Thursday, November 20, 2014

Have Races Reached The Saturation Point?

As I sit here waiting to watch a Kansas City Chiefs game on Thursday night, it's very apparent to me that the NFL is over-exposed and endangered.  No, not because of its 699 arrests since the year 2000 (source), which is a surprisingly lower rate than the National average of men in the same demographic, or because of it's current "Let's Pretend We Care About Women" campaign that was only started because they were backed into a corner after years and years and years and years of turning a blind black and blue eye to domestic violence ... no, it's over-exposed because there are just too many darn games on during the week.  I mean seriously ... THURSDAY???  Their embarrassingly low mid-week TV ratings prove that no one is watching the NFL except for Sunday afternoon.  And partly because of the NFL's greed, and an attempt to control viewership seemingly everyday of the week, I predict that we'll see a sharp decline in it's popularity in a few years.  I say "partly" because the impending decline will also be related to parents taking their children out of football at an increasing rate, and thus youth football enrollment plummeting.  But since I'm not a huge NFL fan, it won't bother me either way.

It seems that running has followed a similar meteoric climb in popularity over the past few years, at almost the exact same time-frame as the NFL. And as participation has grown, more and more races have cropped up.  In almost every city in America, there is some sort of foot race every single weekend throughout the year.  Heck, even in the relatively short 6-7 years I've been actively racing, it seems races have doubled.

While running is at an all-time height in popularity, it shouldn't be overlooked that the reason there are so many races is that charitable organizations view them as a great way to raise money.  That may or may not be true, and definitely NOT true according to a study by Indiana University (source) which suggests that races only raise about $3.20 for every $1 spent, compared to upwards of $20 to $1 ratios by other traditional means such as phone solicitations and capital campaigns.  But never the less, non-profit groups spend a lot of time planning, marketing, and executing races.

But with the ever increasing popularity of running, it seems to me that many races have morphed into something more than just, well ... running.  Most local 5K's now feature some sort of gimmick like being sprayed with color, wearing fake mustaches, avoiding being tagged by zombies, and costume galas for every season.  Additionally, I've noticed a growing number of races that highlight and advertise an "in race" challenge, such as fastest up the mountain, most miles ran at even splits, or veering off the race path for "the scenic route", which of course is accompanied by an additional medal.  And at the risk of sounding like an old-timer or traditionalist, which I certainly am not, I can't help but wonder why it's not enough just to run ... and only run, in a race anymore.

To answer my own question, I think there are two reasons in play.  First, I think races are trying to attract more and more "non-runners", in an attempt to generate more revenue.  Races are increasingly marketing to people who typically would not spend their money to run a race with no frills.  This is also why every race now has bigger and brighter medals, and more and more give-aways. I personally don't see anything wrong with this, but it's apparent that race directors are under the impression that if they don't make their race unique, or filled with free stuff, people might not show up, which ties into reason number two ...

... there are just so many races, everyone has to have a gimmick to stand out.  Even if race directors were to seek only seasoned runners, there's just so much competition for household recreational dollars, and thus a borderline saturation of races every weekend.  I know personally, as much as my wife and I like to run races, we often have to choose between runs that fall on the same day.  And honestly, if it's between a race I've done before, and a new race with something that interests me, like an "in race" challenge, I'll choose the latter.

Most marketing studies show that just before a product begins to decline in popularity or revenue, it often reaches a saturation point, and thus looses appeal to it's target audience.  With races seemingly "reaching" more and more out of the traditional running realm, I wonder if we're near the saturation point with these events.  I just can't imagine that we'll continue to see the same kind of increase in race registration over the next few years.  And accordingly, I think many of the upstart local 5K's will begin to fade a little as well.

There's an ebb and flow with almost everything in life.  High points and low points.  And accordingly, when a product or service reaches it's peak, there's obviously no where to go but down.  And while I think we're probably a few years away from this decline in running, I think we're probably headed that way.  But who knows, I'm not an expert ... it's just something to think about.
... be great today!  

27 comments:

  1. Love this post Jim!!! I am a bit of a curmudgeon on races and medals and the collection of the number of races and medals. The era of plentiful races will turn, its a matter of time. Thank you, for this post.

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  2. I thinks so too Beth - I started thinking about it this weekend when I was organizing some old medals and notices how much bigger and more numerous they got, the newer they were.

