It was inevitable that Orienteering USA (OUSA) would turn their gaze towards Adventure Racing (AR). With budget shortfalls, no traction with developing a single membership option with local clubs, and new membership numbers starting to flatten out, OUSA is on the hunt to find new sources of everything. For the past few months, OUSA had been trying to figure out what they could do to move forward. Their first step was to stop hemorrhaging money. The OUSA Board of Directors quickly moved to cut costs and raise rates. Step one complete. But this hasn’t solved the bigger problem of their fattening membership base.

Since sport organizations live and die by their memberships, OUSA needed a pool of athletes that would be interested in orienteering, but may not already be connected to an orienteering club or OUSA itself. Enter Adventure Racing: an endurance sport that is at it’s core, based on orienteering. It has everything OUSA could want to solve their membership woes — A devoted audience, a growing popularity, a need for better standards — all things OUSA could leverage to its advantage. But is it the right move for OUSA?

Historical Advantage
To understand where OUSA is going, you have to know where they have been. Unlike any of the competing Adventure Racing associations in the United States, Orienteering USA (formerly United States Orienteering Federation) has been around since the 1970’s, and can trace its roots back as far back as 1940’s. In contrast, the United States Adventure Racing Association (USARA) was founded in 1998. Granted that the sport of adventure racing has only been around since the 1990’s, the core discipline within AR — orienteering — has been organized and officiated by members of OUSA for almost 30 years before adventure racing even existed. Because of this, many AR maps are obtained from OUSA club resources, many AR controls and punches come from OUSA club vendors, and many AR courses are set by OUSA club members.

If you were to ask any USARA race promoter about where they came from before adventure racing, you would find that a large number are historically connected to OUSA in one way or another. In fact, every single adventure racing promoter in Northern Virginia — EX2 Adventures, Adrenaline Addicts Racing, Reckoneer, REV3 Adventures — were once members of the Quantico Orienteering Club (QOC), are still members of QOC, or once raced in QOC events. In many ways, OUSA is the grandfather of USARA. And just like a grandfather, OUSA has the experience and resources to school the USARA in what real national organizations are capable of. Because lets face it, the USARA has a ton of growing to do before it will ever have its hands around the regulation of adventure racing in the United States. This means that the hard part of introducing OUSA to the adventure racing community has already taken place. Most adventure racers already know who OUSA is, either at the club or national level, due to OUSA’s historical contribution to the sport of orienteering.

Cultural Disadvantage
It would appear that all OUSA would have to do now is capitalize on the relationship it already has with adventure racers by offering them something more than what USARA is offering. Simply out-sell USARA with offers of lower insurance rates, event resources, and better officiating. But before OUSA can do that, they will first need to get past a huge cultural obstacle that they themselves put in the way. This obstacle has everything to do with the foot orienteering community’s dislike for other orienteering disciplines. Members throughout OUSA’s club base show minimal interest in mountain bike orienteering, ski orienteering, or canoe/kayak orienteering. They seldom participate in night or rogaine orienteering with the same numbers that classic foot orienteering enjoys, and if you were to show a mainstream foot orienteer a ropes course, they would run away in a huff. The truth that many in the orienteering community does not want to face is that their main demographic — the one that dominates classic foot orienteering — is an aging, single-disciplined, stubborn group of individuals that are not interested in sharing trails, time, or club resources with wacky, flash-in-the-pan, off-shoots disciplines like mountain bike orienteering, or those crazy adventure racers!

The whole reason organizations like USARA exist is due to the hostility some classic orienteers show to other orienteering disciplines. As mentioned above, most adventure racers have had some experience with OUSA, or an OUSA club, at some point. Unfortunately, not all these experience are positive with some adventure racers referring to classic foot orienteers as, “stuck-up”, “elitist”, “rude”, or “unfriendly”. While this perspective comes from only polling a few dozen adventure racers (and may represent only anecdotal evidence at best), it does not take away from the challenge OUSA has in winning over athletes that may not welcome their meddling in adventure racing. This is especially true when compared to how long OUSA snubbed mountain bike and ski orienteering before it begrudgingly started to support their existence. Now that MTBO and SKIO are gaining popularity, OUSA is now starting to see how “other orienteering disciplines” can be a money maker for the organization. But without a strong cultural change among its core members to embrace adventure racers as their own, OUSA will be met with suspecion at best, outright resistance at worst.

Meet in the Middle
OUSA has the historical leverage, organizational fortitude, and national recognition to make adventure racing better. All efforts to standardize and support adventure racing and racers has resulted in mediocre organizations that seem to be more focused on promoting their own championships over improving the sport. OUSA could easily move into the adventure racing community and become a great alternative to the USARA. It could even consider absorbing the USARA at some point to strengthen its position and reputation. But what ever it does, it needs to walk softly, and drink from its own Camelbak for a while, before bumbling into the intense world of adventure racing. Adventure racing is literally the wild, wild west of endurance sports. It attracts teams, not individuals, to its events who can mountain bike, paddle, trail run, AND orienteer (among other things). OUSA could do a lot of good within the adventure racing by supporting AR licenses that provide benefits such as discounts at sanctioned event, event insurance for promoters, standardized rules, better map development, and building youth interest. But if OUSA is to be successful, it needs to create an environment within its own clubs that adventure racers will see as welcome and inviting. Without that environment, adventure racers will just move on to the next control – most likely on their mountain bikes.

How this helps you
If you have already figured out how having two or three separate tribes come together is good for your business, then you’re ahead of the game. But if you missed it, here is the fine print: the more that organizations work to bring in different types of racers, the better the environment (e.g. race registrations) will be for your own races. You should be an advocate for these kinds of moves, and possibly a factor in helping bridge the gap with events that could appeal to multiple groups. Organizations are known for not wanting to share markets, but race directors can still benefit from the creativity these kinds of moves inspire. This is how I hear Adventure Racing started in the first place.

Posted by Kyle Bondo

Kyle Bondo is a thinker, podcaster, author, and creative strategy dragon seeking to make a small dent in the universe. He is the founder of Reckoneer, host of the Merchants of Dirt Podcast and Get Lost Racing Podcast podcasts, and an avid adventure racer. As a successful race promoter with over 20+ years in the endurance racing industry, Kyle has helped many race directors and race promoters start and improve their own races so that they too can share their passion for endurance sports with others.