Virgin Sport CEO Mary Wittenberg says the idea behind the new Virgin Sport Festival series is simple. “We want to move the world through sports,” she says. Of course, Wittenberg could have said the same thing with her old job as a front-runner of the New York City Marathon. But when Sir Richard Branson called in 2015, it opened up a world of opportunities for Wittenberg. Her vision took form earlier this year in Hackney, England—one of three Virgin events in the U.K. this year. On Oct. 14-15, Virgin Sport makes its American debut with its Virgin Sport San Francisco – Festival of Fitness
, featuring the San Francisco Bay Half marathon, Twin Peaks Mile hill climb and a wide range of exercise experiences like ClassPass-led workouts, Flywheel Sports cycling sessions and hip-hop yoga. Connect Sports got Wittenberg to slow down long enough to discuss Virgin’s foray into sports events.
Why is there a need for Virgin Sport festivals?
Compared to 20 years ago, when there was talk about the importance of fitness and activity, today people understand the benefits of fitness, both physical and mental. Despite knowing the benefits and wanting to be fit, they get stuck—for a whole bunch of different reasons: they don't have time; don't think sports or fitness is for them or they don’t know how to get involved. We spend every day asking ourselves how to get people over barriers to be their best.
Why make San Francisco the first U.S. site and not New York, given your marathon experience?
We are looking to fill gaps. My friends at the New York Road Runners
cover a lot well, so the idea was to start in other places. One thing that’s different about us is we don't see ourselves as event organizers dropping in. We try to get involved in the local community. In London, we are actively involved with run crews, workout crews and support local youth. In San Francisco
, we’re involved with different run and fitness groups. If we can be a catalyst to get people moving by having a big event, we establish a connection year-round.
What is Sir Richard Branson’s involvement?
It’s the best situation in the world. Richard completely delegates running the business. He knows how to put responsibility and opportunity in other people’s hands. He is our greatest champion. What we do is really focused on having people take on challenges and believing in themselves. That's the way Richard runs his life. Every day is a constant challenge, going on an adventure and laughing and having a good time throughout. We are independent, but in the end, he really epitomizes what we stand for.
Can you set the stage for us for the San Francisco festival?
In East London, we had 20,000 attend and 10,000 participate. In San Francisco, we’ll start smaller and grow from there. Getting 5,000 to 10,000 people would be great.
Friday night will be a street party with local beer and food. On Saturday, there will be a series of races up the Twin Peaks. There’s nothing like taking on the challenge of those hills and being rewarded with the most spectacular views of San Francisco. There’ll be yoga at the civic center. On Sunday, the headline event is the half-marathon, which is nice and hilly. We’ll start and finish at city hall using an iconic course going through the Golden Gate Bridge and up the presidio.
How do you plan to expand Virgin Sport festivals?
We’re trying to pace the right way. We’ve had people come to us and we’ve been well received. I’m really happy with opportunities we have down the line. The question is: How many do we do each year? I think we start with two more in the U.S. next year—we want to ensure the appropriate focus on each community. In five years, we want 1 million participants in 20 to 25 events among the U.S., U.K. and other areas.