Opportunities and Challenges of Mass Participation in Asia

Mass participation has seen tremendous growth in Asia in recent years, with many newcomers, both local and overseas attracted to the industry without fully understanding the business models or challenges it brings. While on one level, this presents risk to the industry from a reputation perspective, it also presents fantastic opportunities for good concepts that are well executed.

From an opportunity perspective, there is clearly an emerging middle class across the region that has more disposable income, is becoming more health and wellness aware and interested to enjoy experiences and concepts that have been successful overseas. My sense is that, in general, the level of authentic ongoing engagement with participants is limited which presents a huge opportunity for brands, events and agencies that are prepared to invest in making their participants feel valued. So often I see virtually the same communication being cut and pasted from year to year – “Dear Chris, we are excited to announce that entries for XXX event are now open, followed by some generic event information and ending with please click here to sign up” Every past participant on the database gets the same message no matter what distance they entered in or when they participated previously. Generic communication then happens at regular intervals until event day and post-event there may be one or two messages followed by months of silence until the next year launches with similar communication.

A step in the right direction can be as simple as “Dear Chris, congratulations again on running the 10k in 65 minutes last year. We are delighted to launch this year’s event and were wondering if you may be interested in taking on a bigger challenge in the half marathon – if so here is a 10% discount code as a valued repeat participant. If you would prefer to run the 10k again, here is a link to a free training program to help you improve your time and perhaps get under the magic one hour mark”. With the software and CMS systems available these days, it is relatively easy to create such customised engagement and much more is possible.

There is no doubt that calendars in many countries are becoming cluttered by, in the most part, “me too” events with little differentiation and basic levels of organisation and engagement. I was recently talking with Andrew Messick, CEO of Ironman, and we both agreed that there is still plenty of opportunity in the market for top quality events that deliver value and a great participant experience.

I believe that one of the biggest challenges that the industry in the region faces is its business model. In general, entry fees are still relatively low compared to other parts of the world, partly because of the still emerging middle class and partly because of the point above relating to perceived value. This makes most events highly dependent on sponsors and government grants which creates significant risk should a sponsor not materialise or renew. Other challenges include the approval process and permits which varies hugely across the region both in terms of time taken and costs, also, the limited pool of experienced staff and volunteers in most countries and the significant operational challenges of delivering complex events.

In my experience working in Asia, where requirements can vary massively from country to country, a vital component to hosting a successful event is working with a reliable local partner who understands the cultural nuances and has a reliable network which includes key government agencies and reliable suppliers. I believe creating this partnership is of significant importance and overlooking it is the biggest misstep an organiser could make.

For example, a number of years ago, I was approached by a massively successful overseas concept offering me a licence for Asia and assuring me that they would be in ten markets in their first year. I cautioned them that was extremely optimistic and, in my opinion, highly unlikely but they were not prepared to listen. Years later they have delivered one average event and one terrible event.

I will be exploring this topic in depth when I deliver the closing keynote at the next edition of America’s largest running convention, Running USA in February 2018. Read more about my thoughts here: http://www.runningusa.org/speaker-series-chris-robb and if you’re interested to attend, tickets are available through their website: http://www.runningusa.org/running-usa-annual-conference. As a speaker, I have access to a limited number of discounted delegate passes. Please email me at chris@chrisrobb.asia if you are interested.

Opportunities for Mass Participation to Look over the Fence

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 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.


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.

The Power of Mass Participation Events as a Fundraising Vehicle

Mass participation events have long been used as a vehicle to raise massive amounts of money and awareness for a multitude of charities across the globe.

Many events such as the hugely successful Mother’s Day Classic in Australia and the Cancer Society’s Walk for a Cure have been specifically created and owned by charities. Some of the most iconic events, such as the London, New York and Chicago Marathons, include a strong charity component.

In the case of London, which is massively oversubscribed, charities pay the organisers a premium for race entries that they then onsell to participants who have missed out. Participants must commit to raising a minimum amount of funds for the charity. This has helped the event raise over 450 million pounds. There are some similar interesting insights into Chicago and New York City Marathons shared in this article.

As the industry continues to evolve, it creates interesting opportunities as well as challenges for fundraising.

I am sure there is hardly a week that passes for most of us without receiving shares and requests for fundraising support from our network across various social media platforms. The amplification of a cause or event can be massive compared to the pre-social media days and statistics seem to indicate that total contributions have increased significantly in recent years.

It’s not only the ability to create engagement and awareness that has changed but also the ease of making a contribution. The industry has spawned the growth of platforms such as Everyday Hero and Give Asia which make is easy for participants to set up their own fundraising pages and for supporters to make a contribution at the click of a mouse.

Long gone are the days of walking around the office or suburb haranguing friends and colleagues to sponsor you or spamming them with emails. In addition, the power of social media spreads the message and pool of potential donors on a global scale.

