Richard Branson’s Virgin Sport Unveils Its First Events
Virgin Sport is ready for its rookie season.
The unit of billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s sprawling Virgin Group empire is betting it can carve a place for itself in the increasingly crowded amateur sports market by organizing “sports festivals” that blend different kind of events aimed at attracting a wide variety of people beyond hardcore jocks.
Whereas many of its rivals, including marathon organizer Competitor Group or World Triathlon Corporation’s Ironman series, offer events focused on one discipline, Virgin Sport’s festivals will integrate road races (including a half marathon and shorter distances to attract different runners), group fitness activists like yoga, bootcamp fitness classes and performances by local artists, among other activities (some free) to reach as many people as possible, with up to 20,000 participants conceivable at some festivals.
Virgin Sport’s first four events were announced on Tuesday and will including three in greater London—Hackney (April 30), Westminster (July 9) and Oxford (in October)—as well as one in San Francisco (October 14-15.) More festivals will be added in 2018 and beyond.
“The reality of our life is that we’re surrounded by a variety of friends and family who have different interests and abilities,” Virgin Sport CEO Mary Wittenberg told Fortune in an interview. Her strategy builds on a growing trend among road race organizers to add a half marathon or a 5k to a marathon, often tripling the number of total participants by adding appeal for athletes who don’t have time to train for a full marathon and who simply want a shorter distance. Indeed, women running half marathons have been the biggest force behind the running boom in the last ten years.
In May 2015, Branson lured Wittenberg away from New York Road Runners, the large not-for-profit organization behind the New York City Marathon and dozens of other major races in the city, to create Virgin Sport from scratch. Part of the rationale was to drive more business to its 270-club of Virgin Active health clubs and health and wellness company Virgin Pulse, and vice versa.
During Wittenberg’s ten-year stint as NYRR CEO, the group saw explosive group, with its marquee event regularly attracting 50,000-plus runners. She also diversified NYRR’s roster of marquee events, creating the NYC Half Marathon and turning the Brooklyn Half Marathon into the largest 13.1 mile race in the country. Wittenberg, the winner of the 1987 Marine Corps Marathon, also landed big NYRR marathon sponsorships with Airbnb and TCS, tweaking the model by having them support other races during the year and not just the marathon itself.
As it expands, Virgin Sport will add more activities including bike races, full marathons (more likely in Britain where there are far fewer in relation to the population than in the U.S.), and perhaps even ultra marathons (any distance beyond 26.2 miles), says Wittenberg. As for fees, Virgin Sport hasn’t yet disclosed them but Wittenberg says they will be competitive with other similar events and notes there will a number of free activities, like the bootcamp.
“It’s a starting point,” she said of the current line-up of activities at the four announced festivals.