Look wherever you go in Richmond. You’ll see runners. Cyclists. Kayaks on the roofs of cars. This is an outdoors kinda town. Check that, an outdoors fitness kinda town.
The biggest fitness events – the ones that shut down streets to allow thousands to get active together – are organized by the Sports Backers. Over the past 25 years, they’ve made exercise into social events. They have created athletic events that our whole region can enjoy.
“We have made Richmond more fun, more energetic, more vital and certainly a more active community,” said Jon Lugbill, the executive director for Sports Backers, as he addressed the crowd at the 25th anniversary party Friday night. “Richmond isn’t like it was 25 years ago, and we’ve played a role in making Richmond one of the most vibrant, athletic, active communities in the country.”
Over the past quarter century, their mission has been “to produce and support nationally recognized quality sporting events and programs that motivate locals and visitors alike to be more active.”
By now, probably everyone in Richmond (or at least several people they know) has participated in a Sports Backers event. We’re talking about some of the largest fitness events in our region, like the Anthem Richmond Marathon, Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10k, Dominion Riverrock, Anthem Moonlight Ride, CarMax Tacky Light Run and many more. There have been 781,023 total participants in Sports Backers-organized events since 1998 – not counting 2016’s races. That figure began with a meager 3,330 participants in 1998 to 74,049 in 2015. That is a lot of active people.
The Sports Backers provided a snapshot of their growth and evolution since their founding:
- Formed in 1991: By Bobby Ukrop, Mike Berry, Allan Strange and Bill Flowers over conversations they had at the Tuckahoe YMCA.
- May 6, 1992: Arthur Ashe serves as the keynote speaker for the first Sports Backers Scholarship Awards Luncheon. Twenty recipients receive $500 each. This program still exists today as the Sports Backers/Richmond Times-Dispatch Scholar-Athlete Awards and has recognized 494 student-athletes with a total of $968,000.
- April 28, 1993: Jon Lugbill begins work as Sports Backers’ first (and only) executive director. His first office was in the basement of the Retail Merchants Association building on Monument Avenue near Willow Lawn Shopping Center.
- April 14, 1998: Sports Backers, Crestar Bank (now Suntrust Bank), and the Richmond Road Runners Club announce a partnership to save the Richmond Marathon. Since taking over the race, total entries have grown from less than 2,600 to over 21,000. It will celebrate 40 years in 2017.
- April 1, 2000: Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10k debuts. A total of 2,462 runners and walkers participate in the inaugural event. In just 11 years, that number would grow to over 41,000, making the race one of the largest running races of any distance in the entire world.
- 2002: The YMCA 10k Training Team and the Marathon Training Team debut. Including the Half Marathon and 8k Training Team, over 71,000 Richmonders have gotten active with a Sports Backers training program.
But the Sports Backers didn’t stop with just creating fun ways to exercise in a crowd. In a recent post to the Sports Backers blog, their “mission has expanded from generating sports tourism in the region to increasing the physical activity of residents from all corners of our community. As we’ve developed and grown, equitable access to fitness opportunities has moved to the core of our mission.”
Lugbill said that Sports Backers has continued to increase and improve their work in the community, partnering with more than 330 organizations, schools and community groups around the Richmond region.
“When the founders first started the Sports Backers, they asked 110 people to put up $500 each to be founding members. And right from the get-go, they knew that this wasn’t going to just be us doing work ourselves, but it was going to how we partnered with other organizations to have a much larger impact.”
Their youth fitness programs were first launched in 2005, beginning with “Fit for Life,” now called Kids Run RVA. Offering fall and spring programs, the “Kids Challenge” program gets an estimated 50,000 kids active. Kids Run RVA features run clubs in 60 different area schools, 39 of them being Title I schools.
The year 2012 brought another two huge leaps forward for Sports Backers. It created Bike Walk RVA to advocate for comfortable and connected places to bike and walk for people of all ages and abilities throughout the region. Among their many accomplishments, their Bike Academies have empowered hundreds of Richmonders to advocate for better bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
Sports Backers also created Active RVA to help make active living a regional priority. These programs aren’t event driven, but instead help educate and enable Richmonders to advocate for better fitness options for themselves by working to “remove barriers to physical activity and healthy living for every member of our community,” according to their blog.
I have participated in a few extremely enjoyable events, but my main experience with Sports Backers has been as a reporter and a photographer. I’ve covered plenty of Sports Backers events and I’ve enjoyed them all because most everyone involved is trying to have fun. From freezing cold rain during the first Tacky Light Run and soaking downpours and blazing heat during Richmond Marathons (and people running a 5K before intentionally crawling through mud at the Filthy 5k Mud Run) – participants, volunteers, and organizers have their focus on enjoying themselves no matter what. For most, they’ve dedicated too much time to train for the event to not make the best of it.
Don’t get me wrong, the weather was great for most of those events, but the ones with the worst conditions tend to leave a greater impression. There are great life lessons to be learned. Seeing participants work so hard to persevere, watching friends and fellow competitors encouraging each other to endure – those moments are the most inspiring and the main reasons why it has always been a pleasure to cover Sports Backers events.
I’ve also volunteered with the Sports Backers on a handful of their events and have gotten my own thrills from the opportunity to be an ambassador for Richmond. Smiles everywhere. Happy people. Especially for their signature events like the Richmond Marathon and the Monument Avenue 10k, many of the participants are from out of town and volunteers are positioned to help build a great first impression for our region’s hospitality. And there is always so much gratitude from the participants – very rewarding for volunteers.
It has been a great first 25 years, let’s all help Sports Backers keep the Richmond region moving forward!home page