When news broke in May 2021 that Ironman and UTMB were joining forces, the little corner of the internet that hosts the trail running community nearly lost its collective spirit. Skeptics lamented the end of trail running’s quirky, community-centric culture, while optimists celebrated the likelihood of better running organization, standardized rules and real prize money. But almost every hot take completely missed the most important point: Ironman, the world’s largest operator of mass sporting events, just went all-in. running? WHAT?!
Following his experience at Western States 100, David Roche argued that the better corporate investment is for sport, especially in the long term. To paraphrase, trail running is evolving in real time as brands collectively invest millions of dollars every year. This extra money is good for the sport, helping to reach a wider audience and providing opportunities for everyone.
But IRONMAN’s bet on trail running was not just a small linear step forward. Quite the contrary, in fact. Already owning ultras in Australia and New Zealand, Ironman could have continued to invest incrementally, but instead opened up its portfolio and bought the farm. This spring they launched an unprecedented 25-race series, spanning the globe from France to Thailand, China, Wales, Slovenia, Mexico and Sweden. Crowned the UTMB World Series, it became, by far, the greatest racing series in the history of the sport, almost overnight.
Which leaves a question the size of Mont Blanc: what did they know that the rest of us didn’t? Catherine Poletti, President and Founder of the UTMB, and Andrew Messick, CEO of Ironman, likely looked into their crystal ball and saw an opportunity too good to pass up. On the eve of the biggest race of the year in Chamonix, they confided in the new partnership and their bet on the future of the sport.
What the data says
“The data is pretty clear,” Messick said, “trail running has seen double-digit year-over-year growth across all continents for over a decade.” The reason behind this? Trail running offers something that everyone needs right now: freedom. In a world that gets more crowded every day, Messick wants to capitalize on our collective need for escape. “Trail running is like the triathlons of 30 years ago. Lots of races and events created by small groups of very passionate people, but most of those people don’t want the risk or the work of setting the stage. The natural step is to be taken over by a company like ours.
World Athletics reports that trail running has grown 15% year-on-year since the mid-1990s, estimating that around 20 million people ran on the trails this year. COVID is driving an even bigger increase over the past two years, which shows no signs of slowing down. There are approximately 3,600 races held each year, most of which are organized by small local groups, with nearly 2 million race participants in total.
From a business perspective, the racing industry is built on fixed costs, Messick explains. “There are clear prices for obtaining permits, closing roads and putting aid in place, which we know well. Once you pay them, the cost to add each additional athlete is low and the variable margin high. IRONMAN has mastered this math on its way to becoming the largest racing production company in the world.
Growth requires capital
Cost-wise, running is similar to retail. Opening a new store requires a lot of capital, so you need a plan to attract customers quickly. This tenant is at the heart of this partnership. “We work well together because we have different skill sets, but the same goals and values,” Messick said. “Our experience with triathlons gives us a framework to roll out new events, and their connection to the community ensures that we reach a wide audience and attract a lot of participants.”
Heading into 2020, the UTMB had 10,000 places for 32,000 candidates at its flagship race series in Chamonix, France. It may seem like a problem, but for Poletti and Messick it was a huge opportunity. UTMB knew it had the ability to create exorbitant demand, and Ironman had the firepower to create abundant supply. “COVID has given us time to reflect on what the future might be like. The UTMB was known all over the world, but a way had to be found to export it to all the other continents,” said Poletti. “That’s when we started talking with Ironman.”
At the time, the UTMB was still a small company without resources to tackle such an ambitious goal. Ironman, on the other hand, was perhaps better equipped than any company in the world. “We were already working with Ironman through the Ultra Trail World Tour and knew we had the same vision for the future. We could become partners or competitors, so it was an easy decision to work together,” Poletti said.
“It’s simple economics,” Messick said, hinting at a break-even point. “Ultra Trail Australia has over 8,000 runners across all races. Tarawera and Eiger each have 4,000. Lavaredo is closer to 6,000. Thousands of runners over multiple days is our sweet spot. We make sure all our new races can accommodate this.In the future, Poletti said there could be 50 or more races under the UTMB umbrella.
While many companies aspire to scale exponentially, few attempt to do so overnight. For many in the trail community, the announcement of the World Series this spring came as a shock. The small sport is not used to rapid and drastic changes from global players like Ironman. Behind the scenes, Messick and Poletti spent the winter buying groceries around the world, but for the general public, it happened all of a sudden. This surprise rubbed many the wrong way, throwing a wrench in their summer racing plans.
But Ironman saw the change as necessary from a business perspective. “The idea was to establish a single qualifying system to get to Chamonix,” Messick said, “to do that we had to go fast to provide a path. We risked losing customers to competitors if they didn’t. didn’t have a local way to qualify. Rolling out the series in 5 or 10 years was not an option for us because it would ostracize too many people.
However, Messick admits it’s a work in progress, with plenty of expansion on the left. “Right now we only have two races in the United States and none in Canada. These are two of the most important racing markets in the world. And no races in Japan, India or Korea either. With the demand we are already seeing, if we had 100 races in the series, we would probably fill them. It is not so much about the future as about today. »
In those few words, Messick inadvertently showed his hand. Ironman’s big bet was not based on the long-term growth of trail running at all, but rather on a monopoly of the market today. With the UTMB as a partner, they have the ability to manage both demand and supply. They don’t need a quantum leap in market capitalization to see a return on their investment if they can capture what’s already in front of them.
In his parting words, Poletti confirmed the idea. “It’s the next generation of the sport. It’s already the case today. We unite all of trail running under the banner of the UTMB World Series.