. It's a lot of mountain climbing to get through this, but we're succeeding.

On int'l expansion ...
De Sena: When I sat with Reebok in 2012, the first meeting we had with them after we closed the deal, they laid out a map and they said, "We want you in these 10 or 12 countries." And I gulped and I said, "How the hell? I don't even know how we're going to tackle that." But we're Spartans. We're up for the challenge. We started to do it, and then we couldn't stop, it just kept rolling. The way I tackle life, if we're going to do it, let's do it. Otherwise you could stay at home, right? So we just pushed, never expecting, looking back from 2012, that we would be where we are today. We're the largest endurance brand in the world right now when you look at number of participants, number of countries, number of events. And we really haven't been around that long, so it's a real testament to that team.

On the Spartan name ...
De Sena: We're really lucky with the name. The name Spartan translates well everywhere. Most modern militaries, no matter what country you enter, really were formed out of the concepts of the ancient world of Sparta. Cultures get it. It has a deep, deep meaning from the ancient world. There hasn't been a market we've entered -- I can't say it wasn't difficult getting in -- but once we're in and we light it up, it translates to anywhere.

On what differentiates Spartan Race from other OCR series ...
De Sena: When we first set out to do this, I was very clear that we weren't going to do anything silly. It wasn't going to be about holding hands and drinking beer. This was going to be a sport, just like basketball, baseball, football, hockey. ... That created a tough road, because it put a barrier to entry to many people who wanted to come do the race. ... When you look back now, seven years [later], we're the only ones that approach it that way. So we really don't have any competitors. Yeah, sure, on a weekend, somebody might decide to do a marathon or an Ironman or whatever. But in our space, there's nobody doing it the way we're doing it. Nobody has that global footprint that we have. We see people from Japan flying to Hawaii, people from Hawaii flying to Australia, Australians flying to the U.S. There's a real advantage to having this giant footprint. They embrace this lifestyle and this sport, and then they travel around the world doing it. ... That geographic footprint is powerful for the big companies. With one deal, they can cover the globe.

On adapting marketing strategies to new social media platforms ...
De Sena: Every day, there's a new platform out there that comes out and you have to be proficient in it. When you're dealing with as many countries, and China, as we are, it's even trickier, because you have translation issues. Every country operates differently and responds differently to those digital platforms. It's one of our toughest challenges. I would say we're incredible at putting on events. We're not logistically challenged at all. But for many companies, especially a company covering the geographic footprint we are, it requires some real millennial expertise in the digital space. I wish I could tell you it's not challenging. It's tough.

On the relationship with Reebok ...
De Sena: They're tremendous, they're unbelievable partners. They went above and beyond any contracts we had and really just operated in good faith during all these years. Our deal is coming up very soon, at the end of this year. All the big competitors to Reebok have reached out, or we've reached out to them. We're having conversations with all of them. I'm just a really loyal guy, so I would hope that we just stick with who our original friends and partners were, but it's going to be interesting times here in the next eight to 10 months.

Source: SPARTAN RACE


Hangin' With runs each Friday in SBD Global.
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