Joe DeSena talks about his childhood, hard numbers, and Olympic ambitions

Joe Desena, Spartan CEO
On Wednesday Joe DeSena gave a talk to retailers at The Running Event (TRE), a conference and trade show for Running Specialty Retailers. This is the 10th TRE, and the first time they created an “experiential zone” that featured Spartan and other OCR centric brands.  Obstacle News  was able to broadcast Joe’s thirty-minute talk via Periscope. It can be seen in its entirety here.

The title of the presentation was “Adversity,” with DeSena giving an overview of the ethos and history of Spartan Race and obstacle course racing. When describing the history of Spartan Race, he went back to his childhood and gave credit to his mother for a major lifestyle change in their family. “I had monks in our living room…it went from literally “sausage and peppers” to “branch sandwiches”. He told the story of how, as a young teenager, he and his sister woke up to find his mother had thrown away everything they owned. His mother wanted to teach them they shouldn’t be attached to material things. “I said – Mom, that’s great, but YOUR material things. You don’t do that with OUR material things”. With that upbringing in mind, DeSena described Spartan Race as a “40-year-old start-up”.

DeSena continued his talk with thoughts on the philosophy behind Spartan Race. One of their goals is to change peoples’ “reference points” for their level of comfort with adversity. After talking about his morning routine of hundreds of burpees and a cold shower, DeSena shifted his talk to the hard numbers of the obstacle race business.

Spartan Race projects four million people will participate in an obstacle course race in 2016. DeSena says that dwarfs the number of people running marathons, half marathons, and triathlons. Of the four million people doing an obstacle course race, one million of them will race with Spartan. The average Spartan racer will do two races per year. Of the one million projected Spartan racers this year, 200,000 will do nine races or more.

DeSena referred to his recent move to Singapore when he talked about the global reach of Spartan Race. He believes Asia will “be much bigger than anything else we have going on anywhere else in the world”. This year Spartan will hold 170 events in more than 20 countries worldwide.

DeSena showed a slide entitled “Who is racing Spartan?” Spartan racers are 63% male and 37% female with a median age of 33. 88% of Spartan racers have college degrees and they earn about $85,000 per year.

When Spartan was first beginning to advertise in 2010, DeSena said he had a “moment of insanity” and was spending about $300,000 a month on digital marketing. In what could have been a warning to potential competitors looking at the Obstacle Course Racing business, DeSena said if he were to attempt to reach that same amount of people today it would cost about eight times that $300,000 monthly expense. “It would be hard for us to recreate that today”.

DeSena briefly talked about race fees. He said pricing in the industry is completely wrong. He said an Ironman triathlon has an entry fee of $725. The average Spartan entry fee is $88. “To put on our event is probably five times as expensive as it is to put on an Ironman.”

Spartan has a considerable reach in social media and traditional media with about five million fans on Facebook, 210,000 followers on Instagram and 140,000 followers on Twitter. In addition, they also have a TV show on the NBCSports network. DeSena gave the surprising statistic that NBC gave them 200 hours of television airtime last year. 200 hours is a remarkable number given that NBC only covered six races in 2015. Another upcoming TV show is the recently announced “Spartan Race” competition show with eight episodes scheduled to air immediately after American Ninja Warrior in 2016.

In a closing question and answer session DeSena said he is focused on getting Obstacle Course Racing into the Olympics. “All day, every day, that’s something we’re working on, (for) 2024”. He described some of the requirements and hurdles to overcome to qualify a sport for the Olympics and explained why this goal is so important. “If we can get this in the Olympics…then it’s not a fad.”

Will Hicks

Will Hicks is the host of World's Toughest Podcast, where they talk about any obstacle course race you'd like, as long as it is World's Toughest Mudder.
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