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What’s the role of competition in the business of Adventure Racing?

All the recent discussion around what a national organization for AR should look like (read the Facebook threads here, here, and here) has made me think a lot about the role of competition in AR. Not competition in the sport, but rather the business competition between AR and other sports, as well between the numerous AR companies. I’ve never been an RD, but I pay attention to the sport a fair bit, so I wanted to write down all the thoughts rattling around in my head and share my $.02.

am I too late to add my $.02?

On the whole, I’m in favor of MORE competition intra-AR (meaning between the various AR organizations). I was one of the few who voted in favor of a for-profit structure to any national AR organization on the recent survey. I know that seems crazy at first, given how the sport has shrunk since its heyday and we lose a couple AR organizations every year. And there’s definitely a perception that if an organization is not-for-profit, it’s altruistic, but if it’s for-profit, it can be misguided and prioritize profit over what’s best for the sport (not to mention the bad taste some folks have in their mouths from previous for-profit AR efforts). I know there are many AR organizations in the US that are tied to various altruistic causes as well, donating all or some of their profits to charities or funding sponsorships to help kids get outdoors. Supporting those causes is wonderful and helps make me proud to be an adventure racer. But not-for-profit doesn’t automatically mean good (heck, the NFL is a non-profit organization. Talk about a tax dodge!)  I think there’s some merit to more marketplace forces within AR, so a blanket belief that the sport shouldn’t be motivated by making money isn’t good for its long-term health. I look forward to the smart critiques of my thoughts from everyone who sees it from other angles.

What adventure racers are like when they visit REI, or when they’re deciding what sport to spend their $$$ on

Bottom line:  People vote with their wallets. They spend their money (and their time, which is MORE valuable than money) on the passions they care the most about. People intentionally prioritize what they do with their free time, so if they are doing AR, they are choosing NOT to do another activity at the same time. Same when they choose to do a trail run INSTEAD of an AR (or coach their kid’s soccer game or go hunting or binge Game of Thrones).

So I reckon that the activity, event, or sport that provides the best return on investment (money and time) is the one where the customer spends the most and prioritizes over the others. In order to provide the greatest ROI, these events all compete among each other and their primary method of competing is by elevating the experience provided to the customer. More swag, more drone videos, more fun, more ADVENTURE, whatever the variable might be that can be improved on so that the event better serves the customer. Thus a virtuous cycle is born, as the customer is more apt to return to that event/sport/activity, boosting attendance and profit for the event, which (if ran correctly), is re-invested to further improve the same variables that lured the customer away from other activities. This is how organizations transform from a group of friends hosting a race to a professional organization with excellent marketing and sales funnels, strong operational execution, and clear, long-term vision.

it should work something like this

Some AR organizations are amateur, others are professional (I’m defining amateur in AR as not being the primary revenue stream for the people putting on the race(s), professional as it is. While there is a definite correlation between the professional organizations and the quality of their work, I do not mean that amateur organizations do only poor quality work and professional ones do only good work, far from it). If the sport is to survive, let alone thrive, we need more of the latter than the former. Otherwise, we just can’t compete against all those other events/sports that our target demographics do. There’s too much money being thrown at the type of folks who like AR from other sports, because, in order to like AR, you have to like a lot of outdoor sports. AR is competing against trail running, mountain biking, orienteering, kayaking, obstacle course racing, off-road triathlon, and lots of other sports/activities in trying to attract and retain customers. There are a couple big companies (Adventure Enablers, FLX, Michigan AR, All Out, etc.) that are doing this full time and their resources/efforts reflect it in the level of professionalism that they bring. They are also the ones securing the level of sponsorship necessary to give themselves stable injections of revenue not attached to race attendance. This kind of free cash flow provides them greater security to try to new races, spend more on marketing, and pay more employees, all of which just helps their virtuous business cycle spin faster.

