Blood, Sweat And Tears: Tough Mudder's Climb To Success

Tough Mudder executives are used to dreaming up obstacles that push fitness enthusiasts to their physical and mental limits. With competition heating up in its fledgling industry, the Brooklyn-based company will have to overcome obstacles of its own in order to fulfill its vision of becoming more than just a mud race.

Founded in 2010, the hardcore 10-mile obstacle course that once relied on self-funded Facebook ads to spread its message has evolved into a global brand. To date, more than 2.5 million people have traversed mud pits and crawled under barbed wire at Tough Mudder courses, the company said.

Tough Mudder will make its television debut on CBS Sports Network this Thursday with “Road To World’s Toughest Mudder,” the first in a three-part series that explores how to prepare for its marquee 24-hour, 20-obstacle course. Together with an emphasis on social media and international growth, the company is aiming to connect with new audiences.

“Ultimately, we want to take this community, this tribe that we’ve built and really expand into a lifestyle business,” Jesse Bull, Tough Mudder’s senior vice president of content marketing and product, told “The events will always be the core of our business, the physical gathering that people do once a year, twice a year, 10 times a year. And then [we want to build] off that into lifestyle, into merchandise, into [product] licensing, into content itself.”

A transformation of that magnitude won’t be easy to pull off. After explosive growth in the early 2010s, the obstacle course racing (OCR) industry has shown signs of slowdown in recent years. Participation in OCR events fell by 30% from 2014 to 2015, with more than one million fewer runners in 2015 compared to the previous year, according to a 2016 report by Running USA. Revenue has increased sharply since the sport’s debut, but declining growth has led some to question the industry’s long-term viability.

Some OCR companies have proven more adept at weathering the slowdown than others. Spartan Race, a key competitor, said its number of finishers grew by 20% in 2015, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. Tough Mudder’s U.S.-based finishers remained flat last year at 500,000.

Now that the initial interest in OCR events has waned, mainstay companies like Tough Mudder and Spartan Race will have to figure out how to cater to their core fans while also connecting with new audiences, according to Matt B. Davis, editor of Obstacle Racing Media.

“The boom/bust of 2012 to 2014 created a muddled field and too much competition,” Davis said. “Now that the landscape has cleared out for the most part, the biggest obstacles will be in constantly identifying that new customer.”

Like Spartan Race, Tough Mudder has taken several steps to address the divide. The company is partnering with IMG, the global talent company, to push into new markets in Asia and the Middle East. Aside from collaborating with CBS Sports Network, Tough Mudder will also air a six-part series on The CW that will focus on the everyday people who comprise its field of participants.

A willingness to cater to new demographics has helped Tough Mudder to weather headwinds in the OCR industry, according to Davis. Rather than catering exclusively to the young men who composed much of its early membership, Tough Mudder debuted new formats like the kid-friendly “Mini Mudder” and the entry-level “Tough Mudder Half.”

“They were losing some steam [with less participants] and beginning to trail Spartan as the industry leader,” Davis said. “With the Tough Mudder Half, they found a new audience and their numbers improved greatly.”

The “World’s Toughest Mudder” remains the company’s marquee event, with separate male, female and team categories and cash prizes for the victors. A live stream of the 2016 edition drew more than 439,000 unique viewers to the company’s various digital platforms.

But an inclusive atmosphere at most Tough Mudder events is key to the brand’s business model.

“A lot of our competitors are much more focused on the individual and just making you do a ton of burpees and pushups,” Bull said. “We try to build the biggest, the best, the most innovative obstacles. Everything is built around that ethos of teamwork and camaraderie.”

Watch Jesse Bull's full interview above and tune in to the World's Toughest Mudder airing on CBS Sports tomorrow, at 9 pm ET and  catch World's Toughest Mudder, Christmas Day, at 3 pm ET.