While in High School Rob Urbach was inspired by reading an article in Sports Illustrated on The Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon World Championships. The challenge of swimming 2.4 ocean miles, then biking 112 miles and then a 26.2-mile marathon through lava fields resonated with the high school junior. Two years later he found himself on the start line in Kona and became not only one of the youngest to ever finish the renowned Ironman but the event also proved later to be foundational for his career.
During his college summers, he continued to race triathlons and after Wharton Business School, Rob began his career in the sports business working for legendary sports agent David Falk who represented Michael Jordan and numerous other superstar athletes. During this period he negotiated more than 300 athlete endorsement, event sponsorship, licensing, and media deals with companies such as Electronic Arts, Nike, Coca-Cola, Sony IBM, General Motors, AT&T, Nabisco, Microsoft, and Pfizer. “During the early part of my sports career I was fortunate to work for the best of the best and absorb lessons about total dedication to one’s craft, competing, excelling under pressure, and how important attention to detail is to peak performance.”
“I was also fortunate to be immersed in the world of [mergers and acquisitions] and corporate roll-ups. Our firm was purchased by SFX as the first sports acquisition of a dual roll up in both sports and entertainment. While I still had my day job on the sports initiatives I was also leading several acquisitions. We did about 14 deals in the sports world and at the same time consolidated the concert promotion business. I believe we invested in the neighborhood of $800 million and sold the business to Radio Station and Outdoor Billboard Company Clear Channel Communications for $3 billion in 2000.”
Urbach then spent the next 4 years integrating the acquisitions, leading the marketing divisions and business development initiatives. He developed and produced internationally televised sporting events and provided sports marketing and corporate consulting services. He also created sports-related programming for this interrelated group of sports management and marketing companies that represented more than 800 professional athletes, including such stars that addition to Michael Jordan, included the likes of Andre Agassi, David Beckham, and Roger Clemens. He was part of the 4-person team that led the SFX sports group under Clear Channel’s ownership and then the SFX Sports and Entertainment Group was spun out into a separately traded public company which is now Live Nation.
So after 12 years at SFX and its predecessor companies, Urbach joined Global Sports Management and Marketing Firm Octagon as Executive Vice President. Urbach oversaw the deployment of the firm’s resources around the world and led initiatives in diverse markets including South Africa, Nigeria, Turkey, Singapore, and China. He also initiated, structured, and negotiated numerous divestitures, acquisitions, and joint ventures. Octagon owns and manages events in professional soccer, tennis, golf, athletes, motorsports, running, swimming, basketball, cricket, and rugby; represents several hundred elite athletes such as Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps, and manages the sports marketing investments of major global companies such as Bank America, MasterCard, and Sprint.
Urbach then came back to the sport of Triathlon as he recruited for the leading role in the sport and served for 6 and half years as the Chief Executive Officer of USA Triathlon, overseeing all day-to-day operations for the National Governing Body for triathlon—the fastest growing sport in the U.S. Olympic Movement—as well as duathlon, aquathlon, aquabike, winter triathlon, off-road triathlon, and paratriathlon. As the largest multisport organization in the world, USA Triathlon serves more than 500,000 members and sanctions more than 4,300 local events each year. In addition to its focus on age-group athletes, race directors, coaches, and officials at the grassroots level, USA Triathlon manages Olympic and Paralympic teams.
Under Rob Urbach’s guidance, USA Triathlon reached all-time highs in membership, youth participation, sanctioned events, certified coaches and official clubs, as well as many key revenue centers, including corporate sponsorship and fundraising, and led the bid that awarded the U.S. the World Championship to be held in Chicago in 2015 and the campaign for NCAA Varsity Sport status for women. He conceived and developed several new initiatives including the Century Club; four new race series formats (Super Sprint, Retro, Splash & Dash, and Mixed Team Relay); as well as a system that is driving improvements in the race registration process (Real-Time Account Verification). With a focus on hosting safe and fair events, Rob Urbach commissioned a blue-ribbon panel of physicians to study race-related fatalities, resulting in the “Shared Responsibility” doctrine. He also introduced a platform that has since been woven into the fabric of the organization, “Sharing the Win.” This mantra captures the essence of the sport: wins on the podium, wins overcoming diabetes and obesity, wins by using triathlon to overcome drug and alcohol addictions, wins for sponsors, etc.
