Asia at the forefront of tech-augmented mass participation runs

Runners compete at the 2018 Wuhan Marathon in Wuhan, Hubei province, China (Wang He/Getty Images)

  • Running event participation in decline globally in recent years, mainly in Europe and US
  • Participation in Asia increased by 23 per cent in 2018
  • Technology-led innovations are helping Asian event organisers provide more value to sponsors

Mass participation running is booming across Asia, with the number of runners involved in events up 169 per cent in the past five years, according to figures from the International Association of Athletics Federations. And the region is beginning to produce some interesting, technology-led innovation, as event organisers seek to differentiate themselves and provide new experiences for participants.

In June this year, sports marketing firm Infront entered into a strategic partnership with and acquired a minority stake in District Technologies, a Singapore-based company that has developed a first-of-its-kind experimental urban exploration app, combining location-based tracking and augmented reality technology. District organises mass participation events that give runners in-app challenges delivered via the app and related to the urban environments the participants are running through.

Another Singapore-based company, event organiser Infinitus Productions, is developing a sports movement app called LIV3LY that can track a runner’s distance, timing and other essential details so that users can compete in virtual races. Infinitus organises events such as the Great Eastern Women’s Run and the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge in Singapore and Shanghai.

SportBusiness Asia spoke to Infront and Infinitus to find out more about the potential of their products.

Competitors run in front of the Forbidden City at Tiananmen Square during the Beijing Marathon in Beijing, China (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Maturing market

While mass participation events may be booming in Asia, elsewhere in the world the sector is in decline. At the IAAF Global Running Conference in May/June in Lanzhou, the federation presented a study that showed a 13-per-cent decrease in mass participation runners since 2016. The study covered 70,000 events since 1986, across distances of 5km, 10km, half marathon and full marathon.

The decline is concentrated in Europe and the US. But even in Asia, it is clear participation will peak in the not-too-distant future, and more enterprising event organisers are looking for new ways of attracting and engaging runners.

Infront’s deal with District will involve the sports marketing group acting as the exclusive strategic partner of District’s races, using District’s technology to organise events built around the app, and supporting the company with global sponsorship sales.

Hans-Peter Zurbrügg, vice-president of Infront’s personal and corporate fitness division, told SportBusiness why the partnership and stake were so attractive: “District’s platform addresses four global trends that we recognise draw people to mass participation events. It focuses on exploration, active living, technology and the experiential economy for participants, giving them the opportunity to be part of a unique event too. It also complements our existing personal and corporate fitness portfolio, giving us an event format that has the potential to scale globally and provide new sponsorship opportunities for brands or event partners.”

Ben Pember, chief executive and co-founder of District, told SportBusiness: “Previously, we had collaborated with Adidas to create customized urban exploration runs in six cities across Southeast Asia: Singapore, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Manila and Ho Chi Minh. These were very successful, and we moved on to launch our own District race event in Hong Kong and Singapore, getting participants off well-beaten paths and discovering parts of their country they never knew existed.”

Infront and District are planning for the first run in their new collaboration to be held in Berlin in September, targeting 3,000 participants, and another in London within the next 12 months.

Participants take part in the Hong Kong Marathon. Thousands of runners from Hong Kong and foreign countries took part in the city’s biggest sporting event (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Commercial structure

Pember told SportBusiness that an event run by the company in Hong Kong in May attracted 5,000 participants. It had sponsors including insurance company AIA, gym chain Fitness First, hotel operator Travelodge, drinks companies Jax Coco and Urban Spring, as well as Adidas.

Securing sponsorships is crucial for most run organisers, as participation revenues are rarely enough to generate a profit. Marketing costs in particular are posing an increasing challenge, says Jeffrey Foo, managing director of Infinitus Productions: “With marketing costs having gone up significantly in recent years, especially in the digital and social media space, it currently costs as much as 40 per cent of the entire event budget to market a run effectively. This results in a need to find good partners and sponsors that understand and see the value of these events.”

Foo says technology-led innovation at mass participation events enhances the benefits to sponsors, including creating the opportunity to associate with an innovative property and being able to obtain better data on participants.

Zurbrügg also argues that sponsors of tech-based runs get more value for their money compared to conventional events: “District’s setup and technology can attract sponsors by allowing for activations not only during the event, but before and after it. Having assessed the events that already exist and taking into account some initial discussions we have already had in Europe, the format’s link to technology is one of the biggest draws for potential sponsors. The augmented reality feature is a good example of that, with runners given the opportunity to explore their cities in new ways and the technology introducing them to, for example, soon-to-be released products.”

Next steps

While augmented-reality and app-based exploration features already look like interesting innovations, elsewhere in Asia further technological leaps are on the horizon. Marathons in China are beginning to experiment with 5G mobile networks and how superfast mobile internet can enhance the running experience.

Telco China Mobile sponsors the Liupanshui Summer International Marathon in Guizhou and is providing 5G network infrastructure for runners and attendees. According to Xinhuanet.com, 5G high-definition cameras combined with high-frequency RFID readers at 14 timing points will give each participant a detailed and personalised post-run video, which can be viewed and saved on the Liupanshui Marathon mobile app.

Foo can see fully virtual runs in the near future: “I feel that future mass participation runs will include runners participating in the same event, but located in other parts of the world through technology. Virtual marathons allow participants who can’t make it to the actual event (due to geography, time, or budget) to still take part and be part of the actual event, by running on the same day of the event, and even receive finisher’s medals with technology.”

With mass participation runs seemingly at a saturation point globally, as per the IAAF figures, these firms could inject some timely innovation into the space. Asia’s sports industries in general lag the West’s in terms of development. But the enthusiastic embrace of technology by Asian companies and consumers could make this one sector where the region leads the field.

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