Has The OCR Bubble Burst Down Under?

Back in 2012, obstacle racing really took off in Australia. Whereas prior to this there were maybe half a dozen races around the country, this exploded to over 60 or so individual events within two years. It was possible to do an event nearly every weekend, moves were afoot to create an obstacle racing association to govern the sport, and even the smaller events were getting thousands along to enjoy the mud.

Heading into 2016, however, things are markedly different. Tough Mudder no longer get their 20,000+ crowds along and have pulled out of some markets and postponed others, although they do still get over 10,000 to their events. Spartan Race average around just 3,000 to their events and have similarly cut out two of our major cities. Warrior Dash departed our shores long ago. Our largest home-grown event, The Stampede, pulled out of two markets and then cancelled events in our two largest cities, and another race series called True Grit cannot pull 2,500 in our largest city despite incorporating a 24 hour enduro format. The concept of a governing body has long since been discarded and is merely an association for 300 or so individuals Australia wide who hope to treat obstacle racing as a serious sport.

What happened?

On the whole, Australians are a very laid back bunch. Our psyche generally is not inclined towards the hardcore. We enjoy getting out and doing things, but we leave the win-at-all costs mentality to the professional sportspeople. As such, when this new obstacle racing craze took off in 2012, thousands upon thousands of Aussies got out there in the mud, climbed over walls, hung (and fell) from monkey bars and scored some rope burn on the tyrolean traverse. But once this had been done a couple of times and the novelty wore off, the majority ticked them off their bucket list and saved their coin for other pursuits – whether they be fun runs or trail runs or triathlons or even just a Colour Run or stair climb challenge.

This hypothesis was backed up with data not once but twice. Market research conducted through Australia’s premier obstacle racing website Obstacle Racers Australia asked respondents in two separate surveys how seriously they treated their obstacle racing. In both instances, around 80% indicated that they just treated obstacle racing as something fun to do.

In practical terms, this casual approach to obstacle racing is illustrated in the downward trending numbers that Spartan Race has managed to attract to their races over the past three years. Spartan Race is undoubtedly the event series for those that want to go hard, push themselves to the limit, receive penalties for failure and cross the finish line as quick as possible. Whilst Spartan Race events in Australia peaked at the start of 2014 with just under 5000 getting along to one race, numbers have continually declined despite such measures being introduced like a controversial ‘Rookie Pass’ where first-timers could do the course without the burpee penalty – a major departure from the Spartan ethos. Spartan Race did manage to attract just over 4,500 to their first Stadium event in early 2015 which did buck the downward trend but a follow up event later the same year in the same city only managed to get just over 3400 along (a 25% drop in numbers) despite introducing a Ninja Warrior style cluster of obstacles and the first Stadium Super in the world as well as a Stadium Sprint.

spartan race australia

Another factor above and beyond our easygoing attitude is the fact that whereas the USA has a population of 318M spread out relatively evenly, Australia has a mere 23M and despite the fact our island has roughly the same landmass as the continental United States they are clustered around just five major population centres (their closest USA geographical analogue city is indicated in parentheses):

– Sydney 5.39M (Atlanta)
– Melbourne 4.65M (Mobile)
– Brisbane 3.06M (Washington D.C.)
– Perth 2.00M (San Diego)
– Adelaide 1.27M (Dallas)

Races who want to get big crowds obviously put their events in a decently-sized population centre, but whereas Australia has a mere five cities with a population in excess of one million, the USA has over sixty. In addition, each one of these centres is at least a 7 hour drive away from the nearest, meaning that to do an event in another city the average racer is looking at airfares and in most cases accommodation and car hire, something that is a deterrent to all but the most enthusiastic obstacle racer. As such, race directors have saturated the top three of these cities with an overabundance of races which the obstacle racing market simply cannot sustain.

A silver lining?

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Tough Mudder, as mentioned earlier, still manage to draw big crowds of over 10,000 to the events they still hold in our three largest markets and are poised to roll out the female-oriented Mudderella around Australia. Smaller commercial series like Raw Challenge and Mud Muster still manage to turn a decent profit, and the community and charity events in country towns are well supported and raise good coin for their causes.

