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37// What We Can Learn from the UTMB/Whistler Debacle
On competition, the sustainable growth of trail running and importance of trail running media
It’s been a hectic few weeks for me, largely filled with long work days and a smattering of muddy fell runs. I look forward to the darker days for its festivities and slower weekends. A time to rejuvenate and reflect as we move towards the end of the year. And also to re-watch hours of Gilmore Girls (trust me on this, your autumn’s and winter’s will never be the same).
What doesn’t stop? UTMB’s blunderbus. I talk about what this all means for trail running and if UTMB isn’t the way forward, what’s the alternative?
Hope you have a great day,
In yet another chapter of trail running's drama, UTMB has orchestrated a move that smacks of disdain for the sport it professes to champion.
The recent announcement of a new UTMB race in Whistler, Canada, initially prompted excitement for Canadians wanting to participate in UTMB events without significant travel. But as the initial elation dissipated, a perplexing revelation surfaced: the location and scheduled date bore a striking resemblance to Gary Robbin's Whistler Alpine Meadows (WAM) race, which was halted due to conflicts with Vail's bureaucracy. The parallel is uncanny, and it has cast a shadow over UTMB's intentions.
There’s much to be talked about here, from UTMB’s actions, the TrailRunner article, the concept of competition and much more so let’s break it down with some purposefully provocative statements:
Whatever UTMB/Ironman’s claimed intentions were, they knew they were displacing an iconic event
Between the comments Gary made in his blog and the response by UTMB in the TrailRunner article, there was a clear miscommunication around whether Gary was pursuing a race in Whistler or not.
These arguments quickly go into a ‘who said what and when’ discussion, but regardless UTMB steamed on ahead knowing full well that it would be seen as displacing Gary’s race.
You have to wonder why they went ahead like this. They knew it would create a PR nightmare, significantly damaging their already bruised reputation amongst fans and professional athletes alike.
My only idea would be that they know that they can take several haymakers to their reputation amongst this group because ultimately they’re not the ones paying their bills, everyday runners are.
They have routinely shown they don’t care about the athlete through little to no compensation and the restrictive stones policy. Fans of the sport don’t generate revenue for them because UTMB haven’t monetised their attention through media rights deals yet. You could argue that it’s the celebrities that bring runners to UTMB events across the world, but only if you’re a fan of the sport will you even really know who the celebrity runners are, and as we’ve regularly discussed, there aren’t many fans of trail running.
UTMB can’t claim to be open to a competitive market and be anti-competitive at the same time
The prevailing sentiment in UTMB’s response to the social media firestorm they became embroiled in was that there is room for both grassroots and corporations in the trail running race scene.
This is true, but if you’re competing in a marketplace, not being transparent with your intentions and not considering the impact on Gary’s business is simply unfair.
UTMB will always have an economic advantage over smaller RDs, creating better returns for local governments in any fair bidding process. What they also do is distort the market towards them by simply having the best locations and thousands of places available, creating an uneven playing field for the other race organisers in the area competing for the same runners. This is legal, just unethical.
Regional politics play a significant role in where UTMB locates itself
As an icon of the North American racing scene, the replacement of Robbin’s race with a UTMB event was met with a surge of rancorous tweeting and posting across social media in opposition to UTMB, Ironman and the encroaching commercialisation of the sport. The blame was largely laid at UTMB's feet, but Vail Whistler-Blackcomb, too, had a role to play in this unfolding drama.
In the world of local governance, financial influence often wields its invisible hand in the selection of sporting events. For Vail-Whistler Blackcomb, the allure of hosting a prestigious event like UTMB can be irresistible, promising a spotlight on the global stage, an influx of tourists, and economic growth. The selection process hinges on budgets and economic projections, sidelining the preservation of grassroots communities.
Gary Robbin candidly shared his perspective on his blog, attributing the disruption of his race to the actions of a single individual. Vail’s has yet to make a statement, but the murky influence of regional politics in UTMB's course selection is steadily coming into focus.
When I was researching the rise of trail running in China, the financial support of the local province’s was part of the reason UTMB was able to make a swift impression on the scene in a two year stretch. I also discovered Indonesia’s Prime Minister, Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, encouraged the introduction of UTMB Doi Inthanon to promote sports tourism in the country.
Not all regions are dazzled by the lure of UTMB’s promise of tourism dollars. Last month, the cancellation of the contract between the La Palma local government and UTMB over Transvulcania was the first reaction we’ve seen by politicians against the impact of UTMB races on local community and environment. In his press release, the President of the Cabildo, Sergio Rodiguez, emphasised his desire to bring Transvulcania back into local control after it had lost it’s vibrant spirit under UTMB’s reign; “We wanted a jewel like the Transvulcania to regain its splendour, to be palm trees again.”
