By Pete Williams
For much of the last year, Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena has argued that obstacle course racing is a legitimate sport for competitive athletes, not a casual mud run experience for the masses.
He’s bristled at his competitor Tough Mudder, scoffing at its untimed events and wondering why Tough Mudder has landed big-time sponsors such as Under Armour and EAS while Spartan – named Outside Magazine’s Best Obstacle Race of 2012 – has settled for lower-tier brands. This despite the feeling among many avid racers that Spartan is the most challenging event in the fastest-growing segment of endurance sports.
This morning De Sena, a Queens native who made his fortune on Wall Street, used the world’s biggest media market to promote obstacle racing and announce a multi-year deal between Spartan Race and shoe manufacturer Reebok. The agreement was announced prior to a traffic-stopping Spartan Race event in Times Square.
The partnership includes title sponsorship, which makes the event now the Reebok Spartan Race. The race will be featured in the brand’s upcoming marketing campaign and Reebok will develop a range of products created for the demands of obstacle racing. The line will be available in the fall.
The deal should raise the profile of obstacle course racing, but we’re surprised De Sena gave up title sponsorship. This is, after all, the Spartan Race, and it’s tough to imagine King Leonidas giving someone else top billing. CrossFit, which has partnered with Reebok and has embraced obstacle racing – even though its mostly anaerobic, non-running program isn’t necessarily the best preparation – has resisted being called anything but CrossFit.
We wonder, too, what will happen if the deal is not extended once it ends. Will Spartan go the way of Muddy Buddy or even Ironman, with a new title sponsor every three years?
For now, it beats having “Dial for Men” banners plastered at Spartan Race events, which was the case last year, with the soap sponsor giving the events a cheesy “Meet the Spartans” vibe. Then again, it wasn’t that long ago when Reebok was synonymous with leg warmers and step aerobics. Not exactly the badass, barbarian feel we’ve grown accustomed to from Spartan Race.
Under Armour, Tough Mudder’s partner, seems like a better fit with obstacle racing. But we’re guessing the Reebok/Spartan deal is more comprehensive and certainly more lucrative. Reebok once was considered a challenger to Nike, but since its purchase by adidas in 2005 often has seemed like a forgotten subsidiary. The Spartan deal might do as much for Reebok as it will for De Sena’s business, which is probably what the adidas folks had in mind.
Whatever the impact, it speaks volumes about how quickly De Sena, a legendary endurance athlete himself, has grown his brand. What began as a small, under-the-radar event called the Death Race in the hills of Vermont in 2005 expanded into the Spartan Race series in 2010, growing to 35 events last year and 60 this year.
De Sena financed the growth himself until August, when Boston’s Raptor Consumer Partners, a growth equity firm, invested in his business. Spartan does not reveal its finances, but De Sena said last fall that “we’re right there” when asked to compare Spartan to Tough Mudder’s stated 2012 revenue of $70 million.
Lost in the Reebok deal news was the formal announcement of a Spartan Race event April 13 at New York’s Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. Spartan drew rave reviews from the 8,000 athletes who competed in a November race at Boston’s Fenway Park. The “Tri-State NY Spartan Sprint at Citi Field,” will consist of a three-mile course around Citi Field, which is adjacent to LaGuardia Airport.
De Sena has said Spartan is looking to do additional events in major sports venues. In November at Fenway Park, the storied home of the Boston Red Sox, athletes lugged 50-pound bags of sand through the outfield bleachers, jumped over barriers along the concourse level, hauled 35-gallon jugs of water up stairs near Gate D, navigated a cargo net wall constructed on the outfield warning track, and completed two dozen other obstacles.
Red Sox officials did not allow Spartan Race to alter the field, which meant there was no mud. Nor could athletes climb such famous landmarks as the Green Monster, the Pesky Pole, or even the wall scaled by a live teddy bear in the recent movie “Ted.”
Still, athletes raved about the Fenway experience. Veteran obstacle racers said it was at least as challenging as typical Spartan sprint-distance events. The event also attracted baseball fans who competed in their first obstacle races.
“To run up and down the Green Monster seats and carry a 50-60 pound sandbag on my back up the stadium steps at least 10 times was insane, but very cool,” said Ann Marie Sheridan, 33, who owns a personal training business in Newton, Mass. “Plus it brought up strong memories of going to the park as a kid with my dad.”
Citi Field, which opened in 2009, does not have the long history of the 100-year-old Fenway Park. Still, the event should draw well from the New York market. This morning, Spartan Race staged “The Spartan Race Times Square Challenge.” Athletes scaled a 7-foot wall, carry 75-pound sandbags, navigated a corrugated pipe full of icy water, and crawled through mud under barbwire.
Spartan Race generally is regarded as the most difficult of the many obstacle events that have emerged in the last three years. Spartan issues penalties of 30 Burpees to athletes who cannot complete obstacles. Unlike Tough Mudder and other untimed events that stress teamwork and camaraderie, Spartan is marketed as an individual competition and includes four distances: the 3-mile Spartan Sprint, the 8-plus mile Super Spartan, the 12-plus mile Spartan Beast, and the notorious Spartan Death Race, an untimed affair that last year lasted for 65 hours.
On April 13, the Mets will be in the midst of an 11-day roadtrip. The Mets and crosstown New York Yankees typically spend much of the first weeks of the season away since mid-April weather in the Northeast can be chilly.
De Sena, whose Spartan Death Race is considered among the toughest challenges in endurance sports, thrives on adding to the degree of difficulty and no doubt would prefer cooler temperatures. Starting at 8 a.m., waves of 200 athletes will be released every 15 minutes.
Registration for the Spartan event at Citi Field is $110 through Feb. 13 and escalates to $135. Spectators are free, but must reserve seats. And in an industry known for charging for parking, athletes will have the option of not paying to drive to Citi Field.
They can take the subway.
Read our coverage of the 2012 Miami Super Spartan Race HERE.
Read our coverage of the 2011 Spartan Death Race HERE.
Read our coverage of the 2011 Virginia Spartan Sprint HERE.
Listen to our 2/25/12 interview with Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena HERE.