On the flip side, charities are facing a number of new challenges:
The sheer number of events and varied options for consumers with the growth in triathlons and cycling and new concepts such as Tough Mudder, Spartan, Color Run, Music Run and host of hardcore endurance events mean that competition for the fundraising dollar, participants and event dates are getting more intense. Some of the original charity events, particularly walks, have experienced declining numbers and in some cases disappeared completely.

Increased scrutiny from government regulators also creates challenges both with regard to how events can be structured as well as the time and resources that need to be allocated to compliance. For example, in Singapore, the 30:70 rule means that the cost of fundraising must not exceed 30% of the funds raised.

In Asia, the massive growth in mass participation events has spawned a number of charity events and the inclusion of a giving component into many existing events. The reality is that the dynamics can be quite different to other parts of the world. In some cultures, raising money for charity through events is not universally embraced. For example, a few years ago on the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore, we decided to use the ekiden team relay component to drive fundraising.

The 300 teams usually sold out within a matter of days. We required teams of six to make a minimum donation of $500 to a charity of their choice to qualify for an entry. There was significant backlash on social media and we ultimately only sold 230 teams.

Accountability is also a key question that is asked by both individual and corporate contributors as well as events that are looking to partner with a charity. Is the cause we are supporting worthwhile? Do they do good work? How will contributions be utilised? How do we communicate the impact that each participant will be making? With a number of high profile cases of misappropriated funds, donors in some countries are now more cautious.

An interesting, relatively new entrant to the giving space, is an amazing organization called Buy1GIVE1 (B1G1). The core concept being that for every transaction, businesses or events can create a “Giving Impact”. So it’s not about the amount of money raised but the number of impacts created. For example, an event may decide that for every participant that enters they will give drinking water to a family in Ethiopia or the gift of sight to a person in Bali or a school uniform to a child in India.

All charities are meticulously screened and the process of selecting a beneficiary from hundreds of charities across the globe is as simple as a few clicks of a mouse. B1G1 is a matter of weeks away from making its one hundred millionth giving impact.

At the upcoming Mass Participation Asia conference, we have decided to partner with B1G1 to create giving impacts from each registration to benefit villagers in Tigray, Ethiopia to access clean, disease-free water. The impact of such an essential human necessity will reduce their average daily water collection time, reduce child mortality rates and allows children to receive a proper education instead of spending their time collecting water.

Why Ethiopia? Working with B1G1, we have identified WellWishers Trust as the beneficiary because water is such an important element in any mass participation event and the fact that Ethiopia has produced so many top athletes made it an obvious choice.

If you have a story about fundraising and mass participation events, or why and how you picked a charity of choice, I would love to start a conversation by commenting below.

We are in the final stages of assembling an exceptional panel of speakers, which will also include those in the fundraising space, for the second edition of the conference in Bangkok on 29/30 November. Information and super early bird tickets available at http://massparticipationasia.com/

If you can’t make it to the conference but would still like to contribute towards the cause we are supporting, you are welcome to make a donation here: https://www.b1g1.com/projectdetail/285

Permit Denied

Approval to stage an event is one of the key assets of any rights holder/event owner and the refusal of a permit creates significant risks for multiple parties including not only the rights holder but also sponsors and of course participants.

From discussions with many event organisers and my personal experience, it seems that generally permits are getting harder to obtain and in many cities, more permits are required than in the past. This seems to be the combination of increased demand on venues from mass participation sports events and other community events together with increasingly stringent regulations from authorities.

Approval processes seem to vary hugely from country to country and often within cities and towns in the same country. Whilst many cities embrace mass participation events and recognise the value that they bring both in terms of economic impact and community engagement, feedback seems to suggest that many still see them as an annoyance and accordingly are in no hurry to facilitate the approval process.

One of the most common industry complaints I hear is the time it takes for formal approval and a lack of clarity with regard to exactly what is required to get final sign off. In many cities, the actual permit is not issued until a few weeks or days before the event. I have personally experienced a number of nerve-wracking occasions in Asia where the formal permit has only been provided the day before the event. An unfortunate by-product of this kind of situation is the unwanted distraction and crucial time wasted in the final event implementation stage.

A fantastic example of a city that has clear guidelines and processes in place and takes a collaborative approach to the permit process is Sydney. A legacy of the hugely successful 2000 Olympics was the continuation of the Central Sydney Operations Group (CSOG) which was initially formed to facilitate inter-agency collaboration. CSOG meets on a monthly basis and events have the opportunity to present their initial plans to all major government agencies and key city stakeholders such as the Opera House in one room. My experience over many years was a spirit of cooperation and collaboration whereby those present would help identify potential issues and work together to find practical solutions to help facilitate the approval process.

