Fantasy Triathlon is Good for the Sport

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, more than 41 million adult Americans and Canadians play fantasy sports each year. On average 1 in 5 American males play fantasy sports. Most of this is related to major sports like football, baseball, basketball and hockey, but there could be an opportunity for triathlon as well.

What is Fantasy Sports?

Fantasy sports are games where fans simulate management or ownership of a team. These games can last for an entire NFL Football season or they can be short single day or weekend games. In triathlon, you can sponsor and run a team if you are a wealthy shiek or the owner of Coca Cola in Brazil. What if you could play a game that simulates those management decisions? 

At TRS Triathlon, we are testing a beta version of fantasy triathlon. This weekend, I played my first game, drafting 10 racers (5 men, 5 women) for the Ironman 70.3 race in Puerto Rico. Points were earned for finishing first out of the water, first off the bike and for overall position as well as things like transitions. See graphic below for scoring details relative to an upcoming free ITU game:

Screenshot 2015-04-18 11

This is a game of skill. The more you research and the more you understand the intricacies of the sport, the better you will perform. Not surprisingly, Emily Cocks, a professional triathlete won the free IM 70.3 New Orleans game I played this weekend. I finished 30th.

Since the beta tests have worked well, we are now offering both free games and pay games. You can play Ironman Texas for $2 and the winner will take home $32. Eventually this will be expanded and you will have the opportunity to play not only in weekend leagues, but also in season long leagues for Ironman, ITU and more.

Is this Gambling?

In short, playing fantasty sports is not gambling. This is a game of skill. Players must take into account a myriad of statistics, facts and game theory in order to be competitive. The more informed, the more competitive you will be. You need to understand how racers will swim, bike, run and transition. For ITU, you need to understand how many people an athlete might pass on the bike. You need to understand the nuance of the sport to be a successful manager. You need to research the start list, follow athletes on twitter to see if they’re injured, fresh or “training through” a race. It’s complex.

Is this Legal?

The US Government Does Not Define Fantasy Sports As Gambling. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 included “carve out” language that clarified the legality of fantasy sports. It was passed by Congress and signed into law on October 13, 2006 by President George W. Bush. The act makes transactions from banks or similar institutions to online gambling sites illegal, with the notable exceptions of fantasy sports, online lotteries and horse/harness racing.

The bill specifically exempts fantasy sports games, educational games or any online contest that “has an outcome that reflects the relative knowledge of the participants, or their skill at physical reaction or physical manipulation (but not chance), and, in the case of a fantasy or simulation sports game, has an outcome that is determined predominantly by accumulated statistical results of sporting events, including any non-participant’s individual performances in such sporting events…” (via fsta.org)

Will Fantasy Triathlon Managers Corrupt the Sport?

Is it possible that fantasy players will bribe, coerce or otherwise affect the outcome of races? No.

  1. Small amounts of money are at stake and the games are too complex for a single racer (or even a few racers) to affect even a short weekend league with one event in play. The scoring mechanisms are too intricate.
  2. “Throwing” a race would be illogical, non-predictable and stupid. It wouldn’t work.
  3. Athletes will certainly be aware that fantasy players have picked them, but there won’t be enough incentive to give less than 100% effort. What would a fantasy player have to pay Rachel Joyce to DNF Ironman Texas so that he/she can win a fantasy game? First of all, I doubt she would do it for any amount of money. I can say with 100% certainty that since the prize purse for the 50 person league is only $40, there isn’t enough incentive for any fantasy player to consider doing something so stupid.

Can Fantasy Triathlon be Good for the Sport?

Triathlon is intrinsically good, interesting and inspiring. Triathletes, both amateur and professional alike, work hard to maximize their genetic gifts in order to achieve excellence. There is no chance that fantasy players will taint the inherent beauty of the sport by playing a game where they manage a pretend team.

Fantasy players are likely to be more engaged and educated as to the nuance of professional racing. They will need to follow athletes closely on social media, read their blogs and evaluate their chances for success. Fantasy players will read more about races, they will visit more websites, purchase more magazines, listen to more triathlon podcasts, and they will become more enlightened.

If either Kelly Williamson or Ben Hoffman helps me win 32 dollars by doing well at Ironman Texas, I will probably become a lifetime fan!

Right now, triathlon is essentially a participation sport. If triathlon participants catch wind of this fun opportunity to legally wager on professional racing, these fantasy games could turn participants into enthusiastic observers of pro racing. If more people start to pay attention to the pros, the pros will become more known, and this heightened popularity will increase the value of each pro to their sponsors.

Race and event directors will have a thirsty audience that will pay for live coverage. The ITU World Triathlon Series is on to something with their Online TV coverage. If we have more engaged fans as a result of fantasy triathlon, Ironman could copy this and we would all pay.

The Need for Information

In addition to increasing the awareness of the pro racing scene, this fantasy triathlon initiative will create a strong demand for information. I predict that websites like IM Predictions will increase in popularity as players seek out stats and data. I predict that magazine subscriptions and website traffic will increase. At TRS Triathlon, we will certainly write more about the fantasy aspect of the sport, but I predict that new websites focused on predicting race outcomes will pop up. Experts (coaches, former and current athletes) can potentially monetize their knowledge as fantasy players seek an edge.

Pro athletes can write something on their blogs other than boring race reports. I’d prefer to read a blog post from a pro athlete where she makes predictions about an upcoming race that she may or may not be involved in. It’s a whole new set of topics to write about, learn about and discuss. It could spark an entire sub-industry.

Improved Fan Experience

There are a lot of true fans of pro triathlon racing. For true fans of the sport, playing in fantasy leagues can offer comradery, community and an enhanced fan experience. Most people will play the free games. Others will pay relatively small amounts of money in order to win relatively small amounts of money. TRS Triathlon will take a small percentage of that relatively small amount of money.

None of the fantasy players are going to get rich or lose their home. However, they will almost assuredly have fun and make new acquaintances as they talk trash, speculate and learn more about this fantastic sport. It’s good for the sport and it will be a lot of fun.

Please take a moment and share this with people you think would enjoy these fantasy games. The powers that be are highly unlikely to report on this new initiative, even though they could benefit in the long term. It’s up to you to spread the word. Thank you.

photo credit: fans via photopin (license)

About the Author

Ben Hobbs
Ben Hobbs is Publisher of TRS Triathlon and host of TRS Radio. Follow @TRS_Tri