There was a time when the local running club measured out a route, sent out some fliers, and very fast runners (mainly men) gathered to race each other, the goal was to see how fast you could go and who you could beat. Standards were high, it was a serious business.
Now, it’s a different picture. The business of running an endurance event is a big business, and the running, triathlon, cycling and swimming communities aren’t focussed only on the sport, it’s about lifestyle – self-development and creating a healthier you. Athletes come in many different ages, shapes and sizes and the range of abilities is vast (as illustrated by a wide range of race finish times from 31 minutes to 2.5 hours in the Winter Run 10K). And as discussed in last month’s Sports Insight, alongside this, there has been a rise in the wellness industry, and society-wide focus on self-improvement. Entering races isn’t just about racing, in fact for many that’s the last thing on their mind, it’s about taking part, raising money for charity, feeling healthier, or even getting a promotion.
‘There has also been a fundamental shift in the way people ‘consume’ sport away from ‘traditional’ sports to the so-called ‘doorstep’ sports which has been driven by people’s lifestyles and the growth of online training tools and communities,’ explains Craig Dews, CEO of Limelight Sports Group, a company that for the last 25 years has specialised in mass participation events including most recently, working with the London and Blenheim Palace Triathlons, and the Etape Caledonia cycling event.
“As a result of this the number of mass participation events to cater for the upsurge in demand has grown hugely. And the increase in female participation has also been a significant factor particularly for running events but also increasingly in other endurance sports,” he adds.
Cycling, swimming, triathlon and adventure racing have all drawn people in and satisfied a hunger for a challenge and a healthier lifestyle. Mass participation events are widespread and well-populated, held worldwide, and on almost every weekend. February’s Winter Run 10K in London saw 18.5K finishers cross the line and entrants were listed under running club or company, illustrating how running events are now part of the business world.
A competitive culture
At the other end, more athletically-focussed events such as IRONMAN, appealing to high achieving competitive types, are also thriving. IRONMAN was famously bought for $650 million, by China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, owner of the property and entertainment conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, in 2015. Even though still male and ‘type-A’ dominated, emails from the company in January stated that 90 per cent of their European races for 2019 had sold out. No mean feat when you consider prices start from around £250 for 70.3 (half ironman distance) races, and £500 for the full distance.
In Running, Abbott pledged to renew its sponsorship of The Abbott World Marathon Majors Series in 2018. AbbottWMM has a strategic partnership with Wanda and with a view to take running to a bigger global stage, the AbbottWMM Wanda Age Group World Rankings were launched in September 2018. And as well as the event organisers, growth is found with associated businesses such as ACTIVE. com, hosts of the world’s largest directory of sports and recreational activities. They engage over 15 million participants on behalf of over 32,000 organisers, and have a community of one million Facebook fans, and five million on their mailing list.
Like many players in the industry, in marketing terms, trailblazers are found in the industry of big endurance events. Limelight have gathered data (working with data-driven agency Two Circles) from what Dews calls the ‘active world’ so they can connect brands with participants, and in doing this they have re-shaped how brands work with sporting events.
“Limelight has always tried to deliver the best possible event experience for the participants and their supporters, and we will continue to do so by looking at how technology can help us personalise the mass participation experience. But our key investments are in developing the effectiveness of our campaigns to deliver for brands – how can they reach and add value to their audiences, how can they have a long-term relationship and have multiple positive experiences with the brand?” he explains.
“All industries that have experienced the levels of growth seen in the endurance industry attract increased competition,” says Dews. “That competition should lead to a better product being created for the consumer. But the industry has failed to acknowledge this and is now having to play catch up. New business models need to evolve to replace the old sponsorship model, to mitigate for the increasing costs and provide the participant with the experience they are after.”
As well these challenges, amongst running purists, there are some who are damning of mass participation, which they see as a dumbing down of the sport. Notable examples are UK marathon record holder Steve Jones who told Competitor magazine that ‘the industry is running the sport now, not the sport running the industry’ and he added, ‘starting and finishing a marathon does not make you a marathoner.’
Parkrun has spurred the growth of running and got more people active, a national health requirement, but, at the same time, it’s all but obliterated local club 5K races. Governing bodies such as Sport England have created wonderful initiatives and provided great insights with campaigns such as This Girl Can, but participation in sport and events amongst women still needs to increase.
“There should be more collaboration between governing bodies, grassroots and mass participation events where there is mutual benefit. Mass participation events are often the entry (or reentry) point for participants into a sport. The opportunity is there for clubs and governing bodies to support them on these first steps and to then provide a next step to their personal journey,” says Dews.
As shown with investment in IRONMAN and the marathon majors, the market largely caters for the middle-aged, with cash to spare. However, it seems the industry has evolved with its current participants and very often reacted to what the customer wants, strategic planning for taking the industry forward has been neglected.
“The mass participation industry has known for some time that there is a need to engage younger and more diverse audiences and commercial brands (Nike being the leading example) and event brands such as Spartan and Music Run have had great success in appealing to new audiences. The industry absolutely needs to be more creative and strategic in developing new and existing events, but it is challenging when the traditional sponsorship model has collapsed, costs and competition are rising,” says Dews.
“Endemic’ sport and health related brands have for many years benefited from partnering with mass participation events. Organisers are constantly trying to increase their market share of this spend. However, that isn’t going to create sustained growth in the industry. This will require us to attract more mainstream brands in innovative and creative ways. The days of selling rights for rate card prices and different ‘tiers’ of sponsorship are dead. Partners want relationships and assets based on their needs not just the financial needs of the event organiser,” concludes Dews.