Whilst many event focused cities around the world have a similar “one-stop shop” model my sense is that the majority have a more ad-hoc approach meaning that applicants have to “do the rounds” from agency to agency. Sometimes, especially in developing markets, the requirements and guidelines are unclear and seem to vary from event to event.

Sometimes a global, regional or local event may add another layer to the permit process such as the unfortunate impact of a tragic accident at a dance party in Taiwan where coloured dye ignited and 15 people died. The knock-on impact meant that IMG were forced to cancel or postpone a number of their Color Run events in Asia and had to go through a rigorous testing and permit process before resuming.

At the upcoming Mass Participation Asia conference in Bangkok on 3 and 4 April we are delighted to have Jack Caress, CEO of Pacific Sports in the USA, joining us to discuss “The Biggest and Least Talked about Secret of the Mass Participation Industry – Permits”.

I recently spoke to Jack and he shared a number of thought provoking questions and observations.

Aside from some of the points that I have already made, Jack highlights a potential challenge for even long established events. “Events that have had a long history at a site can be susceptible to new requirements for fees, insurance, and sponsor restrictions which can sometimes have a significant impact on commercial viability.”

With a charity angle to many events and in a world where there seems to be a growing desire for people to create a giving impact, Jack poses an interesting question: “Is there an advantage in your markets for the not-for-profit or charitable cause events over those that are for-profit? Are the permits different?.”

Whilst the focus of permits is often related to those issued by government or city authorities an area that is equally important is that of the host venue. Jack believes that “Increasingly, there are opportunities for creative long-term strategies or approaches to venue permits that help to secure the value of event properties.”

With the pace of industry consolidation seemingly gathering momentum, the importance of permits highlights the key dimension of their intrinsic balance sheet value in addition to the already crucial annual approval.

It would seem that the best outcomes for a more streamlined and cohesive approvals process are likely to be achieved by collaboration between the industry and various government agencies to help facilitate a “one stop approach” wherever possible.

For more details on how to hear Jack Caress and an exciting line up of almost 50 speakers at Mass Participation Asia 2017, visit http://www.massparticipationasia.com.

What the Participants Told Us

One key to success in any business is the ability to listen to your customers.

Listening to participants was one of the central themes in an interesting article by Diccon Loy titled ‘Participation Innovation’ that I shared last week.
A great example of listening to participants and turning an industry model on its head recently took place in the race photography sector.

For a long time, participants have complained that official photos are too expensive and take too long to be available. To be fair, the industry has evolved tremendously. I remember moonlighting for one of the early players in Australia, who weeks after an event, used to mail out thousands of prints to participants on a sale or return basis. The process was hugely labour intensive and costly – hence the end price to the consumer was not cheap.

With the advent of digital technology and especially digital recognition combined with some fantastic innovation, key suppliers such as Marathon Photos from New Zealand make photos as well as short videos available within a few hours of the race but still at a relatively expensive price point. I have sometimes wondered, albeit with no clear understanding of the business model and the significant costs of software development, if the sector may have perhaps missed a trick in the digital era by not reducing pricing in exchange for volume.

Combining the consumer feedback with the desire for sponsors to engage in meaningful ways with participants and the massive power of social sharing, Pic2Go, an Israeli company that appears to be rapidly spreading across the globe have significantly disrupted the industry by creating an automated race photo sharing technology and a model whereby participants get the photos for free.

I recently spoke to Pic2Go’s CEO, Eitan Hefetz.

“Instead of the traditional race photo model, I believe race organizers should offer their participants the level of service they expect to get these days – sharing their race photos, fast and free”.

“By adding sponsor branding (to the photos) and allowing almost-instant uploads to social media, events can generate hundreds of thousands of organic impressions within 24 hours after the race, and a massive social engagement around the photos. This also provides full visibility on the generated impact and easy ROI measuring which sponsors can look forward to”.

The traditional business model generally benefits both the supplier and the event with the rights holder being paid either an up-front fee or royalty on each photo sold or sometimes a combination of both. With the Pic2Go model, the opportunity can be sold to sponsors as part of their core investment or potentially allocated to their activation budget. The costs can even be absorbed by the race organiser. Other suppliers have now also developed a similar sponsor integration model.

The Pic2Go example is one of many where mass participation sports have evolved tremendously in today͛s digital age. Participants are more aware than ever thanks to the internet, social media and informative wearables, events are embracing technology such as live mapping and major global brands in the technology space such as TCS and HERE Maps are partnering with events.

Innovation continues to happen on a daily basis and I am personally very excited for what the next ten years and beyond could bring – whether it is a new event concept, an app or technology that would turn the industry on its head or something as simple as a design tweak that could save events hundreds of thousands of dollars or man hours.

The Pic2Go technology was on display as part Mass Participation Asia (MPA) conference 2017 where Eitan had also presented on the opportunities of combining the participants’ desire to share their race experience with technology for a more effective and engaging sponsorship.

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