Rolling in mud, being submerged in ice water and enduring electric shocks may sound like a miserable time to many, but for a segment of the fitness world, it’s another way to exercise.
The fitness industry is ever-expanding and far-reaching, with alternative forms becoming more and more mainstream. Obstacle course events are no different and their popularity has surged over recent years to now rival more traditional races like marathons and triathlons.
Arguably the leading name in obstacle course and endurance events is Tough Mudder, which has grown exponentially since starting in 2010. The brand has had more than 2.5 million participants across three continents to date and will finish this year with more than 120 events staged in 10 countries.
Dubai will be the latest city to host the experience as the du Tough Mudder makes its debut in the emirate at Hamdan Sports Complex this weekend on December 9-10. The UAE is no stranger to obstacle course and endurance events, but Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean believes the appetite for the concept is as big as ever.
“I think the younger generation sees experience as being the new luxury good,” he told Sport360.
“What kind of watch we have or what kind of car we drive is less important than the memories we share. Our memories appreciate in value and our iPhones are quickly replaced with something better.
“Secondly, I think fitness has changed. Functional fitness is much bigger now than it used to be. I’m not against marathons or triathlons, but if you only run or bike, you’re not going to be in the best shape you can be. You need to have that functional fitness and that’s what Tough Mudder is about.”
Dean, who is a native of Great Britain, came up with the idea as a second-year MBA candidate at Harvard Business School in Boston. Again, he wasn’t the first person to imagine the obstacle course, but by refining the obstacles, upping the challenge and focusing on values like personal achievement and teamwork, Tough Mudder has thrived.
Tough Mudder now includes its standard 10-12 mile series of military-style obstacle courses, a five-mile version called the Tough Mudder Half, a course created by women for women called Mudderella, an event for children aged seven to 12 called Fruit Shoot Mini Mudder and its signature 24-hour endurance competition, the World’s Toughest Mudder.
An 8km and 16km course will be available to those eager to get dirty in Dubai this weekend, as well as the 1.5km du Mini Mudder for aforementioned children.
Tough Mudder has also partnered with Dubai Sports Council and got IMG on board as organisers, which is one of the major factors behind Dean finally feeling it was the right time to expand into the Middle East.
“Dubai is a market we’ve been planning on coming to for several years now,” he said. “You have a large, young middle class here into health and wellness. There’s a trend around the world – it’s true here as well – more people put more emphasis on being healthy and living healthy lifestyles. But not just that, but challenging themselves and taking on new things.
“This is a part of the world that’s pioneering. People are doing new things and looking for new adventures. You also have a large expat community, so you have a lot of people that have relatively high disposable income, free time and are young enough to come do things.
“I also think Tough Mudder as a company is now sophisticated enough that we can work with third parties and actually support them in the way we need. But in IMG, you have the world’s largest sports marketing company, world-class event production skills and they’re very, very strong on the ground here in Dubai.”
Despite putting on an event for the first time in this region, Dean is confident with his target of 5,000 participants – and he has every reason to be.
As mentioned, Tough Mudder’s participation numbers are through the roof. But maybe the number that truly speaks to Tough Mudder being a movement is 5,000, as in approximately how many people have a tattoo of the Tough Mudder logo.
That dedication and passion is the result of what Tough Mudder puts people through, both physically and mentally.
Just take a look at the list of obstacles. Participants have to jump into a dumpster filled with ice water in Arctic Enema, traverse through a mud field with live wires hanging overhead in Electroshock Therapy and run up a slick quarter pipe covered in mud and grease in Everest. Those are just a few of the insane creations thought up by Tough Mudder’s research and development team, which Dean describes as “nutty professors”.
But more than just pushing your body to the limit, the obstacles are specifically designed to inspire teamwork and camaraderie, whether that’s helping fellow participants or encouraging them on the course. That’s one of the qualities that Dean believes really separates Tough Mudder from the competition.
“I really believe that the best companies out there are purpose-driven organisations, companies that exist to try and make the world a better place,” Dean said. “Maybe that sounds cliche to some but that’s what I believe and I believe Tough Mudder gets people to live happier, healthier lives.
“It gets people to spend time with their friends, it pushes them to do something they weren’t sure they can do, so people feel good about themselves. The key to building self confidence is doing things that scare you a little and Tough Mudder is a little scary. I’m proud of that and I’m proud that it’s something that forces you to turn off your smartphone for a couple of hours and actually spend time with your friends.
