SBJ/September 24-30, 2012/In DepthPrint All
Stacey Osmon never considered herself much of a runner, preferring strength training to the solitary, joint-pounding nature of distance running.
But over the last year she’s donned black clothing, gotten filthy and channeled her inner commando, completing Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and several other muddy obstacle runs near her Lakeland, Fla., home.
More than 2 million people will complete such an obstacle race event this year, navigating muddy boot camp-style challenges along off-road courses that range from three to 15 miles. Events attract up to 20,000 athletes a weekend to ranches, farms, motocross venues and offseason ski resorts, charging between $60 and $175 per entry, along with typical parking fees of $10 a car.
Spartan Race is among the events that have competitors running through fire, muck and mire en route to the finish line.
Photo by:Spartan Race
“I’ve never found running very exciting,” said the 39-year-old Osmon, who owns a company that works with children and adults with behavior issues and autism. “But I love the challenge of dealing with the unknown, the different obstacles, and the teamwork and camaraderie involved.”
That, race organizers say, is what’s fueling interest in events that seem part “Survivor,” part “Wipeout” and part “Jackass.” Unlike triathlon, which requires swim ability and a significant bicycle investment, an obstacle racer needs only running shoes. And while some events such as Spartan Race emphasize the competition aspect, most encourage office mates and other groups to navigate the course as teams.
“You can rally people who would never enter a running event on their own,” said Tim Mossman, 43, an engineer in Gaithersburg, Md., who has completed several obstacle events. “Even your more fit, competitive types often find it’s more fun being part of a team and helping friends rather than just chasing another arbitrary time goal by themselves.”
Unlike Mossman, the vast majority of participants are in the 21-to-35 age category, a younger demographic than road running or triathlon. Later start times help. So do finish line parties with bands and one free beer for over-21 athletes, an industry standard.
Obstacle races require both strength and cardiovascular endurance, combining running with climbing ropes and walls, slithering under cargo nets and barbed wire, carrying sandbags and logs, leaping over fire, and crawling through claustrophobia-inducing tubes and freshly dug tunnels.
Such challenges dovetail with many popular fitness regimens, including core training, P90X, boot camps and CrossFit, the barebones gym phenomenon that has aligned itself closely with Spartan Race and Tough Mudder.
“The demographics match up really well for us,” said Scott Taylor, director of running, training, golf and tennis for Under Armour, which sponsors Tough Mudder and is developing a shoe to handle the mud and water of obstacle racing. “The core audience is much younger than your typical running crowd. When you go to these events, it feels like a post-college environment.”
A sport is born
As recently as 2008, obstacle racing consisted mostly of smaller regional events and Muddy Buddy, a national race series where two-person teams trade off running and biking over a six-mile course, navigating a few minor obstacles before meeting together for a 20-yard crawl through mud to the finish line.
In July 2009, Chicago entrepreneur Joe Reynolds, then 29, debuted Warrior Dash, a three-mile muddy obstacle race and
Warrior Dash expects to attract a total of 500,000 participants to its 50 events this year.
Photo by:Red Frog Events
Warrior Dash was an outgrowth of the Great Urban Race series Reynolds had created two years earlier after watching an episode of “The Amazing Race.” Warrior Dash has scaled more quickly and this year will attract 500,000 participants to 50 events in the United States, Canada and Australia, accounting for most of the $65 million in revenue that Reynolds’ Red Frog Events will generate from entry fees and sponsor deals with MillerCoors, Reebok and Monster Energy.
Though Warrior Dash is one of the shorter and easier obstacle races, it attracts an equal number of men and women, with an average age of 30, said Munirah McNeely, Warrior Dash’s chief innovation officer. Most races tilt 70 to 80 percent male.
“Being an attainable goal opens us up to a very wide demographic,” McNeely said. “It’s something for young people to do with friends other than just hanging out or going to a concert.”
Will Dean figured he could provide a more difficult challenge. In March 2010, he took a project that met with skepticism from his professors at Harvard Business School a year earlier and launched Tough Mudder, a roughly 12-mile obstacle course that includes a plunge into a Dumpster full of ice water, slogs through natural and man-made muck, and a race-ending dash through electrically charged wires. Runners, who spend an average of 2 1/2 hours on the course, receive garish orange headbands that some wear to work on Monday.