One indication that the bubble has burst Down Under and that Australians are ready to move on to The Next Big Thing is the instant and massive success of ROC Race which is coming to our shores in 2016. This is the renamed “Wipeout Run” up there, and although it’s still an obstacle race it’s a marked departure from the muddy theme that has been the norm until now. This new style of obstacle race has announced events in Sydney, Melbourne and Southeast Queensland, and all three have either sold out or come close to in a matter of days after tickets went on sale. A second day for Sydney and Melbourne were added very quickly, and both of these events will see around 20,000 people hit the inflatables obstacles and water for a day of giggles.

Rollerblades Forever!

Will obstacle racing go the way of the rollerblade Down Under? Time will tell if it was just a fad that had a few good years and then disappeared completely, or whether it simply declines and consolidates and hangs around on the fringes with fewer events catering to a much smaller market.

This writer’s opinion is that it will be the latter. Apart from those couple of hundred Australia-wide who would like to treat obstacle racing as a serious sport, I still think an economically sustainable number of Aussies – at least in our five biggest cities – will still be up for doing an event occasionally that involves acting like a big kid and having a laugh with mates whilst crawling, climbing, clambering and crashing. These events are definitely going to face a reduction in number, though, and those that do manage to survive will need to evolve, adjust and not just offer the same thing over and over again to a target market that will eventually move on to The Next Big Thing.

James "Dog" Musgrave

James ‘Dog’ Musgrave, has been a keen social obstacle racer since 2009, and has participated in around 65 events all around Australia.He was responsible for starting up Obstacle Racers Australia (www.obstacleracers.com.au) which was the first obstacle racing news and information website Down Under.In addition to his obstacle racing and involvement in many other sports and activities (including rollerblading back in the nineties!), he has many years of business, marketing and event management experience to enable him to look at the business of the obstacle racing market objectively.He also realizes that Americans spell some words like colour and centre differently, but does not care.

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Comments

  1. I think that this is a fairly balanced and accurate reflection of the situation down under. Tough Mudder still has the best brand recognition (at least amongst the general popular) but there numbers have certainly dropped and they have scaled back.

    Spartan Race is popular in that hard core group of racers and consistently puts on a tough and high quality event. It’s a shame that there numbers have never really grown but I guess that is one of the difficulties of operating in Australia with a smaller number of population centers that are all being catered to by a large number of races. You then obviously have a large number of smaller races all competing to survive and make a buck.

    The big issue with Spartan as the article alludes to is the fact that our cities are so spread out you really have to be dedicated to get the trifecta and be open (and able) to do a bit of travelling.

    Back in 2012 – 2013 I was a massive OCR fan (I still love the support and have a strong desire to go back to WTM) but even I could justify or afford to do all of the Spartan events (time, money and work/family commitments just didn’t allow for it). So if TM and Spartan couldn’t even convince me (a super OCR fan) to travel all the time for events, I don’t think they really stood a chance for doing that for the wider community.

    If you are realistic about it to travel from Sydney to either Brisbane or Melbourne is typically around $200 in flights (sure you might get lucky and do it for less, but on average I think $100 each way is fairly common). You then need accommodation (or someones place to sleep at). Add in travel to and from the event, food, etc and its easy to spend $300 – $500 for the weekend. That’s fine for a single guy with no commitments, but trying to do that 3 or 4 times a year with a family is a big ask. I certainly respect the people and families that make it work, but for the everyday person it is a big ask.

    Overall I think TM and Spartan would be best served focusing on three markets Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. TM could do a single event each year in each city and Spartan could do a sprint in each city and one other race (i.e. Super or Beast). To be honest this is probably an accurate reflection of what they are already doing/moving toward anyway.

    Then maybe, and that’s a big maybe, go to a secondary market like Adelaide once every two or three years.

    In the end it seems like a lot of people treat it like a marathon on their bucket list. There are a handful of people who want to run marathons all year round, but the 99% maybe only do one a year or even just one or two in a lifetime.