“If you’re the kind of person that holds the door open for somebody or helps someone with their luggage, you’re actually going to be a happier person. The brain releases endorphins when you help people and Tough Mudder is just the extreme version of that.”
June 4, 2016, was a landmark day in the history of Club Deportivo Leganes. Pablo Insua’s winning goal not only secured a 1-0 victory against Mirandes on the final day of the season, but propelled the club into La Liga for the first time in its 88-year history.
Based on the outskirts of Madrid, with a stadium that seats just shy of 11,000 spectators, Leganes provided the only domestic bright spark for the Spanish capital in 2015/16. Although Atletico and Real met in the Champions League final, both were pipped to the Primera Division title by Barcelona, while Getafe and Rayo Vallecano were relegated to the Segunda.
Leganes may be a small team, but they have big ambitions. Handed a blueprint for survival by fellow first-timers Eibar, whose survival for the past two seasons has defied all expectation, the club has made a superb start to life in La Liga. Leganes already have two away wins under their belt, as well as a hugely creditable 0-0 draw at home to Atletico – Jose Luis Mendilibar’s side managing to nullify Antoine Griezmann & Co, something that not even Barcelona could manage in last week’s 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp.
While on the pitch performances have earned acclaim, developments off it have also begun to garner interest. In recent weeks, Leganes officials have travelled to both the UAE and China to secure international partnerships for a club looking to take full advantage of its status as a La Liga outfit.
The commercial deal struck in Dubai is particularly intriguing, given that it could revolutionise the concept of shirt sponsorship in football.
Saudi Arabian sports marketing company MBUZZ Sport bought up the rights to appear on the front of Leganes’ shirts in the 2016/17 season. It is not the first Saudi foray into La Liga shirt sponsorship, with MBUZZ Sport’s parent company MCCI, a mobile communications giant, linking up with Getafe for a brief stint towards the end of last season.
What makes the Leganes agreement different, however, is that MBUZZ Sport are planning to license out their shirt sponsorship to the highest bidder. It won’t be done on a season-by-season basis, but in “packages of games”, meaning Leganes will likely have multiple different names on their shirts in 2016/17.
“The idea is to give small and medium sized companies a chance to get exposure in La Liga for the first time,” CEO of MBUZZ Sport Youssef Abdellaoui told Sport360.
“The cost of sponsoring shirts for the season is certainly prohibitive to many so instead of giving them one season, we’ll give them a third of the season, maybe even just three or four games. They get to see the value added to that brand or sponsorship and then maybe next year you might have them for the full season.
“It’s going to be up to the customer. If they want only one match, we will advise them, okay, maybe the exposure would be better with two or three matches or more. But maybe they just want to feature against Real Madrid or Barcelona. If that’s what they want, they can get it.”
It’s not a unique idea. In 2010, during Tottenham’s first foray into the Champions League, asset management firm Investec sponsored the club’s shirts in Europe while software company Autonomy appeared in the Premier League.
The appeal certainly seemed a little less obvious with Leganes. So why did MBUZZ take a punt on a newly promoted La Liga side?
“Leganes I see it like Leicester,” Abdellaoui explained. “No-one would have ever thought Leicester could win the Premier League but this is the beauty of football. Leganes have been managed extremely well and, despite not having much money, have managed to get to La Liga. I was at the Atletico game and they showed how good they can be. They have what it takes to stay in La Liga. They are fighters.
“The big clubs are the big clubs. Everybody knows about Barcelona and Real Madrid but five years ago no-one was talking about Atletico. They weren’t considered one of the biggest teams and certainly weren’t one of the riches teams. Now it is a completely different story. Why can’t Leganes be a part of that as well? Why not any other team?
“We find comfort with Leganes. They have shown they are ready and keen to promote themselves and the GCC, especially in the Saudi market. Our objectives aren’t just related to the team’s performance, though if they stay in the La Liga and do well, that’s a good thing for them and that is of course what we want.
“But it is also about the infrastructure of the club, the academy, the relationship with the community. These are things that are important.”
Indeed, the scope of the partnership goes beyond shirt sponsorship. MBUZZ’s parent company MCCI is installing Wi-Fi at the club’s Estadio Municipal de Butarque home, while Leganes will send coaches and potentially players to work and play in the Saudi Pro League.
