The recent news that BattleFrog Series had suspended operations was a surprise to many who love the brand and their events, a shock to many of the employees and partners working hard to keep the events and media properties moving forward, and also a sad vindication of sorts to many who had been predicting BattleFrog's demise for some time now.
“I Told You So”
It's easy to spot many in the community who fit into the lattermost category: “I've been saying it all along, I knew they were going to fold”, and “they had so much money, how could they manage to screw this up so bad?” and many, many other self-serving quotes that are far nastier – because that's what social media has become, a place to pile on as much vitriol as possible, second-guess, and demean/bemoan leadership – while forgetting any and all positives that came out of the extremely hard effort than many individuals put into creating this event and fighting tooth-and-nail to keep it alive. Laughing at their demise is not only childish, it's a psychological condition:
scha·den·freu·de, noun – Pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune
All of the people – past and present – that poured their heart into BattleFrog Series (or Atlas Race, Superhero Scramble, Hero Rush, and many others) deserve better from the OCR community than mean-spirited comments about their demise.
“Many of these folks also learned who their friends were. In the last 24 hours, members of the community showed their true colors – some mostly preoccupied with getting “the scoop”, spreading rumors, and putting together frog-themed memes, while others reached out to the individuals most affected, offering support.”
and Cassie Harris was certainly vocal about remembering the personal collateral of BF's announcement:
“For those of you who ‘called it,' go sit down. Seriously. Have a little empathy for the people whose world came crashing down today. For those who put their heart and soul into a brand just for their leadership to burn it down. You didn't call anything that we haven't seen coming for quite some time now – the rest of us just chose to put people before a bib number. Today is a sad day in the OCR community, so get off your high horse and try to figure out a way to lift people affected by this up, not kick sand in their face while they're down.”
Be sad, be hurt, be angry, but be human first. A little bit of class goes a long way when people are figuring out how they will pay their rent and feed their family. We all lost something here, let's not lay all the bitterness at the feet of those who are now dealing with far bigger issues than whether or not they get to play around at an event.
The Problem in the Pizza
The 2014 version of BattleFrog Series was one of bemusement to me, I never met personally with any of the executive staff outside of my friendship with Garfield, and lunch at OCRWC with Don Mann. For all intents and purposes, I was an observer of BF's world in '14, and for the most part even with changes in 2015 the MRG team didn't really connect with the BattleFrog Series core team outside of personal relationships with Ryan, Marco, Corinna, Lindsey, Clou, Sarah, Jenny, Ben, and Chris “Beard” Acord.
About a month before the 2015 BattleFrog Championship, Ben Killary reached out to me to start working together a lot more closely, with their jump from 20-something '15 events to 40-something in '16, intel on venues and insight into how they could manage a few elements differently now that their scale was about to double would surely come in handy. I jumped at the chance; it's one thing to critique a company's choices when you're safe behind your keyboard, it's a whole different animal when you dig in and see where you can make a difference – and confront the reality that sometimes what you thought was a good idea, actually was worthless in practice.
I'm pretty sure I learned as much from this exercise as my new friends on the other side of the conference table, phone, passenger seat, RV couch, and all the other places we conversed leading up to and past their 2016 season kick-off in SoCal
but the huge difference was I didn't have that much riding on BF's success; sure MRG would lose some revenue from a good customer, but failure didn't mean I'd lose my job and ability to provide for my family. For everyone involved on BattleFrog's side, the stakes were much higher and they had a lot
By the time BattleFrog rolled into Phoenix, Arizona
, the build crew was hitting its stride, and I got to spend even more time with the management team, specifically Ramiro Ortiz
, where he explained in great detail owner Leopoldo Fernandez Pujalsz's plan for growing BattleFrog based on his experiences founding TelePizza
and and turning JazzTel
into a $4.4 billion dollar company.
Ramiro drew out Leo's grand vision on a napkin one day at lunch, starting with a large circle; the plan was to grow the reach of the sport of OCR, thereby growing the entire “pizza” whereby all events (and event promoters like MRG, gear, venues, etc.) would get bigger slices. The obtuse investment in the 2015 College Football Playoff
and (former) BattleFrog Series Fiesta Bowl
fell into play with this strategy, as well as millions of dollars invested in TV advertising nationally on ESPN, this after over a million was spent on TV spots in south Florida alone. When Ramiro had finished his simple sketch it was pretty clear to me that BattleFrog Series was a big play by a big investor – Leo was all-in to win. After getting this peek behind the curtain, and sharing some of my concerns, Ramiro and I agreed if anyone had a chance to pull it off, it would be someone with considerable business acumen, a successful track record & portfolio, and steel set of cojones that Mr. Leopoldo Fernandez Pujalsz apparently had.
Alas, the big-time spend didn't turn into a bigger pizza, nor did BattleFrog Series even get enough of a “slice” to live on. There was no overwhelming brand familiarity from the public, actually, the only overwhelming responses from the Fiesta Bowl sponsorship and ESPN commercials seemed to be: “What the hell is this frog thing?”
Location, Location, Location (and timing)
BattleFrog Series' 44-race calendar was also extremely ambitious, with many events sharing weekends and area codes with events like Spartan Race
, Tough Mudder
, and Rugged Maniac
the participant numbers just weren't there early in the season on the west coast. For example, Spartan Race SoCal was at a venue they'd been at for several seasons, and registration for that race was open for nearly 9 months. BattleFrog kicked off their season also in SoCal a week before Spartan at an unknown venue off the beaten path, straddling the Mexican border in a relatively sketchy-looking neighborhood. Oh, and their tickets were on sale for only a little over a month and their marketing hadn't really kicked into gear yet. As a racer on the grounds, the estimate of 350 participants seemed a little generous. Those who made the trip enjoyed a well-designed, fun, & challenging course, and aside from an ambitious slide-into-the-finish that didn't work to perfection, the race went off exceptionally well. A week later in Phoenix, the same thing. Another SoCal trip to LA a couple weeks later didn't move the needle much, and it took most of the spring to top the 1000-racer mark.
