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Volume 23 No. 17
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New owner sees growth for Rock ’n’ Roll marathons in China

The Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon series in the U.S. will continue, but its path to future growth under new ownership goes through China.

World Triathlon Corp. finally achieved its goal of buying Rock ’n’ Roll operator Competitor Group Inc. on June 2, more than a year after lenders seized control of CGI and began looking to sell it.

Private equity may have lost interest in CGI as the American endurance event market stagnates, but WTC CEO Andrew Messick said it’s a boost in his efforts to build a dominant global position. It’s the fourth major deal since Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group acquired WTC, owner of the Ironman brand, from Providence Equity Partners in 2015.

“Our friends at Wanda view things first and foremost through the prism of China, and I think they believe, as do we, that there is opportunity for a brand like the Rock ’n’ Roll marathon brand to become a relevant and powerful consumer brand around mass participation events in China,” Messick said.

Once a juggernaut, the Rock ’n’ Roll series saw its growth slow in recent years along with broader declines in American distance running. From 2000 to 2013, the number of Americans finishing a road race annually more than doubled to 19 million, according to Running USA, but then that growth abruptly stopped in 2014 and has declined each year since. Amid that growth in 2012, Calera Capital beat out 31 other bidders to buy the CGI for $250 million from Falconhead Capital.

Rock ’n’ Roll was not immune to the slowdown, building North American race participation by just 2.3 percent in the last four years, according to CGI figures. Messick acknowledged the headwinds in the American market but said Ironman can still grow Rock ’n’ Roll’s race count by leveraging its clout and strength to make the experience better. He also said they might still consider adding events where the geography and timing warrant it.

“The extremely rapid growth that took place in the early part of the century, we haven’t seen,” he said. “But I think our fundamental belief is that there’s never too many really good races, and there’s always opportunities to capture the imagination of athletes through new, innovative approaches.”

The Competitor Group acquisition focused entirely on the Rock ’n’ Roll brand. Messick said Ironman has not yet determined the future of CGI’s media and technology assets, which include Women’s Running and Triathlete magazines and a suite of online registration tools. CGI CEO Josh Furlow and other senior leaders will stay, Messick said.

Rock ’n’ Roll’s current events lineup includes eight races outside of the U.S. and 21 domestic markets, along with a “virtual run.” Messick said Ironman will continue to develop all Rock ’n’ Roll races but noted the future of the Chicago and Brooklyn half marathons are more complicated.

In May, Ironman signed a strategic alliance with the Abbott World Marathon Majors, a confederation of six elite marathon operators, including those in Chicago and New York. “We’re going to work hard to minimize potential conflicts, because we want to all be moving in the same direction,” Messick said. “So we’ll talk and think about the Brooklyn race and the Chicago race within that context, with [New York] Road Runners and [Chicago Event Management CEO] Carey [Pinkowski] and his team.”

Pinkowski and Peter Ciaccia, NYRR president of events, both said they don’t consider the Rock ’n’ Roll events to be direct competitors.

The Competitor Group was formed in 2008 when Falconhead acquired Elite Racing Inc., La Jolla Holding Group and Competitor Publishing Inc. In 2012, it sold the company to Calera. In 2016, a debt restructuring led to lenders to Calera, Ares Management and Golub Capital, taking control of its board.

Ironman was among the bidders in 2012, Messick said, when it was still held by Providence Equity Partners. The two began talking again after the 2016 change in control. “From a strategic perspective it’s always made a lot of sense, and it just took the right set of circumstances,” Messick said.