As 2010 began, neither Brad Scudder nor Rob Dickens could’ve imagined the decade ahead.
They would battle larger, more moneyed obstacle-course race (OCR) enterprises to establish Rugged Maniac as one of the category’s premier brands.
They would stand in the Shark Tank and score a deal with Mark Cuban.
Their Boston-based firm, Rugged Races, would acquire others and be acquired itself, all en route to becoming one of North America’s largest endurance-event companies. “No,” Dickens assures. “We never imagined this.”
Now with some 100 events scattered across the U.S., Rugged Races is no longer some modest OCR upstart. Rather, the Scudder and Dickens-led business stands an ascendant industry force driven by an enterprising mindset and backed by a powerful parent company.
Most entrepreneurs dream of earning a spot on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” but when producers for the hit show contacted Scudder and Dickens in 2013 about a potential appearance, the duo behind the upstart Rugged Maniac OCR series did the unthinkable: they declined.
In the three years since Scudder had authored the first Rugged Maniac OCR in Springfield, MA, an inaugural event that attracted 2000 participants, Rugged Maniac had blossomed from a one-off production into a viable business. Scudder had recruited Dickens, his former law school pal, into the fold and the duo had bootstrapped Rugged Maniac into a growing, multi-city OCR operation.
“We didn’t need to give up equity,” Dickens says of declining the “Shark Tank” invite.
Slowly, though, the partners reconsidered, reasoning that the show’s immense reach would provide great publicity for Rugged Maniac events. And if Cuban, the billionaire owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, made a reasonable offer, well, then Scudder and Dickens would listen. After all, Cuban boasted celebrity status and deep connections in the sports industry.
Cuban, it turns out, was intrigued and the two parties struck a deal: $1.75 million for a 25 percent stake in the business. Buzz from the show and Cuban’s involvement unlocked a world of opportunity for Scudder and Dickens, leading to new team members, a new office, more events and soaring participation numbers.
“The ‘Shark Tank’ appearance moved the needle for us,” Dickens says.
Hitting the Roads
Following their “Shark Tank” appearance on April 25, 2014, Scudder and Dickens focused almost exclusively on growing their Rugged Maniac OCR events. After two years, however, they found themselves increasingly contemplating opportunities beyond the OCR world, namely road races that offered a more consistent customer base.
“We had built this expertise [in producing events] and road races presented a way to expand and diversify our portfolio,” Dickens says, acknowledging a real fear that OCRs might “fade away” as a passing fad.
In early 2017, Rugged took its first steps into road running when it purchased Loco Races, a New Hampshire-based operation with a portfolio of about 20 New England area races. Taking charge of business operations, marketing and design to better meet the expectations of contemporary race participants, Rugged tripled Loco’s revenue in its first year at the helm.
“As our first foray into road races, we wouldn’t have done this again if things flopped,” Dickens says.
So, Rugged hunted other prospects, specifically seeking races with high growth potential. It purchased Maine-based GiddyUp Events as well as the Milwaukee Marathon, an event besieged by problems, including two consecutive years of improperly measured courses.
In Milwaukee, Rugged applied its expertise to the troubled event, which includes a half marathon and 5K in addition to the full marathon. The company shifted the race date from October to April, moved the start and finish lines to Fiserv Forum, the city’s sparking new arena, employed two USTAF course certifiers to ensure accuracy, organized an army of race-day volunteers and honed in on the details — from providing abundant portable toilets to working with the city to fill potholes along the race course. In 2019, Rugged’s first year in charge at Milwaukee, participation surged to 7500.
“We’re a bit of perfectionists over here,” Dickens says.
In fact, 2019 turned out to be Rugged’s most active year yet. The company acquired the Providence Marathon (RI), the Santa Rosa Marathon (CA), the Best Damn Race Half Marathon (FL), the Fargo Marathon (ND) and Chicago-based RAM Racing, the force behind the 20-city Allstate Hot Chocolate race series.
“While Rugged Maniac takes place in the warmer months, Hot Chocolate takes place in colder weather, so we’re not only diversifying the types of events we run, but also when they appear on the calendar,” Dickens says, adding that Rugged works to keep existing operators involved to ensure on-the-ground personnel capable of interacting with the local community and government.
Powered by parent company GateHouse Media, which acquired Rugged in 2018 for $10.4 million and then merged with Gannett in 2019 to form one of the nation’s largest media conglomerates, Rugged looks to continue building momentum as 2020 unfolds.
Leveraging the infrastructure and reach of its ownership, which publishes some 500 newspapers across the U.S., Rugged sees vast opportunity to boost the profile of its events, acquire additional race properties and provide new offerings. For instance, Dickens says Rugged looks to relaunch the Wonder Woman race series – acquired in the Fargo Marathon deal – in as many as 10 cities this year.
“We see promising opportunities around the U.S., but also want to take a breath and allow our systems and processes to gel and solidify after so much action over the last two years,” Dickens says.
“For us, it’s about honing our craft, improving our business in all areas from the swag to the runner experience to the marketing and making sure we’re focused on the right areas to sustain success.”