Merchants of Dirt Podcast
The world has been turned on its head with the pandemic of COVID-19.
What is a race promoter to do when every event you direct requires people to be in close proximity to each other?
Sweaty, dirty people.
Well… I’ve been thinking about this because… well… every event I wanted to participate in this year as more-or-less been canceled.
All I have is time to think about this while trying to figure out how to enjoy the outdoors without people.
Turns out that those same sweaty, dirty people I can no longer race with are trying to do the same thing.
Every park and trail that used to be free of “sweaty, dirty people ” is now full of… well… you guessed it:
Sweaty, dirty people!
Some are old school racers that I’ve seen at other races, but unfortunately, most are bored locals looking for the same thing I am looking for:
A chance to be outside without being near people.
What is more outside and away from people than a huge empty park?
But that’s also the new problem.
The more people we have that need to get outside, the more people that are going to be invading your once pristine trail of solitude.
Where was I?
Oh, right — All the Race Promoter’s who were just punched in the face by COVID-19!
This pandemic is destroying our outdoor sports industry.
Right now, it’s just on hold.
Sure. The Outdoor Industry can survive “on hold” for about 2-3 months.
Think of it as hurricane season or a really bad rain or snow year.
Most race promoters can weather a storm or two.
However, any longer than that and those same promoters — many of which depend on everyday people and their disposable income — will go bankrupt.
You cannot run a race promotion company that does not have any races to promote.
The same is true for the companies that SELL products used in those races.
If there are no races, there is no need for people to purchase new products for those races.
What about the companies that FIX products? If nobody is racing, nobody needs their products repaired.
It is a vicious circle that will cut the Outdoor Industry in half.
Some will survive COVID-19.
Most — especially those that profit from holding and supporting events — will not.
Let that sink in.
If ALL of your profit comes from events and you do not have savings or supplemental income, your livelihood is in serious jeopardy.
This is what I have been thinking about.
This is the thought problem I have been pondering ever since this crisis began.
How do you make money promoting events without the capability to hold events?
If you have been asking yourself that same question, then I have some strategic ideas that could work.
And it has everything to do with Asynchronous Competition Event (ACE).
Asynchronous Competition Events
What is Asynchronous Competition Event (ACE) you ask?
An ACE is a virtual race that disrupts the need for classic mass starts.
Instead of lining up at some real-world starting line with a bunch of sweaty, dirty people in your category or age group, you navigate to an imaginary start line in isolation.
In your own time — usually within 72-hours of the start of the event — your way to the racecourse, run or ride your race using an application (GPS, Strava, etc) — and then go home.
You do this without having to worry about cancelations, starting on time and, most importantly, without other people.
Is an ACE really a fancy virtual race?
No. ACE events are planned and organized with competition in mind.
No scavenger hunts and no “just run this distance and let us know” style of ambiguity.
An ACE requires online and documented proof.
It is the gamification of outdoor events and includes events you would never think to include in your portfolio.
Imagine Hiking/Rucking, Trail Running, Peak Bagging, Marathon MTB, or even MTBO Orienteering now open to becoming part of your event offerings.
ACE in Action
How would you pull these events off?
Online registration, smartphones, GPS devices, mobile thrid-party applications, photographic evidence, remote check-points/gates, and even mail-order RFID antennas could be part of your event.
Let’s go through these one-by-one.
First, Online Registration is nothing new.
All sorts of online registration sites like Bikereg.com are still available with most of them free.
Next, everybody who participates in outdoor sports has a smartphone with some kind of tracking application on it.
Strava has even been doing virtual challenges for its members since the very beginning.
You could utilize Strava’s built-in route/segment creator and point your racers to those pre-designated courses and let Strava’s application decide who actually participated.
Another style of tracking is down with real devices like Garmin GPS devices.
Have a participant find a specific coordinate and then “go” to another coordinate.
Everyone who uploads their routes is considered “in the race” and then you decide how people “win”.
Remote Check-points/Gates could be a poor-mans version of a real-world application.
Have racers show up to an unmanned check-point and grab a map, make a phone call, get a secret code to unlock a website map, or take a disposable RFID antenna.
They run/ride the course found on paper or online then “check back in” when they are done.
