From a mountainside in Pennsylvania to the desert of Dubai, Tough Mudder has come a long way in just eight years. What started as an idea for a Harvard Business School competition is now the world’s best known obstacle race.

Building a brand from the ground up, founder Will Dean and his team at Tough Mudder have created a brand and product with global appeal.

Since its inception, Tough Mudder has welcomed five million participants to its events and has seen ‘Legionnaires’ (the name given to people who complete the course) take on obstacles on five different continents.

Tough Mudder first arrived in the UAE in 2016 with IMG as the local licensed partner. But after IMG delivered three successful events, rights have now been snapped up by Omani company Sabco Sports. In 2019, Sabco will host two Tough Mudders in Oman, plus new events in Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah.

Johnny Little, Director of Global Events & Licensing for Tough Mudder, is confident that the company’s presence in the Middle East will continue to grow under Sabco.

“We’re really thankful to IMG, who has been a great partner,” Little tells Sport Industry Insider. “They have grown the Dubai event year on year and delivered another fantastic event in December. They remain our partner in Australia, but now plan on focusing on different products in and around the Middle East.

“We could not be happier to be partnering with Sabco Sports, who have shown themselves to be incredibly passionate about the Tough Mudder brand. They were really aggressive in wanting to expand Tough Mudder across the whole region and want to do so quickly. This is something very exciting for us.”

Tough Mudder’s move to a licensed model was not initially part of the plan. Instead it was a reactive decision, coming after the speed of the company’s success surpassed expectations.

“Our initial growth was very fast,” Little explains. “We got to the stage in 2016 where we had to make a decision and rather than have multiple offices all over the world, we decided that it would be smarter to bundle up the product that we have and find operators in the local markets to deliver.

“It is much more effective this way, as events experts in the market know how to talk to their customers, to potential sponsors; they know better than us the marketing avenues and strategies to use. It’s a tailored product that works best for that specific market.

“Clearly we don’t just say ‘here’s the manual, best of luck to you’. It is a challenge being thousands of miles away, so we have weekly meetings with all of our licensees. And at any first time event we will have a Tough Mudder HQ representative from our New York or London offices on the ground – to make sure the standard is what we need and that it’s successfully on brand.

“Happily, this approach has worked incredibly well and it has just snowballed over the past few years. In 2019 we plan to double our footprint of licensed events around the world.”

UAE telecoms company du has been Tough Mudder’s title sponsor for the Dubai event for the past three years, but it is unclear whether that relationship will remain in place under Sabco Sports. Even if du does not continue, however, Little feels that Tough Mudder is an attractive partner.

“The fitness market is growing exponentially in the Middle East and Tough Mudder is a great fit for the brands and companies involved both in the region and those internationally who might want to enter the market.

“We have a product with a global footprint and a monstrous database of five million participants that is extremely diverse. From seven-year-old kids taking part in our Mini-Mudders all the way through the age groups; this is not just one demographic but a range of potential customers for brands to reach out to.

“Also, I think partners really get on board with the principles of Tough Mudder. This isn’t an individual race, it’s about teamwork and helping your fellow competitors. It’s a great message to be a part of.”

In the United States, Tough Mudder’s wide-ranging sponsors have included the likes of footwear company Merrell, fitness clothing brand Alanic, energy drink Celsius and Jack Links jerky. Amusingly, Soap & Glory beauty products have also been involved, helping clean up the Tough Mudder participants, inevitably caked in dirt after racing.

For the UAE’s new events in 2019, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority will be their respective events’ key supporters, while Jeep – an important sponsor for Tough Mudder in Oman – may continue its relationship with new organisers Sabco Sports.

Despite having a global reach, Tough Mudder prefers to give its licensees the freedom to find local partners, as opposed to forcing licensees to work with global partners who may or may not resonate in a global market. However, Little admits global partnerships are something he has been exploring.

“So far we have given our licensees autonomy as they can usually find the partners who fit best in their market. However, we know Tough Mudder has a global participants’ list, so a global sponsor could make sense.

“As with everything, if the deal and the partner is right, a truly global sponsor is something we would be open to.”

The growth of Tough Mudder has unsurprisingly spawned a number of other obstacle race products, both in the Middle East and beyond. However, the increased competition doesn’t worry Little, who believes that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

“In some markets you really have to explain to the customer what obstacle course racing is. People have never heard of it. So when other obstacle races are in the market, perhaps with a smaller provider, it can actually be really beneficial for us.

“We consider Tough Mudder to be the world leader in obstacle course buildings. Hopefully people are trying out all of the different brands but I ultimately think ours is the best one.”

Beyond expansion into new markets, diversification appears to be central to the next chapter of the Tough Mudder story. In 2017 the company created a televised elite obstacle race series and a branded boutique gym in the United States – a pair of exciting and scalable new products.

“When I first began, Tough Mudder was very much a one-trick pony. We had one product: the original Tough Mudder. You had to be the toughest and baddest to enter. That was great, but we needed to modify in order to get more people involved. That’s why different variations have been created and the offering has really broadened.

We have an entry level product in Tough Mudder 5K, an 8-10 mile Tough Mudder Classic, a competitive Race Series including Tougher Mudder (a timed, competitive 8-10 mile race), Toughest Mudder (a 12-hour overnight event) and World’s Toughest Mudder, (a 24-hour endurance championship).

“We have TMX being shown on CBS and Tough Mudder Bootcamp too. Around 70 licenses for the gyms have been sold across the States and hopefully they can follow the same trajectory as our events. Ideally you’d get the participant on a full journey from training for the event to competing in the event – keeping that wheel rolling as the years go by.

“We never want to stand still and over the next five years we’ll continue to expand. Asia and South America are key markets where we are looking for the right partners. And we will continue to offer new products too. We want to plant our flags wherever we can and continue to grow ‘Mudder Nation’ to 10, 20 million people.”