    I hope that TM and Spartan continue to survive and then as other races drop off they might begin to grow again. Doing one TM, 1 Spartan Sprint, 1 Super and 1 Beast/Ultra-Beast a year would be a fairly good outcome for a committed OCR fan in my opinion and if I could do 3 out of 4 in my state and then travel for that final Spartan I think that is at least feasible for most people.

  2. Great piece, Dog. Good reporting and I appreciate the insight!

  3. What a joke of an article.This isn’t even a puff piece, but the diatribe of a worn out has been in the industry that dropped out and sold his business due to him becoming an alcoholic due to the stress of all the hating he endured.

    OCR in Australia went through a honeymoon phase, the bucket list members have come through and scratched off their goals and moved on, but the loyal fans will stick around. As he correct identifies, there isn’t the population in Australia as in the US, so comparing the two is a moot point.

    The surveys he mentioned were biased with a small population sample sized of other OCR fans such as himself, who are in it for fun. It doesn’t capture those outside the small number of OCR fan bases which exist in an online environment in Australia.

    “Dog” is a well known worn out media identify wannabe who opted out of the sport after his antics forced many loyal OCR fans away from his fledgling business. He is a self proclaimed Spartan hater and has consistently voiced this opinion publicly to anyone in earshot. I saddens me to think that he is still consuming precious oxygen which would be better served with constructive feedback on the OCR scene in Australia.

    I guess the old saying rings true. You can’t teach and old dog new tricks.

  4. Good piece – interesting insight into the Aus market. Spartan should come to NZ already! Although Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash pulled out from NZ after one race, so it’s not looking too promising in NZ market for the international brands to work here.

    • James 'Dog' Musgrave says

      Max, I think your best bet over that side of the Tasman is to get right behind all the local, home-grown events over there like the Wairua Warriors, the Tough Guy and Gal Challenge, The Mule and even the awesome Run For Your Freak’n Life which I’m heading over to do for the third time in a row in May.

  5. OMF Ex-Lover says

    For the Aussies reading this article they will either be “Dog Lovers” or “Dog Haters” but the stats don’t lie.

    Spartan numbers are in a steep decline in Australia – FACT
    OCRA/L numbers are falling – FACT
    Published OCR Magazine has stopped production – FACT
    The Stampede bought by new owners & now frozen after 1 event – FACT
    Other events relied on heavily discounted deals to bolster numbers – FACT
    More established events went “belly up” in 2015 than new events started – FACT

    So the bubble has burst but I believe there is still a very loyal following in Oz. The big question is will folks like Spartan continue to hold events for 2000 folks like they have been doing at some locations in 2015 ?

    I hope OCR continues for many years to come in Australia as it took long enough for it to break out in other states away from Syd & Melb. It’s really like being a big kid again but the events have to adapt like Tough Mudder and put on new fun obstacles each year and not drag out the same ones year after year as that’s when folks get bored.

    So JR there might be a “Cat Lover” over “Dog Lover” and I hope that JR is correct that OCR will remain for years to come only in smaller numbers but will the Event organisers be around for those numbers? If not then OCR goes the way of “Dogs beloved Rollerblading” ??

    My solution is simple – someone in Aus with deep pockets bring BATTLEFROG over the Pacific 🙂 !!!

  6. James 'Dog' Musgrave says

    Just a quick update and development: Spartan Race Australia is now taking pre-registrations for a Melbourne Sprint + Super event on a date and at a location to be determined in 2016. This is noteworthy as they have NEVER done this before for races in our second-largest city but have simply opened up registrations and taken entries.

    The only time they have done pre-registrations is to gauge interest for doing events Adelaide, Townsville and New Zealand – none of which ever came to fruition.

    This development comes on the heels of their fourth consecutive drop in numbers in Melbourne:
    – 3592 for a Sprint in May 2014;
    – 2619 for a Super in March 2015;
    – 2441 for a Super/Beast/Ultrabeast in September 2015; and
    – 1671 for a Stadium Sprint* in December 2015.

    * The Stadium Sprint was actually held in Geelong, a city in its own right but only an hour out of Melbourne.

  7. Not one mention of the massive success of miss muddy a female only event that is getting in excess of 5000 participants per event. Can I ask why this event was not mentioned

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