There is no doubt that the pace of consolidation in the mass participation industry is gathering momentum as large global players from both within and outside the sector make investments and acquisitions.
In August 2015 the world’s largest private property developer, Wanda Group from China, paid a massive $650m for Ironman. Late last year, ASO, the owners of the Tour de France, bought UK based Human Race and media company, DC Thomson, invested in another large UK based agency, Limelight Sports.
In the past year Ironman has made several acquisitions including the Cape Epic mountain bike race in South Africa, Lagardère’s portfolio of mass participation events which included the Velothon cycling series and a number of marathons as well as Spectrum Worldwide which gave it the rights to the Singapore Marathon. A clear indication that it is moving beyond triathlon into the parallel verticals of running and cycling.
Perhaps the most closely watched play has been that of the Virgin Group. Back in May 2015 Sir Richard Branson announced that he had recruited Mary Wittenberg, CEO of the New York Road Runners and New York Marathon, to head up Virgin Sports. Virgin is in fact no stranger to mass participation with their sponsorship of the Virgin Money London Marathon and Virgin Active London Triathlon and Sir Richard is an active participant in mass events such as the Cape Argus.
The industry has waited in anticipation to see what the move would entail and two weeks ago Wittenberg announced that the program for 2017 would feature four “sports festivals” in Greater London and San Francisco with growth in future years to include cycling events and possibly more marathons and even ultra-marathons. The core focus appears to be events that provide platforms for strong engagement and interaction with not only hard-core runners but also their families and friends.
THE MASS PARTICIPATION LANDSCAPE
The fact that mass participation has captured the attention of such large global organisations seems to be an exciting endorsement of the potential of an industry that in many parts of the world is still fragmented and does not have a united voice with a common goal of lifting standards and adopting best practice.
When it comes to benchmarking and best practice my sense is that generally comparisons are made against other events in similar categories and geographical proximity. It seems that international standards from top tier events as well as other sports and industries are not often aspired to.
There are also significant challenges facing many sectors of the industry including tenuous business models, availability of venues, cluttered calendars, erosion of traditional events by novelty and short formats, increased compliance and regulatory hurdles and the ever present increased costs of risk management and security.
Working in mass participation events is challenging with staff generally working exceptionally long hours often in stressful situations. As more millennials enter the workforce looking for higher wages and more flexibility, staff turnover may become an issue in an industry where on-the-ground experience is just as important as classroom learning. It also seems that volunteers are getting harder to recruit and retain.
There are clearly also many exciting opportunities. The increasing power and reach of social and digital media, the insights provided by big data, the recognition by global and local brands of the power of mass participation events to engage with consumers as well as that of governments to drive community and tourism outcomes to name a few.
It is likely that some events and organisers may see the arrival of these new global organisations as a threat but at the same time others will see it as filled with upside.
I believe there is a massive opportunity to learn not only from the fresh initiatives that the likes of Virgin and Wanda bring to mass participation but also from other sports and indeed other industries that will help take the industry to a new level.
UNITING AN ENTIRE INDUSTRY
It is one of the reasons that I chose the theme of “Inspiration from Beyond Mass Participation” for the second edition of the Mass Participation Asia conference that took place in Bangkok in April 2017.
The conference featured an exciting line-up of speakers from other sports and industries together with many mass participation experts from the region as well as the United States, Europe and Australia including Victor Cui, Founder and CEO of ONE Championship as a keynote speaker.
In the space of just five years the Singapore-based sports media property has gone from start-up to a position where its shareholders include Temasek Holdings (Heliconia), one of Asia’s largest and most prestigious sovereign wealth investment funds, boxing legend Manny Pacquiao, plus several other prominent global businessmen and is on track for a US$1 billion valuation by 2018.
What many don’t realize is how fragmented the MMA scene in Asia was just five years ago. I see many parallels with the current state of the mass participation sports industry and am confident that the industry can take some key lessons from the success of ONE.
Over a brief conversation with Victor, he was kind enough to share some of his key insights.
“The biggest challenge ONE faced when starting off was to create a world-class level of sport entertainment in Asia that had not previously existed. Figuring out how to take the sport to a whole new level, breaking stadium attendance records and going into countries that had never hosted an event of this scale including a live global broadcast to 118 countries made it such an incredible operational challenge to be doing business in Asia”, Victor shared.
To overcome that obstacle, another presented itself – staffing. To hire the very best, Victor indicates that they sometimes go through at least 200 CVs to fill a role.
Through his collaborative vision, Victor has “united gym owners, event property owners, martial arts federations and athletes who were initially constantly pitting against one another, often cannibalizing and stunting their own growth. When ONE provided a global platform to showcase their talent, things quickly turned around. Competitors were united by their aspirations to be a part of the Championship and spectators were clamouring for more action”.
Perhaps the time has arrived for the mass participation industry in Asia and other parts of the world to “look over the fence” to learn from others and adopt a more collaborative and unified approach.