This article is organised as follows:
- Part 01: Introduction to Obstacle Course Races (OCR).
- Part 02: OCR Industry.
- Part 03: Advantages & Disadvantages of OCR.
- Part 04: OCR Event Management.
- Part 05: Preparing for an OCR.
- Part 06: Governing Bodies, Associations & Championships.
- Part 07: Obstacle Courses in other Areas.
- Part 08: Useful Publications/Links and References.
PART TWO: THE OCR INDUSTRY
2.0 Levels of Participation and Revenue
In June 2014, Melissa Rodriguez, a fitness market research analyst, published the first edition of the ‘Obstacle Race World: The State of the Mud Run Business’ report, with a second edition of the report published in 2016. The reports provide an overview of the history, growth, and outlook of OCRs, as well as participation and market size estimates.
Below are some OCR participation and revenue statistics:
- In 2009, the first Warrior Dash attracted just 2,000 participants; by 2012, it had 33 separate events worldwide with an estimated 650,000 participants.
- Founded in 2009, Tough Mudder made $2 million in 2010 but was “bringing in revenues of $70 million after two years. With revenues around $100 million after four years…” from an initial investment of $20,000 (Griffin, 2015).
- In 2009, revenues were $15.9 million (Rodriguez, 2014; Fischer, 2015).
- In 2010, there were an estimated 200,000 participants who collectively paid $15.9 million in entry fees (Griffin, 2015).
- In 2010, there were 29 Spartan Race events across 16 states, with 40 events planned for 2012 (Heil, 2011).
- In June 2010, the first Tough Mudder at Beaver Creak, Colorado, attracted more than 20,000 people, in comparison the XTerra Offroad Triathlon Championship, held in July 2010, only attracted 2,000 people (Heil, 2011). Tough Mudder was “hoping for 500 people and we sold out after five weeks with 4,500 tickets.” (Griffin, 2015).
- In August 2010, just under 5,000 people attended the 12-mile cross-country Spartan Race held in Killington, Vermont in the United States of America (USA) (Heil, 2011).
- In 2010, Spartan Race had 630,000 Facebook fans, up by 50,000 on the previous year, and by July 2018 there were just over 5 million. Meanwhile, Tough Mudder USA had over one million in 2010 (Heil, 2011). By July 2018, the Tough Mudder UK Facebook page had over 720,000 fans whilst the US Facebook page had almost 4 million fans.
- In 2011, more than 5,000 people competed in the 12 mile Spartan Beast race held in Killington, Vermont (Heil, 2011).
- In 2011, Red Frog, which owns Warrior Dash, suggested it would have more than 750,000 participants competing in the approximately 35 races it planned for the year.
- The Tough Mudder series of races evolved from 3 events in 2010, 14 events in 2011, 35 events in 2012 (with an estimated 500,000 participants so far), 53 events in 2013, to 62 events in 2014 (Griffin, 2015). They were aiming for 70 by 2015.
- In 2011-2012, revenues doubled from $95.2 million to $190.8 million (Griffin, 2015).
- In 2012, it was reported that more than two million people in the US participated in OCR, with as many as four million expected to take part in 2014 (Williams, 2013). However, in May 2014, it was reported that 1.5 million people in the US now take part in OCR every year (Bernstein, 2014).
- In 2012, “almost 50,000 adventure-seeking Queenslanders [a state in Australia]” took part in OCR’s, with numbers estimated to soar when Tough Mudder arrived in 2013 (Sheppard & Vlasic, 2013). The population of Queensland in 2012 was 4.56 million, with nearly half the population located in the Greater Brisbane area (ABS, 2013).
- In 2012-2013, revenues from participants alone increased by almost $100 million (or 52%) to $290 million, with a host of new companies entering the market (Griffin, 2015).
- Between 2011 and 2013, Muddy Race (UK), witnessed an 80% growth, from 40,000 to 205,000 participants (Health Club Management, 2015).
