Racing used to be a straightforward affair for runners, involving little more than a bib, a stopwatch and the directive to get from the starting line to the finish line as fast as possible.
Now, racing can involve escaping from zombies, getting spattered with colored powder, crawling through mud or listening to over two dozen rock bands perform along a single course. The proliferation of massive themed-racing tours is a relatively new phenomenon and might be considered a case study in economies of scale, as companies grow and improve their races. As a sport, running is experiencing tremendous growth, and these novel racing series are feeding off of the recent boom, both benefiting from the new interest in running and inspiring new athletes.
Among the recent spate of new racing series, a few leaders have emerged from the pack. The Color Run, a 5K race in which participants are doused with colored powders, held its first event in January 2012, quickly spreading to 50 cities and signing up 600,000 participants over the year. This year, The Color Run will hold events in 120 U.S. cities and 30 countries, with an anticipated 1 million runners. The zombie-themed Run for Your Lives held its first race in 2011 and expects 21 races this year, with an estimated 150,000 participants. Obstacle series Tough Mudder started with three races in 2010 and has grown to include 53 events worldwide in 2013. Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathons, which feature race courses lined with bands and cheer squads, operated just five races in 2007 and will operate 30, including five in Europe, in 2013.
Though these examples vary widely, these series represent a new theme in running: the selling of an experience beyond the accomplishment of crossing the finish line. Replicating that experience in many different cities means greater revenue growth.
“What’s gone on in the last decade or so, is that the space was really fragmented. There was a host of local events, and you had some bigger marathons – the Marine Corps, the New York, Boston, that would appeal to various groups…and then you had some local marathons,” says Scott Rosner, sports business professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “And then we started to see some rollups.”
Those “rollups” include the Rock ‘N’ Roll series’ taking over local marathons as the company built its racing roster, which includes acquired events as well as some built from the ground up. According to Scott Dickey, president and CEO of Competitor Group, the company that owns Rock ‘n’ Roll series, his events make up 15 percent of the total marathon and half-marathon market.
“When we started back in 2007, there was really no market leader. There was an enormous amount of fragmentation,” says Dickey. “What we’ve been able to do is take advantage of some of that fragmentation but also really develop a brand.”
Other long-distance series have sprouted up alongside Rock ‘n’ Roll, like the Diva Half Marathon and Women’s Half Marathon series. The explosive growth of all of these racing series is not simply because they all discovered a new business strategy. Rather, a massive boom in running’s popularity has given races larger customer bases, meaning more room for large series and more potential for growth.According to industry tracking organization Running USA, the number of road race finishers tripled in just over two decades, from 4.8 million in 1990 to nearly 14 million in 2011. Women have played a huge part in this growth, with their numbers growing more than sixfold over the same period.
Of course, any type of race, whether local or in a national series, could accommodate new runners. But with size comes efficiency, explains Dickey.
“With scale comes leverage, with leverage comes reduced operating expenses,” says Dickey. “Bibs, chips, t-shirts – once you get to a certain amount of scale, you drive those costs down: port-a-johns, truck rentals, barricades.”
Even with more rigorous races, like Tough Mudder’s unique obstacle courses, there is an element of uniformity that allows the company to operate races efficiently.
“It gets easier to a point and with certain amounts of growth, new options are open to us in terms of rented assets versus owned assets,” says Ben Story, general manager at Tough Mudder.
To put it simply, a company operating several races becomes very good at it over time, says Rosner. For example, instead of each race having its own publicity and marketing department, as might be the case in most local races, companies can pay just one or a few people to market many races.
However, Story says there are inherent challenges to setting up Tough Mudder’s courses as they change from venue to venue. The courses often require an excavator to construct, and because of the variation, Story says getting the full process down to a science is, for now at least, out of the question.
“We haven’t yet gotten to the point where we’re ready to say, ‘We figured it out,'” he says.
Considering the clientele, these niche races are a great business to be in. Dickey describes runners as “super-well-educated, high-income, type-A, early-adopter, active lifestyle enthusiasts.” Avid runners are more likely to have high incomes and college diplomas, according to Running USA, meaning more money for races and the paraphernalia that goes along with them, like t-shirts, hats and other branded merchandise.Finisher medals and t-shirts are only part of what these races are selling. Brand identities are also becoming important. Emily Giblin, a 27-year-old middle school teacher from New York City, is a loyal runner of Spartan Races, an obstacle racing series. Though Spartan’s 8-to-11-mile mud runs might look similar to Tough Mudder, Giblin says veterans know the difference. Spartan Races, for example, are “very competitive,” in Giblin’s words, and are timed, while Tough Mudder races are not. In addition, she characterizes Spartan races as being more about brute physical strength than the competition.
“Tough Mudder has more mental challenges, like running through electric wires or ice-cold water,” she points out, though being a Spartan adherent, she adds she has never participated in a Tough Mudder.While all of these events have benefited from the running boom, they also keep the trend moving. That’s because many of these series are designed to make running fun, rather than competitive. The low-pressure, festive atmosphere created by zombies and rock bands is necessary in order to attract crowds, says Ryan Lamppa, a spokesperson for Running USA.
“In order to keep on drawing people, you have to deliver the goods that people, one, want to pay for and two, either come back for or they tell their friends about, and their friends check it out, too,” he says.
Lamppa says the people running these races are young and often novices to the sport.
“Participants are not coming from the road racing world. That’s not the majority of their participants,” says Lamppa, who says the serious runners he knows largely see these new races as unappealing. “I would say a good share of my running friends, and they range in age from 70 down into their twenties, I don’t think any of them have much of an interest in doing a Tough Mudder or [The] Color Run.”While the old-school runners turn up their noses, all of those new, young runners crawling through the mud are adding to the ranks of the sport, perhaps meaning more old-school road-racers in the future. Giblin says her Spartan Races have inspired her to run a few traditional 5Ks, and have also brought a few of her friends into the running fold.
“My [Facebook] profile picture is me not-so-gracefully jumping over fire. People look at it and say ‘That’s really cool. I want to try that, too,'” she says.
Business is good for now, and Rosner believes these themed racing series aren’t a short-term fad.
“I like the model, I think it works well, at least for a 10-to-15-year window,” he says. However, he does see the potential for trouble ahead as runners’ knees wear down, even if their enthusiasm does not wane. “At some point you may see a dropoff – people get wear and tear on their bodies.”