Bringing more than its fair share of transformations, the Covid-19 crisis has also given rise to new formats of sports events such as virtual racing. While race aficionados long for the thrill of competing physically, virtual competitions have grown incredibly popular over the last few months. It's a whole new format that offers more flexibility; a fun option that still allows you to engage with a larger audience.
So, what does the future hold for running in the medium and long term? A hybrid format: The phygital race. Even the IOC (International Olympic Committee) is getting involved!
The rise of virtual races during the pandemic
Let's go back a few months: We're at the dawn of Covid-19, the health crisis, government decisions to lock down the population or at least to establish health rules. What happened in the sports world? Postponements first, followed by an avalanche of event cancellations. Covid-19 got the better of many major sports competitions. According to the Endurance Sports Coalition, over 50,000 events, attracting some 30 million Americans, were cancelled up to the start of the year 2021. This resulted in a considerable loss of revenue for race organisers, estimated at $3 billion. Consequences were economic AND social: 500,000 jobs were lost.
Against this background, virtual races have stepped into the gap (for organisers as well as for running enthusiasts), offering a viable alternative to physical "in person" races. Proof of this came with the legendary New York Marathon, which did indeed go ahead last year, even though the 25,000 participants were not really in New York! Connected via an app and running independently over a period of two weeks, the participants covered the regulatory 42 km. The event fuelled the runners' enthusiasm, giving them breathing space during these months of pandemic and sports restrictions. Well, 25,000 different breathing spaces, to be precise. The Rock'n'Roll Marathon series did the same with its Virtual Club: 10 virtual races that made 160,000 runners around the world break a sweat in 2020.
To find out more about the 100% virtual model, check out the article "5 steps to launching a virtual race".
A trend that's not restricted to running
There's a lot of talk about running, but virtual competitions have been blooming right across the board during the health crisis! Cycling was the first discipline to take off, with the Home-Trainer boom and its virtual training programmes (34% of the Cycling Heroes community bought a Home-Trainer during the first lockdown in France - Observatoire du Vélo Connecté 2021).
In May 2021, the International Olympic Committee joined the game. The IOC kicked off the Olympic Virtual Series. The aim: To attract a new audience. Virtual sports, e-sports, and video game enthusiasts all over the world came together to enjoy an innovative and inclusive Olympic experience, bridging the gap between traditional physical activities and virtual ones. Rowing enthusiasts were able to take part in this first edition by rowing on their personal rower (at home or in a gym) or on open water, while thousands of cyclists competed against each other via the Zwift platform.
IRONMAN aficionados weren't left behind during the health crisis, either: Triathletes received their consolation prize with the IRONMAN VR Championship Series, themed challenges to get top athletes running, cycling, and swimming throughout the year. The Championship Series gave organisers a way to offer their communities a realistic and fun approach to virtual training. The top scorers were awarded a qualification for the IRONMAN 70.3 2021 World Championships.
The new model of phygital racing
While "physical" events are back this year, virtual races are here to stay! There are several reasons for this. Firstly, because we have to stay cautious: Vaccination offers a more positive outlook in some countries, but this is not yet the case in all regions of the world, and the appearance of Covid-19 variants means new waves of infection remain a possibility. Secondly, because race organisers can learn from the success of virtual races over recent months. As an ultra-flexible format that's quick to implement, virtual racing is a valuable tool that helps stay in touch with the community and provides a source of additional income. Why go without it?
This is where a new competition format comes into play: the phygital race. As you could have guessed, this word is a contraction of "physical" and "digital". It designates a hybrid format midway between running in person and virtual running – a type of running that paves the way to greater creativity and innovation. You get the best of both worlds!
The advantages of a hybrid race
The reinvention of endurance sports – Olympic or not – for the virtual world gives event organisers an opportunity to grow. The rise of virtual races has opened the door to innovations in real-life events and exercises.
Short-term: As long as uncertainty remains and many participants are not yet ready to physically show up to compete in a competition that may be cancelled at the last minute, hybrid races are the best option both for organisers and athletes. Easy to organise, they offer maximum flexibility both to the organisers in the event of last-minute cancellations, and to the participants who can take part as they wish. Peace of mind guaranteed.
In the long term: Offering both virtual and in-person participation gives organisers a great opportunity to reach a wider audience while presenting a new visibility mode to their partners, thus increasing their income. Various experiences come together to create a buzz both on the starting line and on the treadmill. In short, hybrid racing reaches out to ALL types of sportsmen and women and gives them the opportunity to surpass themselves, wherever they are.
It's clear that virtual racing is on the rise: Now is the moment for you to adopt the hybrid model.
How do I actually do that? By calling on players like Sport Heroes (yes, that's us 👋), organisers of sports events can get hold of the tools they need to create a tailor-made hybrid competition.