- In January 2014, Muddy Race reported that the UK OCR industry “was worth more than £12m annually.” (Health Club Management, 2015, p.39).
- Between 2010 and 2013, one million new people each year participated in OCR events, with an additional 800,000 in 2013 and 2014 (Griffin, 2015).
- In 2013-2014, revenues from participants rose by 25%, reaching $361.8 million (Rodriguez, 2014). During the same period, a number of the new companies from 2012-2013 ceased trading (Griffin, 2015).
- In 2014, the total number of global participants reached 4.2 million (Griffin, 2015).
- In 2014, it was reported that approximately 4.5 million Americans had participated in an OCR, up by 7%, but lower than was predicted – 5 million or up by 19% (Rodriguez, 2014; Fischer, 2015).
- Between 2010 and October 2015, Tough Mudder had hosted 250,000 participants at its UK events (Health Club Management, 2015).
- In August 2015, Tough Mudder welcomed its two millionth participant globally, whilst Spartan Race reached its one millionth in the same year (Health Club Management, 2015).
- In 2014-2015, revenues from participants reached $434.1 million, up by 20% (Griffin, 2015).
- Between 2009 and 2015, Warrior Dash had “2.5 million all-time finishers” (Fischer, 2015).
- In 2015, approximately 80% of Tough Mudder revenue is generated through entry fees, with the remainder being sponsorships and merchandise (Fischer, 2015).
- In 2016, it was estimated that were approximately 5,000 OCR participants at events every weekend, 60,000 attending 1 to 4 events per year, roughly 100,000 attending on a one-off basis in the UK (Open Air Business, 2017).
- In 2013, Rugged Maniac had revenues of $4.1 million, $5.2 million in 2014, and 8.5 million in 2015 (Barbuti, 2016) – and to $10.5 million in 2016 (Brennan, 2017).
- In March 2017, it was reported that there were “over 400 obstacle course races (OCR) held in the UK each year.”, with the majority in the South East (Open Air business, 2017).
- In August 2017, it was reported that “There are now 130 annual Tough Mudder events in 11 countries with 3 million entrants worldwide so far.” (Bailey, 2017).
- “The number of participants has risen 6.88 fold from 2010 until 2017.” (Nikolova, 2018).
Around 2015-2016, it was reported that a challenge for OCR providers may be repeat business (Bachman & Helliker, 2016). In 2015, it was reported that 40% of participants in every major race series were repeat customers – with 550,000 people entering one of the 60 Tough Mudder tours stops and 750,000 in one of the 150 Spartan Race distinct races (tour stops may have multiple races) in 2015 (Fischer, 2015). However, according to data obtained by Nikolova (2018), in 2017 Tough Mudder had around 250,000 participants and Spartan Race around 500,000.
The Tough Mudder Press Room (2018) states that between 2010 and 2017, two million participants had attended over 150 plus events, with an average attendance of 10,000 to 15,000 people per event. The average age of participants was 29 to 35, with 65% of participants being male and 35% being female – although “nearly half of the participants who run a Tough Mudder are between 21 and 30.”, with an average income of “$80,000” and paying approximately “$150 to take part.” (Laporte, 2017a). The Tough Mudder Press Room (2018) also states that there is an increase in local economic activity, per event, of between $2 and $10 million.
When looking at the wider OCR market in the US, Nikolova (2018) states that the number of participants per event has stabilised at, on average, between 1,500 and 2,000 since 2011. Although there are no standard/set distances in OCR, Nikolova (2018) divided races into three categories to identify participation by distance:
- Short (Less than 5 miles): From approximately 50,000 participants in 2010 to 350,000 participants in 2017, a six-fold increase.
- Medium (Between 5 and 10 miles): From approximately 10,000 participants in 2010 to 100,000 in 2017, a seven-fold increase.
- Long (More than 10 miles): From approximately several thousand in 2010 to 50,000 in 2017, almost a 39-fold increase.
