Inside China’s Endurance Sports Empire

September 26, 2017, 10:30 AM UTC

Sixteen years ago, Andrew Messick was an executive on the rise at the National Basketball Association—and suffering from early-onset middle-aged blahs. Constant travel and long hours had led him to pack on the pounds, leaving him easily tired and plagued with back problems.

That’s when the former high school track athlete and UC–Davis rugby player rediscovered exercise. He started with short bike rides in New York City’s Central Park, then graduated to longer excursions. He taught himself to swim competitively. And by 2005 he had found his obsession: Ironman triathlons. “Ironmans” are the gold standard for amateur endurance athletes: Each consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile marathon—with no breaks.

As Messick trained, his weight fell as low as 170 pounds from a peak of 210, relieving his long-suffering back. Messick, 53, has now done three full-length Ironmans and competes frequently in shorter triathlons. Above all, he says, competing satisfies him emotionally: “It fills an elemental need in people, which is to know, ‘Can I do it?’ ”

Today it’s Messick’s job to persuade millions more people to answer that question. In 2011 he became CEO of World Triathlon Corp. (WTC), which organizes Ironman and other sporting events worldwide. In 2015, WTC was acquired by Chinese mega-conglomerate Dalian Wanda, and this year, Wanda bought the world’s largest organizer of marathons and half-marathons. Messick, who oversees the combined operation, now faces an Olympian challenge: generating demand for such events among China’s rising cohort of middle-class, deskbound consumers.

Like other maturing industries, endurance sports are looking to China for invigoration. Endurance events are a nearly $2 billion market in the U.S., according to IBISWorld, but its biggest category—marathons and half-marathons—has stopped growing in th

RACING KINGS: Andrew Messick who helped turn Ironman races into a global success, now leads Wanda’s endurance-sports unit. He oversees the popular Rock ‘n’ Roll series of marathons and half-marathons.Photo: Brook Pifer
Photo: Brook Pifer

e States. In China the market is relatively tiny, but there are signs of an incipient boom. In 2015 there were 134 marathon events registered by the China Athletics Association; last year there were 328. (There are about 1,200 in the U.S.) What’s more, China’s government has thrown its weight behind the sports and fitness industries, as part of an effort to reorient its economy around consumer goods and services—a trend that business interests in just about every major sport hope to tap.

An estimated 31,000 registered runners participated in the 19th running of the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in 2016.Photo: Kent Horner—Getty Images
Photo: Kent Horner—Getty Images

Dalian Wanda, owned by billionaire Wang ­Jianlin, wants to get in on the ground floor. Wanda bought Ironman for about $650 million from private equity firm Providence Equity Partners. Wanda has also assembled a portfolio of dozens of endurance races outside the Ironman universe. Most notably, in June it scooped up Competitor Group Inc. (CGI), parent company of the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons, which fields races in 29 markets, with 600,000 participants. Thanks to these acquisitions, now part of Wanda Sports Holding, Wanda has quietly become the dominant global company in endurance sports.

The new entity is blazing a trail in China. The country will host five Ironman events this year, and six in 2018. And China’s inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon and half-marathon will take place Oct. 28 in Chengdu, a city of 7 million, with United Airlines as its major sponsor.

SEEKING CROWDS: Kid Rock sings for Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll racers in 2015.Photo: Ryan Bethke
Photo: Ryan Bethke

But Wanda wants to keep expanding far beyond its home country. The combined entity has a roster of more than 250 events globally, from which it earns revenue via entry fees, ­corporate sponsorships, merchandise, and broadcast licenses. Messick envisions Rock ‘n’ Roll and Ironman boosting each other: Rock ‘n’ Roll races can funnel athletes toward the more elite, ­expensive Ironmans; WTC, meanwhile, can share expertise with Rock ‘n’ Roll, which has struggled financially and organizationally. ­Credit rating firm Moody’s says it expects WTC and Rock ‘n’ Roll to rake in $300 million this year thanks to “meaningful cost synergies.” If China’s potential is as great as Wanda believes, revenue could easily double in a decade.

But just as in marathon running, size doesn’t guarantee success. The endurance-race field has grown increasingly crowded: Shorter obstacle-course events like Tough Mudder have been stealing market share; Virgin Sport, an upstart financed by deep-pocketed Richard Branson, has leaped onto the track with a slate of “festivals” that add yoga classes and concerts to the endurance-race mix. Messick will need to innovate to make Wanda’s offerings stand out. “How do you continue to capture the imagination of athletes and give them a reason to get up at 4:30 in the morning and train?” he asks. Answering that question will take stamina.

Chart shows number of full and half marathons finishers in the U.S.

In a sport associated with intense self-sacrifice, it’s noteworthy that the Rock ‘n’ Roll series’ success sprang from an effort to make marathons less lonely. The theme was inspired in 1997, when runner Tim Murphy found himself hitting the wall during the Heart of San Diego marathon and wishing he had a musical pick-me-up to power him through the final miles. The next year he organized the first Rock ‘n’ Roll race, in San Diego. The idea was to turn races into extended block parties, with a few dozen bands along the route to energize runners and keep onlookers entertained.

