State Of The Obstacle Racing Industry – 2019

Obstacle racing attendance

To set the stage for our first article of this kind in 4 years, let’s take a look back to some recent history in the obstacle racing industry.

In December of 2014, Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and Warrior Dash were well-established as the “Big 3” in OCR and we asked if BattleFrog Series had positioned itself as the 4th player in the space. Great obstacles and professionally produced races were quickly making BattleFrog a  fan favorite with participants looking to mix it up with something besides more Tough Mudder headbands or Spartan Trifecta medals.

Over the next year, BattleFrog announced a massive expansion to 44 races and the biggest payouts the industry had ever seen. They also announced sponsorship of a major College Football Bowl Game in January of 2016, which never made sense to anyone. Eight months later, they closed their doors.

Football fans (no pun intended) could considerBattleFrog as the XFL of obstacle racing. They were new and shiny, had money, and willing to take some risks. They were one of the first to promote obstacle completion over penalties, and they introduced obstacle difficulty lanes. However, the front office seemed to lack the basic know-how needed to compete with the big boys, long term.  There was the Bowl Game sponsorship, along with online ads that promoted sales, not unlike your local rug merchant.

Had BattleFrog been willing to take it slowly, stick to 12-20 markets a year, perhaps even stick to the East coast to minimize costs, and continued to innovate, we may have a different industry. They could have taken market share from the big 3 over time. But, like so many “take over the world today/gone tomorrow” business ideas, they tried to go nationwide overnight. They spent lots of money in wrong places, and could not convert that to high attendance numbers. Leo Fernandez Pujals, the money man at BattleFrog and one of the richest men in Spain, pulled the plug suddenly, after what would be their last event in August of 2016.

So how has everyone else been faring in the last few years? For the purposes of this article, Obstacle Racing Media will focus on industry changes on the United States based companies. We are working on some content for the future that will speak to the growth of worldwide OCR.

Update On The Big 3

*Spartan Race

When our last report went live, Boston-based Spartan Race was still undergoing expansion. They tripled their 2012 attendance numbers to a whopping 320 thousand finishers by end of 2014. While the exploding “hockey stick” growth has slowed, Spartan is still on the upswing. 2018 numbers saw them produce 63 events in the United States and their attendance was over 400 thousand participants. There are currently 57 races on the schedule for 2019.

*Of the Big 3, Spartan is the only race that we can confirm yearly, public-facing, finisher numbers through Athlinks. For Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and most other races, we will base information on factors such as the number of events per year, and attendance numbers given to us by the race organizations themselves.

Warrior Dash

In our 2015 article, we spoke about how Red Frog (Warrior Dash’s parent company) has suffered the largest retraction in the OCR boom-bust of 2012-2014. However, Red Frog has been steady the last 3 years with 23 events nationwide, and the same amount scheduled for 2019. For their “10th season”, Warrior Dash is announcing new obstacles and launching a two-lap and 1-mile option.

Tough Mudder

Tough Mudder has undergone the most changes since our last report. Right around the time that BattleFrog went out of business in the fall of 2016, Tough Mudder began a year-long stretch of announcing new formats, large payouts, and media deals with CBS, Facebook, Amazon, and The CW. Along the way, they continued to produce 35-38 Tough Mudder events per year. Toward the end of 2018, there were rumblings of financial troubles as athletes complained of payment delays. Last month, TMHQ announced a new stripped down “back to our roots” campaign with the removal of all cash prize payouts. Currently, 26 events are scheduled for 2019.

Rugged

Why is Rugged Maniac in The Big Three subsection? Because they have proven they belong. The guys at Rugged probably do the least media/ self-promotion, and somehow have made some of the biggest splashes in our industry. Mark Cuban cashed out his famous investment in August of last year when Rugged got acquired by GateHouse Media. From 11 events in 2011, Rugged had brought their race weekend total to 24 events when ORM last did an update. Still growing steadily, they did 29 events in 2018 and will produce the same number of events this year. According to the participant numbers that they provided, their attendance numbers per race have gone down slightly. However, they now put on more events per year than Mudder or Warrior Dash and have very healthy registration numbers.

The Next Tier

Savage Race

Back in 2015, Savage received praise for doing things the “right way”. As opposed to the nuclear rocket-ship takeover plan of BattleFrog and so many others, Savage has continued to grow slowly. They still add a few cities every couple of years, expanding to 15 weekends in 2019. Their attendance has maintained the same or been slightly increased in their most successful markets. Last year they began adding a Sunday, short course “Blitz” with payouts.

BoneFrog Challenge

BoneFrog was created by ex-Navy Seals in Western Massachusetts back in 2013. The put on 10 events last year and are scheduled to put on as many this year. Even though they are an early player in the space, they’ve struggled to get big attendance numbers and may need some help to stay afloat long term.

Regional Series

Conquer The Gauntlet started in Oklahoma and Arkansas back in 2012 and in their largest year, had 9 events. They’ve scaled back to 6 events for 2019, and those appear to be healthy.

Florida’s Mud Endeavor and the northeast’s City Challenge both have been producing 4-5 events since the early days of OCR and are well received in their regions.

Epic Series, which focuses on CrossFit style exercises combined with obstacles, minus the mud, are expanding to 7 events in the southwest region of the U.S. in 2019.

Whatever happened to:

In our 2015 article, we listed Down and Dirty as a potential “Big 4” member. Down and Dirty snagged Subaru as their title sponsor after losing Merrell but seemed eager to leave the industry and closed up shop in early 2016.

Other races with multiple locations that have also left the scene since our last report was Dirty Girl, Ridiculous Obstacle Course, Bad Ass Dash, Men’s Health Urbanathlon and West Coast-based Gladiator Rock N Run.

Summation & Forecasting: Since our last report, the industry apparently still had some market correction of the 2012-2015 boom-bust to experience over the next two years. Since 2017, the dust has had lots of time to settle, and we are left with what appears to be a healthy industry.

Some may see the reduction in events of Tough Mudder and their loss of TV contracts as a sign that they are on the way out. It’s very possible, that they are experiencing their own personal market hangover later than they should have. Putting on 26 events (which is essentially every other weekend in a year) has worked well for Rugged Maniac and Warrior Dash. If Tough Mudder tightens the financial reins and can still build quality obstacles while creating a first class experience like their competitors, they can probably rebound.

*Special thanks to Stuart Clark for his assistance with extensive data research. Art direction by Patrick Keyser.

 

Matt B. Davis

is the host of the Obstacle Racing Media Podcast and the author of "Down and Dirty-The Essential Training Guide for Obstacle Races and Mud Runs". He is also the only (known) #wafflehouseelite obstacle racer.

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