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HYROX, the functional fitness concept that has dominated the field in the post-COVID era, is growing at an exponential rate. Following the most marquee event that was their World Championships in Las Vegas and on the eve of the release of their first documentary, we spoke to co-founder and driving force of the brand Christian Toetzke.
Men’s Health: How would describe HYROX in a few sentences to somebody who knows nothing about it?
Christian Toetzke: HYROX is the first ever mass-participation fitness race. It’s a hybrid event with a mix of running and functional fitness, based on natural movements. Everything is timed, so it is a legitimate race. That is the shortest way to say it.
To go into a bit more detail, in this part of the sports business, when we say ‘mass participation’ it’s founded on the narrative that anyone can do it. It should be a tough challenge but with a little bit of training and preparation, you don’t need to be the most talented or fittest person to do it. You will find a way to finish it. It’s based on the seven natural movements, so it’s just a matter of how long it takes you.
What’s your background and what brought you to HYROX?
I’ve been in this business a long time. I started in 1995 by creating a new cycling concept, which I called ‘marathon on wheels’. It still exists. But I had no link to this business before that. I did sport when I was young. I tried to be on a professional level, but I was never really that good. I was always interested in sport, but my education was not in that area. I studied macro-economics.
But a lot of coincidences led to me creating this concept and what I did was to copy how a city marathon works but do it on road-racing bikes. It’s familiar these days but back in ’95 it did not exist. I convinced the City of Hamburg to close all the roads. We had a professional race and then an ‘everybody’ race. People could time in and take part in professional conditions on close roads. That was my first event. I traded the company very young with no idea about what I was doing. I was 26. But it became extremely successful very fast, and we became the number one cycling agency in Germany and mainland Europe, so I grew into developing products for marathon and triathlon. The idea was always to find a new angles to make our races different.
I sold that company to Lagardère, the French media giant, who created something called Lagardère Sports. Part of the deal was that I had to stay on board and I became the CEO for Lagardère Sports events, which was not only mass-participation but also tennis tournaments, golf tournaments…basically everything. We acquired a lot of events, but we also started a global mass-participation business, so we had events in Australia, New Zealand, China, Singapore and America.
It was the first time I could learn about how the various markets work; how similar they are and how different in terms of customer behaviour, pricing and so on. Then I sold that business on behalf of Lagardère to Ironman and Wonder Sports. Again, it was part of the deal that I had to join the board to create a new business strategy. It was an interesting time, and I learned a lot about mass-participation from Ironman.
That was 2016 and that was when I started to think about fitness. I was always in the gym and had been for many years and then I started to look at it and wondering why these people didn’t have an event for them. When you look at it, training in the gym is the biggest sport in the world and when people are a member of a gym they are organised and you can reach them. It’s significantly bigger than football. But there are no events for these millions of gym goers. When you’re a runner, you can do a 10km or a half-marathon almost every weekend. But this seemed like it was the last remaining gap in sports.
I started thinking about how we could do it, as it’s much more complicated than a running event. It need to work with the experience I had of managing the flow of people and the business model had to work, of course. It had to be highly scalable and easy to multiply. There were a lot of questions and perhaps that HRYOX is still the only indoor mass-participation fitness event.
Why did you opt for an indoor concept?
It has a lot do to with speed. It’s much quicker to multiply an event when you are going into convention centres as they are absolutely all over the world. The process is so much easier than doing outdoor events. I did that for 25 years and you need a lot a year, to a year and a half lead time. You need all the permits and road closures. You need to speak to about fifteen different authorities, you need the police, ambulance, fire service and so on. When you do indoor events, you start the conversation, find a date, agree on the pricing and you have everything you need. It makes us different to all other mass-participation events and we can run all year when all our competitors are in the off seasons.
The speed at which HYROX has scaled has been rapid. What steps did you take to go global at such a rate?
It was the plan from the beginning to create a global brand, a global movement. Our market is significantly bigger than CrossFit because it’s so inclusive. We planning to go big and bold. I took the best parts of every product I’ve created and seen. The business model works like a rock concert tour, basically. We have all the best equipment, we own it and it’s all on six trucks. So, as long as I don’t do two events in the same region on the same weekend, we can move the whole event anywhere. So especially for mainland Europe, the more events we do the cheaper it gets. Because we’re indoor we can reuse the equipment. There is not rain or outdoor damage to deal with.
We took a lot of risks, and we still do because we are growing so fast, we are still investing. We could make a profitable business if I pressed stop right now and just start banking the success we already have. But that’s not our vision. We have a clear plan over the next five years to grow into every relevant country and market in the world. We’re aiming for 200 events, roughly, with 700,000 participants per year. Next season, we will have 45 events and probably 90,000. So, you can see that we are still just at the beginning. There are major markets that we are yet to step into. We’re just about to move into Asia, Australia and then the other countries in mainland Europe. I’m always working on the next market. We have amazing teams where we already are like the UK team who run your events. My job is always the next step and the next.
