While it is elite sport that grabs the headlines (and the
vast majority of commercial sponsorship revenues), there has been an upsurge in
events catering for the everyday athlete in disciplines such as running,
cycling and triathlon.

From the early days of the London Marathon (which launched
in 1981) to the more recent evolution of obstacle racing, people have been
inspired to participate by worthwhile causes and health and fitness and
self-improvement concerns, and the trend has been picked up on by governing
bodies and brands, as well as by the public.

The industry faces many obstacles to growth – public roads
and spaces are at saturation point, licensing, insurance and health and safety
costs are increasing rapidly and marketing is a challenge, with the sheer
number of events now available to the discerning athlete, which has led to a
fall in participation numbers in some cases.

Further adding to the challenges faced by organisers is a
shift away from ‘traditional’ sponsorships by brands that are turned off by
rigid rights and rate cards.

However, the Limelight Sports agency, which is based in London and has 25 years of experience in connecting brands with mass participation events, remains optimistic about the future, as shown by its recent move to take on responsibility for running and promoting three prominent domestic events, the London and Blenheim Palace Triathlons and the Etape Caledonia cycling event, all the properties of IMG.

The Etape Caledonia, the annual mass participation cycling event in Perthshire, Scotland
Limelight already works with major brands in the sector such
as Nike, Royal Bank of Canada and JP Morgan, and will be investing in its new
properties to attract different (and younger) audiences and sponsors.

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Craig Dews, Limelight’s chief executive, says: “For brands,
it [the market] is far from saturated. Mass participation has so many
opportunities for brands to engage and make a real impact. It’s actually very
uncluttered. Obviously, there are some enlightened brands who are already
reaping the benefits in the space, and we are lucky enough to work with some
very forward-thinking and ambitious clients.”

He adds: “The mass participation sector needs to overcome
the challenges it faces through collaboration, experience and innovation.
Overall, innovation in the sector has been really poor compared to other
industries. While there is a need to be authentic to the sport, that should no
longer be an excuse for a lack of creative thinking.

“The result of a lack of innovation has been that a plethora
of mass participation events are catering for exactly the same audience – the
relatively affluent 35-45+ demographic – and people wonder why marketing is
more difficult!”

Dews admires the foresight and innovation of the founders of
themed events such as the Tough Mudder and Spartan obstacle races and Colour
Run, which have grown quickly across the world and opened up mass participation
to a new younger audience, but insists that “there’s many more opportunities to
engage new audiences through existing events as well as new concepts.”

Mass participation events already run by Limelight in the UK
include London’s Royal Parks Half Marathon presented by RBC, the J.P. Morgan
Corporate Challenge London, the Descente London Duathlon and Swimathon, the
world’s biggest fundraising swimming challenge.

In addition, the agency has been brought in by England’s Football
Association to support the FA People’s Cup, the nationwide five-a-side
competition for grassroots teams, and devised Softball60, a new short-format
game, for Major League Baseball ahead of the contests between the Boston Red
Sox and the New York Yankees in the city next June.

” People aren’t just doing the same thing every year, they are looking for new experiences “

Craig Dews, CEO, Limelight Sports Group  

Limelight has been a partner of Nike for nearly 20 years,
and Dews sees Run London, the series of running events that the two
organisations held in parks and other locations from 2001 onwards as a
game-changer that took mass participation “mainstream,” and a stimulus for
other events that focus on the whole experience of the participant rather than
just the athletic challenge.

He says: “All of a sudden, participating wasn’t just about
fundraising, although you could do that. It was about taking part with your
friends, it made running cool… Mass participation events such as the London
Marathon had obviously been building, but Run London was about ‘you don’t have
to do it for someone else, you can do it for yourself’, which opened up
participation to a much wider audience.”

Dews adds: “At Limelight, we believe that the audience
attracted to Run London [over 150,000 people participated in the events] was
one of the contributors to the boom in cycling and triathlon in the UK. That
audience was twenty-something back in the 2000s and it then started maturing
and said, ‘what’s next?’ I think it’s been a natural progression. People aren’t
just doing the same thing every year, they are looking for new experiences.”

Limelight has sought to stand out from the crowd in focusing
on mass participation events and offering bespoke packages to brands to get
involved, and has for some time been working with Two Circles, the UK-based
data-driven agency, to gain a better understanding of the audience.

On the ethos of his company, Dews says: “We want to get more
people participating in what we call the active world. To do that we need to
bring more brands into this space and to do that we want to know the audience
better than anybody else, so we invest a lot in data and insights, and we can
match that audience to brands. We see it as partnership, not sponsorship. We
want to build campaigns where we enable the brand to add value to the lives of
their audience.”

Sponsors get involved in mass participation events for a
variety of reasons, including building awareness and profile, client and staff
engagement and charity, often as part of a wider CSR programme, and the
athletes are a key asset in that they tend to be relatively affluent, active on
social media and responsive to positive brand messages.