When looking at the average number of participants per event, short races have just over 2,000, and medium and long races have just under 1,000 (Nikolova, 2018). When measured by gender, from 2010 to 2013 participation levels are roughly equal (slightly more men than women), with a widening divide from 2013 to 2017 with male participation now twice that of female participation (300,000 and 150,000 respectively) (Nikolova, 2018). This divide holds across the three distances as defined above. Nikolova (2018) notes that, from 2014, there is an increase, for both men and women, in the longer distance races, which it is suggested may be due to Spartan Race’s Trifecta Medal introduced in 2014. The Trifecta Medal is earned, when participants complete a short, a medium and a long distance Spartan race in one calendar year. The vast majority of participants are between 25 and 40, with a peek participation at age 30, with men and women following a similar pattern (Nikolova, 2018).
My little synopsis of Nikolova’s data and graphs does not do it justice; read the full report in the Useful Publications & Links section.
Although entry fees generate a large proportion of revenue, there are other revenues streams. For example (Griffin, 2015):
- Communities may provide funding to bring an event to their area.
- Sponsorship deals.
- Food and beverage sales.
- Merchandise concessions.
- Licensing agreements, either for products or operating an event in another country.
It was estimated by Rodriguez (2014) that “obstacle racing will stay popular with between 3 and 5 percent of American adults.”
2.1 The ‘Big Ten’ of OCR
“…they differ from one another in terms of the type and amount of obstacles, difficulty level, and length.” (Opala, 2016, p.7).
Although there are estimated to be hundreds of companies in the OCR industry, it was dominated by three major players, known as the ‘big three of OCR’, who generated 62% of the revenue, between 2010 and 2014 (Rodriguez, 2014), each with a unique offering – Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and Spartan Race.
Although Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and Warrior Dash are considered the three pioneering leaders of OCR, there are many more organisers that have made OCR the dynamic athletic and sport business it is today. Tough Guy, Rugged Maniac, GORUCK, Zombie Run, Dirty Girl, Savage Race, Mud Hero, Civilian Military Combine, Battlefrog Series, and others have all shaped and defined the industry.
According to Nikolova (2018), the top OCR providers in the US in 2017, by number of participants, were:
- Spartan Race:
- All races are timed and competitors ranked.
- There is a penalty for missing an obstacle – 30 burpees.
- The Spartan series attracts thousands of participants per event through a range of races for all fitness levels (and ages):
- Spartan Kids: Two race distances (0.5 and 1.5 miles) for two age groups (4-8 and 9-13), with child-friendly obstacles.
- Spartan Sprint: A 3-5 mile race with at least 15 obstacles.
- Spartan Super: An 8-11 mile race with at least 20 obstacles.
- Spartan Beast: A 12-14 mile race with at least 25 obstacles.
- Spartan Ultra Beast: a marathon-long challenge with up to 50 obstacles.
- Spartan Race also organises obstacle races in select major league ballparks in the US, starting with the Fenway Spartan Race in 2012.
- Tough Mudder:
- Tough Mudder’s core challenge is an obstacle-course run of 10 to 12 miles, with roughly two dozen proprietary obstacles.
- Does not time events.
- Offers Mini-Mudder for kids.
- Offers World’s Toughest Mudder, a 24-hour elite event held each November.
- No penalty for missing obstacles.
- Camaraderie and teamwork are musts in order to finish the Tough Mudder as several obstacles require the help of others in order to complete.
- Unlike most obstacle course events, Tough Mudder is untimed. In this sense, the company sets apart their course as a challenge or experience, more so than a race.
- Rugged Maniac:
- This the largest entry-level obstacle course race in North America.
- The focus is on creating the perfect balance of fun and physicality that appeals to people of all fitness levels, not just extreme athletes.
- There are no water baths or punishments if you do not overcome an obstacle.
- The race goes with a rocking day-long festival with DJ’s and beer.
