September 5, 2017 by DAVE JACK
I recently read an interview with Comrades General Manager Chris Fisher where for me anyway, the interviewer painted a little bit of a gloom and doom picture of the future of Comrades.
Then I started wondering where I was on the 4th of June this year when I saw thousands upon thousands of runners making their way along the Comrades route from Durban to Pietermaritzburg.
Even more thousands of spectators, many of whom had got out of bed whilst it was still dark to go and watch this magical thing called Comrades and to see people they didn’t even know make their way past them on their way to that medal as they, the spectators, got their skottles ready to have breakfast at the side of the road and make a day of it.
Later in the morning I saw the biggest traffic jam on the N3 towards Pietermaritzburg that I have seen in 25 years but I didn’t see any road rage – because it was Comrades day. More vehicles than the traffic police could possibly hope to control even if they had twice the number of police.
Then the other thing that argues against a doom and gloom future for Comrades is the fact that just 5 days after entries for Comrades 2018 opened (this blog has been published five days after entries opened) over 30% of the total entries available has been reached and that is breaking records.
So I sat down with Comrades General Manager Chris Fisher to have a chat with him to ask him from my rather biased point of view about the future of Comrades and whether it was as gloomy as the interviewer had portrayed.
DJ: There’s been a suggestion that the massive growth in number of shorter races will eventually cause damage to Comrades. Do you see this happening with runners opting to run the shorter stuff rather than go for the challenge offered by Comrades?
CF: I see it in a totally different light. I think the shorter races are a good thing. The more races there are, the more opportunity people have to improve their fitness and the better it is for those with Comrades aspirations. I think it’s a good thing.
DJ: This year 2017, very nearly a third of the field was made up of novices. Obviously when you sit down and look at the race stats after it’s all over, what are those numbers telling you?
CF: I think it’s an incredibly healthy sign. If it was significantly lower – and it has been in the past – I’d be concerned, but because it is as high as it is augers well for the future. The average age of the Comrades runner gets older and older but the novices brings it down and that’s a very positive sign.
DJ: You’ve introduced the Back to Back medal to encourage novices to come back the year after their first run. Are they doing that because I saw a lot of comment on social media about people wanting to get their Back to Back medal and wanting to get what they see as a very special medal in the Back to Back.
CF: Back to Backs are working. 2172 were given out in 2017 which is 16% of the finishers. I am interested to see the numbers for 2018. Last year showed a positive trend but we need to wait for the stats for the 2017 race to see the results there when we have them. We introduced a Novice Hospitality Area at Expo this year for the first time and the response from novices was fantastic and they’ll pass this message on to their friends and that the Novice Hospitality gathering place is very special because you only get one opportunity of going there.
DJ: There seems to be some concern that the number of women runners is not growing at the pace it could be doing. Is that the case and is it a concern because where I have been watching the race for the last couple of years there seems to be a growth in women runners.
CF: Caroline and Charne as South Africans have been great ambassadors for the sport and the attendance at the women’s seminars has been very encouraging. When you look at the stats for viewership for television it’s 53% female and 47% male so a very big interest from women in the race.
DJ: You close the entries at 20,000 but we all know that we will never get that number lining up at the start. Many of those who enter don’t qualify and if they do they don’t start and we end up with around 18,000 or even less actually starting. Then the finish rate as a percentage stays pretty static since as far back as I can remember. Are you happy with closing the entries at 20,000?
CF: Our biggest concern is that we allow more people into the race than we are able to handle so it’s better to cap it. If we were to get a very hot day we could make some serious mistakes if we had too many people on the road. This is also done from a safety and security perspective to present a safe race. The road system also can’t handle more than that number comfortably.
DJ: You lost a couple of sponsors this year but you filled those spots pretty quickly. I would imagine that your sponsors are happy with the exposure that Comrades gives them because as an outsider looking in I am very aware of the sponsors and that you guys appear to be doing a good job for your sponsors especially when you’re up against ambush marketing.
CF: Ambush marketing is a problem and we spend a lot of time sending legal letters to people who are doing things they have no right to do. From our sponsors point of view, we did lose one or two sponsors but it gave us the opportunity to go back to our current sponsors and say ”these are the rights that are available”. The caps for example. We offered those to Toyota and they jumped at that because they saw that as a natural extension to their last mile because of the red.
It was the same with the race numbers. As soon as we turned to Bonitas and said to them that here was a highly visible opportunity that was available, they didn’t hesitate.
We talk to sponsors all the time but we offer exclusivity to sponsors so we wouldn’t, for example, have more than one banker.
There are other sponsors who would love to get involved and it also depends on whether they would like to take out a broadcast package. We want to continue to ensure that we get 13 hours of television broadcast and the only way we can be sure of that is if we get a sponsor who will take out a broadcast package in addition to their normal sponsorship package.
We obviously look to achieve return on investment for our sponsors and last year we won The Discovery Sports Industry Awards for Mass Participation Event of the Year and Brand of the Year, so that speaks volumes as you don’t achieve that sort of acclaim unless you offer a fantastic return on investment and we measure and track through professional companies and we report back to each and every one of our sponsors.
This year we brought two new sponsors on board and both of those sponsors are wanting additional new rights and there’ll be announcements on this shortly.
DJ: One of the things that upsets me a bit as one of the oldies of Comrades and I certainly don’t know the answer to it or even if there is an answer is that many of the modern runners know very little about the history of the race. Example. They run their hearts out to get a Bill Rowan medal and many don’t know who Bill Rowan was or the significance of the 9 hours. How does one address that and can it in fact even be addressed?
CF: What we did last year was to commission a Comrades history DVD and we circulated that to every registered running club in the country so that they could share that with their members because we believe that the history, the heroes, the traditions and values of the Comrades need to stay alive.
DJ: We’ve just had the launch of Comrades 2018 and one very exciting bit of news to come out of that is the new Down Run finish in Durban.
CF: The finish will be at Moses Mabida Stadium and the facilities are really magnificent. We looked at a couple of venues but after we visited Moses Mabida and walked through it we were convinced that this was the place. The distance will still be approximately 89.2km but we have to finalise the route to get to the stadium but we are already hard at work to get that sorted out.
DJ: Finally Chris, without giving anything away, it’s only 8 years to the 2025 Comrades – the 100th race. Have you guys started throwing ideas around yet or is it still too early?
CF: We have certainly. We have very active heritage and traditions and marketing committees and they’ve been tasked with throwing ideas around so that we come up with something very special.
So some exciting things in the pipeline for the world’s greatest road race. Get those running shoes on and get out onto the road and remember the slogan to Comrades 2018 and from where I sit no reason for any doom and gloom about the future.
ASIJIKI – NO TURNING BACK
5 SEPTEMBER 2017