Dews says: “We want to find out what are the hopes, dreams,
aspirations and needs of these participants and how we can connect brands to
help them fulfil them. Ultimately, the great thing is that everybody crosses
the finish line, achieves their goal and feels fantastic, and all of the brands
and organisations connected with that experience bask in the afterglow.”

Limelight helped devise Softball60, a new short-format game, for MLB

Nonetheless, there are other considerations, according to
the Limelight chief, who says: “To attract major brand investment, yes, you
need to know the audience, but the event also has to be either iconic or
innovative, ideally both. It has to stand for something that sets it apart.
There are hundreds of events in the mass participation space, but many of them
are very similar, don’t stand out and struggle to get brand partnerships apart
from small, local or tactical ones.

“What we want to be is the agency that is bringing in brands
to really engage with their audience through innovative ideas and campaigns. We
steer away from the traditional sponsorship model of fixed rights and rate
cards. Of course we’ll know the value of a partnership but we try to build
something bespoke to the brand. People say brands need the same amount of money
again [on top of a deal] to activate a sponsorship. We try to weave in
activation as part of the rights package so we’re slightly different in our

However, while there is pressure to change traditional
business models, companies must also overcome the challenge of securing new
permissions for the use of public roads and spaces to host new events.

Dews says: “Whenever you try to create a new mass event, it’s
becoming very, very difficult to get permissions. In London even when you’re
not looking at closing down roads, permissions for the use of parks and open
spaces are really challenging now. In the US, there are many cities that have a
moratorium on new events. So that is a significant and growing challenge going

The situation partly explains the decision to take on IMG’s
portfolio of UK mass events, albeit they will continue to be owned by the
international sports agency, and are regarded by Limelight as ticking the
‘iconic’ box.

The London Triathlon, based in Docklands in the east of the
city, remains one of the biggest in the world, with more than 10,000 participants
and 30,000 spectators, while the Blenheim Palace Triathlon in Oxfordshire in
south-east England is distinctive in being held at a World Heritage site, and
draws almost 7,500 competitors.

The Etape Caledonia, held on an 85-mile route in Perthshire
in Scotland, is the original closed-road sportive in the country, but entrants
have fallen from a high of 5,000 in recent years, partly because of competition
from other events.

By creating iconic ‘must-do’ bucket list events, we’ll be able to attract high quality commercial partners  

Asked how Limelight will manage the IMG trio, Dews says: “We
want to take all of our learnings and approach to innovation and to
partnerships, and apply them to these three events. Unlike starting up a new
event, we have a head start as, for example, the permissions are in place.”

He adds that they are all ‘bucket list’ events “so it was
obvious for us to go after them when we knew they would be available, even
though we do not see ourselves as a rights-holder. As an agency, we can present
a different proposition to brands.”

Limelight will be bringing expertise from its events such as
the Royal Parks Half Marathon, and, in the case of the Etape Caledonia, input
from DC Thomson, the Scottish publishing and media company that is an investor
in the agency.

Dews says: “We’re going to invest significantly in the participant
experience of all three events. Although this will have an impact on their
profitability in the first couple of years, we believe that getting the
experience right through participant feedback and insight will bring long-term
benefits. By creating iconic ‘must-do’ bucket list events, we’ll be able to
attract high quality commercial partners.”

Priorities will include finding a new title partner for the London Triathlon after financial services company AJ Bell ended its partnership after four years, and attracting a more diverse audience for an event that has had a largely ABC1 following.

Dews sees companies in consumer electronics, FMCG and
utilities, as well as traditional partners such as banks, as potential sponsors
for mass participation events, while acknowledging the propensity for
conservatism in the sponsorship industry.

He says: “It needs a few more brands to be a bit braver. And
it’s our job to get them to understand the potential benefits of investing in
major participation events and to not think in a traditional sponsorship way.
That is a big challenge, but we are speaking to a large number of brands and we
do get the sense that they want to hear and do something different, and then
it’s about getting them to make that jump.”

Limelight has taken over running the London and Blenheim Palace Triathlons from IMG

Elsewhere, Limelight is offering advice to various UK
governing bodies as they seek to drive participation and create new commercial
rights packages to sell to potential partners.

Dews says: “What we offer, and increasingly people are
seeing this, is we’re experts. We have worked purely in participation sport for
more than 25 years as a commercial organisation. This has meant that we have
had to be customer-led – or people wouldn’t have engaged – and creative. Being
outsiders, i.e. not being constrained by a traditionalist’s view of a particular
sport, means we can look at things differently. The creation of Softball60 for
the MLB is a case in point.”

He concludes: “We’ve always been in and around governing
bodies. But now it [that part of the business] is really starting to gain
traction in its own right. Governing bodies need to diversify income streams
and to drive the government’s participation agenda if they want to secure
public funding.”