In the beginning
Superhero Scramble burst onto the OCR scene in 2012 with a race like many other races coming into the fold. They had challenging obstacles, a great festival area, and a well put together website and social marketing plan. In addition, they also introduced something which turned a lot of heads. Elite Team Racing. With the “Scramble Gamble”, obstacle racers for the first time had a chance to compete and win as individuals and also as a team. The race also promised prize money for the individuals and teams that placed in the top 3.
Leading up to their 3rd event, people were starting to take notice. Even the best of the best were willing to travel to a town they had never heard of to be a part of it. Spartan Race sent elite teams of men and women, including the most famous obstacle racer in the world at the time, Hobie Call, down to Waldo Florida in late July of last year. Elite competitors and the everyday obstacle fan had a great time. They even had a night wave , which was another new element no one had seen before in OCR. Everyone got their winnings in a timely manner and Superhero was officially on the map.
Shortly after Waldo, Superhero updated their website and listed races all over the east coast. They also were going to introduce 3 different race distances, which was a successful model that Spartan followed. SHS also adopted the Spartan idea of a year long points series which was met with nothing but smiles from the community.
So a quick look at Superhero’s website was extremely promising. You’ve got a points series, 3 different race distances, and events popping up all over the place. They broke ground again by offering free races for life for the first 100 people who got their logo tattooed on their body. Tough Mudder only gives people a discounted rate on one race, so getting a “SuperTatt” was certainly the way to go if you wanted to get OCR ink.
People got those tattoos for more reasons than just the free race. People talked about what the race meant to them, how it got them off the couch, how the community they met at SHS changed them, and made them want to be a better person. The Superhero Lifestyle was taking over.
Things start to change
In January of this year, Superhero put on another event in their home market to almost 2500 racers. Then, something surprising happened. Registration numbers went down for the next few races. Superhero, like everyone else in the industry was experiencing some cannibalization from all of the other races popping up. All of the major markets had between 4 and 8 obstacle races a month. Racers were still signing up for Tough Mudder, Spartans, and Warrior Dashes in droves but all of the smaller players were starting to suffer. People love OCR but will they still do a race every weekend or even every other weekend? Can they shell out that much money? Can they be away from their jobs, families, and other obligations that often? The future of the sport still looks bright but who is going to be left to enjoy all the spoils?
The CEO of Superhero Scramble wrote a blog where he determined producing a race costs somewhere between $132k-$420k. If the average race registration is $80, this puts the break even point at 1650 participants on the low end of that spectrum and 5000 participants on the high end. Superhero’s Georgia race had just under 1000 participants. A month later, a central Florida race had just over 800. The event numbers for the next Superhero races ,according to their own website, went like this: New England, June 8, 1500 people. Carolina, 3 weeks later brought in 742 racers, then TriState NY brought in 557 a few weeks after that. The next two races on Superhero’s schedule did not happen. Ohio was cancelled due to low registration numbers and Illinois was postponed until October. According to Superhero, they postponed Illinois because the course had poison ivy issues. However, one source close to the venue told us that SHS had less than 700 participants signed up for the scheduled date. Some in the industry were suggesting the poison ivy gave them a great reason to delay the race and push for bigger numbers.
Time to get paid
Superhero had promised podium payment in 60 days from the time of the event. Around the time of the NY race, money was due to those who had won in the Scramble Gamble for Central Florida. Athletes began to email SHS looking for their checks (Obstacle Racing Media which had sent teams to compete in the last 4 races, was one of the teams that was owed). Racers were complaining that several emails to Superhero about payment were not being answered. When answers finally came, they came with varied responses.
