The Big Interview: Joe de Sena

24 Jan 2019

By: Sport Industry Group

Founded in 2010, Spartan has since grown its reach to 42 countries, welcoming in excess of 1.1m participants each year to be among the world leaders in obstacle course racing (OCR).

Sport Industry Group caught up with Founder and CEO of Spartan, Joe de Sena, himself an endurance fanatic, to discuss what Spartan offers brands as a sponsor proposition, competition within a crowded marketplace and his continued quest to see OCR appear on the Olympic stage.


With a huge amount of competition in the OCR landscape, where in the hierarchy do you consider Spartan to be positioned?

For us, currently in 42 countries, we may arrive in (regions) when there are other players ahead of us, but fast-forward five years and we’re then on top. You may scratch your head and ask why?

Firstly, we are really lucky with the name. Secondly, we are equipped with an unbelievable team and thirdly, we are authentic and doing it for sport. We are not electrocuting people or doing silly things. Participants want to be around that legitimacy and it has ultimately become a badge of honour to do a Spartan.

 

Given the troubles Tough Mudder has faced, how do you survive in the mass participation OCR market?

I know more than I’m allowed to say, but the issue is, this is a business of passion and purpose. Most of the companies in the space are in the business for business.

When you are about the dollar, not that there’s anything wrong with that because you have to survive, but you start doing things that are unnatural. Ultimately it can come back to bite you.

I want to measure success in number of lives changed, not in dollars. When you’re doing the former, it’s easier, because you’re taking a long-haul view.

It’s a bizarre business as it’s so expensive. For instance, to put a race on the side of a mountain can cost $600,000. So you have to really love what you’re doing. You can’t take money out, you’ve got to put money in.

I also think people want to know that the founder is involved. I live for this and I think it’s infectious. It’s not a business for me. This is what I do. For instance, I woke up this morning and put together a great work out, thirty burpees and a 500m row. We did this back and forth for eight rounds. I’d normally get ten rounds done, but I had a meeting. Who wants to do that, right? You’re going to puke.

 

Is Spartan where you expected it to be since forming in 2010?

It (success) has definitely exceeded my expectations and I’m just trying to keep up, holding the tiger by the tail. The sun never sets on Sparta, so we never sleep.

Spartan Race has grown to more than one million participants, with over 200 events across six continents. They say that if you’re not growing, you are dying, so we are constantly trying to grow, push our limits and get outside our comfort zone.

For example, we’ve added a Spartan Trail series, extended the podcast, written another book, we’re on more television, featuring on ESPN now and China’s growing like crazy. Those have been big developments for us.

We also launched an event in Sparta, Greece, where we have the (Spartan Trifecta) World Championship now, which is just epic. It has been amazing to be in a 2,000-year-old iconic city, where we are running through the ruins and taking over that town, bringing Spartans from 50+ countries to compete.

I think that will become ‘THE EVENT,’ where everyone in their lifetime has to get to Sparta and achieve.

What does Spartan offer brands as a sponsor proposition?

There are hundreds of potential partners from around the world. Everyone wants to get to our audience. It’s a gender neutral young audience, that makes money and are keen on their health and wellness, so it’s a very sought-after audience.

Brands are also starting to realise is that we are a storytelling machine. This is content on life-changing experiences, such as, “I’m no longer drinking, I gave up drugs, I’m back with my husband, I lost 40lbs, I started my own business, I’ve got nine children, but this is my time away for me.” We even had an, “I was struck by lightning.”

We don’t have to make this stuff up, it’s part of our brand, part of our fabric. The stories are endless, so whatever the brand, it needs to tell these stories in an authentic way, capturing the imagination of its own audience.

However, we can make or break our own brand by aligning with the wrong folks. So, we have to be careful and consider that a deal has to be on-brand. It’s not about the economics. One plus one can sometimes equal three if you end up going in the wrong direction.

 

Following the announcement towards the end of last year of a new partnership with Rakuten, what made this the right organisation and the right time to strike a deal?

I lived in Japan for a year and was fortunate enough to meet with Rakuten. They are a forward-thinking organisation and love what we stand for.

We are very similar in our ethos, work ethic and optimism. For instance, the CEO of Rakuten, Hiroshi Mikitani, takes all his top executives from around the world on a death-defying mountain hike every year. When he saw Spartan and I saw them, it was obvious that we should do something together. It’s been a super exciting partnership.

 

What further plans do you envisage for international expansion?

I’ve still got a fair few countries we are not in yet and there are a bunch of potential acquisitions on the horizon.

The US is still growing for us, likewise internationally, where we’ve experienced a very strong growth. There’s so much room to grow within individual countries as well as (expanding into) more countries.

After all, as a participant you want to see how you compare with the rest of the world. How you did vs. India, vs. Mexico, etc. Scale matters, rather than just a one-off race.

Ultimately, the way we think is can it help get us close to a target of changing 100m lives? If it can, then we will look into it.

Britain’s own Jon Albon came close to securing your $1m prize pot last year for winning the ‘Big Three’ Spartan Races. (Albon triumphed in the Spartan World Championship and the Spartan Trifecta World Championship, but agonisingly missed out in the Ultra World Championships in Iceland) Will this cash prize become an annual offering?

We are bringing back the $1m purse this year and to make it really interesting we will pay out a couple of hundred thousand dollars to those that get close.

The crazy thing is from a human psychology standpoint, I obviously didn’t want him to win, but at the same time, I did, so I had this battle wrestling in my mind.

It’s not great for me, I was sweating bullets around the time. I had a handshake deal where I was going to get that insured. When they (insurance firm) saw how well he (Albon) competed in the first race, they backed away.

 

Having previously hoped that it might feature in the 2024 Olympic Games, where are you in your quest to see OCR eventually appear on the Olympic stage?

I’m still hoping and have my fingers crossed. With 2028 confirmed for Los Angeles, we have as good a shot as any. Between now and then, I’d be crossing everything that I can elbow my way into an exhibition event in Tokyo and then we’ll see.

The good news is that the stars are aligning. In Tokyo in 2020, we’ll have Rakuten who are a major player there and will look to help us get in to an exhibition there. Then four years later in Paris, the French live for Spartan, so we’ll have a shot to have something there.