Available venues and open dates were a source of consternation for the team who was working extremely hard to find new, creative locations to hold events that hadn't been “used up” by previous races. New venues come with a host of new problems though – specifically when no one knows where they are, how to get there, what airports to fly into, hotels to stay at, parking, etc. I know Ben Killary worked his tail off on the venues, as we communicated quite often about the difficulties BF faced staying competitive in this area while battling for athletes' money and attention against deeply entrenched rivals.
The timing of BattleFrog's late-summer announcement came as somewhat of a surprise to many around the sport, and was especially shocking to those in and close to BF. As of late, they'd been stepping up their game with more interesting course variations, receiving rave reviews right up to their penultimate event, also in SoCal, and increased athlete participation with a reported 3000+ athletes at what would be their final event in Ohio.
The Impact on the People
Minutes after the news came down and every device I own started buzzing with alerts, Ramiro and I had a tough conversation about what the “restructuring” meant to employees; he was tasked with delivering that news on an individual basis later on in the day. I've come to view Ramiro as a friend, and it was obvious from his voice that this was not easy on him at all. Out of respect I didn't ask for a comment and instead we spoke about how to best help the people affected. Those answers do not come easily when confronted with delivering career-changing news.
This is not the first time we've had to deal with this exact situation and unfortunately, I've had nearly the same conversation with multiple other races that were folding; usually the conversation revolves around how they can sell off their equipment, it was telling to me that Ramiro cared more about taking care of his staff first and foremost.
I've heard some wild accusations from former employees and internet know-it-alls who heard this or that from whomever that questioned the BattleFrog leadership, and I can only vouch for my interactions with Ramiro as I never spoke with Leo or his second in-command Perico personally. I'm positive there's a lot of dirt to sling and fingers to point, in the end obviously Mr. Fernandez Pujalsz's grand vision didn't play out. Online memes, bashing management decisions or even highlighting personal failures may seem appropriate when you're hurt, but that doesn't help the people that are looking for new jobs and even potentially new homes.
While Ryan and Marco are two of the more visible individuals who were affected in multiple ways, both as Pro Team members and Race Directors, Chris “Beard/Face” Acord and Kevin Jones seemingly had the most to lose in the restructuring. While Chris had been instrumental in BF's development after Garfield departed and seemingly the “face” of the operations, Kevin Jones made what I consider the biggest leap of faith so far in the sport of OCR; he left his career as an electrical engineer and project manager, sold his house and moved his family to Miami to take over BattleFrog Series' marketing effort. He took in all the advice and words of warning – and let me tell you, he got an earful of both – and went with his gut to make the bold decision to help BattleFrog Series turn around and execute on ownership's plans to grow the entire sport of OCR. Maybe I used a word a little more blue than “guts” when we spoke, I learned quickly not to doubt Kevin Jones' commitment to the sport of OCR and willingness to put it all on the line to make a difference.
The fallout is still in process; most team members were let go by midweek, and others are working through the transition process; to what end, we're still unsure. Some of the most talented individual contributors and leaders in the sport are now looking for new gigs.
Ryan Frappier, a member of the BattleFrog Series Build Crew, eloquently summed up the emotions a day after the restructuring news came down via Facebook:
“Lots of mixed emotions about today's news surrounding BattleFrog and their recent restructuring… I'd like to thank you all for reaching out to me and seeing how I was doing as the BF Build Team and I begin to bring some closure to the matter.
Its been a beautiful road thus far and I wouldn't change anything I've gained or lost in the process. Why??? Simply because I've witnessed firsthand every emotion you will never experience at any other Obstacle Course Race and I'm a better man for it all. We traveled the country together, worked countless hours in every climate, built some of the fucking greatest courses in the business, and delivered one bitchin experience to the entire athletic community. BattleFrog will continue and always have a special place in my heart as a father, racer, builder, and ambassador to this sport.
What do we do from here?? Celebrate the victories and appreciate the time we spent atop of the OCR community when we had them. Yes, even the greats will fall. This is not the end family… This is our fresh beginning to some of the biggest, baddest, and most challenging obstacles in life soon to come. I love each and every one of you and can't wait to see you all again
To date, everyone I've met over the last 5 years who truly loves the sport of OCR has found a new gig in the sport pretty quickly when one ends; Garfield's living proof of that holding multiple high-profile gigs throughout the industry. To that end, it wouldn't be surprising to see the top talent wearing new colors rather quickly, or possibly taking their hard-earned knowledge and starting their own event. The sport of OCR is evolving with more endurance and cross-over events appearing; ultra OCR's, super-sprint “ninja” courses, Red Bull's Neptune Steps, swimrun, and more. That's not to say what the new TV audience will bring; ANW and Team Ninja Warrior are lighting up the airwaves, Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge and The Road to Tahoe are growing in popularity, Tough Mudder is kicking off their own show, Toughest, on CBS – who knows, maybe BattleFrog will have some future success with College Championships or League Championships will change the game and we'll see these super-short competitions in the future?
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end. – Semisonic, Closing Time