For Leganes vice president Felipe Moreno, it is the opportunity to expose the name of Leganes to a new audience that is one of the most appealing aspects of the deal.
“The economic side is the least important right now,” Moreno said. “We don’t just want to take money from the Arab world, we want to create a pathway between football in Spain and the Arab world. We want to lead the way in this collaboration. We will also invite coaches from Saudi Arabia to see the way we work, see the team in the best league in the world. In both Spain and the Middle East, we want to help create young men that are very competitive and understand the value of respect.”
The aspirations of Leganes don’t end there. Moreno revealed officials are pressing ahead with a proposal to change the club name to Club Deportivo Leganes Madrid in time for next season, with hopes that a closer association with the capital will make the team even more marketable. However, he concedes that there are no plans to sell off naming rights to the stadium, which is named after exalted local patron Nuestra Senora de Butarque.
“I don’t think we could ever change the name of Estadio Butarque,” Moreno said. “The whole city is named after Butarque and the fans would not like it. But the name of the club, it is just a minor adjustment that could make a big difference.
“We want to have our name on the map of the world so rather than being Leganes CD we want to be Leganes Madrid. We are in Madrid, a suburb of Madrid, and we want this to happen. It’s about exposing the club to the outside world.”
La Liga’s exposure in Saudi Arabia is certainly increasing all the time and Saudi involvement in European football is only going to get bigger given the division’s popularity continues to rise among the Gulf state’s fans and businesses continues to grow.
However, Jon Long, MENA managing director of sports analytics company Nielsen, believes that while Saudi investment is on the up, the Saudi Pro League still provides excellent sponsorship opportunities thanks to its enduring popularity.
“The Middle East continues to play a big role in European football sponsorship. Traditionally it has been the UAE and Qatar which have dominated that investment, most notably the major airlines, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways,” Long said.
“The role of Saudi Arabian brands is less well documented but there is now around $20m (Dh73m) per year being invested by Saudi-based companies in European football sponsorship with STC leading the way through long-term partnerships with both Manchester United and Real Madrid that focus on marketing rights other than shirt sponsorship.
“Saudi brands have to weigh up such activities against the opportunities in the local league, which attracts big domestic television audiences in its own right,” added Long. MBUZZ Sport has opted to turn outwards from the Middle East with the Leganes agreement, though the company is adamant that there will be tangible benefits domestically given the depth of the deal with regards to coaching.
For Leganes, meanwhile, it is all about making the most of their time in the spotlight.
Italy’s role at the forefront of the fashion world is well known but in fitness, too, the country has long been firmly on trend.
Since 1983, Technogym has been revolutionising the environment in which people work out – stamping Italian style across gyms around the globe. First came the transformation of imposing steel structures into sleek, modern designs – before technological innovation became a guiding principle.
And having established a reputation for excellence in the field of fitness over the past three decades, Technogym’s position as a market leader has manifested itself in Rio de Janeiro this month, with Olympic athletes relying on the company’s cutting edge equipment to enhance performance.
Technogym is the official supplier for the games – for the sixth successive Olympics – and has kitted out gyms in the athletes’ village and at Rio 2016’s venues. Many of those going for gold in Rio are already familiar with Technogym as its gadgets and gizmos are key training tools for coaches and athletes alike.
“We have built 15 gyms in Rio and are providing equipment, digital support and trainers to help the athletes and their teams,” Technogym’s UAE managing director Michele Moro explains.
“It’s about helping athletes complete the last steps of the preparation, to manage the stresses associated with competition. It is the sixth time in a row we have been involved in the Olympics and is another wonderful opportunity, as well as being a big responsibility.
“The expectations of those athletes are getting higher and higher; there are thousands of people working day and night – sometimes just for 10 seconds that can change their lives or for one game. This means we need to be perfect, to have perfect equipment and provide perfect support for these men and women chasing their dreams.”
Preparation is everything for athletes and Technogym certainly views the four years between the games as important as the three weeks that make up the Olympics.
“It is in those four years that we develop the relationship and the trust, as well as through the previous editions,” Mori says. “So we need to be ready, provide what they need, be there and make sure that everybody will be focused on the objectives that many have been working their whole lives towards.
“We work shoulder to shoulder with the athletes – we see what they do, and try to get feedback to see what is next because in four years there will be another event.”
Helping athletes go ‘Stronger, Higher and Faster’ – as Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic motto famously states – is a central tenet of Technogym’s philosophy. But there is no question that, from a financial perspective, the mass market of amateur fitness fanatics is more crucial to the company’s ongoing success.
