Up and Running: The Rise of the Themed Road Race

The smart principle behind The Color Run and Tough Mudder's explosive growth.

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The Color Run is a 5K race in which participants are doused with colored powders after each lap.

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Racing used to be a straightforward affair for runners, involving little more than a bib, a stopwatch and the directive to get from the starting line to the finish line as fast as possible.

Now, racing can involve escaping from zombies, getting spattered with colored powder, crawling through mud or listening to over two dozen rock bands perform along a single course. The proliferation of massive themed-racing tours is a relatively new phenomenon and might be considered a case study in economies of scale, as companies grow and improve their races. As a sport, running is experiencing tremendous growth, and these novel racing series are feeding off of the recent boom, both benefiting from the new interest in running and inspiring new athletes.

Among the recent spate of new racing series, a few leaders have emerged from the pack. The Color Run, a 5K race in which participants are doused with colored powders, held its first event in January 2012, quickly spreading to 50 cities and signing up 600,000 participants over the year. This year, The Color Run will hold events in 120 U.S. cities and 30 countries, with an anticipated 1 million runners. The zombie-themed Run for Your Lives held its first race in 2011 and expects 21 races this year, with an estimated 150,000 participants. Obstacle series Tough Mudder started with three races in 2010 and has grown to include 53 events worldwide in 2013. Rock 'n' Roll Marathons, which feature race courses lined with bands and cheer squads, operated just five races in 2007 and will operate 30, including five in Europe, in 2013.

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Though these examples vary widely, these series represent a new theme in running: the selling of an experience beyond the accomplishment of crossing the finish line. Replicating that experience in many different cities means greater revenue growth.

"What's gone on in the last decade or so, is that the space was really fragmented. There was a host of local events, and you had some bigger marathons – the Marine Corps, the New York, Boston, that would appeal to various groups...and then you had some local marathons," says Scott Rosner, sports business professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. "And then we started to see some rollups."

The Color Run

Those "rollups" include the Rock 'N' Roll series' taking over local marathons as the company built its racing roster, which includes acquired events as well as some built from the ground up. According to Scott Dickey, president and CEO of Competitor Group, the company that owns Rock 'n' Roll series, his events make up 15 percent of the total marathon and half-marathon market.

"When we started back in 2007, there was really no market leader. There was an enormous amount of fragmentation," says Dickey. "What we've been able to do is take advantage of some of that fragmentation but also really develop a brand."

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Other long-distance series have sprouted up alongside Rock 'n' Roll, like the Diva Half Marathon and Women's Half Marathon series. The explosive growth of all of these racing series is not simply because they all discovered a new business strategy. Rather, a massive boom in running's popularity has given races larger customer bases, meaning more room for large series and more potential for growth.According to industry tracking organization Running USA, the number of road race finishers tripled in just over two decades, from 4.8 million in 1990 to nearly 14 million in 2011. Women have played a huge part in this growth, with their numbers growing more than sixfold over the same period.

(Running USA)

Of course, any type of race, whether local or in a national series, could accommodate new runners. But with size comes efficiency, explains Dickey.

"With scale comes leverage, with leverage comes reduced operating expenses," says Dickey. "Bibs, chips, t-shirts – once you get to a certain amount of scale, you drive those costs down: port-a-johns, truck rentals, barricades."