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Where Twitch meets the Tour de France: Inside trail running’s preeminent content factory

Still only 20 years old, UTMB Mont-Blanc has grown rapidly to become a much-loved yet increasingly commercialised spectacle far removed from the otherwise grassroots world of trail running. Spurred by investment from Ironman, the event’s organisers are doubling down on live content production as they bid to take the UTMB brand to all corners of the globe.

14 September 2023 Michael Long


Ultra trail running hardly constitutes TV-friendly sport. With no stadium, miles upon miles of course often in remote locales, and cutoff times running into several days, it’s little wonder this particular corner of the sports industry has long existed off the beaten track.

Like most other outdoor pursuits, trail running has historically been confined to the fringes of sports media, only breaking into the mainstream on rare occasions. But while it may not be readymade for broadcast TV, the sport has always represented fertile ground for original content and storytelling.

Today, personality-led programming and documentary films produced by endemic brands and creators remain the nucleus of the trail running media but, as the sport professionalises, investment in live content during elite events is gathering pace. Increasingly creative and ambitious productions are emerging at the professional end of the sport, giving rise to a live broadcast product that, to varying degrees, is growing more stable and sophisticated with each passing year.

Nowhere is this push for advancements in live production more evident than at UTMB Mont-Blanc. Trail running’s biggest and arguably most prestigious event, the weeklong spectacle in late August sees 10,000 runners from well over 100 nations compete across multiple races centred around the French alpine town of Chamonix. Over the course of its 20-year existence, the event has grown in scale and stature, ballooning from a modest, family affair run by volunteers to become the de facto world championships of trail running.

Indeed, that status is reflected in just about every aspect of the occasion, from its sheer size and gravitational pull to its ongoing commercial transformation and investment in content. Its importance is such that the entire trail running industry has been hauled, at times reluctantly, into UTMB’s orbit, and that has in turn helped to position its organisers, the UTMB Group, as the preeminent rights holder in the business.

“We know that UTMB won’t satisfy every runner because some runners like to experience small races,” says Antoine Aubour, the marketing, communication and media director at UTMB Group. “But the idea is to position UTMB as a leader in trail running.

“We don’t say that we are competitors, we just say we are complementary. It’s great to have those small races but UTMB is a kind of premium experience in trail running – you know you will have the best trails, the best security and operations on site, an application to track you, music. We have something special that we are super proud to present to communities everywhere in the world.”

Building the ‘Twitch of trail running’

From a content production and distribution perspective, UTMB’s strategy spans three primary buckets: owned and operated, social media, and broadcast partnerships.

Pitched as the first and only all-in-one digital destination of its kind in trail running, UTMB Live, the event’s dedicated over-the-top (OTT) platform, is designed to cater to the hardcore fan and families of competitors, providing live streams of the three UTMB World Series Finals held during the week – the 55km OCC, 100km CCC, and showpiece 106-mile UTMB – in seven languages as well as live tracking of all runners.

Coverage is geared towards the top three male and female athletes, but the duration of the races – north of 19 hours for UTMB – leaves plenty of time for support programming and audience engagement. For that reason, a live chat function was added for this year, enabling viewers to interact with commentators as the action unfolds.

“We like to call it the ‘Twitch of trail running’,” says Aubour, speaking to SportsPro inside the event’s broadcast control room as he surveys a wall of screens carrying the live feed. “If you have any questions, if you’re not satisfied with the comments, you can chat directly with the speakers. This is the first way for us to engage and to invite people to help us to be better.”

For the past several years, UTMB is said to have invested upwards of UK£200,000 (US$249,500) in building out its OTT platform and production capabilities. The streaming technology powering UTMB Live was developed in-house by Fabrice Perrin, a long-time volunteer at UTMB Mont-Blanc, and has since been rolled out across nine UTMB World Series events in 2023. Meanwhile LiveTrail, a UTMB Group-owned live tracking, timing and information app, was created specifically for managing outdoor endurance events and is now licensed to other operators.

UTMB Live, the event’s dedicated OTT platform, was developed in-house and includes live video, tracking and chat functionality

Reach over revenue

From a social standpoint, a mix of live and near-live content and highlights is distributed via UTMB’s official YouTube and Facebook channels, as well as Dailymotion. Those platforms are prioritised for discoverability and reach purposes, while short-form video services such as Instagram Reels act as a gateway to bring viewers into the live streams.