Urbach, who has been named Inside Triathlon magazine’s Most Influential Person, led the development of a weekly television show, the launch of the USA Triathlon Foundation, the rollout of the NCAA program, a large-scale youth membership drive and other initiatives designed to achieve strategic objectives. Moreover, under his leadership, USA Triathlon won the women’s Gold Medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics and led the medal count in triathlon for the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
Then his career became even more interesting, as he became CEO in August of 2019 of the Iconic Iditarod, which like triathlon also had an intriguing genesis. Twenty years ago, he was flying to Alaska to ski, and the actress Susan Lucci was sitting across the aisle. While he was not familiar with “Erica Kane” of All My Children, her enthusiasm for the rugged dog sled race was contagious, as he became a follower of the event.
“I have been fortunate in my career in Sports to attend multiple Olympics, Super Bowls, NCAA Final Fours, World Series, NBA finals, Wimbledon, World Cups, and numerous endurance championships, but I can think of no event that is comparable to the Iditarod. A life-changing journey through the off-grid Alaska wilderness, 1,049 miles, self-reliance, storms, water, snow, ice, wind, strategy, and competition. Iditarod mushers are extraordinary homo sapiens; tenacious adventure athletes, part Magellan, part meteorologists, part magicians, sleep deprivation ninjas, soulful dog whisperers, and 100% bad Iditarod tough through and through.
“My experience at USA Triathlon in managing large scale events, mitigating risk and alchemizing passion into brand value was ideal in preparing me to lead the Iditarod.”
In a world that is increasingly disconnected from nature, heritage, physicality, and even each other, the Iditarod provides an antidote; it’s not technology, analytics, or big data that gets one to Nome. Instead, it’s athletic grit, “dogged” determination, and the support teams of family members, friends, and fans. Relatedly, it takes a lot more than a village to stage and produce the Iditarod; an army of more than 1,500 dedicated time and talent to ensure that a complicated supply chain, checkpoints, and a gold standard canine continuum of care are properly deployed and fortified. The Iditarod Air Force, arguably the best assembly of 30 strong bush pilots, fly nearly 700 sorties braving the elements, landing on ice, snow, and rugged terrain from dawn to dusk. 55 race veterinarians who collectively have traveled thousands of miles to provide exemplary continuum of care for our incredible 4-legged athletes.
While COVID-19 was shutting down the world as we knew it, the roughly 1049-mile sled dog race traversing the Alaskan Wilderness from Anchorage to Nome persevered. The race began on March 8th as the world was awakened to a global nightmare, and by the final third of the race all sporting events across the globe were shut down, and hundreds of millions were ordered to shelter in place at home while the Iditarod stood alone. As each checkpoint brought news of quarantines, overflowing hospitals threatening the lives of thousands, the Iditarod was instantaneously innovating. Village bypass routes were engineered overnight, veterinarians were moved up the trail instead of being replenished by veterinarians who were waiting in the wings, but could not travel. The Iditarod supply chain continuously moved forward, often working without cell phone coverage or Internet connectivity.
Notwithstanding the coronavirus, the 48th running of this year’s Iditarod happened to be among the most challenging. This winter, Interior Alaska experienced one of its coldest winters on record that included heavy snowfalls that continued during most of the race. The relentless snow, wind, and temperature variances took its toll on the teams, as 43% of the 57 starting teams were unable to finish.
“Yes, with the unprecedented storms I was in a hyper-aware state as dynamics were changing hour by hour, if not minute by minute. All humans and dogs made it home happy and healthy, but we did have 3 dramatic Blackhawk helicopter rescues. It was a great leadership lesson for me: as you’re not sure if you are a real leader if you have not led in a crisis.
Urbach has made substantial progress during his initial months at the helm of the Iditarod. “We are in “a race to relevance, and as I tell the team we need to operate like a 48-year-old start-up and innovate how we do business.” He has developed a fantasy sports game, started a podcasting channel, “Iditicast, tales from the trail” and positioning the Iditarod as a thought leader in holistic dog wellness.