While many veterans in sports are highlighting the industry’s latest controversy, there is one rookie in this space who is elevating its potential. In his newest endeavor, billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson expanded his global Virgin Group empire to the sports marketplace by organizing “multi-sport and fitness festivals” under the brand Virgin Sport.
Inspiring all types of athletes and fitness fans, Virgin Sport festivals will integrate everything from half marathons and yoga to boot camp fitness classes and meditation, to reach as many people as possible. Unique activities from the event’s title sponsor, Asics, include a carnival style race activation, novelty shop, and lounge – not quite what you would expect from your average race.
Two events have already taken place in greater London with another scheduled for this weekend. The first of its kind in the U.S. will be held in San Francisco (October 14-15).
I sat down with Virgin Sport CEO, Mary Wittenberg – former President and CEO of New York Road Runners (NYRR) – to discuss the vision of the Virgin Sport brand and what attendees can expect. Very similar to other Virgin brands, it promises an experience like no other.
Fun! Virgin Sport uses this word a lot. Even on your website, you call these festivals versus events and use a lot of fun and frenetic imagery. Is this one of the ways Virgin as a brand is helping to distinguish its self from other sports events?
First, the Virgin brand is all about the experience. From the early stage of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin records, it’s always been about, how could we provide the consumer with an experience that’s unlike any other? How can we help a consumer do something they really want to do in life? And so there’s a very natural fit for us that all stems from, how can we help you get over the barriers stopping you from being your best? And every day, that’s what drives us.
The second part is starting with the idea of festivals. We want to demystify sports and make it so appealing that you just have to be a part of it. So many big events are focused on one core customer – whether it’s a marathon or iron man or on the other end of the spectrum, a color run. It’s not like music festivals where there are a variety of opportunities for people of all kinds of different interests in music. So what we wanted to create was a weekend where there are challenges for everybody – from the big challenge event like a hilly half marathon in San Francisco, to a super fun, spirited, twin peaks mile, where you can run, do pushups, and wear a fancy dress, all the way to the family member who is a Headspace fan and wants to be part of a meditation session at the Civic Center in front of City Hall in San Francisco.
Tell me the story about how you got connected with Sir Richard. What made this an appealing offer for you to take on this role?
When I heard that Richard wanted to do this and learned more after reaching out to a headhunter, I just said I loved every part of it. But what it really spoke to me is Virgin’s ability to just always stand for people first. It was never about a company; it’s about people.
Additionally, I have always had a burning interest and real passion around taking the NYRR model – that is so compelling and has made such a difference in New York – on the road and inspire people to get moving all year round. So given the opportunity to do it and wrap it into Virgin brand with all it stands for – music, entertainment, and fun, I just knew I had to do it.
Was it a difficult decision to leave NYRR?
I was torn leaving NYRR because I still loved it and in the end, I knew it could be amazing here and keep growing in New York City and keep making all of the difference in the world because of the team that is here to do that. I kept thinking that I’m always telling my boys when they play basketball – the only shot they won’t make is the one they don’t take. And I thought, you know what, after 17 years its time to do it. It’s really been a shockingly incredible expanding opportunity for me, that kind of parallels the message that we are advocating for people. It’s been great.
I’ve run in San Francisco before, and I’m biting my lip, quivering at the thought of those hills. Why specifically was San Francisco chosen as the first stop in the U.S.?
We put San Francisco first on the list because it is a city that stands for outdoors, active lifestyle, and stands for the pursuit of the American dream and peoples dreams. It’s where people go for opportunity, and it’s a land where people aren’t limited by convention or what other people expect anybody to do. So with those combinations, it’s such a beautiful, beautiful city. For us it’s always been very much about the local experience, and we want to be an event that represents San Francisco and the people of San Francisco and inspire people in the Bay area and beyond. Plus it’s where Virgin America was born and had grown through all these years, and it felt like home to both the Virgin brand and us.
I noticed that Virgin Sport has an app and I was curious to know, as such an experiential brand, what type of mobile experience is part of the vision of the brand? What can consumers expect from the mobile experience?
We think technology is an enabler of our purpose and mission. As a startup, we began with a mobile responsive site from the beginning and even thought about not having a site at all. As a spectator app, it’s in its early stages. But we are excited about our potential in the future. We are probably most excited about augmented reality, that’s a real fit for us in sports. We have some fun ideas that we want to pursue in the future.
If I ask the question, “Why is Sir Richard banking on sports as his next big venture” what would the response be?
He’s banking on it because he really believes in changing the world for good. Trying to keep it moving, active, and fit is one of the best ways to create a truly happy, healthy planet. We can be part of really helping people unlock their greatest potential, and we know that will make all the difference in the world to them and hopefully help them, help someone else create potential in their own lives.