But for those race organization that aren’t full-time, and are still groups of friends or individuals who just love the sport that throw on 1 or 2 races a year, we face a problem. They aren’t doing enough business to make it a full-time job. Or they don’t want it to be a full-time job. There’s plenty of efforts taking place in this sport that are motivated purely by “love of the game” and God bless ’em for doing it. But there’s a gap between the levels of work exerted from “love of the game” vs the level that comes from earning your primary paycheck. If you’re putting on races because you love AR or it’s a small side income, the effort you put into strong marketing campaigns, operational excellence, and customer insight & analysis won’t match the effort of the professional organizations. They simply can’t, as a matter of the time dedicated to the work. A full-time employee of an AR organization will run circles around a part-timer who’s trying to put on a race on top of manage all of the other priorities in their life.

RDs the night before the race

So when there’s only one AR organization in a geographic region, why would that organization go the extra mile to elevate their performance when they essentially have a monopoly? If they establish a base of semi-regular customers, they don’t really need to developing growth drivers like increased marketing spend, customer acquisition funnels, improved post-race experiences, big sponsors, etc. because they have a captive audience.  If it’s a professional organization, this might be okay, because they SHOULD be delivering high-quality events and services. But when it’s an amateur organization and it’s the only ‘show in town’ for AR, it can mean they aren’t growing, instead just staying status quo. We don’t need status quo, we need growth, otherwise, it’s game over for AR. One organization’s level of effort to grow their races’ attendance directly impacts the entire sport of AR in North America because that’s how small of a sport we are.

If you read our work early this year from the first ever AR Census, you know we face a potential tidal wave of retirements from the sport within the next decade, as the largest age demographic is 40-50-year-olds and the second largest is 50-60-year-olds. We need new and younger racers, or we’re in trouble. To get them, we need organizations to be making significant revenue so they can, in turn, re-invest it into their organization, building that virtuous cycle that I spoke about earlier.We can’t do it when we succumb to expecting the “same ol’ crew” will show up at the races and don’t have strong inbound marketing pipelines that draw in new racers. The best way I can think of getting this to happen, barring the creation of a strong national federation, is additional competition between race organizations. If we break up these quasi-monopolies that are happening for AR organizations, maybe the increasing competition will force more investment and innovation.

I know this is kind of sounding harsh at the moment. RDs work really, really hard putting on fun courses and I haven’t ever met an RD who didn’t love the sport of AR more than I do. I am so thankful for all of the RDs who help keep carrying the torch for the sport. And now it sounds like I’m saying these AR organizations should face additional market pressure, not just from all the other sports and activities that compete for adventure racers’ time and money, but also from more AR companies. I sincerely doubt any of my friends who are RDs will agree with the idea that they need to face MORE competition on top of all the other sports that vie for their racers’ attention and wallets.  And it probably sounds like I’m attacking the folks who aren’t running their AR organizations full time, spitting in the faces of those who do AR because they love AR. I hope it’s not coming across like that. If you’ve read anything here at ARHub, you should know I run this site based off the belief that the best practices of our sport can be better shared in order to help the sport grow, from helping make better racers to better races. But running an AR company can’t just be about building kickass courses. That’s looking internally at the sport when we really need to focus externally on the business too. Our sport’s existence is dependant on a loose confederation of RDs with mixed levels of motivation. It’s because I love this sport that I want so badly to see the organizations that aren’t delivering high-quality services and products to elevate their game. Competition is how I see this happening.

Frame all this work done by RDs in the context of the broader discussion about a national organization (you read those FB threads, right?) Without some federation that is actively investing in marketing the sport to a broader audience, each AR organization is responsible for the entire marketing funnel, all the way from initial awareness to conversion to retention. It’s too much for any organization except for those few professional ones with full-time employees. So the amateur organizations revert to covering the ground that they can with the resources they have, relying on their core customers to keep coming back, and when possible, try some marketing efforts to try and bring in new folks. Sometimes it works. Other times, it doesn’t.

Imagine trying to manage this entire marketing funnel on top of trying to set course, get permits, make maps, etc.!