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  3. First of all, I heartily agree with you about the NFL. I cannot stand this new Thursday set up! And frankly, the NFL network is the worst ever. I was happy when NFL was just Sundays: I don't have all week to follow games, and it messes up my fantasy football. I have to set my freaking line up on WEDNESDAY!
    Second, yeah - too many races. Just too many. In my area, there can be three or four races on a given weekend, and that dilutes the competition. It's hard to maintain rivalries, gauge improvements, or truly compete when your top 15 or 20 runners are split amongst four races. And it makes it tough for me to keep track of all the races and accurately plan my racing calendar!

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    1. TRUTH about setting the lineup on Wednesday, we have like one day to pick up players off the waiver wire. Wait ... am I talking Fantasy Football with you??? Man, I didn't see that coming! The only good think about watered down races is the increased chance of an age group award which I will shamelessly display in my basement as if I were a great runner, ha!

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  4. Hm. Not sure. In a tri this summer they give an expensive wetsuit to the exact middle person and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It wasn't something you could try for and I didn't even have a chance at the middle but I still loved it. I kind of think anything that makes MORE people active is good.

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    1. AJH you read my blog enough to know that I am ALWAYS in favor of more participation and activity, regardless of what means necessary - hopefully that point was lost here. It was really just more an observation that there seem to be a boat-load of races now-a-days that I'm not sure can be sustained. But yes, I too kind of think anything that makes MORE people active is good.

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  5. More races because far more people are professional race directors.

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    1. Yeah it seems like a lot of folks do it full time

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  6. I started running in the early 70s (71 to be exact) and there was quite the boom in the late 70s/early 80s (yes I am old) It goes in waves I believe and I have to agree venues are trying to attract those who are first timers. When I was running marathons/half marys and 10ks back then there were no 5:30 marathoners, 3:00 half-marathoners and if you went over an hour...well, the course was pretty much closed down and you were on your own. I just returned from Ironman Az as a volunteer (have raced it before) and my friend and I were shocked to see so many $5000+ bikes racked after the swim. These people never made the cut-off, or freaked out in the open water/mass start so DNFed (or never started). We are getting many more of these types of entrants...I don't "get" it. And whatever. But I wouldn't want to be a race director these days having to accommodate those that don't "pony up" to the challenge...my opinion.

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    1. It definitely seems like more of a "social" event. For example, when the KC Royals were bad for YEARS AND YEARS, you would only have hardcore baseball fans like myself at the stadium. But when they get good, they get more popular, and it draws many who are just peripheral fans - which is fine, in my opinion. But you definitely notice a different crowd when something grows in popularity ... I guess with all things.

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  7. Hi Jim,

    You aren't alone in your sentiment. I think there is certainly a breed of races that have a gimmick attached to them. That's fine, in my opinion, so long as you know what you are getting into when you sign up. I think with the growth of running there is a huge segment of the running population that enjoy destination races or race-cations if you want. I am guilty of that too but at the same time, you will never find me at a Color Run or even some of these untimed obstacle runs.

    We have the same problem here in northern Utah. The race market is flooded. You can pretty much do a half marathon nearly every weekend and sometimes there are 2 or 3 in the same weekend. Half a dozen years ago, I remember actually having to taper / prepare / train for a half -- now I just do them because I am constantly running them. I used to also live and die by my 5K time -- now, they seem like a lot of work to get up, show up, and race for 20-some odd minutes. I think the half marathon has completely dominated the atmosphere.

    We also have a ton of races in exotic locations. It certainly makes it interesting to have the ability to run down a canyon for a half marathon, for instance. I've truly run in some remarkable places. In the past, I would've NEVER stopped to take a photo in the middle of a race (can you imagine Ryan Hall stopping in the middle of the Boston Marathon?) but I've found myself guilty of that of late.

    Also, I've seen races get smaller and smaller because more people are at different races. They all cannibalize each other.

    I think in the long term, though, the races that offer the best value and have high-quality will win out. There are so many people blogging and writing about their race experiences that word gets around about races that don't measure up. The market will certainly sort this out and I don't think we have to worry too much about races or runners disappearing.

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    1. I think you hit the nail on the head with them "cannibalizing" each other, Eddie. There's just so many to choose from, and you're right, sooner or later the market will somehow "correct" itself.