Runners quickly warmed to the concept: Every year, for example, hundreds dress as Elvis Presley for the Las Vegas marathon. As it caught on, the Rock ‘n’ Roll team soon had an edge few organizers could match: a uniform brand that encouraged large groups to participate in multiple races in multiple cities. That math proved irresistible to investment firm Falconhead Capital, which bought Rock ‘n’ Roll owner Elite Racing in 2008 and merged it with other properties to create CGI.

The starting line for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Las Vegas. The races in the series were designed to be extended block parties, with a few dozen bands along the route to energize runners and keep onlookers entertained. Runners quickly warmed to the concept: 45,000 competed in the 2015 race in Las Vegas.Photo: Ryan Bethke
Photo: Ryan Bethke

Backed by new capital, CGI went on a shopping spree: It bought existing marathons in Las Vegas in 2008 and Denver in 2009, then went international with acquisitions in Madrid, Edinburgh, Montreal, and Lisbon. It generally turned its new races into successes, and CGI soon became the first truly global organizer in a highly fragmented, localized industry. Sponsors, meanwhile, got a tantalizing target audience: According to CGI, 60% of its runners are women, and half have household income of at least $100,000. More big companies joined its roster, and by 2012, CGI reportedly had revenue of $126 million, with sales up 26% annually over the preceding five years.

Hundreds dress in costumes to run in the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons. Elvis Presley is particularly popular.Photo: Rich Polk—Getty Images for CGI
Photo: Rich Polk—Getty Images for CGI

But CGI’s core market was about to bonk. Its ascent coincided with a meteoric rise in U.S. marathon running: The number of finishers climbed 63% from 1998 to 2014, to 550,600. That proved to be a high-water mark, however, as baby boomers aged out and competing trends like CrossFit and SoulCycle attracted younger athletes. Participation tumbled to 507,600 in 2016, according to Running USA, an industry association. (Half-marathons, of which CGI operates several, also saw a decline.) “Growth during the boom was unsustainable, and supply [of races] was outpacing demand,” says Rich Harshbarger, Running USA’s CEO.

Even before then, the formerly sure-footed CGI had begun to stumble. The company changed ownership in a 2012 leveraged buyout by private equity firm Calera that left it with substantial debt. So hungry was CGI for growth that it would drum up huge turnouts for inaugural races, rather than start small and work out the kinks. The company’s first Brooklyn Half Marathon, in 2015, drew 17,500 runners but was marred by logistical snafus such as bag-check chaos and an overcrowded course. The company also got greedy: At one point, CGI sold VIP access to porta-potties at the start area of the Vegas marathon. Messick’s take: Management had become more focused on the expectations of investors than on runners.

As an overextended company collided with a contracting market, troubles came to a head. CGI had to ax a number of races, including the marathon in Denver and half-marathons in Providence and St. Petersburg, as registration plummeted. The cash-strapped company ultimately reverted to control of its lenders, who sold it, for an undisclosed sum, to Wanda.

Providence Equity bought WTC and the Ironman races for some $85 million in 2008, a few months after Falconhead bought Rock ‘n’ Roll. WTC seemed like the laggard of the two—until it hired Messick.

Messick began working in sports in 2000 after stints at Sara Lee and the McKinsey consulting firm. As senior vice president of NBA International, he spearheaded the league’s business expansion into overseas markets, including China. (He later worked for AEG, helping that event promoter build joint ventures with the NBA in China.) Messick says his most memorable mentorships came from former NBA commissioner David Stern and current commissioner Adam Silver; they taught him the importance of not straying from what a brand stands for, even when facing pressure to expand. “Andrew felt if we couldn’t do something to a certain standard, we shouldn’t do it,” Silver tells Fortune.

Brand discipline became central to Messick’s approach at Ironman. In 2011, when he became CEO, there were dozens of races that WTC licensed but didn’t supervise, creating inconsistencies in how they were executed; Messick reclaimed those licenses. At the same time he expanded rapidly, widening the brand’s appeal by launching more “70.3” races (triathlons half the length of a traditional, 140.6-mile Ironman). He also pounced on merchandising opportunities; the Ironman-branded Timex, for example, is now a top-selling sports watch. In Messick’s first three years, Ironman’s revenue rose sevenfold, to $150 million.

Children compete at an Ironman “70.3” event in Hefei, China. The waning popularity of endurance races in the U.S. has made China more alluring to race promoters—and created an opportunity for Dalian Wanda.Photo: Matt Roberts—Getty Images
Photo: Matt Roberts—Getty Images

Messick also created a sophisticated customer relationship management (CRM) database to help build customer loyalty. Ironman events average about 2,500 racers, with entry fees around $700 (marathon fees are closer to $125). Many racers treat triathlons as “one and done” achievements, but Messick wanted more athletes to do multiple Ironmans—a crucial goal, given the small pool of people willing to compete. Messick says the CRM system has increased retention: Some 41% of 2016’s Ironman athletes will compete in another event this year.

