When the Ironman Group launched its Virtual Racing series at the beginning of April, the company sought to foster competition and community for the hundreds of thousands of Ironman athletes around the globe.
In the weeks after the launch, the platform has proven to be not only a place for participants to stay connected to the Ironman brand but also an appealing avenue for partners to connect with core audiences.
Within a few days of the announcement of the platform, Ironman signed Technogym as their official global fitness equipment partner and ROUVY as the official virtual training partner. Both deals were a product of the challenges facing the fitness industry due to social distancing, with Technogym’s equipment catering to at-home audiences and ROUVY’s augmented reality technology amplifying Ironman’s virtual offerings.
Current partners have also found success with the platform, hosting free branded challenges that have drawn thousands of entrants.
Ironman Group is now focused on finding continued opportunities for existing partners and the newcomers – both of which provide potential additional revenue.
“It’s given us a tangible platform from a business perspective. You are able to go to the marketplace, in a respectful manner obviously with what’s going on, globally – because [Ironman] is global – and offer brands value and the opportunity to engage with our audience in a meaningful way,” Matt Wikstrom, vice president of global partnerships and global business development for The Ironman Group, said. “Not only through the challenges, but most importantly, [through] opportunities for our partners to engage in a relevant way.”
The virtual opportunities for sponsor exposure range from sweepstakes with prizes to exclusive products and discounts awarded upon completion of the branded challenges to placement on digital media assets. The Ironman virtual racing series held each weekend is broadcast live on Facebook Watch, where series-wide partners, including running shoe company HOKA ONE ONE, bike partner Ventum, and performance wear partners Santini, Roka and Compressport are already built into the event.
Partner brands can reach both participating athletes and the online viewers through opportunities for branding on the Facebook broadcast as well as within Ironman’s augmented reality bike courses themselves.
“When the pros are racing in Boulder, they’re racing underneath the Hoka arch or the Ventum signage,” Wikstrom said. “It’s really neat bringing the kind of Ironman brand and partners into those courses, and you’ll see more and more of that as we continue to evolve.”
Ironman is also offering “halo content” around those races and virtual signage opportunities on social media to partner brands as well as 30-second ad spots.
“When you’re an event company that’s not putting on events at the moment, this virtual platform is giving us that opportunity and, in some ways, giving us more assets to deliver to our partners,” Wikstrom said. “The momentum is just continuing to grow. It’s not like [we launched] VR One and the momentum started to lag, it’s gone the other way. I think for us, it’s been a great opportunity to engage with our community, engage with our partners, engage with new partners, and I think VR is going to be a big piece of Ironman going forward.”
While the current climate and virtual racing offerings were what attracted a pair of new partners, there are plans to carry those partnerships past the pandemic. As part of the newly-signed ROUVY deal, Ironman has digitized its real-life Boulder racecourse. As they move forward – even after live events return – more will come.
“We’re going to digitize – I think it’s 20-plus – courses around the world that will be Ironman courses,” Wikstrom said. “We’ve done some of the courses as part of our approach challenge with the virtual racing series. We’re limited right now [and] we want to be mindful and respectful of the government restrictions that have been put in place around the world from going out and doing commercial activities, but once those loosen up, I think you’ll see us rolling out a lot more Ironman AR courses, which will be great for our community.”
The momentum the Ironman brand has started with their virtual series won’t stop, they hope, when in-person races can resume. But until then, they have to continue to provide opportunities for existing partners as well, outside of those who can help push the virtual platform forward.
Hoka, which has been an Ironman partner since 2016, has seen its relationship with Ironman expand in recent years. What was previously limited to sponsorships of North American full Ironman events is now an international partnership, including both Ironman world championship events and, as of 2020, virtual races, too.
“We’ve had to adapt like everybody else,” Mike McManus, HOKA ONE ONE global director of sports marketing, said. “Really what you’ve seen [with the virtual Ironman racing series] is there’s an inclusive global frenzy that’s happening. You’re seeing this one event capture the globe. It shows you the power of Ironman, and it’s offered us a nice opportunity to connect with our consumers.”
More than 72,000 people globally from 139 nations had joined the IRONMAN Virtual Club platform as of their VR3 series, and tens of thousands sign up for each weekend’s racing series. The total number of participants and platform users since launch – 190,000 through the first five race weekends – already not far behind the 330,000 athletes who participated in more than 150 Ironman flagship triathlons in 2019.
The added benefit for brands is that, as McManus notes, “triathletes are [generally] very early adopters with all innovation,” and their discovery of Hoka was no exception. The virtual platform also presents an opportunity for Hoka’s continued connection to this group of consumers – particularly important without exposure at events or through retailers.
Existing partners can stay top of mind with that specific audience of athletes through Ironman’s new offerings, which made the virtual races “a very important series to Hoka.”
“Our brand is a very young brand. We’re a decade old, so I would say in some cases, the Ironman brand awareness itself is greater than Hoka One One,” McManus added. “And so first and foremost [we get] brand awareness. Triathletes found Hoka before Hoka started to invest in triathletes. We have the opportunity to connect with all those consumers. We also can, through our athletes, offer advice and training programs, so through social media, through these virtual races, we now have a platform that we can continually speak to and connect with our consumers.”
In addition to in-race branding, Hoka has taken advantage of Ironman’s branded challenges. The HOKA Tempo Run Challenge is made of four individual challenges that focus on, as the name implies, tempo running. This form of training is a foundational workout for most triathletes that’s doable on a short track, a treadmill or outdoors, meaning that most Ironman virtual participants can find a way to make it work.
Versatility has been vital in making these virtual pivots possible for brands and the consumers they still need to reach. Finding what fits today is a process that involves all parties.
“In developing the challenge with Hoka, we provided a framework that fits their brand and aligns with our partnership: a progressive challenge that athletes plan for and can test themselves,” Earl Walton, Ironman’s global director of training and coaching, said. “We develop all of the challenges for our partners – in some cases, they are written by me, and some partners write their own with input from our team.”