We can’t have Olympic athletes everywhere but you can have a life objective, the gold medal you will personally be chasing. It is no less important.
So are its products built for the elite, trickling down to the grassroots? Or is it an amateurs-first approach?
“Often it is the same product, whatever the level,” Mori says. “At the least it is the same family of product, with slight variations. There is of course a wide gap between amateurs and elite athletes but Technogym’s aim is to accommodate as many people as possible.
“Events like the Olympics are designed to inspire, to encourage people to do what athletes do. Obviously we cannot have Olympic athletes everywhere, but you can have a life objective, the gold medal you will personally be chasing. It’s no less important.
“Of course there is certain equipment made for Olympic athletes that aren’t as helpful for beginners but typically, what we try to develop solutions that appeal to a cross-section of society.
“We recently brought the Skillmill to market, for example, which is a typical example of our mass market appeal. It is perfect for high intensity training, and can be used by anyone from rugby players to burgeoning cross-fitters.”
One of the key players in dragging gym-based exercise into the mainstream, it is a legacy of which the Italian fitness giants are particularly proud.
“Historically, most gym equipment looked like medieval torture devices. Gyms were intimidating places. But we introduced the Italian style and design to make the experience more enjoyable for a regular person. We wanted to attract new people to the gym and to change their lifestyle, that’s why we created more sports-orientated equipment. Suddenly it wasn’t just all about dumbbells anymore.
“Now the fitness industry has exploded. I like to use a restaurant analogy. There are hundreds of different formats of restaurants – fine dining, buffet, fast food and then sub-categorised into Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Lebanese and Indian. The fitness industry can be the same, there is so much choice now. Something for everyone.”
The digital revolution has brought with it new challenges, notably greater competition and an increasingly saturated marketplace. But Mori says the industry changes have been wholeheartedly embraced.
“Remember that technology, design and innovation are part of our DNA. Previously we were perhaps a little too out there, too ahead of the curve but now the fitness industry is moving so fast – we are at the heart of that.
“This gives us excitement and motivation. Developments like the app have been great because it helps the users and the operator to know more about needs. What is our base? What is our goal? The key to the success of any company is knowing about your clients, whether you deal in credit cards or fitness equipment.
“We are in a service and experience industry and I think in the app we have a beautiful tool, an opportunity to engage and excite more people and at the end of the day a healthier community.”
Here in the UAE, Technogym has had a presence since the mid-nineties, kitting out some of the country’s most luxurious facilities, including those at the Burj al Arab and Emirates Palace.
The fitness boom in the Gulf certainly shows no signs of abating and that is music to the ears of Mori and Technogym.
“The trends are always changing and we need to be on top of those, providing appropriate solutions. Classes have become really popular but still we are seeing a desire for people to make their fitness experience more intimate. So we’re talking about smaller classes or personal training, which have more interaction.
“Maybe you want to go into weights then you want to go into cross-fit; maybe then you will say that because everybody is trying to run a marathon I want to run a marathon or do a triathlon.
“The gym as we know it has changed beyond recognition. Now, the solutions are in our home, on the cloud.
“Fitness is now just one component now to be honest. In reality, it is broader and wider. That’s why we consider ourselves to be a wellness provider now.”
In terms of figures and reputation, the Italian fitness giants appear to be a picture of good health at present. Add a few Technogym-inspired gold medals in Rio to the equation and their rivals will not be able to hold a torch to them.
THREE KEY TECHNOGYM INNOVATIONS
First Generation Gym Equipment
“Arguably our most important contribution was the way we designed gym equipment at the very start. We made it look appealing, non-intimidating and sexy. We played a key role in making gyms are more welcoming place for people of all abilities. The equipment was, and still is, easy to use and makes the experience of training a smooth and enjoyable one.”
My Wellness Cloud App
“In this world of physicality and fitness, it is amazing that our most important development is not something that you can actually touch. The cloud infrastructure means that all devices and equipment are inter-connected. The interface is on whatever device you happen to be using and you can train for a marathon, set your goals. It really is totally personalised to reflect your own parameters.”
“A new innovation, it is a complete workout and is at the heart of our Olympic gyms. I can work on speed, stamina, strength and power and it is connected with the app, too. I can use it by myself or as part of a class, which is why it is probably our hottest product right now.”