The check-point/gate or even check-points and gates through-out the course give you a bit more control over who shows up, who actually completes the course, and who is trying to cheat.
I heard someone call this a “staged pursuit start” and it has all the hallmarks of pursuit.
But the key difference could be the staging part.
You could even go as far as to “schedule” everyone’s starts over the next full week like a business would schedule client meetings.
Bob races the course at 8:00 am on Monday, then Samantha races it at 9:00 am, etc.
Then on Tuesday, you do it again until you’ve raced everyone through-out the week.
Your employees stay employed, your racers get to race, and every Saturday you release the results.
Wash, Rinse, and Repeat.
There is also mail-order racing.
Everyone who registers online could become part of your “membership club” and receive monthly maps, RFID tags, or special course appointment opportunities.
Members get the first choice of race slots on the calendar while non-members get what’s left.
When the “event week” or “event month” kicks off, you mail out the special RFID tag and allow racers to download the “course map of the month”.
Then all you have to do is set up your RFID Receiver Check-points and start pushing racers through their appointments.
Minimal gatherings, less overhead, and no need to order pizza or buy water and ice in bulk.
Moving your races online
Any outdoor sport you can think of could be a good candidate for ACE.
Mountain biking, trail running, and orienteering are perfect examples of sports geared for this kind of activity.
Mountain bikers and trail runners are already familiar with solo racing and tracking their progress with apps and devices.
Meanwhile, orienteers have become very good at creating maps and permanent orienteering courses.
Orienteering — especially MTBO — has even developed RFID tracking devices that do not require touching anything, only getting close enough to activate the sensor.
However, competition rules start to allow any sport to become part of an ACE strategy.
Having a series that spans multiple days have always presented problems for race promoters.
Setup, tear down, and management of resources over several days if not weeks is a challenge.
Now, the need to schedule asynchronous round-robin tournaments over an entire month can make multi-day events practical.
You could have racers working to complete an entire “circle of events” that includes multiple venues and challenges in isolation.
Racers would check-in by registering online, then complete a set of courses over the next 30 days on their own time.
They might not even need to do the entire set but simply pick 3 out of 10 venues to thin out your competitors even more.
Those that actually complete a set get ranked, get awarded and receive prizes.
This could open up venues that would have NEVER allow 200-300 people to race without the burden of onerous permits and road closures.
When only one person is “racing” at a time and on their own, you have the potential to turn someone’s normal exercise routine into a virtual competition.
This opens up your venue selection to just about anywhere.
Venues from university campuses to historical locations — most of which would never allow promoted races on a normal day — are now in play.
If it just one person on the trail then the impact, exposure, and even the event requirements become very minimal.
Hundreds of people could do a “race across campus” event without anyone even noticing it was happening.
Your primary challenge is maintaining control over an event that will now take weeks instead of days to complete.
You will need to shift your skills from venue management to data management as your events move online.
But a pivot towards a long term approach to outdoor events will reward you if you make isolation, minimalism, and zero physical contact a priority.
The Internet and mobile devices have given race promoters far more tools to consider than ever realized they had before.
It is your job to leverage those online tools in a way that is creative, competitive, and inclusive to everyone involved.
Your ACE in the hole
I’m sorry that race promoters — some of who are long time friends — are struggling to save their businesses.
The world changed overnight and didn’t give any of you a chance to put your pants on.
I am sorry that infection rates, social distancing, and an onslaught of government restrictions, have created an extinction-level-event for all of your businesses throughout the foreseeable future.
Hopefully, these ideas will resonate with you and help you survive these next few months.
Please use them, steal them, and create something good with them.
Because if you sit still and bemoan the limitations placed on your business, you and your business will be a memory when this pandemic subsides.
It’s not a warning, it’s a premonition.
The hard truth is that an events business that stops having events is out of business.
However, if you pivot RIGHT NOW and incorporate Asynchronous Competition Events and virtual activities into your portfolio, you have a chance to capture an audience that is looking — albeit HUNGRY — for safe and creative ways to exercise in isolation.
Now, the only thing stopping you from saving your racing business is your own imagination.
I wish you the best of luck.
And now you know.