If there’s one thing we’ve noticed in the last year or two in the Australian, and indeed global ultra and trail world, it’s the increase in the number of ultra and trail races taking place – due in part to increased commercialisation of the sport. There’s no doubting that we appear to be in a boom period right now, but when will this boom peak? Will we see a ‘bust’? And what role does commercialisation have in all of this?
The current boom in our sport reminds me somewhat of a notion that is quoted in the tech world as the ‘hype cycle’ (developed by analysts, Gartner). The hype-cycle graph characterises the over-enthusiasm or ‘hype’ and subsequent disappointment that typically happens with the introduction of new technologies. While I wouldn’t be applying this to the letter of the law for trail and ultra running, it’s an interesting comparison to make. Could trail/ultra running be following a similar path, or are we talking utter rubbish?
While none of us want to see any form of disillusionment with our sport, are we starting to see it? In the last few weeks we saw a situation unfold here in Australia where four major ultra races were set for the same weekend. In a country of little population density and an even smaller pool of runners too, this doesn’t make sense in the slightest. Regardless of how this has come about and what will happen as a result, it got us thinking about the boom and the role that increased commercialisation, and indeed popularity plays.
Commercialisation creates boom?
This is a slight bone of contention in the ultra/trail world, and where it can be little at odds with itself – I personally still see this as one of the greatest ironies our sport has to deal with. We have a sport that was founded on simplicity and ‘getting away from the crowds’ – one where measuring the minutes wasn’t important, and where everyone was out for a good time – in short it was out of the mainstream and in the domain of a few left field people. Ultimately this was its appeal.
But word of mouth is a powerful thing… just think for a moment how you got into the sport. Was it something you read in a paper or saw on TV. For me it was reading Chris Moon’s book about his MDS adventure. So I signed up, and the rest was history. But it was this first sentence that got me into it all “I read a book”… i.e. the commercialisation of the sport. Commercialisation has already happened.
You only need to look at the number of races being set-up and the fact that some are aiming to make a living out of the sport to see that it’s here to stay. Do we embrace the fact that people wish to make a living from putting on races, or should we support the community style events where the aim is not to turn a profit?
Or do you shun races altogether and simply follow your own adventures? Ultimately both sides can exist (an example is Kilian), and while I personally love supporting the community style of events, I also do not begrudge anyone who wants to try to make a living from our sport either – competition helps to further boost and increase standards too – survival of the fittest they call it. But that survival can also take out the wrong people too, as we’ve seen with the CP Ultra recently here in Australia.
However, take one look at how well the North Face 100 is doing and what it has done for Australian trail and ultra running. It has attracted the likes of Kilian and Ryan Sandes to our shores and put us on the map as a destination to come and visit. Sure the companies behind this have deep-rooted motivations to sell more gear, but should we begrudge them that if we benefit too? The flip-side is that ‘brand Australia’ is also enhanced as a destination for people to come and visit too.
Sean Greenhill, owner of commercial operator Mountain Sports comments, “More people (at least in NSW) would have started running because of the City to Surf than any other single factor- and of course the City to Surf is a commercial event, run by a private business.” So there are some very obvious benefits to commercial ventures – if more people start running, then surely that’s a good thing?
Some would also argue that the setting up of Ultra168 and other websites is helping to promote the commercialisation of ultra running through the gear reviews. At it’s very basic essence, you could argue this to be true, however the flip-side to this is that we’re also interested in helping to provide information to people who are new to the sport, such as safety information and well-being on the trails through training advice. Coupled with this we’ve been involved with numerous fund raising activities.
Ultimately it’s about balance. Commercialisation it can be argued, has helped us on the road to the so-called boom we’re seeing now. The flip side is that we have to be careful not to go too far the other way so that we become disillusioned with what the sport has become and resent it. Embrace change, but never forget the roots of where our sport has come from.
One company that gets this message and sentiment spot on is Salomon. While some may think we bang the Salomon drum too much, it’s done with very good reason. Sure, they’re here to sell gear, but the essence of their message is about the beauty and love of our sport. They create the balance perfectly – they are what I would regard as true thought leaders in trail and ultra running. Whether you’re for or against the boom in commercialisation, there’s one thing that binds all of us who want a play a role in the sport, be it race directors, website owners or participants, non or for-profit businesses. We are involved in the sport because we have a passion for what we do, and passion unites us.
Commercialisation cutting down competition?
While commercialisation may have helped create a boom, could it in some ways be bad for the sport? Has an increase in the racing schedule led to a decrease in competition? Both in terms of athlete performance but the potential for races to drop off the calendar, as mentioned above with the CP Ultra?
Australia in particular suffers from the tyranny of distance and a small population, meaning that the ultra running population is even smaller in comparison to the rest of the world. With races springing up left, right and centre, are we at the point where there is almost too much choice? On a recent visit to Hong Kong and speaking with a couple of local trail runners, it seems as though that could be happening over there. There’s no doubt that this offers more choice to the runner, but maybe not so much for the race director who’s worrying about getting numbers and covering basic costs.
But is it really that good for the runner? While they may win races, is it good for their overall performances? Are they being pushed enough?
The more races there are, the more choices people have. With more choices, there could be the potential to dilute the competition and that could mean the gun runners aren’t pushed as hard as they might have been. We’re not saying that we’re at that point as right now, far from it as we’ve seen a number of record performances on some of the major trail races in the last few years. However it’s a potential outcome that we could see if we fail to get some perspective on actual numbers of participants in our sport, or if some race directors are out to make a quick buck without proper due diligence.
Similarly, with an increase in commercial operators, what we don’t want to see is the community-style of events lose their relevance and position too. The clash of races happening now in September 2014, raises the question as to whether some races will survive, and indeed we’ve already seen the unfortunate removal of the Centennial Park ultra as a result – a crying shame for what is a fantastic event. Commercialisation may not just be affecting competition in terms of performance, but also in terms of competition in terms of the number of races too, something Sean Greenhill adds:
“When I ran my first 6FT in 1998, it had about 200 people and you could enter the day before. Apart from 6FT, other trail ultras in NSW were Brindabella Classic (54km), Brisbane Water Bush Bash (48km) and the Royal National Park 50K. These were pretty much ventures by clubs or individuals, and got 100-130 people or so. One was vaguely aware of Glasshouse, Bogong and Cradle Mountain interstate, and that was it.
“In subsequent years, increasing demands for public liability insurance, risk assessments and traffic management killed off a lot of events because they were beyond what a small club or private individual could afford. Certainly it is getting tricky finding gaps in the calendar now, which is very different to, say, 2003… but that’s market forces reacting to increased demand.”
In an ideal world, we’ll see more and more bitumen bashers that focus on 10km, 21km and marathon distance move over to trail and ultra running over the coming years – and we’d welcome them with open arms. 🙂
Regardless of your views on the above, it is still a very exciting time to be involved with trail and ultra running in Australia and across the world. More races are opening up to participants, there’s new and exciting gear to play with, but there’s also a chance to give back and do some good too and on a personal level, I love being involved with the more community-style of events. But the key is balance. Appreciate and honour the roots of our sport and respect them, but embrace change as positive and an opportunity to grow our wonderful sport to a wider audience too.
This is how many other sports have dealt with the impacts of commericalisation, and trail/ultra running can certainly learn from some of their mistakes and opportunities. What do you think?