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.