Under Armour is out as Tough Mudder’s official apparel sponsor, replaced by Merrell as both gear and presenting sponsor. That’s the first of two announcements the obstacle racing company recently made. The second: starting in 2016, Tough Mudder will produce nine Tough Mudder Half events, each five miles long, or half the distance of an original Tough Mudder.
The announcements come at a time when obstacle event companies, Tough Mudder and Spartan Race in particular, are making an effort to transition from novelty adventure to sustainable sport. Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean believes the key to long term success is becoming a lifestyle brand like Ironman—a brand that people engage with on a daily basis rather than just on race day. The recent announcements highlight three things Dean believes are necessary to keep Mudders running for years to come: new event products, an expanded client base, and strategic partnerships.
“Partnerships create new ways to engage with our customer base away from the main event,” Dean says. “Creating Tough Mudder Merrell shoes is part of that.”
Merrell, an outdoor brand best known for its hiking and trail running shoes, will become Tough Mudder’s presenting sponsor at all Tough Mudder events in 2016, produce Tough Mudder-specific footwear and apparel, and become a Tough Mudder partner for “multiple years,” say Dean and Merrell President Jim Gabel. They declined to elaborate on the financials or the exact length of the partnership, but suffice it to say, it involved a substantial sum of money. “It’s the largest investment Merrell has ever made in its 35-year history,” Gabel says.
This isn’t Merrell’s first foray into obstacle racing. The company sponsored the Down & Dirty mud run series of 5K and 10K events from 2010 through 2014. But, as Gable mentioned above, the Tough Mudder partnership is on a different level of magnitude for Merrell than the one the company had with Down & Dirty. Likewise, it appears to be a bigger deal for Tough Mudder than the one with Under Armour, a sponsorship that injected legitimacy into this nascent sport four years ago, but that was limited to apparel. Of course, Merrell is creating new OCR gear, too.
“Not only are we designing products specifically for the participants,” Gabel says, but Merrell is also dedicating part of its headquarters property in Michigan to a Mini Mudder course “for our design people to understand exactly the needs of participants.”
Already in the works for February 2016: the All Out Crush, a trail shoe that sheds mud, drains water quickly, and has a traction pattern ideal for tackling Tough Mudders—not unlike Reebok’s Spartan Race-branded All Terrain shoe series, created after Reebok became that series’ title sponsor in 2013. Or the admittedly wonky ankle-high Tough Mudder-branded trail shoe Under Armour made.
Other partnerships OCR companies have forged to make 24/7 brands include this year’s linkup between Tough Mudder and Virgin Active gyms in the UK. Together, they’ve created Mudder Maker training classes, which help Virgin Active members prepare for Tough Mudder events. And in August, Spartan inked a deal with NBC to create a reality competition show based on the series.
As for the two other categories Dean is focusing on—new event products, an expanded client base—that’s where the Tough Mudder Half comes in. The Half will not include any fire, ice, or electric obstacles in an effort to attract potential Mudders put-off by the chance of getting burned, frozen, or electrocuted. Participants will earn a white headband, and will tackle some Half-specific obstacles to be revealed in early 2016.
“Tough Mudder is still Tough Mudder,” Dean says of the new event, “just like Ironman launched 70.3 and still has the full Ironman.”
Ideally, athletes should expect more continuity in their race experiences, and expanded OCR-friendly gear options as a result of obstacle companies’ efforts to become part of their everyday lives. Earlier this year, for instance, Tough Mudder experienced what we’ll call t-shirt gate when the company stopped giving out finisher t-shirts, much to the dismay of Mudders everywhere. (The finisher tee was quickly reinstated following an apology.) Now that Merrell has stepped in with a presumably long-term commitment, no Mudder journey should end without a sweet tech-tee.
“We want [Mudders] proudly wear it and it should be a badge of honor for hopefully years to come,” Gabel says. And judging by how excited Gabel is for Merrell to enter this new space, athletes should expect some fun new gear options in the near future. “The Tough Mudder partnership gives us the ability to play in a new space,” Gabel says. “We’ve got footwear developers and an apparel designer assigned to this partnership.” I’m hoping for a breathable top that diverts electric currents away from the body by turning them into tiny fireworks. Bring it on, Electroshock Therapy!