Professional Triathlete Jordan Rapp Celebrates after winning the recent Ironman Arizona Triathlon.
The WTC has come out with some new rules for Professional Triathletes. There was some very good things that they say they will be doing. However the subsequent debate, about who and what defines a Professional Triathlete has been interesting. There are a number of different things going on here that present various challenges depending on where you are in the sport.
A key issue is that the total pool of money available to Professional triathletes, be it through prize purses, be it through sponsorship deals, or be it through other means, is in the grand scheme of things, very limited. The scope and scale is much smaller than people think. Also, the distribution of this money, through no ones fault, is very top heavy - if you are at our very near the top of the sport, you are most likely doing "well". However, after that very select group at the very top, the money drops off dramatically.
Another issue is that many athletes depend heavily on the endemic companies in the sport of triathlon - the obvious equipment and gear suppliers and manufacturers in the business to sponsor them with both product, and money. The problem with this, is that many of the companies in this space are smaller than small - they are micro-businesses and they don't have huge financial or product resources available. There are some bigger players, some of the bike and apparel companies, but to these companies, triathlon is a small part of their business.
Another issue that presents challenges is the division between athletes themselves. Due to past history and politics we now have, two different divisions if you will of triathletes - those who pursue the ITU circuit and associated races and those who pursue the non-drafting events, of which the WTC's Ironman and 70.3 events are the most well known and popular. Within the sport of triathlon and amongst the rank-and-file age-group and participatory triathletes, the Ironman and 70.3 events are very well known. The Ironman World Championships at the Ironman Hawaii triathlon, is to many of this crowd, the most important race of the year. However, outside the sport of triathlon, with regular international TV coverage, and then the massive shot in the arm that they they get every four years at the Olympic Games, the ITU format of racing and the athletes that follow this circut are more well known. I note that in Canada, the most watched Olympic event on TV at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was the men's triathlon race. Simon Whitfield's dramatic Silver medal performance, was more than just a sports story, it was front page news across the country the next day. It was the same when Whitfield won Gold eight years previously in Sydney at the inaugural Olympic Triathlon.
Many Pro Triathletes who follow the Ironman and 70.3 circuits lament the lack of prize money at these events. Indirectly, they have a point. The oldest Ironman races have not changed their prize purses for 20 years! The WTC has been adding many new events - both full Ironman distance and the 70.3 distance at a rapid pace over the past few years, so the total amount of money available at these races has gone up - you just have to do more of these events and some Pro triathletes have become savvy and picking and choosing their races to maximize the possibilities of making some money and generating exposure for themselves. However, the WTC is not just in the business of putting on events for Professionals, there main customer/participant, are thousands and thousands of Age-Group and rec-triathletes who sign up for races over a year ahead of time to secure a spot in a specific event. Many of their events, be they full Ironmans or 70.3 races operate at maximum capacity and are sold out in minutes of event registration opening up for the following year!
What to do:
- It's remarkable to me that to date their has not been a cohesive active association for all Professional Triathletes to be part of so that they could speak as one to race directors and event management companies. In a perfect world this association would span both the ITU and non-ITU, non-drafting triathlon worlds. This group should not be a sounding board for individual athlete grievances or issues, but should be pro-active in working with races and events and others in the sport to promote the sport as a whole and seeking where Pro Triathletes can ad value to an event.
- Professional triathletes need to think hard about where they ad value to sponsors and events. The good ones get this, and the conversation with them is always very different than the ones who don't seem to get this. Why? Because, the conversation is more about how the athlete can help out and what they can do , than about how much money is in the contract or how much gear they are getting.
- Pro triathletes need to look beyond the endemic companies in the triathlon business for the really good sponsor partnerships. It's these companies, that will actually have the financial resources to help out. Pro triathletes would be wise to follow the lead of one of the best race directors in the triathlon business and look with-in to find these contacts and relationships. What do I mean? Triathlon, seems to attract a certain type of person - that Type-A person who is very goal oriented and driven. Scan the "employment" list at any Ironman race and there are more than a few business owners, Senior Managers and Vice-Presidents and C-level executives. If they are participating in the sport, these people already get it! A warm beach is always the best beach to land on!
- The growth rate for triathlon over the past 5 years has been astonishing. Furthermore, it has been almost completely immune to the economic crisis that has hit many other sectors of the economy. That speaks to the genuine robustness and initiative of everyone involved in the sport. We all could and should do more to promote the sport beyond the usual crowd.
Just some ideas.