Mass-participation events in 2021 and beyond - Reasons for optimism

January 19, 2021

After a turbulent 2020, race organisers and runners alike welcomed the turn of the New Year with cautious optimism and renewed hope that the new year would see the return of in-person races across the globe.

Despite the return of national lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings, there are a number of reasons race organisers (and the industry as a whole) can look forward with optimism, here we explore why the endurance industry can be positive about the medium-term future.

Building on the positives from 2020;

Safe delivery of in-person events - It is worth acknowledging that 2020 wasn't a complete write-off for the endurance industry. Race organisers engaged with new audiences (through virtual) and some managed to safely deliver substantial in-person events. Races took place throughout the year including the Shanghai marathon (China), Kew Gardens 10k (UK), the Wizz Air Sofia Marathon (Bulgaria), the Great Smoky Marathon (US) and countless others. In a year when it seemed like in-person races were a non-starter, many race directors adapted and utilised social distancing measures to deliver exceptional race experiences safely in a challenging climate.

> Shanghai Marathon goes ahead with 9,000 runners

> 2,000+ runners take part in the Sofia Marathon

New formats - Virtual was the word on everyone's lips as the pandemic abruptly put a halt to in-person racing. Love them or loathe them, virtual races have played a key role for the industry over the past 12 months. The lessons and access to market that virtual has unlocked cannot be ignored and there is no denying the format offers something different to race organisers. Whether as an alternative to in-person racing or when used to build engagement (through training runs or satellite races) in the lead up to race day. Virtual may not be a silver bullet, but it has certainly offered a much-needed source of revenue and allowed races to reach new audiences at scale. The success of flagship virtual events such as the Virtual London Marathon are testament to what a well executed virtual strategy can deliver.

> Virtual London Marathon sells out

Google search trends indicate consumer interest in virtual events has plateaued after a significant spike in March - May 2020, but with millions of runners choosing to take part in races in this format in 2020, the concept is now well and truly an established part of the industry and one that could play a vital role in its recovery.

Endurance sports as an emerging lockdown trend;

With restrictions on so many aspects of public life, running, cycling and outdoor exercise offered an escape for millions across the globe. While gyms, cinemas, bars and restaurants were closed, trails and parks saw an influx of visitors seeking a break from the home office. Strava user numbers jumped significantly month on month, with an average of 2 million new users each month throughout the year and a 33% increase in activities logged when compared to 2019. That's a lot of new runners!

> Strava records significant growth in 2020

In retail, Brooks Running saw a 49% increase in global revenue (as of Q3 2020). Whilst this may be of little comfort to race directors who have seen a dip in revenue and are dealing with cancelled/postponed events, it bodes well for the future. Put simply, more runners hitting the streets and trails in 2020, means more potential attendees in the future. We expect a sizeable number of those who discovered endurance sports in 2020 to maintain their new past-time and to attend races as they become available, something race organisers should see the benefit of in due course.

> Brooks running global revenue increases

Progress with vaccines and testing technology;

Vaccine rollouts
- A significant development towards the end of the year was the arrival (and approval) of multiple vaccines. What might have taken years was achieved within months and many countries began rollout programmes as early as December. Whilst case numbers continue to grow across the globe, vaccine rollouts have been accelerated, with many countries having already delivered millions of doses to the most vulnerable members of society. How quickly this starts to bring case numbers and hospitalisations down remains to be seen.

>44 million vaccine shots delivered worldwide

Testing availability - Testing capacity has increased significantly across all regions. Improvements in testing availability and efficacy may allow events to offer conditional participation (based on negative test results) as we've seen adopted by the global travel industry. Whilst that may be logistically challenging, we expect endurance events to come up with creative solutions that take advantage of improvements in testing.

Mass-participation events in the context of the wider experience economy;

Whilst the mass-participation industry had a very tough year, the same can be said for other in-person experiences such as festivals, live sports events, theatre/comedy shows, exhibitions and nightlife events. If you thought it was tough creating a socially distanced half marathon, imagine having to do the same for a music festival or live sports event, with multiple contact points and a less obvious/linear flow of foot traffic.

Although these don't directly compete with races for participants, races can offer a safe and engaging event with the advantage of being outdoors, socially-distanced and with associated health benefits that a festival or show can't offer. Whilst we don't revel in the difficulties faced by other types of events, we believe races have a clearer path to returning when compared with other in-person experiences.

This represents a significant opportunity for mass-participation events to reach new audiences amongst a lack of competition, along with an audience desperate for a break from zoom meetings and digital experiences.

> In 787 races since July, just one Covid case linked to running events

We're ready...

Aside from the above, we know race organisers are ready and eager to get back to doing what they do best, putting on outstanding experiences for participants of all abilities. We also believe runners are desperate to take part. In-person racing will return and we expect the industry to go from strength to strength when it does. Whether runners are lacing up at the start-line to experience their 1st or 50th race... there's simply nothing else like it!

To learn more about how World's Marathons can help your race grow, contact us at

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