At Running USA, the industry is ready for the urgent conversations about the future of mass participation running events. Success comes down to three pillars.
February 8, 2023 – Running races are a profound culmination of meaningful experience, learning your city or traveling to connect with a new place, personal goals, community, and complete physical challenge.
However, in the last three years, everything from 5Ks to marathons, and beyond is in transition. These mass participation events were shut down, and many will never come back. According to RunSignup’s report, 19.6% of 2019 events did not take place in 2022. People’s habits and wants leapt ahead a decade in just a few years. What’s ahead with this changing landscape?
2023 will be a critical year for many running races. Going on “offense” will pay off now and in the years to come.
In the past few years, we’ve seen huge shifts. Major brands are consolidating and grabbing mindshare: the Abbott World Marathon Majors series’ increased brand footprint, the Ironman-UTMB partnership, and TCS-named marathons. Fitness and lifestyle brands are creating running challenges and bringing new competition to the market. New entrants are imagining new formats. People have a renewed spark to travel. And there’s a new generation growing into event audiences.
Through all of this, participation is down, especially in Gen Z and younger demographics. Participation in events was down 10% compared to 2019 (via RunSignup).
While the 2010s saw an appetite and traction for classic running events, proven models, and default brands, everything is new coming out of the pandemic.
This is a decisive time for the industry, and it’s time to go on the offensive, with three moves: innovation, brand/story, and understanding your customer.
Innovation on race day. Some classic event formats and cities have a strong hold, but it’s still time to reconsider what makes your event stand out. The most discussed differentiator is the course experience: where does it go, what do you see, how do you experience the city, and how do you engage runners?
Focusing on experience can set a race apart from being a swag company with a run on the side. Much of a race allure starts with the course. Consider: do you want to see the sights or local secrets? Do you want to see the views or the neighborhoods?
How you communicate that course on a simple race website is critical. Make it easy to play with and recon the course. Make it rich with course details – like turns, photos, logos, and important points-of-interest – and usable on race day, with exportable and customized route files. And don’t hand over your shareable course to third-party ads – own your brand.
Another reckoning is around finisher medals. Coming out of the pandemic, too many suppliers from China fell short in delivering products globally, and hopefully it made racers and races reconsider the environmental impact of these physical keepsakes. A race t-shirt became expected, while cheap products ended up in the bottom of drawers. We can do better. It’s time to consider how we can celebrate accomplishments without physical products.
Innovation beyond race day: most races exist during a single day. During 2020-2021 race shutdowns, many of the interesting events existed over a longer time window. However, the novelty of simply checking off a distance quickly waned. Many challenges focus on who can run the most miles during a time window, which is a recipe for failure.
Nearly all technology platforms’ features end there though.
Pay-to-earn and move-to-earn ecosystems reward the same dangerous mentality of “more is better.” It’s bad for our physical and mental health.
The most engaging, extended-window, new race format we saw was around the concept of the Open Course Race.
REI’s Dirt, Sweat, and Beers encouraged their participants to visit “our most loved local places” and run, hike, walk, and plog courses from the Bay Area to the Sierra. Sponsorships from Sierra Nevada and Salomon were captured through fun audio stories along the way, mixed in with course navigation and fun facts about the parks they’re visiting.
Lululemon’s virtual SeaWheeze created two courses in downtown Vancouver, allowing participants to run a 10K or half marathon anytime, entertained by ambassadors, run coaches, and drag queens. These courses continue to be run by Vancouver visitors, with a convenient start point and great branding.
SixPack is your new favorite challenge across the UK, with six courses per challenge, beautifully mapped out, with bespoke turn-by-turn navigation. Together, they add up to the full marathon distance. It’s an imaginative event and a legacy for the communities they visit.
These challenges used RunGo’s unique customizable route creation, recorded audio messages, augmented reality navigation, course timing, leaderboards, creative in-event sponsor activations, and digital achievement badges.
Consider how a one-day event can engage participants over a longer period of time, and how creatively we can connect cities to sponsors to races to participants throughout that journey.
Safety is a growth driver: inspired by conversations at the US Trail Running Conference in October 2022, we learned how safety, yes a boring topic – can be a driver of growth. The pandemic saw a huge growth of runners – people who threw on some shoes and went outdoors, to walk, hike, or jog.
Shared by attendee Rosemary, a BIPOC woman trail runner in Washington, was that for people like her, the prospect of trying a running race, noticeably in the trail running community, was hindered by fears of safety.
How can we make new runners feel safe?
A few ways we’ve seen involve:
- Making sure participants don’t get lost on course
- Allowing race directors to see that everyone is on course, or who may be off course
- Helping spectators know where and when to cheer on and support their runners
With confidence that they’ll be safe, more will be convinced to participate. Check out RunGo’s digital course marking and race live tracking features to augment your events. Learn more at rungoapp.com/races
Talk to your new audience: Gen Z registrations are down across the industry. The reasons are unique and widespread. There is no secret solution for this. Talking to your audience will unearth what you can do.
DC Half created a brand and visibility that resonated (listen to the Head Start Podcast episode here). The Queers and Allies Networking Reception at Running USA will seek to address that roughly 21% of Gen Z adults identify as queer, and how to honor that in your event.
Own your event identity: this time of race transition has seen sponsors come and go. Old sponsor activations fall flat, and new ones emerge. With a title sponsor pulling out of an event, how can an event create their own unique brand story that isn’t tied to a corporate sponsor?
Building up to race day, and on race day itself, your experience and presence in the city is not a lost opportunity to engage spectators in person, or capture online viewers through live video feeds, to become next year’s participants.
It’s more urgent than ever for mass participation outdoor fitness events to focus on better courses, engaging race day, thoughtful sponsor activations, extended racer engagement, building your brand and story, and talking to your audience.
Want to talk about where the running event industry is going? Want to be part of it? I’m heading to the annual Running USA conference next week in Denver. Our tech platform RunGo is one of the top 10 running apps and sites, but we’re the largest and only one with race-specific hooks, features, and experience.
Together, we can share ideas, hopes, and the ways we can bring innovation, brand, and audience engagement to life.