A scene from the Reebok Spartan Race at Citzens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Aug. 31.
This ain't your junior high school obstacle course.
The Reebok Spartan Race is an Olympic caliber sport, according to co-founder Joe De Sena, and now venues across North America are getting a chance to help spread the gospel of the blood-and-sweat competition that covers eight miles of bone grinding challenges.
“Like any new industry it attracts lots of competition from hundreds of new race companies but none are trying to approach it like we are and make it an Olympic sport using timing and ranking,” said De Sena of Boston-based Spartan's first-mover advantage in the obstacle racing space, which attracted more than 1.5 million competitors in 2013. Since launching in 2010, Spartan has grown exponentially, with plans for 63 events in 2013 and 100 in 2014 in 17 countries. (The goal is to reach 42 countries in order to qualify for a possible berth as an Olympic sport).
The privately-funded venture has a portfolio of different races that it sets up across the country and the world, ranging from three- to eight- and 13-mile versions, with obstacles that include fire, mud, water, barbed wire and other challenges that require endurance, quick-thinking and, in some cases, teamwork. It recently released an RFP for convention and visitors bureaus, chambers of commerce, sports parks and ski resorts interested in hosting one of their events.
It costs between $350,000 and $600,000 to set up, tear down and transport each Spartan Race. Every Spartan event requires three tractor trailers, with setup stretching to eight days for the 20-person crew and 3-4 days to disassemble. In all, 20 trucks are scattered around the country at any time setting up separate races. The biggest challenge, he said, is the sometimes unusual venues that host the Spartan Race, including ski resorts, city parks and private properties, preferably with rugged, uneven terrain and hills to challenge racers.
“We require that they have parking, electricity, water and, if possible, heavy moving equipment,” he said. The races typically attract 10,000 or more racers and spectators, though De Sena said it's hard to put one on for fewer than 6,000 participants. Racers are usually around 60 percent local (coming in from 150 miles or less), with a number of participants flying in on their own dime in an effort to collect the rare trifecta of wins. Participants average 20-45 years old with a 60 percent male to 40 percent female ratio, with 350,000 taking part in the timed races in 2012, and $300,000 offered in cash and prizes to winner's of this year's challenges.
Spartan has 80 permanent staff, though Wall Street veteran De Sena suspects growth will spike after NBC airs a 90-minute World Championship special for the first time on Dec. 7. Given the robust expansion that he's predicting and the high cost of putting on each event, is Spartan Racing a profitable venture for ultramarathoner De Sena? “We're not profitable yet,” he said.
“I'd say 80 percent of the events are earning money and 20 percent are putting us in a hole or breaking even.” Rental fees to host range from $150,000-$250,000, but that doesn't completely cover the cost to De Sena of transportation for equipment and materials, hotels and airfare for staff as well as water and food for 500 volunteers.
Using its three million Facebook followers, Spartan – the only race of its kind with timed finishes that result in global rankings — has a wide reach when it comes to marketing its events, which the company estimates have a $2-$8 million impact on local communities. Though De Sena would not talk specifics about costs and profits, he did say that landing title partner Reebok in 2013 has been a game-changer.
“They're extremely committed, they get it, they live it and they're more partners than sponsors,” he said of the company. “Anything we need help with to have a bigger platform, to talk to people globally and to get support on manufacturing clothing, they do everything.” Next spring that will include a line of Spartan-inspired clothing and footwear. De Sena and Reebok said both companies have a financial stake in each other and that the ongoing rebranding of Reebok from traditional sports to fitness is key to each brand's success.
Over the past year, Spartan has branched out to more traditional venues as hosts as well, including a scaled-down series that has set up in baseball and football stadiums around the country. Those typically three-mile “feeder” events are just as difficult, but not as muddy and mostly aimed at gaining exposure for the sport and convincing participants and spectators to move up to bigger local races.
Among the venues visited in 2013 are Milwaukee's Miller Park, Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, Boston's Fenway Park and New York's Citi Field. Besides bringing in concession and parking sales, a Spartan-commissioned study calculated that the stadium gigs can bring in the advertising value equivalent of $900,000 in exposure for the building for a one-day event.
Joe Giles, director of Business Development for the Phillies' Citizens Bank Park, saw firsthand the value of hosting Spartan. After visiting a Fenway stop earlier this year and taking notes, Giles said he was happy to open his doors to the offbeat race. “In the offseason and year-round we try to keep the building busy, when the Phillies aren't playing, with trade shows, weddings, charity events [and] concerts,” he said.
Seeing how well-run the Fenway Park stop was, Giles said he got in touch with organizers and worked out a date for his venue. “We have ramps and stairs and concourses and restaurants and parking and restrooms,” he said of Citizens Bank Park's built-in amenities. The Sept. 28 run featured 5,000 runners and 2,500 spectators who Giles said made for “pretty decent” per caps that were lower than the typical ballgame, but still enough to make a difference.
Spartan set up on the dirt infield, warning track and just about every other space except the grass, and Giles said there was minimal impact on the building, which opened from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. for the race. He would not discuss the cost to Spartan of renting the field, but said the upside for him was enough local and regional media exposure that he's already looking at another date for 2014.
“I think you'll see the smaller [races] fall by the wayside because it is extremely expensive to become known in this space,” said De Sena. “But we think obstacle racing is a new, exciting sport.”
Interviewed for this article: Joe Giles, (215) 463-6000; Joe De Sena, (203) 655-1600