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Design Process Leads to Three Dozen New Events and Programs Created by Sports Backers to Inspire Active Living

By: Jon Lugbill, Sports Backers Executive Director


The COVID-19 pandemic created a crisis around the world in a multitude of ways. The impact was felt across all industries and in many organizations; for Sports Backers, this meant an immediate shift in our regular operations. Starting on March 12, 2020, we had to cancel, postpone, or significantly alter all of our events and programs. After the initial shock of the dramatic loss in revenue and the bleak financial outlook, we started the process of moving forward. “We realized right away that living actively was going to be an essential coping mechanism for people to get through this pandemic mentally as well as physically,” explained Will Dixon, Chief Administrative Officer for Sports Backers. “To make this possible, we knew we were going to have to create a number of new events and programs because our large mass-participation activities couldn’t take place during the pandemic.”

On April 8, 2020, Sports Backers’ staff began the ultimate organizational makeover. We had an all-day facilitated work session on Zoom that allowed our staff to regain our footing and start the creative process of developing our organization to function during COVID-19. Out of this meeting, a total of 21 major new event and program concepts were deemed worthy for further consideration and were going to be pushed through the design sprint process over the next 12 weeks. We were fully dedicated to innovation, creating new programs and events across our whole organization.

Logos for new events and programs

“The design sprint process not only helped us begin being positive about our response to the pandemic, but gave us the confidence in ourselves to not just shut down and hide until the pandemic was over,” said Megan Schultz, Chief Operating Officer for Sports Backers. “We then gained momentum and pushed 14 new concepts through the process in July, October, and again in December of 2020.” In total, 22 new events or programs were created using this process and 13 additional events or programs were modified substantially to work during COVID-19 (scroll down for a complete list).

Fortunately, this wasn’t our first design sprint rodeo, as Sports Backers initially utilized the process in 2014 to create the CarMax Tacky Light Run. We brought that event to market in record speed for the organization and sold out in the first year with 5,000 participants. We then started using the design sprint process to do extensive event makeovers on two events per year (back then, we thought two events a year was a lot!). This was particularly important for our events, especially in light of broader endurance event trends which saw declines in participant numbers from 2014-2019. We were able to create new events while evolving our existing events, which helped keep our total participant numbers stable when the rest of the running industry was experiencing declines. This knowledge helped us move quickly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing Sports Backers to remain focused on our mission of creating active living opportunities for people in all corners of the Richmond region and beyond.

Design Sprint Process

Design sprint process in action

A design sprint is a fast way to develop a concept into a new product that is at least ready for product testing in one week. The five-day process Sports Backers uses aims to reduce the risk of spending a huge amount of time and energy to create a new product that hasn’t had the advantage of having consumer feedback. The process aims to help our team clearly define goals, validate assumptions, and decide on a product roadmap before starting full-scale product development. A design sprint is especially useful when addressing problems which are wickedly difficult, in the sense of being full of ambiguity. The design sprint process turns a concept into a consumer product by doing the following in five days:

  1. Day 1: Explore, develop and iterate creative ways of solving the problem, regardless of feasibility
  2. Day 2: Decide on the ideas that show the most promise and explore them in further detail through storyboarding
  3. Day 3: Research the business opportunity, the audience, the competition, the value proposition, and define key performance indicators of the product
  4. Prototype: Design and prepare a visual prototype(s) with photos, PowerPoint or video that can be tested with real consumers
  5. Test: Interview 5-15 people from the product’s primary target audience and solicit their honest feedback through independent interviewers not involved in the design sprint and ask non-leading questions about the proposed product

In addition to our own events and programs, Sports Backers used the design sprint process to lead Chesterfield County in creating a sports tourism plan in early February 2021. The process involved 21 meetings in two weeks with 45 attendees and included interviews with 12 people at the end for their feedback on the draft plan. “We appreciate the opportunity to work collaboratively with so many great professionals as this plan was developed,” said Paul Wilmoth, the Sports Tourism Coordinator for Chesterfield County. “The Sports Backers team led us in such a positive way, and I believe that we have a plan that will propel us into the future in a well-planned and well-prepared way.”

“Our prior experience with event innovation gave us the courage and belief to move quickly with creating new events and modifying our existing events during the pandemic,” said Meghan Keogh, Sports Backers’ Director of Events, as she reflected on the past year. “A very challenging time for our organization, maybe our darkest hour, has now turned into one of our finest thanks to our leadership team being prepared with the design sprint process to pivot quickly in order to help our community be more active when they needed us the most.”

2020-2021 List of new events and programs:

  • RVA Fit Crew
  • Taco Trot 5k
  • Great American 5000
  • Great American Ride
  • Firecracker 4 Miler
  • Great European 2500
  • 7 Marathons on 7 Continents
  • Warm Up Fitness Challenge
  • Pumpkin Spice 5k
  • So Long 2020 5k presented by Capital One
  • Solemate Shuffle 5k
  • RVA Street Art Run
  • Sports Backers Marathon
  • Fitness Warriors on Zoom
  • Fitness Warriors in the Parks
  • Kids Challenge
  • Super Fit Challenge
  • 24 Hours of Richmond
  • Triple Trail Challenge
  • Fall Line Trail Blazer
  • All Streets RVA
  • Juneteenth 5k Fitness Celebration

2020-21 List of modified hybrid events and programs:

  • Run Bike Relay
  • Patrick Henry Half Marathon
  • Anthem Corporate Run
  • Virginia Credit Union Moonlight Ride
  • 2020 and 2021 Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10k presented by Kroger
  • 2020 Richmond Marathon
  • CarMax Tacky Light Run
  • 2021 Dominion Energy Riverrock
  • 2021 Uncorked Half and 5k
  • Trails and No Ales
  • RVA Bike Month
  • Marathon Training Team
  • Half Marathon Training Team
  • 8k Training Team
  • YMCA 10k Training Team

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