In 2015, swashbuckling billionaire and aspiring spaceman Sir Richard Branson sent ripples through the global fitness community with the announcement of a new venture called Virgin Sport. As the latest addition to the Virgin Group—Branson’s mega conglomerate whose portfolio already includes the health club chain Virgin Active and a fitness app called Virgin Pulse—Virgin Sport was going to “expand the reach of mass participatory events” and “change the health and wellness game for good,” according to an early press release.
Today, Virgin Sport announced that it would be kicking off with four “Festivals of Sport” in 2017. In what sounds a little bit like a county fair for jocks, these Festivals of Sport will “include running and fitness, combined with community and culture, and are customized to the local personality of each host city or neighborhood,” according to the company. Virgin will host three festivals in the U.K. (starting with an event in April in the London borough of Hackney), and one in San Francisco that will take place in October. Though more specific details are a bit thin, the vibe sounds something like farmer’s market meets marathon expo; in addition to a few running races, ranging from sprint events to a half-marathon, there will be exercise stations, local food stands, and “retail opportunities” with a fitness ethos. Some events are free, others will have an entry fee.
To find out more, we spoke to Mary Wittenberg, the company’s global CEO (“Chief Exercise Officer,” according to her LinkedIn profile). Starting in 2005, Wittenberg was the top executive of NYC’s premier running event organization, the New York Road Runners, and the race director of the New York City Marathon. Her experience at the helm of a major athletic event organization convinced Branson that she was the right person to build his new endeavor from the ground up.
OUTSIDE: In your own words, what is a “Festival of Sport”?
WITTENBERG: The Coachella of sport is what we are looking to create, where we have a series of challenging experiences that we’re going to wrap in a whole lot of fun, to encourage people to come on out. And to come with all their friends and family, and actually have the chance for everybody to participate and really get the same charge that is often only reserved for those involved in events like distance runs, rides, or triathlons.
What kind of events can we expect?
We’ll have a mixture of runs, yoga, and other fitness, bootcamp-style things. We’re also definitely looking at introducing cycling in the future. You can pick and choose. Looking at the four festivals this year, three are in the UK. Let’s say you’re in the London area. You can do a 5.5K in April and a 10K in July and what will probably be a 10-miler in October—there’s your run series right there.
For the San Francisco event, we do have a twist, which we want to keep a secret for now. We’re always asking: What is it that people can’t get somewhere else? So, in a city like San Francisco, with the spectacular hills, maybe we add to the challenge in approaching the half marathon.
One of the challenges facing race event organizers today is catering to both the hardcore athletes who are looking for serious competition, and to those who want more of a “lifestyle” experience. How does Virgin Sport plan to take on that challenge?
Counter to so many other companies, where they talk about a super-targeted audience, I really believe we can do both. The people who are going to be attracted to our events will share a spirit of “Okay, I want to give it a go. I want to take on a challenge.” There might be different levels of athletes, but what’s different about the Festival of Sport is that we’re starting with multiple events—so that already increases the range of people we can reach.
In everything we do, the front end will be able to go as hard as they want, and the logistics will be really strong to support that. I still think there’s a beauty in that people can go after their fastest time and best performance—and the people behind them, even if they are slower, might have a little bit of the same mentality. Or they might not want to go as hard, but they’re still out there. People train differently and set different priorities in their lives, but if we create the right environment, and the logistics are strong, and everybody can celebrate together afterwards, then I think we can cater to both groups.
After peaking in 2013, industry surveys show that running event participation has declined in recent years, causing some to posit that the recent “running boom” is over and that the race market is saturated. Participation in so-called “non-traditionals,” such as color runs, has also declined. How does Virgin Sport hope to reinvigorate enthusiasm for mass-events?
We need to constantly be innovating. I think it’s great that there are way more fitness options that are more accessible to more people today. We should be latching onto that. I think the best way to keep running fresh for runners is to make sure everyone is aware of what we know to be true today: core fitness is really important. Also, taking a balanced approach. Maybe it’s not running ten marathons, but trying to get really fast in the 5K. Do stretching. Do yoga. Do the core stuff that will make you really fit. I think an evolved point of view on running is: Don’t just run. Because if you really want to be strong, fast, fit, and want to do it for life, you want to mix it up.
I still think running is an incredible base to it all and something that lasts forever, but the peaks and the valleys of race participation trends show us that when it comes to bigger events, people want to experience something more. I think you can very much have running and cycling be at the heart of things, but you have to always also be asking: What else to do people want to do?
As we understand it, conveying a sense of local flavor is important to what Virgin Sport wants to try to do.
We will definitely try to evoke characteristics of the city in the sports events, so San Fran would definitely be celebrating the hills. And then, on the supplemental side, which will grow over time, is the local art, music, and food scene. Each area is different, but you want to tease some of that out, so that you are really celebrating the host community. It’s also a lot more interesting to the participant when it’s not the same experience everywhere they go. The basics will be the same, but we want the spirit to be different everywhere.
Does that mean we can expect local food trucks at these events, stuff like that? Can you give a specific example of how you plan on “celebrating the atmosphere” of a place?
Yes, exactly. So, with the London borough of Hackney, for example, we start and finish on what are called the Hackney Marshes, right outside the Olympic Stadium. There’s this spectacular soccer pitch, which is actually where David Beckham first played football.
Down the line, I want to see a five-on-five soccer tournament as part of the Hackney Festival of Sport. Hackney has these beautiful green spaces, which evoke picnics, so food trucks will be all around the outer edge. We will bring in local music and local spirit. There’s a great flower market in Hackney, so we’re looking at how to bring that to life around certain fitness events. Those would be examples of local influence.
Does Virgin Sport have any plans to expand beyond the Festival of Sport events?
Yes, definitely. We’re starting with the Festival of Sports because we realized that nobody is doing this multi-sport concept yet. But over time, I can see us doing run weekends or cycling weekends. Ideally, we’d be in a community three or four times a year, where we could have a little more variety across the year, but a real focus in each given event. But I would say the festival spirit is one that we want to bring everywhere. We’re looking for lasting change. If someone does one event, that’s great. But the idea really is to give people a way to stay motivated all year long.