“It’s a real-life Fight Club,” said Dean, 31, a former civilian counterterrorism specialist in Great Britain. “This is what people want to brag about on Facebook.”
Tough Mudder’s launch coincided with Facebook becoming ubiquitous, and Dean said he’s spent millions on advertising on the social networking site. This year, the Brooklyn-based Tough Mudder will draw 470,000 participants to 35 events in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia, generating revenue of $70 million, including six-figure deals with a dozen sponsors that include Under Armour, EAS, Dos Equis, Bic and 24 Hour Fitness.
Dean markets Tough Mudder as a team-oriented challenge, not a race. That’s a stark contrast to Spartan Race, which founder Joe De Sena views as a heated every-man-for-himself competition. Help is not allowed on obstacles and those who fail or decline a challenge must take a penalty of 30 burpees, the grueling, full-body thrust exercise that leaves athletes gasping.
Tough Mudder markets itself as a team-oriented challenge and heavily promotes itself on social media sites such as Facebook.
Photo by:Tough Mudder
De Sena, a former Wall Street institutional broker, once completed 12 Ironman triathlons in one year. In 2005, he created the Death Race (www.youmaydie.com), taking athletes through the hills and frigid waters of his adopted hometown of Pittsfield, Vt., around the clock until roughly 20 percent of the field remained. Only 51 of 344 entrants were left standing in June when the event was called after 67 hours.
Figuring he needed a more accessible event, De Sena launched the Spartan Race two months after Tough Mudder in 2010 and will attract 350,000 participants this year to 40 events ranging from three to 13 miles, including a three-mile course in and around Boston’s Fenway Park in November. More than 10,000 athletes are expected for what Desena said will be the first of several races at storied sports venues.
De Sena declined to comment specifically on Spartan Race revenue, citing the private equity investment he received last month from Boston-based Raptor Consumer Partners, but said “we’re right there” compared to Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash.
Shakeout on the way?
Like the obstacle race courses themselves, the category is flooded. In Florida, where events can be staged all year, more than 50 races will be held in 2012. There also are growing pains, such as earlier this month when Tough Mudder registered 34,000 athletes for a two-day event near Frederick, Md., according to Dean. But after rain and miles of Washington-area traffic backups turned the event’s first day into a sports Woodstock, Tough Mudder canceled the second day, offering refunds or entries into another event.
Some wonder if a shakeout is coming. Muddy Buddy, owned by Competitor Group, scaled back to just eight events this
“We helped create a growing category that’s evolving like running,” Babbitt said. “Just as you have races from 5Ks to marathons, we now have obstacle events of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty.”
Everyone is looking for a niche. Sam Abbitt, who started the Savage Race in Central Florida in August 2011, grossed $500,000 on two races and plans to expand to six states in 2013. But he spent $100,000 on obstacles and said scaling from local to regional is the toughest part.
“People underestimate what it takes to produce an event like this,” said Abbitt, 30, a former general contractor. “There’s definitely a weeding out period right now.”
Others suggest the category has room to grow. Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and Warrior Dash have major expansion plans for 2013 domestically and abroad.
Dean said he didn’t fully appreciate the phenomenon himself until he was clearing customs in Australia in April and word got around that he was the Tough Mudder founder. Soon he was peppered with questions from security staffers
who had registered for his Melbourne event.
More than 1,100 people have gotten Tough Mudder tattoos at events. Spartan Race received 10,000 applicants for 100 spots in a Death Race competition/reality show called “Unbreakable” that was filmed last spring. The show will air in 2013.
“These events are now the Monday morning bragging rights,” said Dan Schorr, whose Start2Finish Marketing firm consults brands involved in endurance sports, including Subaru. “It used to be about catching the big fish or shooting 72 in golf. Now it’s that you got covered in mud and went through fire and electric shock.”
Pete Williams is a writer in Florida.
Photo by:Active Network
As chairman of Active Network, Alberga oversees the largest race registration platform in endurance sports, handling more than 4,500 annual running events. Long regarded as the industry’s version of Ticketmaster, the San Diego-based Active.com also has become a go-to source for endurance sports training information.
Photo by:Competitor Group
As president and CEO of Competitor Group, Dickey has overseen the expansion of an endurance sports conglomerate that includes the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series, the TriRock Triathlon Series, Muddy Buddy events, and some of the industry’s most influential magazines, including Triathlete, Competitor and Inside Triathlon.