Prior to and during the event, social plays a crucial role in feeding the audience funnel but UTMB does not only rely on its own channels to engage viewers. In recognition of the fact that much of the trail running media centres around individual creators, podcasters and endemic brands, Aubour acknowledges the need to ensure no stakeholders are excluded from being able to communicate around a gravitational event like UTMB Mont-Blanc.

“We welcome other creators,” he says. “In our world of trail running, we have a lot of brands that create teams and so we have a special media rights package for brands [who are] competitive for our partners. That allows them to create content and to distribute, to use the UTMB brand and events, even if we need to protect the rights of our sponsors. It’s super transparent and it works well.”

Additionally, UTMB has forged distribution deals with broadcast partners in several key target markets, including L’Equipe TV in France, Outside Watch in the US and Canada, Iqiyi Sports in China and TV3 in Spain. Together, those deals guarantee distribution of live and non-live programming on established linear networks and digital platforms during race week, as well as helping to grow exposure and awareness of UTMB World Series events throughout the year.

“The objective here is to have a bigger reach,” says Aubour (left), “to try, with our live feed, to interest newcomers in trail running, or any people who might be interested in experiencing UTMB, discover the wonderful landscapes, the wonderful people that are doing extraordinary things on the trails.”

As it stands, UTMB does not receive a rights fee as part of its broadcast arrangements. Instead, according to Aubour, the production expenditure required to service those agreements is viewed as a marketing and promotion investment that feeds a wider UTMB business whose primary revenue streams are sponsorship and race registration fees.

For that reason, commercial partners are integrated into the live streams, both through traditional advertising and by having company representatives join the broadcast to talk up their products or services. Meanwhile race directors from other UTMB World Series stops are invited to discuss the unique appeal of their events during the live coverage.

While UTMB Group does not yet generate revenue through media rights sales, Aubour says the groundwork is being laid year after year and interest among mainstream broadcasters is growing in tandem with rising production quality. Since 2022, the organisers have also worked with the commercial sales team at Ironman Group, which acquired a minority stake in UTMB Group a year earlier, to pitch both brands to prospective broadcast partners.

That approach has already paid dividends, with the Outside Watch deal in North America, announced earlier this year, having come off the back of a prior relationship with Ironman.

“At the end of the day, by selling UTMB World Series and Ironman series, we provide to media companies a super offer of live experiences in endurance sport,” says Aubour, a former head of marketing at Tour de France organiser ASO who has also held brand and communications roles at the France 2023 Rugby World Cup and Adidas. “Coming with both premium brands may be interesting for some broadcasters and we’ve opened a lot of doors with this double offer.”

A congress centre in central Chamonix houses UTMB’s broadcast control room, where dozens of producers, editors and commentators work on delivering the live feed and social content

Producing the goods

Broader distribution has naturally fuelled increased consumption of UTMB content. In 2022, more than 25 million people accessed live streams and highlights across all platforms, while three million people tuned into live coverage on L’Equipe TV in France.

By Sunday evening of this year’s event, more than 52 million video views and 2.5 million interactions had been recorded on UTMB’s platforms, with three million users and 24 million page views. An Instagram reel of American Courtney Dauwalter, one of trail running’s greatest performers, crossing the finishing line to claim her third UTMB win was watched well over a million times. There was also double the press coverage seen in 2022, with around 500 accredited journalists and influencers producing nearly 1,900 articles during race week. 

Yet, in a community-oriented sport like trail running, bigger is not always better and such growth is not universally welcomed.

Indeed, it is fair to say the ongoing commercialisation of UTMB continues to divide opinion. Many view the organisers’ unabashed pursuit of expansion and apparent attempts to monopolise the sport, backed by Ironman’s investment, as too aggressive and incongruent with trail running’s grassroots ethos.

Around 500 accredited journalists and thousands of fans descended on Chamonix to witness Jim Walmsley become the first American man to win UTMB Mont-Blanc

A recent title sponsorship deal with carmaker Dacia provided the latest flashpoint in what has become a heated debate. The decision itself drew widespread criticism, with UTMB Group accused of prioritising profit over the need to ensure trail running’s biggest event is not used as a vehicle to ‘sportswash’ the image of a high-carbon company. As many pointed out, the move appeared at odds with other sustainability initiatives designed to reduce the environmental impact of UTMB events.

