The London Marathon and brands have fuelled the participation sports boom
A view from Tom Kerry

The London Marathon and brands have fuelled the participation sports boom

This weekend 40,000 runners will line up for the Virgin Money London Marathon. The Limelight Sports chief operating officer, who is also taking part, says brands have capitalised on dramatic changes in consumer attitudes towards fitness.

Once seen as the preserve of the super-keen elites, over the years sport has undergone an amazing democratisation. The choices available for people to take part themselves are now so numerous and diverse that there is something out there for everyone and it is hard to ignore the groundswell of activity.

Pioneering events such as the London Marathon have paved the way for the industry. When it started there were just a handful of professionally organised long distance running events. Such has been the growth that now, from Spring to Autumn, there can be up to 30 major running events taking place around the UK on any given weekend attracting hundreds of thousands of runners.

There are now over seven million regular runners  in the UK with the female market continuing to show particularly strong growth.  In that first London Marathon, of the 7,500 runners taking part there were just 100 female athletes who completed the course. This year of the 250,000 people who applied for a place, 100,000 were women. We’ve seen similar growth in appetite for events that we are involved with such as the J.P. Morgan Corporate Challenge and the Royal Parks Half Marathon.

Brands have played an important role in this growth. In 1981, Gillette paid £75,000 for headline sponsorship of the marathon, since then Mars, ADT, Nutrasweet and Flora all followed with today’s sponsor Virgin Money reportedly paying an estimated £17 million over four years

Brands and the active world

Gone are the days when brands benefitted purely by association with an event. The best commercial partnerships are built around engaging audiences and personalising experiences. Research carried out by Limelight with YouGov demonstrated that consumer attitudes and behaviour are heavily influenced when a brand is involved with a participation event.

Many major brands have now seen the wide range of potential benefits that being involved in what we call the "active world" can offer. Brands and companies have never been under more pressure to be seen to be doing the right things, balancing their commercial activities with a high set of moral codes and standards and the perceived benefits of a partnership with a fitness related event or activity is now very significant to an increasingly health conscious nation.  

One of the concerns that brands had about participation sport in the past was the numbers of people involved. While participation numbers have increased, it is the wider audience that has grown even more through new technology and in particular social media.

In recent years, social media channels have provided that vital engagement tool which had previously been missing.  Events' social media accounts build up followings in the hundreds of thousands. Activities are tracked and shared on platforms such as Strava, MyFitnesspal and RunKeeper and the better events are hosting virtual experiences linked to their live counterparts across these platforms. The opportunities are growing and developing all the time.

Participation sport is big business, an industry on the move where endorphins are high and there are plenty of smiles to go round. On a personal note, I’ve loved being part of the marathon journey, it’s felt so much more than about one day in April. Wish me luck on Sunday!


Tom Kerry is the chief operating officer at Limelight Sports and has been involved in the creation and organisation of participation sporting events for almost 20 years