“We have had setbacks but plan to get them paid as soon as possible” was one response. Another email said “Ask Spartan winners how long it takes them to get paid?”. When a commitment for an actual date was asked, the response from Superhero ranged from “as soon as fiscally possible” to “it may take up to 180 days”. One response said “We are days away from raising the capital needed” When ORM brought it to Superhero’s attention that we were writing this piece, an email went out to athletes that read “Your winnings from Superhero Scramble Central FL are being processed and you will receive them within one week. We spoke with several racers and there was no mention of the other past due race money owed. As of this writing (6 days after the last email to to owed athletes) none has received any winnings for Central Florida (90+ days), New England (60+ days) or Carolina (60+ days). These race winnings total just over $27,000 when added together.
A similar tone of late payments was being heard in a Superhero Promoter group on Facebook. Superhero promoters get a $5 referral fee for every person that registers for a Superhero race using a specific code. Several were asking where their payments were. A few told us that originally, Superhero paid these referral fees within 2 weeks of a race. Lately payments where in the 60 day plus range, and even then, they came only after several emails were sent to SHS requesting payment.
Right around the time of the “it may take 180 days” response, Superhero posted to Facebook that along with the regular podium winnings, they were now offering an additional $20,000 to be paid out to the top males and females at year’s end. Superhero also revamped their race calendar. Some of the races for 2014 went away while new locations and dates were popping up. Somehow Superhero which was losing money (based on the numbers by their own CEO’s blog post), was now going to venture out to Dallas, Southern California, Ohio, and Denver, Colorado. Some in the industry pointed out that adding races and additional payouts seemed odd considering the current amounts owed, and the recent low registration numbers.
What went wrong?
ORM began to investigate some of the people who were close to Superhero Scramble in an attempt to get some answers. The first person we spoke with was Robyn Goldman. Back in 2011, four friends, Robyn, Sean “Ace” O’Connor, Steve Kneiser, and Ryan Summers did a Warrior Dash together and decided they wanted to put on a race of their own. Armed with lots of local contacts and a passion to build a better mousetrap, the put on their first event near Boca Raton where they all lived.
Robyn told us shortly after the first event, the honeymoon was over. She told us time and time again that Sean was always quick to “point out that he was the CEO, but [Sean] thought that meant ordering others around and never doing grunt work.” She spoke at length about his treatment of employees and volunteers being less than fair. She watched a “pattern of behavior that I was not comfortable with and I decided to leave the company”.
Shortly before the 4th Superhero Scramble which took place in January of this year, Robyn told Sean she wanted to leave when that event was over. A contract was drawn up and signed by both parties that her buyout amount would be $32,500. Weeks after the event, the money had not materialized. She said that Sean went back and forth between ignoring her emails to writing things like “We are working on it and will get it to you as soon as we can”.
After 6 months of waiting, she had enough. Along with frustration about her own situation, she was tired of hearing things about Superhero not paying their bills. “I have been hearing about workers and athletes not getting paid” “All the while, Sean constantly posts pictures of his adventures and his “awesome” life and giant meals he is eating. It’s disgusting It’s about time people see who the real Sean is”. To date she has still not seen payment and seeking legal action.
Steve Kneiser also left the company shortly after joining because he did not like what he saw. He was not comfortable speaking at length on the subject but did say “I think there is a right way and a wrong way to treat employees and volunteers and that is the main reason I no longer work for Superhero.”
We spoke with several others who echoed a similar tone. One former promoter told us “My experience when I promoted the race was nothing but poor work ethic from a person who takes advantage of people. Yet, people that support obstacle racing don’t see this side of him because he portrays himself as a caring person”
More Unhappy People
Chad Krezmian is a general contractor. He was hired on the first 3 Superhero Scrambles as their chief obstacle builder. He told us that from the very beginning, things were not going as they should. “I told Sean (O’Connor) the number of machines it would take and the number of men it would take to get the job done correctly. He insisted on squeezing dollars so we were asked to do the job with less men and equipment than was needed. Our workers had to stay longer than was originally budgeted, which I was never paid for. I didn’t mind so much on the first event because this was the first race and we were all figuring it out. Plus it was a lot of fun doing this new, unknown thing and making it work”.