A former civilian counterterrorism officer in Great Britain, Dean proved skeptical Harvard Business School professors wrong by taking a school project and turning it into Tough Mudder. This year, 470,000 people will participate in the off-road obstacle event, which with $70 million in revenue is the leader in the booming obstacle race category.
Photo by:Brook Pifer
In May 2011, the former AEG Sports president took over as CEO of World Triathlon Corp. and has worked to refocus the Ironman brand, raising the profile of the Tampa-based company that oversees nearly 100 Ironman and (half-distance) Ironman 70.3 races annually, attracting 200,000 participants.
Photo by:New York Road Runners
As president and CEO of New York Road Runners, Wittenberg oversees the ING New York City Marathon. A former competitive runner who won the Marine Corps Marathon in 1987, Wittenberg landed ING as title sponsor and raised the profile of the event to rival the Boston Marathon.
Photo by:Getty Images
Kalama reinvigorated the sport of stand-up paddle (SUP) surfing in the mid-1990s with friend and fellow big wave surfer Laird Hamilton. What once was seen as only a leisurely way to spend time on the water has evolved into a rapidly growing race category with events that become a brutal battle of attrition. Kalama is SUP’s most visible figure, designing paddleboards for Imagine Surf, conducting clinics and serving as all-around ambassador for the sport.
JOE DE SENA
De Sena (right) poses with competitor Hobie Call.
Photo by:Spartan Races
A former Wall Street trader who once competed in 12 Ironman Triathlons in one year, De Sena created Spartan Race, perhaps the most grueling of the mainstream obstacle race series. More than 350,000 people will run a Spartan Race of various lengths in 2012, including a course at Fenway Park in November.
Those outside triathlon would never guess that the sport’s most lucrative race ($1.1 million prize purse) takes place in Des Moines, Iowa, attracting a deep roster of professionals. That’s due to the sponsorship of Hy-Vee, a 235-store chain of grocery stores in the Midwest. Edeker, a 30-year Hy-Vee veteran, took over as chairman and CEO of the grocer in June.
During Bank of America’s six-year run as title sponsor of the Chicago Marathon, it has activated around the U.S. women’s national soccer team, youth fitness initiatives and the Susan G. Komen cancer fund. For 2012, the bank will bring the U.S. armed forces to the forefront, as the bank’s digital and on-site Express Your Thanks activation pays homage to veterans.
“The [Express Your Thanks] program provides us with tremendous reach; it’s an opportunity to integrate into a broader market,” said Charles Greenstein, senior vice president of sponsorship marketing for Bank of America. “We’ve been supporting the military for 90 years and this was another demonstration.”
The centerpiece of the activation will be a 12-foot by 25-foot American flag mosaic at the race’s living exhibit expo, constructed entirely out of branded Bank of America water bottles. In the weeks leading up to the Oct. 7 event, 175 Bank of America locations in the greater Chicago area have allowed customers to sign and write thank-you notes on the colored bottles, which will then be used to build out the mosaic.
Bank of America’s Express Your Thanks campaign will be highlighted at this year’s event.
Photo by:Getty Images
On site, the bank has constructed a large wall mural along the race course. It also has branded the final mile of the 26.2-mile race with its Merrill Lynch brand.
Bank of America has held firm ownership over the Chicago Marathon since 2008, after the bank purchased the race’s former title sponsor, LaSalle Bank. Greenstein said this year’s activation is an extension of the strategy the bank used at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Kansas City in July. At that event, fans signed whiffle balls that were then used in a mosaic at the expo. Bank of America raised money for the USO center at Fort Riley, Kan., at that event.
Greenstein declined to say whether Bank of America had increased its total activation spending at the marathon for 2012. He said the Express Your Thanks campaign would be prevalent at its other sports properties this year, including NFL and MLB games and October’s Bank of America 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“It’s one of the first times we’ve come together in an aggregated fashion to put them all under a cause-related thematic,” he said.
The bank’s activation highlights a series of additions for 2012. The race’s four-hour live broadcast on local NBC Channel 5 is double what it previously had. Technology partner Tata Consultancy Services has developed a smartphone application for Android, iPhone/iPad and BlackBerry that allows fans and spectators to track up to five runners along the course, another first for the race.
