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The Gorillas of Triathlon

Updated: May 13

Is the future of triathlon as uncertain as some pundits may propose?


I suppose the future of anything carries uncertainty, so forget that question.


I was watching a Taren video on YouTube and if you are not familiar with Taren, he is what you might call a social media influencer in the world of triathlon and fitness. There’s a lot of good content on his channel, so my interest was piqued when I saw the click bait title, “PREDICTION: Will PTO take over Ironman Triathlon (with inside info)?


Now, seriously folks. Is that not click bait?


Of course it is, but this bait is worth taking because in the video, Taren does offer a well thought out perspective on the two big gorillas in the triathlon changing tent.




Ironman

Most all readers of this post are familiar with the Ironman™ brand which is famous for the Ironman™ Triathlon World Championship race in Hawaii.

Well… it was in Hawaii for forty plus years. This year it’s in St. George Utah. Not permanently in St. George, but that’s another can of worms I don’t care to open right now.


Ironman ™ is owned by a company called World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) which has either created or purchased triathlons all over the world. There are dozens of Ironman™ branded full distance races and well over 100 branded half distance races. I think they also own the Rock N’ Roll™ branded series of running races.


Triathlon owes its popularity to several factors including Barry McDermott’s 1979 Sports Illustrated article, ABC’s coverage of the famous 1982 Julie Moss crawl across the finish line, and WTC’s dominance of the sport with its Ironman™ branded races. These three factors (and a few others) have reached out to the regular “Joe-Bag-of-Donuts”[1] folks and inspired them to toe the starting line of what may be the toughest single day event out there. I have gratitude for what WTC and previous owners of the Ironman™ brand have done for this sport.


On the other hand, WTC has come under fire for some of its practices[2] The primary complaint from age groupers is that WTC is only in business for profit and is not concerned about providing athletes an experience they expect. Their customer service has also been the subject of some fiery blog posts and social media rants.

Professional athletes may also have some complaints about the practices of WTC. In the video I mentioned earlier, Taren shows how much (or little) the professional athletes receive in prize money from Ironman™ races.


Professional Triathletes Organization

Now enter the PTO, Professional Triathletes Organization. This is an organization that aims to expand the sport of triathlon by promoting the professional athletes first.


From what I understand, it is a bit like the “trickle-down” effect made famous by Reaganomics in the 1980s. The idea is to produce media friendly races that can be broadcast to a much larger audience than what is currently watching triathlon. And part of this idea includes awarding prize money to more professional athletes. That means the professional who finishes in 25th place is more likely to get a paycheck in a PTO race. It also includes benefits similar to corporate jobs.


The downside? Not sure yet, because it is still too early.


The PTO hopes to make household names out of the professional athletes so more people, not just triathletes, will pay attention to the sport. Sound familiar? Have you heard of Tiger Woods? Serena Williams? Any you probably don’t play golf or tennis with either of them. Heck! If you’re like me, you probably don’t even play golf or tennis at all. Yet I know who they are and I read the stories about them and I am subjected to whatever advertising is sponsoring them.


There’s the key ingredient. Advertising.


The business model for the PTO seems to be based on advertising. Currently, sponsors for the big races include names like Hoka, Roka, Ventum. How many people know those names? If I were not a triathlete, I would think it was latin, “et tu Ventum?” Those words also sound like something taken from a high school cheer leader’s notes. Either way, the only people paying attention are triathletes.

And here’s where the PTO is trying to think (and work) outside “the box.” The rational is that if the viewing audience is big enough, races and athletes can be sponsored by huge corporations with much deeper pockets than triathlon specific companies.

So how does this grow the sport for the age groupers? Again, the idea is that ordinary viewers will get more exposure to triathlon and become interested. Unlike tennis and golf, viewers will probably see that running, biking and swimming are basic activities that everyone has done at some point in their lives and that doing all three on the same stage as professionals is not only achievable, but exciting and fun.

By the way… the PTO did make a bid to purchase WTC a couple of years ago. That bid was turned down.


And Where Do We Go From Here?