When I asked Chad about the second race. He said it was “more of the same”.
“This time though our guys had to travel, so I told Sean that this would cost more to house and feed the crew. He assured me that meals and hotels would be taken care of. Most of the time they weren’t. So I paid those costs and was never fully reimbursed for them. By the end of it, I didn’t even want to talk to him because Sean believes he can cheat anyone.”
ORM asked Chad directly what he that he was owed in total from Superhero in unkept promises. He said it was in the “$13,000-$15,000 range”
Another former sponsor of the race told us “Things started out great, but it went downhill after the first race. Superhero wanted to charge us for things no other company or race had charged us before. They started out great, but it became constant money grubbing”.
Making Super Friends and Super Foes
In our research, we did find several who enjoy working with and support Superhero Scramble and will continue to do so. They empathize with the company and talk about how hard it is for Sean and his company to keep everything going in the current overcrowded OCR market. One current promoter said “They put on a great race and are really doing everything they can to get caught up. Another one told us “I believe Sean will eventually pay. I know him personally outside of Superhero and he is a good person”
Meredith Robinson thinks very highly of Sean O’Connor and Superhero. She is the director of sales of Amesbury Sports Park which was the venue for the New England Superhero Scramble back in June. She told us “I have no complaints about them. They paid everything in full prior to their event, which includes a sizable food and beverage guarantee”. She told us she will work with SHS again in 2014 at Amesbury and another location she manages in Georgia.
One person who will not be near a Superhero anytime soon is Leigh Rush. Leigh won the Georgia Superhero Scramble back in April and was thrilled to win money in a sport she loved. She then entered the next 3 Superhero races placing 3rd, 1st, and 3rd respectively. She was also on the first place team in those 3 races which means she earned $3,750 over 4 races. She did receive the first $1,000 as promised right around the 60 day mark. However, several emails were going unanswered. Finally, she got an answer with the aforementioned “180 day payment” reference. This prompted her to send an email to Superhero to let them know how disappointed she was.
In the email, she referenced several things which upset her. The email told Superhero certain things that she felt needed to be fixed. She made reference to things like delayed start times and stricter obstacle penalty enforcement. The email went on to infer that by not keeping their current payment promises but promoting large payments, Superhero was duping people into doing their races. Here is the response she received from Superhero:
“Again, we have communicated that all winners will be paid as soon as fiscally responsible. We have started paying winners this week. We have seen and heard about your posts pertaining to Superhero Scramble. You are forcing us to pursue legal action. (http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Libel+and+Slander.) You are not only harming us, but you are harming the sport, community, and ultimately yourself. If we see or hear anymore defamatory posts we will be forced to ban you from any future Superhero Scramble’s and you will lose eligibility for any future prize money.”
In the process of putting together this story, we contacted Mr. O’Connor and requested we have a phone call in order to directly ask him about the claims above. Those requests were denied. However, within a day of our last request, several Superhero Scramble race participants forwarded us the following email:
Attention: It has come to our attention that an inaccurate story regarding Superhero Scramble and its management/founders is being prepared for publication through blogs, websites, and various channels. A variety of methods of distribution have been described to us, many of which allow posting under anonymous names, fictitious names, and false names. The sources of this inaccurate information are already known to us, and we have engaged attorneys and advisors to assist us in combating this situation. There are laws and regulations in this nation and its various states that will provide us with methods of seeking legal solutions and compensation for libel and slander, and we intend to pursue those vigorously, targeting all those responsible.
It is sad that this sport which so many of us have helped to nurture, is plagued by those who seek the cover of “journalist” or “statements of opinion.” We know that sometimes statements of opinion are just prejudice in disguise.
This sport that we all love so much is what will suffer the most.
This is a matter of principle, and we intend to exert our rights, and pursue anyone associated with misinformation and lies.
Please feel free to communicate with us directly if you have any information or comments on this situation.
Editor’s Note-An update on this story was written in February 0f 2014.