Tough Times for Tough Mudder Show Dark Future for Obstacle Racing
8 Jan, 2020By: Mary Helen Sprecher
What happens when a giant in the industry falls? The impact echoes through those left standing. Tough Mudder might not have hit the ground (at least not yet) but it is certainly staggering. And in its shaky footsteps is a dark path the obstacle industry is staring down. It's certainly not alone. The destinations that had arranged to host Mudder events in 2020 are likely just as jittery.
On Monday, Sporting Goods Business (SGB) reported that Spartan Race had announced the acquisition of an exclusive option to acquire Tough Mudder’s UK, Canadian and German events. It was seen as the first step in an effort to bring together a complete merger of the two obstacle course race leaders.
Only Tough Mudder seems to be a leader in name only lately. Tough Mudder, that once invincible brand, has fallen on, well, tough times recently.
Obstacle Racing Media noted yesterday that the troubles can be traced all the way back to just prior to the 2019 race season. In late 2018, Tough Mudder started having trouble paying its vendors. The problems came on the heels of two years of rapid expansion and TV deals – none of which seemed to bring in the much hoped-for ROI.
Even TMX, originally described by Tough Mudder as “an elite fitness competition,” and which had seemed to hold promise for the event, was put on a back burner by the organization.
Then it got serious by offending participants. In early 2019, Tough Mudder made the announcement it had removed prize money on all events.
An e-mail sent out to registrants read: “We've made the tough decision to remove prize money for Tough Mudder Race Series events in 2019. This includes Tougher Mudder, Toughest Mudder and World's Toughest Mudder events. This decision is the result of a conscious effort on the part of TMHQ to focus and reinvest in the core business, which is delivering world-class mass participation events. These events will still honor and celebrate top finishers in each category.”
Hint: Racers who are invested in the sport don’t want to hear that a brand isn’t investing in their prize money. It sends an enormous message –none of it good.
A subsequent e-mail detailed the end of Tough Mudder’s media partnership with CBS and noted that the group was “exploring more opportunities.”
By December 23, Tough Mudder had ceased to hold registration for its events – although its page for 2020 still showed a full roster of races with multiple events in 26 cities. And yesterday, Obstacle Racing Media noted it had heard CEO Kyle McLaughlin had resigned, “and had sent his staff home with uncertainty the offices would reopen.” On January 9, Bloomberg reported creditors are trying to push the organization into bankruptcy filings over unpaid bills.
Tough Mudder, once one of the most recognizable and strong brands in the obstacle race space – and perhaps in the event space as a whole – was sending out impossible-to-miss distress signals. To put it in Titantic terms, it’s going down and nobody wants to share the raft.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a shock that the spinning merry-go-round that was obstacle racing seems to be slowing. The markers have been in place for some time. In May, SDM reported on the fact that Running USA’s annual Race Trends Report indicated obstacle races and novelty races (theme races, costume races, etc.) were losing ground. In fact, the number of runners registering for organized races in the U.S. was down for the fifth year – running. (heh). And, it noted, the largest part of the decrease was a dramatic drop in participation in non-traditional races – the previously mentioned obstacle runs, theme runs and others. Those races declined 12 percent. (The only good news: traditional distances – including the 5K, 10K, and half marathon – all had increased year over year.)
From an outsider perspective, it appears that the families and beginning runners (who made up a good chunk of the market for themed runs, such as tutu runs and ugly sweater runs) as well as constant runners, are gravitating toward events that don’t attract as many individuals who are simply looking for a party. In addition, the so-called regular races provide an easier access point to the sport for those looking to get into racing quickly and simply (sign up, show up, run, go home).
Within the last few years, themed races have stumbled. One of the more stalwart, high-vis races, The Ugly Sweater Run, had announced in 2018 that it was retooling and that more information would be available in 2019 – which it never was; no races have been scheduled since that time. In late 2017, SDM reported that Disney had been sending out late notices of cancellations of theme races, leading to hard feelings among racers who had booked non-refundable airfare and hotel stays. (As of 2020, RunDisney had a list of races on its roster). And while Disney, which has a strong brand, has been able to move forward and keep good participation, other events have quietly thrown in the towel.
Events without all the trimmings (themes, post-race parties, beer and souvenirs), the so-called ‘regular races,’ have an undeniable advantage – they cost less to enter and they take up less time. They’re still offered every weekend and plenty of platforms are available to help the common runner find one. And, it might be noted, they put the emphasis back on the race itself and on running, rather than being a social event.
In addition, the former demographic for obstacle racing is aging. In 2014, research showed the average age of the obstacle race enthusiast was 29. A lot can happen in six years, apparently – in addition to lifestyle changes and sports injuries. At age 35, the individual who previously spent money to register for and travel to obstacle races may be more grounded in his or her career and family – and more likely to spend money in other areas (including fees for children to participate in sports programs and camps) than a race they see as self-indulgent. In addition, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association has seen a move toward casual, rather than core, participation, signifying a lowered desire of athletes to invest in organized sports and to travel to them.
Additionally, the demographic who spends money in the sports marketplace is changing. Generation Z, labeled “the key to household spending,” is gaining prominence. They may not be as interested in what they consider to be frivolous investments, considering the forces that shaped them as they grew up. It is incumbent upon event owners to give a better view of where registration dollars go and what they pay for – because seeing that their investment goes to fund a party at the finish line isn’t going to be acceptable to this crowd.
The obstacle race market has been in a state of flux over the years. Enthusiasts say it’s evolving; others say it has peaked as a novelty and is contracting. Obstacle Racing Media wrote this excellent synopsis of the remaining brands and whether they are growing, remaining stable – or on the ropes.
At the moment, there is no word as to whether destinations that have signed up to host events in 2020 have been kept in the loop of communication regarding problems with Tough Mudder. These include (in order of listing) College Station, Texas; Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Missouri (Wright City), Michigan (Oxford), Virginia (Haymarket), Whistler, Wisconsin (Slinger), Boston, Twin Cities (Hugo, Minnesota), Indiana (Columbus), Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Tri-State (Englishtown, New Jersey), Toronto, Seattle, Nashville, Sonoma, Las Vegas, Dallas, Southern California, (Lake Elsinore, a part of Riverside), Central Florida (Bartow, in Polk County) and Arizona (Avondale, near Phoenix). Go to any of these websites and try to register and you get an error message.
SDM reached out to several of the destinations to find out whether Tough Mudder had been in communication with them – but did not receive a response by press time.
As for Tough Mudder, its future remains unclear. Kyle McLaughlin, in his final message to racers, noted he had resigned “not because I wanted to, but because I was left with no choice given the circumstances. My hands had been tied, and I was left without the ability to effectively lead the company or influence a positive outcome of an ongoing negotiation between Tough Mudder’s shareholders and Active Networks.”
(Side note, oh, ouch). But despite McLaughlin’s feel-good note that “Tough Mudder has always been about overcoming obstacles as a team,” it was impossible to miss the end plea to racers to “support the TMHQ team, who needs this community’s strength right now. And use your voice, your accounts, your handles and your forums to tell your Tough Mudder story and show everyone that the world is a better place with Tough Mudder in it.”
Unfortunately, social media doesn’t solve problems; it tends to aggravate them. It will be up to Tough Mudder, Spartan – and the enthusiasts of obstacle racing – to find a way forward, if one exists.