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  8. "Let's pretend we care about women" campaign. LOLed at that!

    I think we could be approaching saturation. I know of a few races that have folded, or that are not selling out as quickly as in the past. And the gimmicky stuff is crazy, not to mention expensive for participants to cover via race fees. I honestly wouldn't mind seeing a bit of a shake out and seeing races get back to being races, plain and simple. But that's from an old lady's perspective, who is probably out of touch!

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    1. The gimmick races definitely aren't for me Amanda, but I don't mind them - and if you're old, then I'm ancient, my friend!

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    2. She's in her 40s...I am in my 60s...she is NOT old (and either am I) but I agree with the let's RACE a RACE mentality!

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  9. I agree Jim...

    and a very well thought out and written post.

    In the old days (15-20 years ago), in my city, if you were a serious runner you ran in the local Grand Prix... competed a couple of times a month against the same people... that was really cool. the only drawback was that there was 1 Marathon, and maybe two halves, per year that wasn't so far away that you would need to get a hotel.

    There is good and bad in each scenario.

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    1. Thanks Michael, one of the big positives about so many races is there seems to always be one to choose from

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  10. I've had similar thoughts lately, especially about 5Ks. They're not "runs" so much as "events" that you can run in, if you want to. I think Head for the Cure (in OP) had more walkers than runners this year. Fine for them. And fine for the charity. But I'm there for the running, not the event. I have pretty much decided not to do any more 5Ks for this reason. I'm tired of dodging around six women in tutus, walking abreast and angry if I try to get around them. (I realize that sounds elitist -- I'm not even a fast runner.) I've been looking for more half marathons since that takes a far greater commitment to running.

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    1. I don't think that sounds elitist Paul, I sometimes have the same thought when I'm in the last few miles of a marathon ... when I'm dying, and there's a social 5K roadblock at the waterstops. I think it's great that they're out there, but maybe a tad bit more awareness of a 45 year old man who's legs are killing him, would be nice. Maybe just provide a clear path that I don't have to go around. Please and thank you.

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  11. As to charity events, I think one way that these are an effective fund-raising strategy is that people can basically pay what they would pay anyway (or maybe slightly more) and feel like they're getting double value (race + supporting a cause). For myself, I'm very unlikely to donate to a fund drive or phone solicitation, but I do plenty of races.

    I'm very not into the "event" races like color run, tough bidder, etc, but IMHO if they pull in new runners, more power to them. My group of friends has leaned more towards free/cheap grassroots races, but usually people aren't drawn to something like that until they've experienced some running success (finishing a race) elsewhere.

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    1. I agree 100% Kate, ahj's comments above made me think maybe I didn't provide enough context to the post ... but I definitely agree that they are a GREAT tool to possibly get some folks active who otherwise wouldn't run a race. They're not for me because I'm a grouchy, not fun, old man ... but all in all, I think they are great!

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  12. This doesn't seem to be such a big problem over here. Where the winter months can be fairly busy as far as races are concerned, there are times of the year where it's a struggle to find anything on. Rarely, though, do I have to sacrifice one race for another even in the cooler months unless I want to travel interstate.

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    1. That's interesting Char, I would have figured you had the exact same scenario - for example in Kansas City alone, there are probably an average 4-5 5K's per month, and probably closer to 10 per month during the summer months

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  13. Oh Jim there are WAY more than 4-5 5K's per month - there are 4-5 5K's per WEEKEND in Kansas City - especially during the summer. 2 years ago I did 3 5K's in a single day - which was a little tricky timing-wise, but doable. I agree with you that there is a saturation point coming, and frankly that makes me sad - but I also agree that whatever RD's can do to get people out, I'm all in favor of!

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    1. Yeah, that was probably a conservative estimate Brooks - three 5K's in one day is AWESOME!!! I might have to steal your idea!

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  14. It does seem that way with the gimmicky races to be sure! Maybe races in general too... Now that I think about it there are a lot to choose from any given weekend here in Atlanta. I just looked up races from last weekend. I counted 21 to choose from in GA last Saturday. It seems the same with triathlon too. A few key races still sell out super quick but ones that traditionally would sell out in minutes now take several days or longer.

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  15. Yeah Karen, I think the larger races are here to stay for a while, but I think some of the pop-up 5K's will start to fade before too long

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