Virgin names NYRR chief as CEO of its new 'Sport' venture

Anita Balakrishnan
Mary Wittenberg and Richard Branson of Virgin Sport.
Source: Virgin Sport

Virgin Group's latest endeavor, Virgin Sport, just added a leader: the woman behind the New York City marathon.

Mary Wittenberg, president and chief executive of New York Road Runners (NYRR), is leaving to join Virgin Sport, which aims to grow participation in running and cycling events, according to a Wednesday blog post by Virgin CEO Richard Branson. Wittenberg will be CEO of the new entity.

Virgin Sport is slated as a New York-based platform to help community leaders in the U.S., U.K. and South Africa plan events like marathons and triathlons. Sport, which will operate as an independent business owned by Virgin Group, would do the staffing and marketing to attract sponsors and participants, according to Virgin Group partner Evan Lovell.

As Virgin Group looks to expand its fitness portfolio with Sport, it is banking that Wittenberg can score it the same type of growth for Virgin Sport events as she did for the New York marathon.

"We [Virgin Sport] are looking to do multiple events in each different community and be a year-round presence there," said Wittenberg. "We are looking to be part of the connective tissue of the region."

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Wittenberg was manager of the $74 million nonprofit NYRR for a decade, putting on 50 events with a total of 400,000 participants annually. One of her major tasks at NYRR was directing New York City marathon.

The marathon drew around 50,000 runners and 2 million spectators in 2014, according to NYRR's website. During her 10-year tenure, the race added more than 12,000 runners, according to Abbott World Marathon Majors. AWMM, a partnership of 6 marathons founded by Wittenberg, also includes the London Marathon, which is sponsored by Virgin Money.

Though it is still unclear how Virgin Sport ties in to existing Virgin properties—Lovell said there will be "synergies across the board"—the new company expands Branson's investment in the fitness market.

In addition to sponsoring the London Marathon and Triathalon, Virgin Group's international line of health clubs, Virgin Active, was acquired by South African investment holding company Brait in April. Virgin Pulse, a wellness app for companies to use with their employees, also includes fitness trackers for wearables.

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Virgin's ongoing foray into the fitness event space comes at a time when Americans are exercising less. A report released Thursday by Citi Equities analysts found that 28.3 percent of Americans over age 6 were physically inactive, up 0.7 percent from 2013. Although running, jogging, walking and cycling all remain top fitness activities in the U.S., they, too, are on the decline.

"The beauty of this is, its core purpose is getting people moving, which is incredibility powerful," Wittenberg said. "The nature of the business is additive to peoples lives and communities. That is uniquely Virgin."

Branson, an athlete himself, said in his blog post that Virgin Sport will be a venture with a conscience: Virgin Sport events will also include a charity fundraising component. But Sport is "very much a for-profit business," said Lovell.

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Another "additive" goal of Wittenberg is to continue to empower women in the sports business. A large percentage of NYC marathon participants added under Wittenberg were women, and she herself was the first woman to lead NYRR.

"When you look at academics and business, there are so many young talented women coming through. The pipeline there is quite deep," Wittenberg said. "When you look at sports, we are still getting started with women in leadership roles. I'm excited for this venture, because if you look at the research, you'll find that women and girls don't identify themselves at athletes, and we are off to change that perception."

Wittenberg will oversee her final race as NYRR president and CEO on Saturday at the Airbnb Brooklyn Half, after which the organization's chief operating officer, Michael Capiraso, and its chief production officer, Peter Ciaccia, will take over leadership. Then, Wittenberg will move toward hiring and announcing the U.K. team for Virgin Sport.

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