The ING New York City Marathon released a free application in 2011 to track athletes, but the application reportedly suffered glitches on race day due to the volume of fans and spectators.
Andrew Greenwood, head of marketing for TCS, said the company has used the application successfully at marathons in
“We’ve scaled [the application] in a way to deal with the volume,” Greenwood said. “It’s something we’re aware of. We’re confident it will be successful.”
Race officials declined to say how activation or total sponsorship revenue had fluctuated from 2011. The race lost one official partner, Marathon Foto, from 2011, but added State Farm and electronics manufacturer Philips to its associate sponsor roster (officials declined to give values for the categories).
Race director Carey Pinkowski said major brands such as Nike and Gatorade would continue to offer branded cheering stations along the course. He said Nike also will operate its Northside/Southside Challenge, a shorter race for local high school students run before the professional athletes finish.
“Our sponsorship has evolved; traditionally it was a branding play,” Pinkowski said. “Now sponsors are analyzing our event above the signage and reaching to our participants and spectators.”
Fred Dreier is a writer in New York City.
The World Triathlon Corp. is without a title sponsor for its Ironman World Championships race in Kona, Hawaii, for the first time in seven years.
Having last renewed its title sponsorship in 2009, automaker Ford did not renew for the 2012 event, which will be held Oct. 13. The Ford deal included title sponsorship at all 12 North American Ironman races. Sources familiar with the deal valued it in the low seven figures annually.
Erik Vervloet, chief marketing officer at Ironman, called 2012 a “reset year,” and said WTC is committed to keeping the Kona inventory part of the larger pan-North American deal. He said the company declined several sponsorship pitches for the Kona rights alone, but did not say which companies were interested.
“It was hard to resist the temptation to take a quick fix — but letting someone cherry-pick Kona is a long-term mistake,” Vervloet said. “We’re looking for a partner who wants to have messaging throughout the year.”
Ford’s deal began in 2005. According to John Duke, WTC’s vice president of global sponsorship sales, Bud Light was the race’s first title sponsor, and the deal ran during the 1980s. He said Gatorade and Timex also occupied the title position before the Ford deal, but that the Ford sponsorship was the first pan-North American title sponsorship for the company.
“People love our space, especially if you can find a CEO or a decision-maker who understands how great our demographic is,” Duke said. “Our challenge is numbers, if we’re going up against traditional ball sports who are in the millions [of viewers].”
In lieu of a title sponsor, Ironman has brought on a presenting sponsor for next month’s Kona race with a Facebook application called myList. The event will serve as the global launch for the application, which was developed by Channel Intelligence, a Florida-based technology and marketing services company.
MyList allows Facebook users to create a series of lists surrounding a common theme, and then share these lists with their social media friends. Marketers can access the data on these lists, and then push out deals and marketing messages to users.
Rob Wight, co-chairman and co-founder of Channel Intelligence, said the Ironman demographic is perfect for the application, because participants rely on expensive gear such as bicycles, wetsuits and running shoes. He gave examples of various lists that Ironman users may compile: favorite race, nutrition products, bicycle components, postrace activity, etc.
“When brands come into social media, they are the outsider talking to athletes,” said Wight, himself an Ironman triathlete. “What we’re doing is creating a way for athletes to talk about brands and then publish it on a list, so they are driving engagement, not the brand.”
Wight said myList will run contests around the Kona race and give away products from race sponsors. He said the deal is for one year and is specific to the Kona race. Financial details were not available.
Duke said the Kona race will see an increase in activation from industry-specific brands, with Specialized Bicycles, Oakley sunglasses, Timex and nutrition company GU all boasting sizable footprints. He said the Got Chocolate Milk campaign also will have a major presence at the event.
Vervloet said Ironman will target financial services, airlines, hotels, health care and other non-endemic categories for the title sponsorship role. He said the search will be aided by NBC’s decision to air the race’s two-hour highlights show on Oct. 27, only two weeks after the event. Previously NBC would air the highlights show in early December. Ironman will broadcast the full race live on its website.
Vervloet said a handful of representatives from potential title sponsors will be at the event, but declined to name companies. He said Ironman allows these executives to interact with the race by handing out water at aid stations and driving alongside the athletes in pace cars, among other activities.
“To me, in order to grasp our brand, you really need to be there and see 1,760 athletes racing,” Vervloet said. “That’s the hook.”
Fred Dreier is a writer in New York City.