Partnering with Dacia also added weight to the view that UTMB Group is employing tactics straight out of the Ironman playbook – from its push for international expansion through a consistently branded world series, to its corporate approach and efforts to control entry pathways into its flagship championships. Yet there is no denying UTMB’s live broadcast production setup represents the pinnacle and the envy of trail running.

At UTMB Mont-Blanc, an on-the-ground team of around 70 people are involved in producing 74 hours of live coverage. Many of them are based at the event media hub located inside Le Majestic congress centre in central Chamonix, while 14 camera operators capture the action out on the course with live feeds transmitted back to the control room via 4G. Among them are four Olympic standard mountain bikers, three highly skilled drone pilots, a cineflex operator shooting from a helicopter, and six elite trail runners, all of whom must be adept at navigating technical terrain whilst following – and crucially not distracting – the fastest off-road racers on the planet.

A team of 14 camera operators, including elite runners and mountain bikers, captures live footage of the UTMB’s main races

Naturally, the job of covering events taking place on a 170km course that traverses mountainous terrain comes with inherent logistical and operational challenges. Aside from changeable weather conditions and unavoidable connectivity issues, the planning and investment required to make a 106-mile race with a 48-hour cutoff time viewer friendly cannot be overstated.

Nevertheless, the viewing experience is impressive. Generally steady streams are augmented with advanced statistics and graphical overlays, making the live action easy to follow. Expert commentators, including trail running royalty like the American great Scott Jurek, and specialists in areas like coaching and nutrition are brought in to provide colour and context, while there are clear efforts, both during the live steam and on social media, to educate the uninitiated viewer about the subtle nuances of the sport.

One innovation brought in for 2023 saw a studio created inside the Courmayeur aid station, located across the border in Italy, around the main race’s halfway mark. Elite runners arrive in darkness having run the first 80km into the night and, for many, it is the point at which the race truly begins. Lifting the lid on what happens inside the aid station thus represents a compelling storytelling opportunity for the production team, not to mention a chance to cater to international audiences.

“This is the first year we will be fully live for UTMB to make it more immersive for fans even during the night,” explains Aubour. “It makes sense for us to be live during the night in Europe because for the US, it’s the beginning of the evening. North America is a super strategic market for us – we’ll have a lot of races there in future – so we need to have something to show the US community.”

The human touch

Bringing fans closer to the sport in that way is all part of UTMB’s overarching content strategy. In particular, the event’s social output has been widely lauded for its distinctive style and an engaging tone that strikes the right balance between entertainment and education. Not for the first time, though, some of the editorial decisions around this year’s race drew criticism, with the live coverage appearing to favour the men’s leaders over their female counterparts.

Still, there is a clear commitment to bringing every element of the race to life, both on the ground and through digital content.

In tandem with the broadcast, the production of the event itself takes inspiration from other major sporting spectacles, not least the Tour de France. In a setup reminiscent of classic climbs like Le Tourmalet or Alpe d’Huez, one notable ascent up Notre Dame de la Gorge near the town of Les Contamines-Montjoie sees UTMB runners carve their way through hordes of raucous fans, parting a sea of flailing bodies and arms hoisting flares and cowbells and even revving chainsaws, much like the scenes witnessed at the world’s most famous cycling event.

From a broader business perspective, too, there are clear parallels between the situation in which trail running finds itself today and that of professional cycling in years gone by. Referencing his previous experience at ASO, Aubour notes how the sport’s economic model – whereby most top athletes represent teams funded by brand sponsorship – harbours many similarities. Looking ahead, he predicts that the ongoing push for professionalisation will give rise to more formal competitive structures and greater investment from non-endemic companies in future.

Such progress will bring its own challenges but trail running, as Aubour sees it, has an opportunity to use content as a means of broadening its appeal, just as cycling has done throughout its more recent history. Digital platforms have opened new avenues for media distribution and fan engagement and he says UTMB, with its increasingly slick in-house content factory, now has the ambition and the wherewithal to serve the sport’s burgeoning fanbase by capitalising on the opportunities that creates for athlete storytelling.

“We need to make them human,” Aubour says of the elite runners. “We need to tell the stories and we need to create assets, but the assets are people who are married, have kids, eat burgers, listen to music.

“At the Tour de France, ten or 15 years ago, we had this issue where we were not speaking about the cyclists’ personalities. We wouldn’t see their faces when they’re on their bikes so we started to create content.

“In trail running, we need to have legends and heroes, so we need to create content to tell their stories.”

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