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Is Running Out of Gas? Studies Show It’s Slowing Down

18 May, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
As Millennials Flock to Other Forms of Fitness, Races and Fun Runs See a Decline in Numbers

Is running out of gas?

It appears so, at least on the frontlines. While recreational 5Ks are still popular, there’s evidence the trend is shifting to other forms of exercise and that Millennials are leading that charge. And while there are more running events being offered, there is less participation overall.

According to a recently released study in Running USA, the so-called ‘second running boom’ that began in the 90s (the first was in the 70s) appears to be backing off as runners retreat from racing as a whole. After more than two decades of consistent and often double-digit increases, the number of recreational athletes completing road races declined for the second straight year in 2015.

The reduction, say researchers, was by a more significant margin than in 2014, when finisher totals edged down one percent.

While the number of races increased by 2,300 from 2014 to 2015, the number of races with 30,000 or more finishers went down from a total of nine in 2014 to six in 2015, according to the Running USA Largest Road Races Report. In addition, every race distance saw a decline of at least 3 percent, with the marathon and 5K distances seeing  about eight percent falloff and the 10K a little less than nine percent.

But, says an article in the Wall Street Journal, it’s not obesity and inactivity that is wooing people off the streets; it’s more varied forms of exercise. Baby boomers, who are starting to suffer from joint problems, as well as Millennials, who are now the largest generation, are fueling the proliferation of studios that specialize in everything from cycling, yoga, CrossFit and boxing to ballet barre workouts, boot camp and weight training.

As it turns out, it’s the variety they crave in a workout, not just the results. And the industry has responded, creating an ever-increasing number of options for indoor exercise that incorporates various forms of fitness. The Wall Street Journal noted the number of people in the U.S. who belonged to health clubs increased 8% between 2012 and 2014, or by nearly 4 million, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

Sports events that capitalize on such growth can similarly see success. The growth of the CrossFit Open has outpaced every other sporting competition in history, according to an article in The Examiner. The article further noted that although the first competition in 2007 attracted just a few thousand participants and spectators, registration has now grown from 26,000 in 2011, to 69,370 in 2012, 138,619 in 2013, 209,585 in 2014 and exceeded 270,000 in 2015.

Even spectator space is at a premium. This year, tickets to the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games at the StubHub Center in Carson, California, in July will only be sold in multi-day packages, starting at $75 for a three-day, mid-week general admission to preliminary events and juniors competitions. At the top end, all event access with front row seats will cost $500 per spectator. So the CrossFit Games organizers are well-positioned to collect about $250 per spectator. If over 90 percent of available tickets are sold, a realistic expectation, ticket revenues alone will exceed $6 million.

As an aside: wow.

Because obstacle races involve multiple types of challenges, including climbing, jumping and swimming, it would be natural to think these would boom. However, Running USA also notes that much of the decline in race registration numbers over the past year came from shrinking numbers in the OCR (obstacle course races) sector. Between race organizations going out of business (an ongoing problem in the industry) and even qualified and proven events seeing a 30-plus percent decrease decline in finisher totals, over one million fewer runners participated in OCR races in 2015. (The category includes events with components like mud or paint, fitness challenges, and other creative twists.)

In fact, one owner of non-traditional events, the Glow Run, noting its decreasing numbers, recently instituted a new event, this involving night yoga that used glow-in-the-dark props and DJs with music. The Wall Street Journal article noted its debut attracted 8,000 people in four different cities and the company intends to expand it.

Still, running remains a good point of entry into the sports and fitness world, with many individuals using local 5Ks as their first exercise goal. 5K races also remain an important fundraiser for local charities and groups, as well as a popular group activity around holidays. Longer distance races, such as the marathon, continue to be popular, with runners continually trying to qualify for events like the Boston Marathon.

The economic impact of running also remains strong. According to Fortune, in 2015, IBISWorld estimated the road running industry to be valued at $1.4 billion, which is nearly the amount of ticket revenue the NFL saw in 2015 and is $500 million more than the NCAA earned in revenue in 2015.

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