In his video, Taren makes a convincing argument that professionals, amateurs, media, sponsors and viewers might just migrate away from WTC’s Ironman™ and toward PTO races. Sure. That could happen. But I don’t think it will happen to the detriment of Ironman™ And here’s why…


Reason 1:

Other races in the past have been sponsored by big companies with deep pockets including Anheuser-Busch, Ford, and Janus. No longer do we see those big names attached to races. To be more accurate: I haven’t seen those names attached to races for several years. Big sponsors dropped out for one reason or another. The PTO may have a different business model so it may successfully attract big companies, but it will take years to grow the viewing audience big enough attract those companies. A lot can happen in that time and WTC may just take advantage of that time.


Reason 2:

WTC may be a highly leveraged company. They are in debt. A lot of debt. That could be a bad place for such a company in these economic times. But if it were truly bad, then why didn’t WTC sell the Ironman brand to the PTO? I believe it is because there is so much emotional capital build up in the Ironman™ brand that there will always be someone or some company with deep pockets and a desire to save the “Ironman” dream and reputation.


Now, I’m not so naive to believe that WTC will always get bailed out. They are not an automobile manufacturer or investment bank that is “too big to fail” and this isn’t the recession of 2008. What I’m telling you is that there are probably some very passionate people out there with a lot of money who don’t want to see the Ironman experience degraded or significantly altered. In 2016, the New York Times reported that the average household income for Ironman participants is $247,000 [3].


That’s just the average.


My income is nowhere near that amount so there must be some gazillionairs out there wearing lycra and sweating profusely. And it’s likely that some of them are just passionate enough about the sport to do what they can to “save” the sport’s biggest brand if necessary.


Just a hunch on my part.


Reason C:

The Hawaii Ironman™ triathlon has a reputation of mythic proportion. An average person in Yuma Colorado watching the NBC broadcast of the race may dismiss it as “awesome, but unattainable”. However many people with a competitive drive see the race as a holy grail. They are willing to sacrifice much just for a chance to compete there. And those who do qualify are willing to pay the $900+ entry fee.

By the way, the entry fee for the first Hawaii Iron Man Triathlon was $5US. What can I get for $5 today? A cup of coffee?


Reason IV:

Ironman™ has always attracted the top professionals regardless of prize offerings. Beginning in the early 1980’s athletes looking for prize money were attracted to races like the Nice Triathlon in France and the USTS races around the

US. However, many of them still competed at the Hawaii Ironman race with no compensation other than a t-shirt, medal and/or trophy. Of course, back then, the Ironman™ race was a more personal affair run by Valerie Silk who was often seen at the finish line receiving athletes. And even though I have not seen Andrew Messick (Ironman CEO) placing flower leis on athletes, many athletes get that personal touch from today’s face (and voice) of Ironman, Mike Reilly.



Even if professionals do skip the holy grail of races for better earnings, age groupers are after something else entirely and the personalities like Mike Reilly, Bob Babbitt, Greg Welch and others are a part of that draw.


I believe age groupers would still covet an entry to the Hawaii Ironman™ if there were no professional athletes in attendance. The race would look a lot different than it does now (or did the last time they held it in 2019). Perhaps the race would be more like it was in the old days with characters such as Cowman and John Dunbar’s Superman. Who knows… maybe the rules would change so participants could ride beach cruisers again if they wanted.



Does Any Of This Really Matter?

For the record, I’m not too concerned about PTO versus Ironman™. It’s a good topic for discussion, and I like to see that WTC has another competitor.


Maybe “competitor” is not the right word.


Whatever the relationship is, I think our sport will be better for it. I’m glad to see that professionals are getting the respect they deserve and I’m glad to see that there is new interest in triathlon at a corporate level. Today, Ironman™ may be a driver of triathlon for the long and ultra distance events but the brand is not too big to fail. I don’t want to see it fail, because of the emotional and historical equity built into the brand, but if it did fail, someone else will fill the void. Having a single brand that is synonymous with triathlon is neither a good nor bad thing at this stage of our sport’s maturity. We can survive with or without it.




Until next time…

References[+]

References

↑1 I borrowed that term from Scott Tinley. I hope he doesn’t mind. Tinley, S. 1998.Triathlon. A Personal History. Velo Press. Boulder, CO

↑2 Let me just say that I have personally never had a problem with Ironman™ branded races. They have been very accommodating and given me the experience I expected. Other athletes, not so much.

↑3 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/your-money/when-amateur-ironmen-pay-for-the-elite-treatment.html#:~:text=%2Dbased%20organizers%20of%20Kona%20and,at%20shorter%20distances%2C%20is%20%24126%2C000.

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