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  • OpEd: Mass Participation Sports -- A Force For Good, in Need of Rescue


    by Lucy Owen

    IRONMAN events, the London Triathlon, and the six Abbott World Marathon Majors of London, Berlin, New York City, Boston, Chicago and Tokyo, comprise a brief list of mass participation events that have been cancelled, postponed or restricted as a result of Covid-19. It’s one that continues to grow as waves of the pandemic peak and resurface in different territories. In mid-August, the London marathon became the latest in a long line to limit its field to elite competitors only.

    And that list doesn’t even account for the multiple small, regional or localized events that traditionally fill the calendar almost every weekend, in every country across the globe.

    It was early on that various national governments decided to put a stop to such events, and on the surface it’s easy to see why. The term ‘mass participation’ alone conveys a very real threat for the spread of a viral pandemic.

    Yet, as recent months have highlighted, sport unites us, and with mass participation sports there are no barriers. A true platform for positive social wellbeing, it welcomes individuals and families of all cultures to participate without the requirement or expense of a membership. For our mental and physical wellbeing too, it enables us to focus on and enjoy the simple act of movement and frees many of us from our day-to-day anxieties.

    Now though, for what has long been recognized as a collective force for good, bringing together a diverse community with a common goal, a positive outlook and often a charitable cause to support, the future is uncertain.

    In the UK, it was recently reported that half of all mass participation event organizers expect a 50% revenue loss – an insight drawn from a survey of 2,600 organizers, with some fearing that their businesses will not survive the crisis. In the US, too, the Endurance Sport Coalition, an organisation representing the likes of Ironman, Spartan Events and USA Triathlons, shared its concerns. They anticipate that nearly 80% of all associated businesses and event organizers in the US will disappear before the end of the year without funding support – a fate they’re desperate to resolve before it becomes conclusive.

    But whilst events have been cancelled across the globe, we’re witnessing a participation revival, welcoming beginners, returning veterans and athletes of different sports altogether. As gyms began to shut and team or contact sports faced restrictions, those that sought to maintain their health and fitness during the peak of the pandemic took to the great outdoors, and often that involved running, cycling or swimming.

    In fact, physical activity increased 88% during lockdown (based on 12.9k surveyed in 139 countries), largely down to a spike in running. That is a significant number, revealing a fresh, proactive and receptive audience.

    Meanwhile, organizers have been quick to demonstrate their agility in adopting new practices to create safe environments in which to run, bike and swim together again. New guidelines have been released for running events in the UK detailing various social distancing measures to be implemented before, during and after the event including new start line formats, changes to hydration stations and increased digital communications to minimize face-to-face correspondence with organizers and volunteers at the event.

    Prior to Covid-19 enforcing a firm pivot to digital, this evolution in mass participation sports was already underway; in February the Vitality Running World Cup united almost 400,000 runners from 234 countries and territories in a free, virtually tracked competition.

    Whilst we witness a rise in digital-first events, there remains an unwavering desire for live events to get going once again, and to see a return of the human interactivity that makes these sportives such a special experience to participate in.

    The combination of new social distancing measures to deliver the physical experiences safely, with the expansive technologies of virtually tracked competitions and in-app communications, could, in fact, present a smart solution to get such events back up and running again. It also opens up new ways for brands to support the events, with increased inventory and new rights to own, creating exciting opportunities for wearable tech giants such as Garmin, FitBit & Beats to test their latest innovations.

    It’s also worth organizers reviewing how they work with local authorities and governments to extend road closures to facilitate full-day, multi-wave events, minimizing the size of gatherings whilst offering participants greater flexibility as to what time of day they start their challenge.

    Lucy Owen (CSM)
    If we can get mass participation events back on the road, it’ll pay dividends in supporting the revival of the economy. Each event brings a degree of tourism, and it’s that event tourism that means hotels find themselves booked up during times that are considered off-season, and restaurants fill with participants to indulge in a classic pre-race carb-load, whilst also benefiting from the finish line celebrations.

    Mass participation sports represent an unequivocal force for good on so many fronts; health, wellbeing, community, diversity, economy and tourism to name but a few. The participants are a highly engaged, fast-growing collective, made even stronger now and ready to get back out there, fresh sneakers on, new personal bests in sight. It’s time to get them back on the start line once again.

    Lucy Owen is an Account Director at CSM Sport & Entertainment. She has 7+ years’ experience leading global partnership campaigns and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brand activation, with some of the longest serving and active brands in sport and entertainment. Lucy has directed, planned and delivered strategic partnerships at global sports events in 18+ countries around the world, always with a close eye on the athletics and mass participation sectors.

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