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The Rise of Alternative Runs

The Rise of Alternative Runs

This weekend marks the 44th running of the New York Marathon, a crown jewel race for competitive runners. Road races like the New York Marathon are popular worldwide and in Canada 57% of all running events are traditional road races. However since 2009 there is a new emerging category of races that can be classified as “Alternative Runs”. Popular Alternative Runs like Tough Mudder and the Color Run now make up 17% of all running events in Canada. With their unique approach and social aspect, these alternative races have been successful in attracting a large group of participants, giving sponsors an emerging property to leverage.

Alternative Runs 101

The Alternative Run landscape can be broken out into two primary event classifications:

Obstacle course events- Obstacle course events can vary in length, from shorter 5K runs all the way to marathon length runs. Throughout the race there are a variety of unique obstacle that participants must overcome. Today, there are three unique obstacle course runs that have emerged as industry leaders: the Warrior Dash, Spartan Run, and Tough Mudder. The first of these three events was the Warrior Dash which debuted in 2009 and has since grown to include multiple international editions.

Themed running events- Themed events focus on participation and fun by omitting the timed element of the race. Themed runs are typically 5K and focus on a specific theme, for example, zombie races, wine runs or night runs. The most popular themed runs have been colour runs (The Color Run, Color Me Rad) where participants get doused in coloured cornstarch throughout the 5K run.  

In 2009 it was estimated that less than 50,000 people participated in alternative runs, but that number has since grown to 4 million in 2013. Despite the growing popularity of Alternative Runs, they have not cannibalized participation in traditional road races. Since 2009, when Alternative Runs debuted, road races have seen their participation increase by over 140%. Typical road races tend to attract a wealthy participant base as the New York Times reported that the average income of a participant in the New York City Marathon was $130,000. Conversely, Alternative Runs attract a runner that is younger, less affluent, and less focused on performance. In the world of sponsorship, both offer unique opportunities for brands and have room to coexist.

Attractiveness of Alternative Runs

The rise in Alternative Runs has given brands an investment opportunity with unique set of benefits:

Investment Opportunities for Youthful Brands- Brands like New Balance and Asics who are known for  their running products have a natural entry point with road races. However, alternative runs attract participants that are just as interested in the social aspect of the race, giving youthful brands an opportunity to invest. Beer brand Shock Top has sponsored the final obstacle in the Warrior Dash and offered participants a beer once the obstacle and race was completed - a partnership unlikely to materialize at a traditional road racing property.  

Scalable Opportunity to reach Multiple Markets- Large marathons like the New York City Marathon are annual events that are only held in one city. However, events like the Color Run and Tough Mudder are held in multiple cities throughout the world. When brands sign on as a sponsor to The Color Run they are given an opportunity to sponsor multiple editions of the run throughout the country. This gives brands an effective way to reach multiple markets through the sponsorship of one property, scaling their presence and maintaining a longer presence in-market.

Social Media Friendly Programming- It is not uncommon to see photos shared through social media when an Alternative Run is occurring. The more informal atmosphere helps attract a younger audience who are more prone to sharing on social media. Not only are the events catered for participants to share but sponsors also have the opportunity to create interesting content. Tough Mudder sponsor and nutrition brand Cellucor created a series of comedic YouTube videos to prepare participants for various obstacles of Tough Mudder. 

Notable Case Studies

The rise of Alternative Runs has given way to brands who would not normally be found as a traditional marathon sponsor an opportunity to associate with running events.

Shout Clean Zone- Official sponsor of the Color Run, laundry detergent Shout activated their sponsorship by creating the “Shout Clean Zone.” At the completion of the run when participants were covered in dyed corn starch, Shout had people with specially designed blowers to help clean the runners. This activation created an added benefit to the runners and demonstrated Shout’s brand message by sending the participant’s home clean. 

Tinder Swipeout- This past summer Tough Mudder created a new event called Urban Mudder which took place in New York City. The event had promtoted its social aspect as it had an after race party complete with a DJ. Popular dating app Tinder became an official sponsor by offering $15 off the registration fee through the app and created their own branded obstacle called the Swipeout. As Urban Mudder was designed as a more social event to bring people together, Tinder was able to find an authentic point of entry with the new race.

Chipotle Hamster Wheel- To announce Chipotle as the official restaurant of the Tough Mudder series, Chipotle set up the Though Mudder Hamster Wheel outside of a Brooklyn Chipotle. Participants had to grab on the wheel’s handlebars and move forward by grabbing the next bar, creating perpetual monkey bars. All participants received a buy-one-get-one certificate to Chipotle and the one who achieved the most rotations won Chipotle for a year. With Chipotle known for their sustainable ingredients and healthy food, the brand was able to promote their healthy image through sponsorship.

Alternative Runs to Watch

As participation in Alternative Runs continues to grow, a number of related properties have been rolled out in the Canadian market. MKTG examines three emerging Alternative Runs and their corresponding sponsorship activity. 

Zombie Mudrun- The Zombie Mudrun in Niagara Falls combines the popular zombie craze with a 5K run. Participants are equipped with 3 flags and throughout the course, zombies are located with the goal of stealing runner’s flags. The event is currently sponsored by Niagara Fitness and organized by local haunted house, Haunt Manor.

Pure Protein Night Race- The Pure Protein Night Race takes place at sundown as participants run a 5K or 10K trail in Sunnybrook Park in Toronto. Runners are encouraged to wear neon lights and are given Energizer LED headlights to ensure that the trail is fully illuminated. Pure Protein currently holds the naming rights to the event and Molson, Brooks, Energizer, and Running Room are current sponsors of the event.

The Canada Beer Run- The Canada Beer Run currently takes place in Collingwood, Ottawa, and Toronto, Ontario with the race being anywhere from 9.5K to 14.5K depending on the city. The route stops at specific breweries with the runners stopping to sample the local beer. The event is sponsored by Donnelly Automotive group and participating Toronto breweries include Amsterdam Brewery, 3 Brewers, Mill St., and Steam Whistle.

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