Messick’s work ethic, meanwhile, drew raves. “He’s a leader who inspires the troops and loves the sport,” says Davis Noell, the Providence Equity managing director who oversaw Ironman. And athletes reciprocated that love: About 260,000 people will race in full-length and “70.3” Ironmans this year, almost twice as many as in 2011.

Wanda appears to love Messick too: Since it bought WTC, the executive says, the company has largely left him to his own devices. (Wanda declined to make executives other than Messick available for interviews.) But Wanda Sports is clearly a key component in its parent company’s ambitious, if puzzling, expansion.

Once focused mostly on commercial real estate, Wanda has been on a buying spree of disparate businesses. In addition to WTC and a stake in soccer’s Club Atlético de Madrid, the company owns film studio Legendary and a majority interest in the AMC theater chain. Wanda is part of a group of Chinese conglomerates that have piled up debt to the point where some view them as posing systemic risk to China’s economy; this summer, under political pressure, Wanda sold off some assets. Still, Wang Jianlin has been clear about his ambitions: Wanda is gunning for $100 billion in revenue in 2020, up from $38 billion in 2016, and wants consumer-facing businesses like entertainment, retail, and sports to account for two-thirds of sales by 2018.

Even before Wanda snagged CGI, it was expanding its marathon empire. The World Marathon Majors (WMM) is a grouping of six races that draw top professional racing talent—in New York City, Chicago, Boston, London, Berlin, and Tokyo. In April, Wanda announced a 10-year partnership with the group: The tie-up calls on Wanda to add another Asian race and possibly one in Africa to the roster of Majors within three years.

The Wide World of Wanda Sports

Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda has gone on a shopping spree for sports-management businesses; it’s now the world’s largest organizer of long-distance races and has a big footprint in soccer as well.

• Buys a 20% stake in soccer’s Club Atlético de Madrid for $55 million.
• Buys Swiss sports marketing group Infront Sports & Media for $1.2 billion, landing the broadcast rights to the next two World Cup soccer championships.
• Buys World Triathlon Corp., organizer of the Ironman events, for a reported $650 million plus debt.

• Buys Lagardère Sports’ endurance events division, including five triathlon events and four marathons, with a total of 140,000 participants.

• Buys Competitor Group Inc., owner and operator of the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons and half-marathons, which have about 600,000 participants per year.

The Majors race criteria are tough and specific: They encompass everything from the number of water stations on a course to the distance to the airport. But under its title sponsor, drugmaker Abbott, the WMM wants to expand its reach beyond elite athletes. “When Abbott joined two years ago, they wanted more focus on mass participation,” says Peter Ciaccia, president of New York Road Runners and race director of the New York City Marathon.

Mass participation matters to Wanda’s bottom line: Unlike in major sports like football or soccer, where sponsors pay a premium to reach vast TV audiences, marathon sponsors pay to connect with an elite circle of participants, families, and friends. Messick thinks China can vastly expand that circle; he sees an enormous hunger among Chinese amateur athletes. In 2015, for example, there were 400 Chinese nationals competing in Ironman events. The following year, the number rose to 2,800.

There’s also a sound business logic to having Western brands present endurance-sports events in China. Chinese consumers gravitate to Western luxury brands, especially when the product is unfamiliar. That’s one reason Ironman and Rock ‘n’ Roll continue to operate under their own names. “Wanda is not dumb—these are investments,” says Norm O’Reilly, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University and himself an Ironman. “They want brands that are going to work.” In one encouraging sign, Adidas last year signed a two-year deal to sponsor some Ironman races in China and is in talks about 2018 events.

To keep that momentum going, Wanda will need savvy marketing to entrench endurance sports more firmly in China’s cultural landscape—while at the same time avoiding the kind of overextension that plagued the Rock ‘n’ Roll series before Wanda bought it.

That series, meanwhile, is due for more managerial love. Given that 65% of runners now run with headphones, blocking out bands, Rock ‘n’ Roll has to rethink its approach, Messick says. (One possibility: streaming a branded, revenue-generating playlist to runners.) Messick will also need to keep pace in a tech arms race on the track. India’s Tata Consultancy Services, the title sponsor of the NYC Marathon, has developed a sophisticated app that tracks runners’ exact location in real time. And the use of tech to enable community building is the sport’s next frontier, says Ciaccia: “Running is much more social than it’s ever been.”

Rock ‘n’ Roll may ultimately have to focus on its best events, and Messick has hinted that more races could be on the chopping block. “You have to love the races you love but also be prepared to say, we can’t salvage it,” he says. Still, he believes the mystique of exertion will keep the series strong. Marathons and Ironmans are mythical in people’s minds, almost primal. The ranks of Ironman finishers are so exclusive that many get themselves tattooed with the event’s logo. “These races represent a really meaningful challenge for lots of people,” says Messick. The more athletes embrace that challenge, the easier his job will be.

A version of this article appears in the Oct. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Racing to Build an Endurance Sports Empire.”

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