By: Brian Metzler
In case you missed it, Rock ‘n’ Roll show is heading back to the main stage of an international tour.
In an announcement on March 25, Elizabeth O’Brien, Managing Director of North America for The Ironman Group, unveiled the new look, locations and vibe of the freshly renamed Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series. The series that has been known for lavish finisher medals and infusing live music and entertainment into recreational running races since 1998 will be decidedly different going forward.
Whether runners and sponsors will jump on stage remains to be seen, amid the lingering concerns about Covid-19, necessary changes to mass participation events and the pandemic surge in recreational running. But how well the Rock ‘n’ Roll reboot goes could be an indication of some of the trends in the endurance sports industry. If it lives up to its tagline — “Bringing Fun to the Run” — there seems to be miles of opportunity.
Like other running events, the series — previously known as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series since the early 2000s — was decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic last year. Of the 25 or so events on its U.S./international schedule last year, only a few were held as in-person races. Most took place as virtual events within what became the Humana Rock ‘n’ Roll Virtual Running Club. And like other event groups, the shutdown gave the Tampa-based organization time to evolve and retool the race series, starting with new protocols for a safe return to running events.
With the slight but significant change in nomenclature, the revamped Rock ‘n’ Roll tour will restart in September and include 54 total races in 17 cities in the U.S., Mexico, England, Spain and Colombia. Of those tour stops, only 11 are in the U.S., a long way from the high-water mark of about 25 back in 2014.
Interestingly, there were only four title sponsors announced (United Airlines, EDP, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Allianz) for six 2021-2022 events and none yet for the signature event in Las Vegas, which was previously moved from the fall to late February. Humana, St. Jude and United are listed as Premier and Technical Partners for the series, while a handful of supplier partners are also listed. The relationship with Brooks, the longtime shoe and apparel sponsor of the series, concluded at the end of 2020.
Also of interest, as the new name suggests, the series is getting away from the traditional 26.2-mile marathon distance that helped launch the company with the original event in San Diego in 1998. Of the 17 events, only nine will have marathons — six of those are in the U.S. (San Diego, Savannah, Ga., San Antonio, Texas, Tempe, Ariz., New Orleans, and Nashville). Instead, the events will primarily feature 5Ks, 10Ks and half marathons with a few events also hosting mile races and at least one half-marathon relay on the docket.
The name change had been discussed internally since about 2013 (when the series was operated by Competitor Group Inc. in San Diego), about the same time 5K and 10K began to be added to the mix. But two ownership group changes (first to Ironman/Dalian Wanda Group in 2017 and then to Advance Publications in 2020) amid numerous challenges facing the organization and recreational running in general — including a pre-Covid contraction of some big-city road races — led it to the new realities of 2021-2022.
The changes at Rock ‘n’ Roll reflect the changes in the recreational running scene since the mid-2010s, when shorter distances gained more participants and the marathon began to wane in popularity. Not only are there more participants opting for shorter races, but also the demographics of recreational running reflect a majority of women, more people of color and also younger participants. To the organization’s credit, its marketing efforts have already reflected that.
The first event stop on the 2021-22 Rock ‘n’ Roll schedule is Virginia Beach, Va., on Sept. 4-5, which will include a mile race, 5K and half marathon. Additional events in Madrid, Spain (Sept. 26), San Jose, Calif. (Oct. 2-3), San Diego (Oct. 23-24), Liverpool, England (Oct. 23-24), Savannah, Ga. (Nov. 6-7), Washington D.C. (Nov. 13) and San Antonio (Dec 4-5) round out the year. Rock ‘n’ Roll events in Tempe, Ariz., (Jan. 15-16), New Orleans (Feb. 5-6) and Las Vegas (Feb. 26-27) are on the calendar for 2022, while dates for events in Nashville, Tenn., Seattle, Medellin, Colombia, and Oaxaca, Cancun and Mexico City have yet to be announced.
Early registration is open for the first several U.S. events and prices are reasonable ($89 for marathons, $69-$79 for half marathons, $45 for 10Ks and $35 for 5Ks) and there’s an opportunity to raise $500 for charity partner (St. Jude). However, longtime mainstays of the previous Rock ‘n’ Roll lineup in Chicago, Philadelphia and Denver are no longer listed on the calendar, nor are races that had been previously announced for Santiago, Chile, and Lima, Peru, and several cities in China. (And needless to say, the long-defunct professional division that had been managed for years by series co-founder Tracy Sundlun, does not appear to be part of the deal, either.)
With well-established road races and popular Marathon Majors events planning for smaller participant fields and many changes this year, the road ahead won’t be easy. But with an apparent boom in running since the Covid-19 shutdown, the potential upside is huge.
Part of that upside will likely come from the continuation of the virtual running series that was launched last April and continues through the Humana Rock ‘n’ roll Virtual Running Club. Although hard-core runners have perhaps endured “virtual running fatigue” and are eager to get back to in-person running, most race directors seem to think that a virtual component will remain part of their events forever more. The first Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series Flash Challenge (a virtual 5K announced with the press release last week) drew 2,452 participants and 1,892 finishers.
“The rebrand and launch of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series reflects both our pioneering of world-class running experiences and the company’s vibrant future,” O’Brien said in a release. “Running doesn’t need to be daunting or intimidating and we want to show how easy, and fun it can be to take your first step towards a finish line. We look forward to continuing to support participants across the globe to reach their goals, from the moment they consider a race all the way through the finish line celebration.”