UTMB Management Takes Control of Ultra Trail World Tour: Uncertain Future for the Series

Guest post By Sergio Mayayo, editor of Spanish language mountain/trail running website carrerasdemontana.com (English version at trailrunningspain.com). Sergio is also a World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) council member along with ATRA executive director Nancy Hobbs. Above photo by @galitophotografia.

As the year comes to and, we look into the future and put forward our best wishes for all things mountain running. Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT), the ultrarunning series created back in 2014 maybe one of the places were those best wishes will be most needed in the future. As an outdoor media editor, I am proud that our team has travelled the world to cover live this race series ever since it was born, back in 2014. Now the 2020 calendar has just been made public, and we must note that even though UTWT SA continues to grow, the 2019 take over by Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) management has opened up stress cracks within the structure that may cause a severe crises come 2021.

Up to six members of our team have been directly involved over these five years in racing and reporting live on UTWT events, be it from Hong Kong, Patagonia, the Alps, the Canaries or Dolomites. We have been physically present at almost half of the +20 races held each year all over the world, both as runners into the race and as reporters, discussing first hand impressions with the likes of Jim Walmsley, Gediminas Grinius, François d’Haene, Hayden Hawks, Pau Capell or Courtney Dauwalter as they all took each challenge on stride. Hence, we also share close connections to its race directors, runners, fans and volunteers alike. Let us therefore share why those tensions have come up in 2019 and the four scenarios into which they may evolve, for Good or bad in 2021.

There are now 28 races for UTWT 2020, including three by the new brand “By UTMB”. And there are many more of those expected to join up, given that during last spring the international project expansion manager, Remi Duchemin, officially announced that all new “By UTMB” events would also automatically be granted UTWT race status.

How might Remi Dumechin say that? Because since early 2019 UTMB management took over control of UTWT SA, the company based in Geneva that runs the series. In fact, these days according to the Swiss mercantile registry, the four members of the board are Remi, Michel Poletti and Catherinne Poletti (UTMB founders), as well as Paul Kelly. Therefore, UTMB management team also manages the Ultra Trail World Tour. So, that is why Remi was fully entitled to publicly announce his objective: That of a total of 20 “By UTMB races” for the next few years, all of them also being a part of UTWT series. Thus, from the current 28 events with 3 by utmb status, the medium-term of UTMB managers is to continue growing until it comprises about 40 ultras, with the majority of them owned directly by UTMB franchise. Let us remember now that the Ironman franchise was sold out to Chinese Wanda Group in 2015 for 650 Million dollars, to frame the stakes at play here.

This aggressive business expansion plan from UTMB into Ultra Trail World Tour SA has inevitably created problems with its original partners, given that many of them were independent races such as Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, Lavaredo Ultra Trail, Transgrancanaria or Mozart 100 to name a few. This explosive growth may be entirely logical in the corporate world when aiming to drive the value of a company, but when applied to the world of ultrarunning, it does raise relevant issues for those who see in ultrarunning a way of life, rather than a corporate enterprise. And, more down to earth… What may happen if a commercial opportunity to launch a new “By UTMB” event were to clash with the home turf/date (or both) of an independent UTWT partner? What would happen then?

Well, in fact, this UTMB Brand vs independent UTWT partners clash already occurred: In 2019 UTMB launched Usuahia by UTMB from April 5 to 7 in Patagonia Argentina, as a direct competitor of neighboring Patagonia Run to be held April 12-13. The same Argentinian Patagonia was to host, with only one week of difference both races. (!) Obviously, Patagonia Run, as a partner of the new UTWT SA managed by the Poletti team, had to endure direct damage once Usuahia by UTMB as such a very direct competitor. Furthermore, moving now into Europe, the launch in Spain of Val D’Aran by UTMB on 2-5 July 2020 may well pose a problem for both the Spanish UTWT events of Transgrancanaria and Penyagolosa Trails as well as for Lavaredo Ultra Trail, the Italian event that takes place on June 26-27. Given that runners traveling from abroad may equally fly either to Dolomites or Pyrenees, and that Aran by UTMB offers thrice the points to enter the original Chamonix UTMB event…..it does not look Good for the Italian or Spanish independent partners.

FOUR SCENARIOS FOR UTWT 2021: Those independent races upset with this situation, have after several tense meetings, now secured two guarantees for their future. On the one hand, an escape clause in 2021 if the promises and expectations of communication improvement required are not fulfilled by the new UTWT SA members of the board. On the other hand, a RD committee has been set up, with Michel Poletti himself included, who will now make joint decisions instead of all decisions taken by UTWT SA management alone as done in 2019.

What may happen in 2021? In may view, we ought to consider now four potential scenarios, which we might sum up as two on keeping up the marriage vs two traumatic divorces:

  1. The existing marriage UTMB-Independent might go on with no major changes, just business as usual under the UTWT banner. In this case, of course Ultra Trail World Tour would be adding every year the new races “by UTMB” that are created. As there are only 3 implemented already and given the official strategic objective declared by Remi in 2019 calls for a total od 20, obviously this scenario leads to UWT SA managing 40-50 medium-term races in its series, with the majority being UTMB branded. The second continuity option would be that since the control of both UTMB-UWT brands belongs to the same shareholders and that in a few years the majority of the World Tour races will be UTMB races, well … let us fast forward to a logical markeitng synergy, merging everything under a single brand, whereas the former independent might be renamed Hong Kong 100 by UTMB; Lavaredo by UTMB, etc.
  2. Divorce may yet happen, of course, as in many cases it happens to be the best solution for all parties involved: A sufficient number of independent and media relevant races might choose to activate the 2021 escape clause in order to create a new joint Project, this time not managed by Michel and Catherine Poletti. In that case, two new avenues would open up: On the one hand, creating a new concept from scratch and launching it between them. On the other, joining a large global brand of sporting events that support them. In the latter case, they could bet well on official brands such as Ironman (which already owns Ultra Trail Australia or Tarawera Ultra in New Zealand); Spartan or, why not, even approach the 22 year old Mountain Running World Cup by the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) to explore their first ultra series, given that their 2020 calendar already includes the other three events to be held at the 2021 World Athletics Mountain & Trail Running World Championships: Vertical; Classic and Long Distance (marathon) yet no ultra so far.

Now, if it were up to you? What would be your call as a RD come 2021, under these circumstances?

Sergio Mayayo at the K42 in Patagonia, Argentina.

[Editor’s Note: Give us your thoughts in the comments below, or send you comments to Sergio directly @moxigeno.]

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