Competition and Connection: What Does Running’s Future Hold?

By Mario Fraioli

What’s happening to the sport of running? Forgive me if that’s a loaded question but this recent piece from The New York Times paints a pretty good picture of where shoe and apparel companies will be spending their marketing dollars in the years to come. “The sport’s future may be more about connecting than competing,” writes Gina Kolata.

Does that mean there’s no place in that future for competitive athletes? The short answer to that is no, but competitive athletes who can’t connect with potential customers beyond race results just aren’t all that interesting right now to the sport’s biggest stakeholders, namely the shoe and apparel companies that keep it—and the athletes—afloat.

That’s not to say that running fast isn’t important (on some level, albeit a seemingly shrinking one, it is), but I’m still amazed at how many competitive athletes who want to make a living in the sport don’t understand that brands aren’t paying them to run fast—they’re paying them to sell product. Like it or not, that’s how sports marketing works.

And unfortunately, running fast on its own doesn’t sell a lot of product, which is why many brands are sinking their marketing resources into athletes—even some who may never step foot on a starting line—that have made themselves relatable and relevant to a wider audience of runners through storytelling, community building, and other forms of connection. The number of influencers, online personalities, urban run crews, and the like that companies are taking interest in—and in some cases, investing in—is on the rise and I don’t see it dropping anytime soon.

This idea of connection and making a living in the sport of running is a topic I’ve explored recently on the podcast with Scott Fauble and Des Linden, two professional athletes who compete often and have certainly run fast, but also understand that their jobs aren’t done after they cross the finish line.

“I think it’s just talking about all of it because it is just a very universal sport—good days, bad days, injuries, the whole thing—and so the more you can share with people, the more they’ll realize beyond the pace, everything is pretty similar,” Linden told me last week. “It’s right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot, repeat, and that’s all the way across the board, so there’s gotta be some things we can connect on. It’s just finding the ones that resonate.”

Can competition continue to resonate on some level and foster meaningful connection amongst runners? I’m optimistic that it will, and aware that it must. The sport’s future depends on it.

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