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7// The Golden Trail Series wants to shout the loudest
On the Golden Trail Series’ media strategy
With the Golden Trail Series coming to a close this week I thought I’d write about their business and media strategy.
The Golden Trail Series doesn’t give away much about its organisation at all across its website or any of its assets. Consequently I reached out to a few RDs and friends of the newsletter who helped iron out a few things about the GTS, so thank you all that contributed to my knowledge for this piece. It’s all the better for it :)
The one thing that trail running organisers don’t lack is an ambition to make singular races into a series of races. In the past two decades we’ve had the Skyrunning series, WMRA (World mountain running association) and new Cirque series for shorter mountain running, and UTWT, which turned into UTMB, for longer ultras (I’m sure I’m missing many more, but you get the point).
If that wasn’t confusing enough, in 2016, Greg Vollett, global marketing director of Salomon, thought their company should also create a race series of middle distance races, called the Golden Trail Series (GTS), filling that gap between short and long. Because, why not?
Other than create an identity crisis in runners trying to decide if they’re a short, middle or long distance trail runner, GTS has captured the attention of many through its innovative media strategy, creating compelling videos of our sport at its most intense. Additionally, GTS has facilitated the growth of trail runners building their media profiles, whilst providing some professionals with a reasonable income through race winnings and competitive events. And Salomon have done it mostly off their own backs.
GTS offers more for the trail runners than any other series. However, the series has been hampered by what some pros feel are more relaxed doping restrictions, the same rules that let a Mark Kangogo win this year’s winner of Zegama whilst doping. Is all this development at the cost of our sport’s reputation?
Salomon are the creators of the GTS, but they didn’t intend on being the sole founders of the series. Back in 2015 Greg Vollett gathered a group of seven brands together to create a federation that would run a short circuit of races that brought the best athletes together to compete for a grand prize1. According to Vollett, the Skyrunning Federation dissuaded race organisers from joining this circuit and had them sign a three year exclusivity deal. Following this all six brands withdrew not wanting to run the risk of angering race organisers or other race series. Hence, in 2017 Salomon founded the series on their own.
The business model of the series has been the same from the start. GTS do not own any races and race organisers do not have to pay GTS to be a part of the series. Instead, GTS supplies a sponsorship fee and has a series of event requirements such as live-streaming, press conferences and athlete presentations (varying on World or National series level) which organisers might spend their sponsorship fee on. As far as I’ve heard, Salomon receives no direct income from race organisers, this is one big sponsorship exercise where the value comes from increased media coverage of trail running and association with the series.
When you consider GTS now covers 23 countries, a national series and World Series, that is a large investment from Salomon. The theory goes that by investing in media and increasing the reach of that media across multiple platforms then trail running should grow as more people are exposed to it. As these newcomers come into the sport they will more likely buy Salomon equipment due to the affiliation to the series, indirectly increasing Salomon’s revenue. In terms everyone will understand, the bigger the pie (size of trail running universe), the bigger the slice (volume of sales proportionate to market share).
Sponsorships of this scale always come with risk for the sponsor, but as of 2022, Sidas, Suunto and Tailwind have come onboard as supporting sponsors to spread the risk (it has not been reported whether Salomon still owns majority control of the enterprise). This works as a strategy to increase the resiliency and capabilities of the series, but i also suspect this is due to Salomon’s declining market share to Hoka who has quickly taken over a third of the market, according to recent ITRA data2. ‘Grow the category’ strategies only work if you are the leader of the category.
As the value of the series is intrinsically tied to the quality of the media, GTS has always been innovative in their coverage. Over the course of the four years, GTS has run livestreams for almost all ‘World Series’ events (and running a post-race show in places that struggled with internet coverage), extensive social media coverage pre-and-post race for each series, two docu-series’ in two different formats and more recently a podcast.
Beside the business motivation to this coverage, there is also a strong effort to boost the media profile of each of the pro competitors. This includes social assets, videos, interviews and pre-post race content to bolster their reputation and build an understanding of the person behind the racer. This in turn helps athletes generate exposure for their brands, build their own fan bases and if they’re successful, ask for higher sponsorship income. Choosing what races to attend for athletes and brands becomes a no brainier - compete in the GTS and generate high exposure and potentially earn a reasonable income from winnings, or compete at an event that doesn’t provide half this coverage. The same applies to race organisers - receive sponsorship fees and larger international reach for little downside, why not?
If your value is tied to reaching a large audience, the obvious next step for GTS is a TV rights deal. At the start of this season GTS published a sort-of manifesto for the future the series titled ‘THE GOLDEN TRAIL WORLD SERIES AIMS TO PUT TRAIL RUNNING ON TV!’. The article didn’t detail the how, where or what of their approach is, but according to a 2018 interview with Vollett3, they’ve been talking to broadcast partners since the start, that’s 4 years to no avail. This summer, L’Equipe demonstrated that there was an interest in trail running across European broadcast viewers through UTMB, so its easy to see L’Equipe holding the first trial. However, with the main IP holders being private companies, there will be a hesitancy by broadcasters unwilling to navigate the politics of the situation.
Then we get to the other elephant in the room for GTS - doping. From the start Vollett has been adamant that GTS is going to be tight on doping, in part due to the high race winnings that could motivate someone to dope. As a result they worked with ITRA on the Quartz program, a set of standards designed to assure a runner’s medical fitness before a trail running event. For time, i won’t lay out the ins-and-outs of the program (Canadian Running Magazine have provided an explainer here) but multiple athletes, such as Sage Canaday and Camille Herron, have expressed a concern that the program does not do enough to prevent a runner from doping or discipline them enough when they do. This came in full focus when Mark Kangogo, winner of one of GTS’ crown jewels, the Sierre-Zinal, was disqualified for testing positive for two substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Quartz is not run by Salomon or GTS, so the fault does not entirely lie with them for letting Mark Kangogo race (according to the GTS website, he was allowed to race untested because he wasn’t expected to be in the top 10). Yet it is within GTS’ power to utilise more stringent testing and demand more from Quartz. In many other aspects GTS has demonstrated that they’re for the athlete and the development of the sport, but they face the same contradiction as UTMB - how can you be for the athlete and not want tighter controls on doping? Especially if GTS want to continue pushing trail running to the masses. It doesn’t look great if you push a product where the winner is cheating.
With the 2022 series coming to a close this week, GTS can look back on a successful season with a plethora of media highlights. The Kangogo incident, however, has left a very visible blemish on their record. If GTS continue as they are, they may start to discover that not all the media they receive will be good media.