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27// UTMB’s Brand Should Matter, but it Doesn’t
On UTMB’s franchise model and why it can get away with making mistakes
Oh hey pals,
After my first attempt at podcasting on Dylan’s superb Freetrail Podcast, the subscribers to this little newsletter have doubled! So thank you Dylan for putting up with my ramblings (and colleagues who decided to turn the lights off and lock me in the office whilst i was recording) and I hope all you new subscribers enjoy the newsletter .
For the newbies, i typically write every two weeks on everything encompassing the business and media behind trail running.
This week we cover how UTMB makes money and why its brand perception doesn’t really matter now, but will do if the Polleti’s truly want to grow the sport of ultra running.
Hope you have a great weekend,
How UTMB works is largely still a mystery.
In an interview last year Catherine Polleti claimed UTMB makes roughly 70% of their revenue from entry fees and 30% from sponsorship.
When UTMB started announcing they were ‘acquiring’ races with Ironman, i assumed that would mean they purchased the races out-right, building in their operational efficiencies and bolstering the number of entrants and ticket fees to increase their profit.
However I’ve recently heard that It’s closer to a franchise system, whereby RDs are still running the races themselves, but they pay UTMB varying amounts for the privilege of having the ‘by UTMB’ name and benefiting from their ‘marketing and operational expertise’.
Now, UTMB did not confirm this with me (side note: if anyone has a contact at UTMB that actually knows how the business is run AND responds to emails, do get in touch), but it make sense considering UTMB’s expansion has followed the same blueprint as Ironman’s franchise model.
In a franchise model the parent brand value is everything. If you have a strong brand that people respect, they will pay a premium, or will go out of their way, to buy into it, benefiting both the franchisee and franchisor. For UTMB, that means they have to double down on marketing, media and PR to build an events brand that runners want to take part in.
For anyone that follows trail running news and insider opinions, you’d think UTMB hasn’t really got the memo on this.
UTMB is very much a brand the Twitterati like to dunk on. From their limited media coverage of women’s races, to needing a Trail Runner’s Union to form to convince them that professional racer’s actually need a break from racing once in a while and that pregnant women shouldn’t be penalised for having kids, UTMB is seemingly blind to their own inadequacies.
In a recent interview on Singletrack, Abby Levene, a content specialist at Outside, stated that when Outside’s upper-management struck the media deal with UTMB, Zoe Rom, editor in chief of Trail Runner, and Abby were commiserating that they’ve been dealt with a poison chalice and that limiting the damage UTMB’s brand could have on Outside’s reputation would be a ‘big challenge’.
To be fair, UTMB has only started growing in the past couple of years, and they have taken time out from buying up the all the world’s 100 milers to announce environmental and ethical policies and initiatives. But their lack of transparency around the initiatives (anyone want explain where the money for UTMB Cares goes?) makes their announcements sound like BP announcing their latest ESG ploy.
Yes, i just dunked on them, but when your PR is so woeful, it’s an easy shot to take.
On paper then, this poor brand value should impact on the sign-ups of UTMB races- but it doesn’t. If you look at any UTMB races thats finished this year you’ll see not only their race fees and number of race participants has increased (sometime over 4x the number of participants than the previous years), but they have by and large sold out.
There’s multiple avenues you could take with this. It could be that, the opinions of the most vocal people in trail running are not representative of the majority of runners, or that most runners actually don’t care about the brand, they just want to have a great race day experience.
If you take a look over the fence at triathlon, Ironman are also the internet’s favourite brand to tut at, but that hasn’t stopped it becoming the powerhouse that it is today.
This doesn’t mean that brand perception of a franchise doesn’t matter. When you’re looking to expand your media rights and sponsorship revenue, what you say and stand for matters to their future growth potential (as La Liga, the premier Spanish football league, are finding now).
Nor does it mean that UTMB doesn’t need to care about ESG initiatives or the professional end of the spectrum. As this great analysis of UTMB’s lack of competitiveness across it’s portfolio reminds us, a competitive field makes for a great spectacle which fans will more likely tune in for, in turn benefiting UTMB’s sponsorship and media rights contracts.
What it does mean is that UTMB can afford to have poor communication and make mistakes that may impact its brand perception now, because in the short term it doesn’t matter to their bottom line.
At it’s heart, UTMB is an events organiser. If UTMB put on a great event at replicable scale with an efficient operational backend, they have a sustainable revenue stream from race participants, regardless of what happens at the professional level or the transparency of their actions.
In the long term, if the Polleti’s are true to their word that they want to grow the visibility and professionalisation of the sport of ultrarunning, consequently bringing in larger media rights deals and sponsorships for them, as the largest organiser of the sport UTMB will need to get their act together.
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