The next London event is sold out. Why has the UK taken to HYROX so much?
The UK market is amazing. At the moment, it is outperforming every other region. We had learnings from the older markets, like Germany, and we had already launched in quite a few new countries, so we had some experience to learn from when we came to the UK. We had a great team in place right from the start, so the switch was quicker. Even the way the UK works. Everything starts in London and then you move out from there. In Germany, for example, is much more decentralised and there is no dominant city. When you do something in Hamburg nobody in Munich cares. Then we have the US, of course, which is different again because you basically have fifteen Londons. It’s more like launching in ten different countries at the same time.
I’ve seen this in the industry time and again, that when you hit a certain critical mass and the events are big enough, everyone who takes past is super happy, then they go back and tell all the other members at their gyms and come back with five more people to the next event. You still do marketing, but you don’t have to do as much in that region once you hit that point.
But, yes, it certainly seems to appeal to what the UK is looking for. You love the challenge of it. The UK has always been a huge market for running and cycling events. We are very happy with the success in the UK and are trying to understand the formula for new markets that might function in the same way.
Do you feel HYROX hit the experiential sweet-spot straight after UK COVID restrictions?
I think so, yes. You had a very harsh lockdown and everyone was very open to try things after it was lifted; to do things together with other people. Also, the awareness of fitness and the importance for your health had grown significantly over the two years. We all read for two years about how being healthier and fitter means you’re better protected. It all comes into play.
Also the UK mentality was very different. In Germany we never had such a harsh lockdown for so long a time, but we still have COVID measurements in place. But you had these hard rules and then it opened up and you got back to normal life. For us the timing was perfect. Your last lockdown rules lifted too late for the regular outdoor events, then we came with out with indoor events and everyone went for it. For a while we were the only options for mass-participation. The first event in London had 600 people. Then Birmingham had 620 before Manchester exploded with over 2000. Then London in April just gone had 4000. So now we’ve hit this critical mass. London is sold out with four months to go. Birmingham is on the way to selling out with 4000 and Manchester will sell out for sure. We will be launching so more UK races soon, so it’s an exciting time for us over there.
Why have you taken the decision to release the documentary now?
You grow your viewership with every step. We’re not big enough for live coverage. It costs too much money. But this will not be our last documentary by any means. With each one we do we will get better, invest a bit more money and cover a longer period. What I’ve learned it that you need something to show TV channels for them to see the media potential. Each film will be bigger than the previous one. We still have more than enough to tell a great story and [The World Championships in] Las Vegas was such a success that people will be blown away when the see the opening ceremony and the event. The documentary does two things. Firstly, it tells the story of our pro athletes who are now growing organically out of this community. Only two or three years ago, we had athletes coming across from other sports – now we already had a group of people who are true specialists in HYROX. They prepare specifically for it and it’s why the average times at the top are getting so fast. They are great characters, and we want to show how amazingly fit these guys are. The best HYROX athletes in the world deserve to be in that discussion as to who the fittest in the world is. We want to create our own stars.
The second part is still to explain what HYROX is. For the regular competitor, the ‘age groupers’ who have never thought about making a world championship, that is the story, too. To lose the fear, do a bit of training enjoy the event. It will give us another push and give us a piece to send to new sponsors of show to new markets. Hopefully the next one will be on a couple of TV channels, perhaps the BBC will pick it up. You need something to show them to get interest for the next, bigger film.
Ironman and CrossFit started as a few people just doing something new and slowly grew into what you have now. It’s taken Ironman 20 years. But our plan was from the beginning was to be that big straight away.
We have a clear media plan to match. We will have a few more elite races this year and each will have a livestream. The ‘lead race’ format we used for the top 15 male and femail athletes at the World Championships in Las Vegas worked very well. Each athlete has their own dedicated lane, so you can see exactly who is where and see almost every moment of the race. We will be doing more of those next year for sure.
Finally, CrossFit has the CrossFit Games, Ironman has its world championships – is HYROX something that could be at the Olympics?
It’s funny that you ask that because when we were creating HYROX, one of our narratives was that we had to do it in a way that it could theoretically be part of the Olympic Games. Luckily my partner is a two-time Olympian and bronze medallist. So it ticks everything you need to accepted. It must be new; it has to tap into a popular area that is not already covered with the other events; it has to appeal to younger audiences; it has to be everywhere in the world already; it has to be quite inclusive. We do that, so why not? We are not pushing it in that direction, but you never know! Perhaps in four years when we hit our growth plan, perhaps then there is a discussion to be had with the IOC. We’ll see.
Team Talk: Christian Toetzke, Co-Founder of HYROX on the Accessible Fitness Race Going Global – Men's Health
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