This was not purely a spiritual decision, politics and money also played a part. Rodiguez came into power in June promising “to break the pessimism and make La Palma an Island of opportunities”. With local displeasure of UTMB’s impact on the island’s historic race, and the cost of the ‘by UTMB’ licence reportedly costing between €250-400K, it was an easy victory to cancel their contract with UTMB.
Regardless, Rodriquez refusal of UTMB’s advances is evidence that hosting a UTMB race bears a cultural and physical impact to the local community and environment that needs to be balanced against its financial rewards.
The monopolisation of trail running is occurring because ITRA/WMRA/IAU don’t have any power
Monopolies should not happen in a market place that has sufficient effective regulation and competition rules implemented by a governing power. In trail running’s case we have three governing bodies, all of which have done very little to mitigate the impact UTMB is having on local competitions.
As I’ve discussed previously, they don’t have enough political force to keep UTMB or GTS in check, leaving it up to professional athletes to form the PTRA to do what ITRA/WMRA/IAU should be doing.
If you look across any sector that has battled with mitigating the effects of global organisations on local competition, from coffee with FairTrade, to local heritage and UNESCO, they’ve all had an intermediary or governing body that has implemented policies so that no party disadvantages the other to a significant degree and that fairness is built into the system. Trail running needs that too.
Trail running as a sport won’t grow sustainably if we leave the future of the sport to Race Directors alone
Before this all kicked off, the ever eloquent David Callaghan of UltraSignUp followed up on his thesis for the sustainable development of trail running, that he discussed on the Freetrail podcast, with a lengthy LinkedIn post.
I highly recommend everyone to read it, but the rough summary is that David advocates that the ‘industry’ should place a greater focus on retention over acquisition by leaning on word of mouth to grow the sport whilst retaining its values.
This piece was a general comment and I’m sure David would have altered it after the latest UTMB/Whistler charade, but it’s an important addition the debate on how trail running should grow without compromising on it’s ideals.
My main rebuttal is that by referring to every organisation in trail running as ‘the industry’ it is too general and in doing so ignores the business dynamics of the many industries in trail running (for instance, decades of marketing science shows that marketing anything works by reaching the largest amount of people, not by solely appealing to your biggest fans) and that RD’s will struggle to maintain their business if they prioritise retention over acquiring new runners since 1) people are fickle, they won’t all run your race year after year 2) word of mouth is only as effective as the number of people talking about it. If that number is low, which is the case for most races, you won’t last for long. I agree with the ethos, not the execution.
Another point i think is important to make is that I disagree with the neoliberal notion that the market will sort itself out if competition by private companies is encouraged and left unregulated. In this case I’m referring to Race Directors - they don’t have enough time, resources or political power to change the direction of trail running by themselves.
Race directors should be all means be making sure they’re leading by example and creating events that are inspiring, inclusive and progressive, but there needs to be an intermediary, coalition or governing body that supports the sustainable growth of the sport to balance the needs of the individual race director and the larger corporations.
Maybe I’ve just been living under a Tory government for over 10 years and know all too well about the effects of leaving it up to the market to right itself, but as this UTMB debate has shown, the playing field is not currently even so we can’t put all the pressure on RDs to be the determinants of the future of trail running.
TrailRunner’s article is the exact reason we need to invest in our endemic media
I have to admit, before Brian Metzler’s article came out in TrailRunner i was starting to think the streaming deal Outside struck with UTMB had muzzled TrailRunner’s voice. All the pep and big-thinking articles they started the year off with had quietened down, coinciding with when the deal was announced.
This article proved me wrong. It was balanced, it explained both side’s positions without favouring one, it tempered the social media insanity without sucking up to UTMB. It was journalism.
Sure it lacked the rambunctious hit of the tempestuous opinions that were being thrown about on Twitter and it did gloss over Gary’s blogpost at times (they also REALLY need to work on distribution as i only found that from an Ian Corless tweet) but it’s exactly what our sport needs to sustainably progress.
Golden Trail Declines in YouTube Viewership
Livestream viewership of the 2023 Golden Trail Series declined by 15% YoY from 699K to 592K livestream views across YouTube.
The agreement with Eurosport likely cannabalised some of these views, so a decline is to be expected.
But the same narrative as last year rung true - viewers are more interested in the stages than the final. In other words, viewers are more interested in the individual races that have history than the Golden Trail Series itself. GTS has a brand problem and a sequencing issue.
Another Hoka Hurray!
Once again Hoka has had bumper quarter with net sales increasing 28% to $424M. Practically everything was up for Hoka but some highlights from the investor call:
Hoka’s brand awareness in the US is 30% (compared with On’s 9%, you can begin to see why Hoka is growing so rapidly)
David Powers, CEO, admitted that whilst Hoka dominates the maximalist shoe market, their differentiation isn’t as strong as it used to as every running brand has adopted high stack running shoes in their catalogue. Instead they’re focusing on technology and style over a marshmallowy ride.
Only mention of trail running is how they’re ‘dominating’ the category and are going heavy on the opportunity.
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