The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with mass participation sporting events.
For some it’s been financially crippling. Nine out of 10 race organisers reported overall losses last year, more than half anticipated losses over 50% of annual revenue and 13% had no intention of running any events in 2021, according to one survey.
Yet amid this hostile climate, Christian Toetzke only sees opportunity. An industry veteran of the international cycling, marathon and triathlon world, he’s considered one of the world’s leading experts for mass participation events.
In the 1990s Toetzke developed several World Triathlon Series and Cyclassics before they were sold to The Ironman Group. Then in 2017 – along with German two-time Olympic gold medal hockey player Moritz Fürste – he created HYROX, a global fitness race that combines functional exercise with endurance.
Around the world athletes compete in the same race, each hosted in atmospheric indoor arenas, to earn a place at the annual World Championships.
Within two years the HYROX World Series in Hamburg was drawing 10,000 spectators and live television coverage that earned investment from Infront Sports & Media Group and sponsorship with global brands including Puma and Redbull.
While coronavirus curtailed HYROX’s rapid expansion plans in 2020, the company is back on track with a national gym tour of the UK ahead of its flagship launch at London’s Excel Centre on 25th September, followed by Birmingham (30 October) and Manchester (29 January 2022).
Here Toetzke explains how HYROX survived the pandemic, reveals his secret ingredients for successful mass participation events and outlines his vision for global domination – including one day debuting at the Olympic Games.
On welcoming competition…..
Tough Mudder, Spartan, Turf Games, the CrossFit Games – these are all good for the growth of HYROX. We’re all very different but we’re creating a new category of mass participation which is fitness racing. It’s a mix of running and workouts that people are already doing in the gym. Other races and sports are so far away from the reality of what most people do when they go to the gym. We think we offer something truly aligned to mass participation.
The other big difference with HYROX is that everyone knows exactly how the event is designed. It’s the marathon of fitness. You know it will be a tough day, it will suck everything out of your body, but you know what you must do to be prepared. People don’t have to be scared about the workout because they already know what it is.
All of these “competitors” are actually beneficial for us because these events turn people into athletes. Someone who wants to compete at Turf Games or CrossFit competitions will also choose to do HYROX. This means our participation pool is much larger as we have access to all these populations plus marathon runners and triathletes and the traditional endurance world.
It’s beneficial for us that the whole ecosystem grows. The more people that go to fitness events and consider that these are activities they want to do the better for us.
On the dawn of mass participation events…..
When I set up Upsolut Sports AG in Germany in 1995 mass participation events were very rare. The only events were marathons, really. Only 200 people owned racing bikes in all of Hamburg. Now, 20 years later, there are thousands and a whole economy built around it.
I look back proudly at the genesis of the mass participation sporting event. We created a culture of actually going to fitness events and it has led to other sports that sit on a continuum that also covers Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) and CrossFit and these new evolutions.
I learnt a lot about the logistics of running these events, and also about how running these events changes the landscape of the sport itself. Large events have a gravitational pull. They lead to the development of whole industries. The best bikes and the best shoes didn’t come from making things for elite racers, they came from building en masse for thousands of participants.
You also see it in the development of athletes and their preparation and training. Mass participation leads to elite performance. Increased datasets from more participants lead to more focus on all the minute aspects that lead to world-class performance. They are two sides of the same coin that are mutually beneficial.
On the evolution of fitness since the 1990s…..
There has been a massive evolution – and CrossFit has played a big part. Before you did fitness to be a better tennis player or footballer. Sport was not fitness. Then CrossFit came with this very smart idea to create the sport of fitness based on who could “win” a workout. That was a fundamentally different concept, even in the endurance world. Training used to be just something you did to win races and it really opened people’s eyes to this underserved community.
One of the reasons I moved into fitness was because the endurance world was saturated. The world has enough marathons. I also read a piece of research from Germany where 51% said their sport was fitness – not triathlons, not running, not football – but there were no competitions for these people. I knew I needed to create this competition, leveraging my knowledge of mass participation to cater to this underserved population. The answer to that was HYROX.
On balancing risk and chasing profit…..
I could have grown HYROX organically but it would have taken 15 years to make it as a global sport. For me, that’s a bit boring. I wanted to grow big immediately and grow aggressively so the investment from Infront in 2019 was very important. I was also conscious that we’re in a fast-moving space and people will iterate on your idea quickly. We needed a footprint immediately and in a way that was difficult to replicate for smaller players.
We have invested a lot already – these aren’t cheap events. New markets are always a loss leader but we balance them against our original events which are now very, very healthy and we are constantly reinvesting in growth. We want to have a footprint in Southeast Asia, Australia and South America by year five. We’re in year three now and coronavirus delayed us by two years, so we are moving even faster to capitalise as the world reopens.
What is positive is we are seeing amazing results from our recent market entry in the UK and our European and US races continue to perform well. People are hungry for in-person events.
On how COVID-19 has transformed the landscape for sporting events…..
I should say not at all and everything is great… but I have to be honest and say I still don’t know how long it will take before we are back to normal. Depending on the country, the range of scenarios is hard to comprehend.
The UK is basically back to normal, but the country has a very high vaccination rate and a government that is very pro reopening. Other countries are wildly different. Our events are very capital-intensive to set up so making these investments and decisions, especially to launch new countries from a risk management perspective, is very complex.
Fortunately, we retain 100% control of our events. They are indoors and very easy to manage from a personal protection point of view. We implement safety measures based on the requirements of the country we are in and what our participants request.
From this perspective, we are very confident that as long as we operate within consistent guidelines and requirements from authorities, we can manage the safety aspect better than almost any other sport.
On the secret to successful mass participation sporting events…..
You need to create an iconic image for participants. It needs to be a real achievement to do it. It needs to go on their bucket list. A marathon is more than the 26.2 miles you run, it becomes part of your identity and you align with every other person who has taken part in it.
It also must be designed like a traditional sport, with very consistent rules and the nature of the competition must be very clearly established. You need to be able to see your performance year-on-year. You need to be able to create legacy stories over time.
On HYROX’s golden future…..
I believe we will be a global sport with a mass participation event on every continent on Earth (although maybe not Antarctica). I’m confident the professional sporting side of HYROX will grow significantly with an ecosystem of professional athletes and professional sponsorship. The coaching side of things will grow. Both the bottom of the pyramid and the peak will grow.
We also believe that the Olympics are a realistic goal. Triathlon is now an established Olympic sport, having debuted at the Sydney Games in 2000, and HYROX has everything that is required to make it. We only really need to continue to grow and work with the correct authorities, which is a process I’m familiar with. But before that, we’re targeting running 26 events in the 2021/22 season, 40 in 2022/23, 60 in 2023/24 and 100 by 2024/25.