I like to compare the competition during races to the competition between AR organizations to be a worthwhile method of illuminating this argument. Sometimes, during a race, we’re totally self-powered. We’re doing the sport we love, enjoying ourselves in the great outdoors, and having a blast. In this way, we’re motivated intrinsically, much like many AR organizations are. Not focused specifically on the results, but more so the enjoyable journey. Other times, we’re motivated by trying to beat our friends/rivals, trying to catch that other team that keeps beating you to the next CP (f*&^ing Yogaslackers!!!), or trying to get some distance from the team that’s nipping at your heals. This is when external, or extrinsic, motivation works in our favor, much like the competition between various organizations (both AR and otherwise) help spur us to go the extra mile in delivering better services and support to our racers. Rare is the racer (or race organization) that is 100% motivated by just internal or external methods. Most of us are a mix of both, and we change depending on how many factors are impacting us. Same with the motivation that fuels how a race organization conducts itself.

I’ve seen both extremes of how an organization can run itself. I went from 10 years in the active military, which, when you think about it, has a 100% monopoly on the type of work it does within the US. We face no market forces that drive us to innovate or adapt. Without going down a rabbit hole, that has gotten us into some trouble over the years… Then after 10 years in the military, I joined one of the most market-driven companies on the face of the planet (hint – we’re a bookstore in Seattle that may or may not be taking over the world). So I’ve seen both sides of the coin. All AR organizations lie somewhere in the middle – not growth driven at any cost, but also not totally immune to the whims of customer purchase behavior. The thrust of my argument is that we could all slide just a tad towards the growth-driven side of the spectrum and be better for it.

We need AR organizations to make more money so that putting on the sport’s events are worth their time and financially viable. I see this happening by either injecting more competition into the sport, forcing organizers to elevate their business game to provide better services, or we find a way of growing the sport holistically, a “rising tide lifts all boats” kind of strategy that can somehow funnel enough new racers into the sport on a consistent basis. That’s where a national federation falls into the picture, as that’s the only way I can see us collectively getting the level of growth we need and attracting the sponsorship of major outdoor brands. It ain’t going to be easy if we choose option B.

Maybe the ideal answer is where a national federation for AR handles all the broad awareness marketing on behalf of all the race organizations, freeing them to focus down on customer acquisition and retention. If a federal org is teaching people what AR is, then the local companies can focus more on the “come to my race” aspect instead of the education piece. If this happens, the pressure on the amateur companies is eased a bit, and hopefully, lets them spend more time on the now-reduced list of priorities, thus driving growth more. A national federation can also provide stronger support to help launch new races from existing AR organizations and help build new AR organizations.

But that’s a lot of “what ifs” and not a lot of concrete solutions to solve immediate problems. Nobody is going to swoop down and fix the systemic issues the AR ecosystem has all by their lonesome, just like no sudden federation will somehow implement all of our long sought-after features and systems. We need a bridge between the problems we face now and the future (we hope) is coming. And that, at least in my eyes, is forcing higher degrees of professionalism in our events via increased competition.

Probably the biggest flaw that I spot in this line of thinking is assuming that adventure racers are relatively fungible. We’re a rare breed, and as the census from early this year shows, there’s a subset of us who will prioritize AR over everything else. But with so few of us, increased competition among the organizations could stretch a thin population even thinner, and wind up forcing more organizations to close up shop than actually helping drive innovation and growth. On top of that, I could totally be off base in terms of the competition the race organizations are already facing. Maybe even the professional companies are barely hanging on by a thread and the amateur ones are all losing money. If that’s the case, we’ve got bigger problems than this article is talking about. And frankly, I’m sure most of us aren’t keen to get into customer acquisition battles with other race organizations nearby, many of whom are our friends. No easy answers here, that’s for sure.

Is the answer then to draw boundaries and keep gentlemen’s agreements to not move into each other’s markets? I hope not because that’s just making the status quo even more cemented and less innovation-driven, like some sort of AR gerrymandering. Or do we let the AR ecosystem naturally manage itself, letting the strong grow while those who are in it for just the ‘love the game’ come and go based on their levels of interest of motivation? I still say no, because that’s again letting the status quo happen.

My closing thoughts, in one picture:

apologies for those who can actually photoshop

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