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2// The UTMB Contradiction
On UTMB’s media strategy
UTMB week is upon us.
Whereas most publications will be focusing on Walmsley’s chances of winning, i wanted to focus on the bigger picture - what does the UTMB’s steps towards professionalisation mean for the organisation? And more pertinent to this newsletter, what does it mean for the future of trail running media?
The professionalisation of trail running accelerated last year when the Polleti’s signed with Ironman Group, making some of the biggest power plays in a sport proud of its amateurism.
Their moves were strong and quick, their intentions clear - The Polleti’s wanted to become THE trail running league, and their method of choice was consolidation and unification. The move was defensive, almost monopolistic, in Catherine Polleti’s own words
We wanted to avoid a competing circuit being developed by a company infinitely more powerful than us which would have set up its annual final in a resort other than Chamoni… We wanted to keep the stature of the pinnacle of trail running at the same time. We worked a long time for that and we needed to be careful.
Their new circuit ‘UTMB World Series’ consolidates 25 international events, from Oceania to the Americas, together as qualifiers for the grand finale in Chamonix in 50, 100 and 170km races. These events are either acquired, licensed ‘by UTMB’ or started from scratch. The only misnomer in the nomenclature is Western States, which kept it’s oringinal identity to not saturate the legend. The Polleti’s have mentioned their aspiration is to grow to over 50 events.
The race has been oversubscribed for a while and hence overhauled its qualification system to match that of Ironman’s - to qualify elites and age group runners need to compete across the UTMB World Series for a place on the start line in Chamonix. It gets more complicated as there are four levels - UTMB World Series qualifiers, UTMB World Series Events, UTMB World Series Majors & UTMB World Series Finals.
By growing the events base they grow the competitor sign-up revenue. As Ironman has shown, leaning on events fees has created an economics where the only way to grow your revenue base is increase your number of events or your sign up fees. UTMB currently has only shown interest in the former, but not the latter.
The additional benefits of scale in any competition format is the creation of a marketing platform that sponsors, content creation and distribution companies can take advantage of. And with scale comes bigger partners.
In Trail running, the typical sponsors are contributors to the sport already (watches, nutrition, apparel, shoes etc). One of UTMB’s new sponsors is Dacia, a car company with no history in trail running, but wants to align their off-road car portfolio and ‘ambition to connect people with the great outdoors’ with the rugged nature of UTMB’s events. Whilst tenuous, the connection is no different from crypto companies sponsoring football stadiums, or Burger King sponsoring football clubs. If your audience aligns with the event’s audience, it’s mutually beneficial for the sponsor and event.
UTMB’s Media Strategy
Now lets address the media strategy - an owned centralised live streaming platform will host the livestream with commentary in multiple languages, highlights, ads, and data from the race. Content will also be distributed through a livestream on YouTube with highlights and commentary on Twitter. The obvious play here is to create live TV rights that can be sold off to broadcasters or OTT platforms, like FloSport or DAZN.
UTMB is already trialing this with L’Equipe, the largest sports broadcaster in France, which is owned by the Amaury family who organise the Tour de France. The deal consists of a live broadcast of UTMB on their broadcast channel and on their OTT platform L’Equipe Live, a highlights show the following week as well as a special edition magazine. The channel reaches 42m French people a month and offers broad exposure for the sport.
The real test will be the viewership figures, especially when UTMB will cannibalise L’Equipe’s broadcast reach with their own french livestream on their UTMB platform.
Currently the idea of a consistent media strategy and platform for each event to follow is more a vision than reality, whereby only a few events this year have been live-streamed, all to varying quality, two will be broadcast on live TV (UTMB & Nice) and event summary videos are largely non-existent.
Catherine Poletti has claimed in interviews with Sports Pro Media that this new set up and platform is built for runners - lets explore that a little.
As Michael Long wrote up in the interview article, on paper UTMB’s consolidation is a boon for the sport.
A more coherent calendar of well-organised races, coupled with the prospect of expanded and consistent media exposure, should create a more compelling proposition that benefits athletes who, in the absence of significant prize money in their sport, rely heavily on appearance-based sponsorship income to top up their earnings.
But it is prize money that is the real crux in this argument. UTMB has kept their prize money at 2000 euros since 2018 when it was introduced. Minus the 305 euro entrance fee, travel to Chamonix, an athlete is left with barely 1000 euros to be crowned the ‘worlds greatest’. Of course sponsors will cover the elite’s fares to attend these high exposure events, but that is the chink in the armoury of Polleti’s claim to be pushing the sport forward - how can you be for the runners yet not compensate them fairly?
To be a professional you need to dedicate hours to your craft, hours that are only paid for if you have a committed sponsor, otherwise you’re working your 9-5 and then training outside it. If the ‘SuperBowl of trail running’ is a 2000 euro prize, what’s the point in turning up? If the only motivator is because my sponsor said so and its a challenging race, runners will slowly not bother to turn up because the expense is not worth the reward. The current system only benefits it’s sponsors. The message UTMB is sending is that runners should be grateful to be attending this event which gives their sponsor’s more exposure.
Prize money matters for media because at a basic level, it motivates it’s athletes to compete at their highest potential which, in theory, creates a more spell-binding event. The more captivating the show, the greater the audience pull. The greater the audience draw, the greater the sponsorship, media rights and content distribution revenue. To grow the media of a sport, you need to motivate your athletes.
Additionally, prize money sends a signal that the sport is real, its not a hobby for the eccentric, but a serious pursuit. The ripple effect of investment benefits both UTMB and the sport - the event is seen as the pinnacle of Trail Running where the top athletes compete for the top prize and trail running becomes a more professional endeavour.
The PTO, professional Triathlon Organisation, has quickly become an example of the benefits of athlete first investment. To compete with Ironman, the PTO increased prize money to $1M for every event (vs Ironman Kona’s $750,000), annual bonus for the top 100 Triathletes, shared ownership of the organisation, a pregnancy policy, promotion of the athletes as ‘partners not pawns’ in the development of the organisation and heavy investment in the promotion of athletes, rivals and backstories. Not only has it captured multiple investment rounds, it has reached a major broadcasting deal with Warner Bros Discovery which will see the races broadcast in the UK on EuroSport.
The professionalisation of UTMB certainly feels like a harbinger for things to come for trail running, and with the Spartan, Golden Trail, and Cirque series all competing for the golden ticket of media rights deals this momentum is not slowing.
The 2022 finale is the first time the Polleti’s get to show off the pinnacle of their new event series and the media maelstrom around it. Whilst not a finished product, it will be fascinating to watch what they have in-store for the sport and whether they continue to develop trail running in the favour of sponsors or athletes.
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