- Savage Race:
- It is not about the running, but the obstacles, usually over 4 to 6 miles.
- Definitely not for novices.
- Participants to be pushed to their limits, so there are ice baths, fire jumps and so much more.
- Warrior Dash:
- Warrior Dash specialises in 5km (3-mile) fun races that are fairly distinct from Tough Mudder and Spartan.
- The course has more than a dozen obstacles and is typically doable for participants of most fitness levels. The motto of the race is that anyone can start and anyone can finish, though it is not to be underestimated.
- Has attracted more than 10,000 participants per event.
- Participants can team up and help each other during the race.
- Events are not timed or ranked.
- And, there is a festival waiting at the end.
- It is owned by Red Frog Events, an event-development firm that organises other participatory events.
- The Goruck Challenge is different from the popular notion of OCR.
- They offer a multitude of events and there is only one that might be considered a ‘race’ in the traditional sense.
- The challenge events are based on Special Operations training and are led by a Cadre on an unknown route for 6, 12 or 24 hours depending on the event.
- Bone Frog:
- The Bone Frog Challenge is was developed US Navy SEALs to help participants challenge themselves to the extreme.
- The obstacles are more concentrated and much different from the other races.
- There are more rope-related and more water obstacles, which form a major part of Navy SEAL training.
- Conquer the Gauntlet:
- This is a family owned and run business.
- It is a safe, family-friendly event, and the terrain is flat.
- However, the obstacles are different and harder from the ones in the more corporate-run OCR’s.
- Some have an 82% fail rate.
- Participants only get a medal only if they complete all obstacles.
- City Challenge:
- It takes OCR into urban areas.
- There is no mud component.
- Races are timed, and there are penalties for not completing an obstacle.
- The Battlegrounds Mud Run:
- This is the largest permanent obstacle course.
- It is short course, 3.2 miles, but packed with more than 30 military themed obstacles to challenge anyone.
- After participants finish, there is a winery nearby!
In December 2014, it was announced that Battlefrog might become one of the ‘big four’ of OCR (Davis, 2014; 2015). Battlefrog announced its first event for March 2014, and a three-episode series aired in the USA on ESPN2 on 09 June 2015. In August 2016, Battlefrog announced it would be cancelling all of its OCR events (Davis, 2016). Other OCR providers also closed during this period, including Atlas Race and The Death Race (Davis, 2015).
2.2 Collaboration with Health Club Operators, Television & Social Media
As a consequence of the popularity and longevity of OCR, health club operators are increasingly joining forces with OCR providers to take advantage of this seemingly insatiable appetite for extreme fitness challenges and expand their offering to clients. The partnerships take a variety of formats, from contra-marketing deals and discounts to dedicated classes and training programmes to help people get OCR fit. For example (Health Club Management, 2015):
- Between May 2015 and October 2015, 23,000 Virgin Active members took advantage of ‘in-club’ training to help them prepare for Tough Mudder challenges.
- In March 2015, Fitness First partnered with Judgement Day to raise awareness of OCR, prepare them for OCR events, and discounted race entry.
- 24 Hour Fitness partnered with Altas Race, promoting Atlas events to members and discounted race entry.
- Spartan Race partnered with LA Fitness and Pure Gym, offering cross-promotional opportunities.
- Total Warrior partnered with Xercise4Less offering discounted gym memberships and discounted race entry.
Through its TV contract with NBC Sports Group, Spartan Race promotes its elite athletes in world championships and the pursuit of world records (Fischer, 2015).
The bigger OCR providers also have developed sponsorship deals with other big brands. For example, Anheuser-Busch’s Shock Top brand and Under Armour, and Reebok has a title sponsorship with Spartan Race (Fischer, 2015).
The big, and small, names in OCR have developed plans to diversify their income streams in an attempt to reduce reliance on entry fees due to a natural limit:
- In (the absolute number of) participants;
- On the number of venues that can hold an event; and
- On the number of races any one venue can, or will, hold.
