Back in 2012, obstacle racing really took off in Australia. Whereas prior to this there were maybe half a dozen races around the country, this exploded to over 60 or so individual events within two years. It was possible to do an event nearly every weekend, moves were afoot to create an obstacle racing association to govern the sport, and even the smaller events were getting thousands along to enjoy the mud.
Heading into 2016, however, things are markedly different. Tough Mudder no longer get their 20,000+ crowds along and have pulled out of some markets and postponed others, although they do still get over 10,000 to their events. Spartan Race average around just 3,000 to their events and have similarly cut out two of our major cities. Warrior Dash departed our shores long ago. Our largest home-grown event, The Stampede, pulled out of two markets and then cancelled events in our two largest cities, and another race series called True Grit cannot pull 2,500 in our largest city despite incorporating a 24 hour enduro format. The concept of a governing body has long since been discarded and is merely an association for 300 or so individuals Australia wide who hope to treat obstacle racing as a serious sport.
On the whole, Australians are a very laid back bunch. Our psyche generally is not inclined towards the hardcore. We enjoy getting out and doing things, but we leave the win-at-all costs mentality to the professional sportspeople. As such, when this new obstacle racing craze took off in 2012, thousands upon thousands of Aussies got out there in the mud, climbed over walls, hung (and fell) from monkey bars and scored some rope burn on the tyrolean traverse. But once this had been done a couple of times and the novelty wore off, the majority ticked them off their bucket list and saved their coin for other pursuits – whether they be fun runs or trail runs or triathlons or even just a Colour Run or stair climb challenge.
This hypothesis was backed up with data not once but twice. Market research conducted through Australia’s premier obstacle racing website Obstacle Racers Australia asked respondents in two separate surveys how seriously they treated their obstacle racing. In both instances, around 80% indicated that they just treated obstacle racing as something fun to do.
In practical terms, this casual approach to obstacle racing is illustrated in the downward trending numbers that Spartan Race has managed to attract to their races over the past three years. Spartan Race is undoubtedly the event series for those that want to go hard, push themselves to the limit, receive penalties for failure and cross the finish line as quick as possible. Whilst Spartan Race events in Australia peaked at the start of 2014 with just under 5000 getting along to one race, numbers have continually declined despite such measures being introduced like a controversial ‘Rookie Pass’ where first-timers could do the course without the burpee penalty – a major departure from the Spartan ethos. Spartan Race did manage to attract just over 4,500 to their first Stadium event in early 2015 which did buck the downward trend but a follow up event later the same year in the same city only managed to get just over 3400 along (a 25% drop in numbers) despite introducing a Ninja Warrior style cluster of obstacles and the first Stadium Super in the world as well as a Stadium Sprint.
Another factor above and beyond our easygoing attitude is the fact that whereas the USA has a population of 318M spread out relatively evenly, Australia has a mere 23M and despite the fact our island has roughly the same landmass as the continental United States they are clustered around just five major population centres (their closest USA geographical analogue city is indicated in parentheses):
– Sydney 5.39M (Atlanta)
– Melbourne 4.65M (Mobile)
– Brisbane 3.06M (Washington D.C.)
– Perth 2.00M (San Diego)
– Adelaide 1.27M (Dallas)
Races who want to get big crowds obviously put their events in a decently-sized population centre, but whereas Australia has a mere five cities with a population in excess of one million, the USA has over sixty. In addition, each one of these centres is at least a 7 hour drive away from the nearest, meaning that to do an event in another city the average racer is looking at airfares and in most cases accommodation and car hire, something that is a deterrent to all but the most enthusiastic obstacle racer. As such, race directors have saturated the top three of these cities with an overabundance of races which the obstacle racing market simply cannot sustain.
A silver lining?
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Tough Mudder, as mentioned earlier, still manage to draw big crowds of over 10,000 to the events they still hold in our three largest markets and are poised to roll out the female-oriented Mudderella around Australia. Smaller commercial series like Raw Challenge and Mud Muster still manage to turn a decent profit, and the community and charity events in country towns are well supported and raise good coin for their causes.
One indication that the bubble has burst Down Under and that Australians are ready to move on to The Next Big Thing is the instant and massive success of ROC Race which is coming to our shores in 2016. This is the renamed “Wipeout Run” up there, and although it’s still an obstacle race it’s a marked departure from the muddy theme that has been the norm until now. This new style of obstacle race has announced events in Sydney, Melbourne and Southeast Queensland, and all three have either sold out or come close to in a matter of days after tickets went on sale. A second day for Sydney and Melbourne were added very quickly, and both of these events will see around 20,000 people hit the inflatables obstacles and water for a day of giggles.
Will obstacle racing go the way of the rollerblade Down Under? Time will tell if it was just a fad that had a few good years and then disappeared completely, or whether it simply declines and consolidates and hangs around on the fringes with fewer events catering to a much smaller market.
This writer’s opinion is that it will be the latter. Apart from those couple of hundred Australia-wide who would like to treat obstacle racing as a serious sport, I still think an economically sustainable number of Aussies – at least in our five biggest cities – will still be up for doing an event occasionally that involves acting like a big kid and having a laugh with mates whilst crawling, climbing, clambering and crashing. These events are definitely going to face a reduction in number, though, and those that do manage to survive will need to evolve, adjust and not just offer the same thing over and over again to a target market that will eventually move on to The Next Big Thing.