OCR providers have also been busy building a social media presence and developing their brands for consumption by spectators of the sport, as well as those seeking training tips and footage of athletes in events.
Collaboration with health club operators, television, and social media will enable OCR providers to expand their brands and diversify their income streams.
2.3 What are the Types of OCR?
In simple terms there tend to be two types of OCR races: those focused on competition, and those focused on fun.
- Non-competitive (Adults):
- People who attend for the sheer ‘fun’ of it.
- There is generally no specific requirements regarding attire, gender, or team size.
- Participants can enter individually or in a team.
- There is usually a minimum age for participation, around 12-13 in the USA.
- Non-Competitive (Kids):
- A number of OCR offer a kids-friendly version of the Adult OCR.
- OCR for kids ranges between 3 and 12 years of age.
- They usually have a few obstacles, minus any water features, and are of low height.
- The exact format and criteria varies between the providers who offer OCR for kids.
- Usually held at the same venue and day as the adult races.
- This is for adult participants who are looking to win or rank highly in a race.
- There are usually specific requirements on attire, gender, and team size.
- There are usually individual and team divisions.
However, according to World OCR (2018), the global governing body, OCR’s can be placed in one of seven categories:
- OCR 100:
- This is a head to head competition up to 100 metres long, and includes individual and mixed relay formats.
- Races are typically held on courses with between 2 and 8 lanes and 5 to 10 obstacles.
- These events have been popularised by a number of televised shows including the American Ninja Warrior, Ultimate Beastmaster and the Sasuke television show.
- Track OCR’s:
- These are mass start competitions from 200 to 1,600 metres.
- Individual and mixed relay events have 16 to 20 people on the start line.
- Track OCR is held on athletic tracks or stadiums with one or more laps and 10 to 15 obstacles.
- The Military Pentathlon Obstacle Run is a 500 metre course with 20 standardised obstacle and has held world championships since 1950 under Conseil International du Sport Militaire.
- Combine OCR’s:
- These are are typically run on 1,000 to 3,000 metre courses and include obstacles that test upper body, lower body, grip and total strength, including functional fitness exercises.
- Starts have up to 24 people.
- Popular races include Tough Mudder X (TMX), Hyrox and the Civilian Military Combine.
- These events are designed to be spectator friendly, with exciting, head to head racing.
- Beach OCR’s:
- These are mass participation events that take advantage of the sand, sunshine and water of beach environments.
- Formats include individual, mixed team and relay races.
- Notable races include the Shardana World Team Challenge and Palawan Beach OCR Championships.
- OCR Americas is holds Beach OCR Pan American championships preceding the World Beach Games.
- Obstacle Course Races:
- These are large scale, mass participation events held in parks, ski resorts, wilderness, rural, urban and suburban locations.
- Races can have up to 30,000 participants and vary in length from 3 km to 40 km.
- These are the races that most people will recognise as OCR.
- There are over 2,500 OCRs worldwide and international brands such as Spartan Race and Tough Mudder have multiple races, series and championships.
- Set Time OCR’s & Ultra OCR’s:
- Set Time OCRs are 4, 8 , 12 or 24 hours mass participation events with men, women and team competitions.
- Competitors complete as many 5 km to 5 mile laps as they can in the time allowed.
- Ultra OCRs are 42 km (26.2 mile) or longer on single or multiple lap courses.
- World’s Toughest Mudder is the best known set time OCR, with individuals and teams covering as much distance as possible in 24 hours.
- Spartan Ultra World Championships is a 24 hour loop course held in Iceland.
- Expedition OCR:
- Also known as Adventure Racing, Expedition OCR includes large natural terrain obstacles such as mountains, rivers and oceans.
- Teams of 2, 3 or 4 use any means of non-motorised transport to navigate distances from 100 km to 1,000 km.
- Originally popularised by the Raid Gauloises and Eco-Challenge, Primal Quest is the official Expedition OCR World Championships.
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