Leverage Pros, Create Fans, Grow the Sport

This is a response to Jim Gourley’s article, “Do Ironman Pro’s Matter?”

Going on my 5th year as a Professional Triathlete, I have not seen much growth in the notoriety of professional triathletes. The professional fields have grown with more and more athletes qualifying to becoming professionals year over year, but Professional Triathlon had a minimal effect on the growth and publicity of the overall sport. When you read Tweets such as this one:

You can see that the Professional Triathlete has a lot of ground to cover in terms of gaining respect for their talents, hard work, and dedication to the sport. Most amateur athletes racing an Ironman could not tell you the name of one Professional triathlete racing that course nor could tell you the name of the overall winner of that particular race on that given day.

Triathlon is a very self-involved sport. We as triathletes are very self-centered. We concentrate on our task at hand without letting outside influences distract us. I like to compare triathlon to golf. You must practice for hours on end to be good. You must focus on your actions at all times. Both sports are very individualistic, and both sports are extremely BOOOOOORING to watch. But why has golf grown so much and done so well financially?

Lessons from Golf

There are a few things golf has done right to grow their sport. The actions The PGA/golf has taken to make it into the billion dollar industry it is has revolved around building the notoriety of it’s professional athletes. Tiger Woods, Rory Mcllroy, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, etc. Why do we know these names? I will tell you, from interviews I have seen, these gentlemen have the personalities similar to that of a rock. Golf fans do not watch these professionals because they want to see the golfer yell and scream at their caddy. Viewers watch and know these professional because this is who the viewers are told to watch and know.

Yes, they are extremely skilled and talented at their profession, but if NBC/CBS/ABC/ESPN/etc. did not advertise, “WATCH Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, and Rory Mcllroy battle it out at Pebble Beach!” The viewers would have no clue who to watch, the viewers would not have any desire to see who is crowned the champion, and the interest in the sport would fall away. The viewers would have no “skin in the game.”

The promotion of the professionals by the tournament/media/PGA not only brings connectivity to the sport by associating the sport with an individual but it also grows the notoriety of other professionals. Because 1 million people tune in to watch Phil Mickelson, in turn, they will see and get to know the name of other professionals. The talent is noticed, the respect is gained, and the sports is ultimately grown.

Race Directors

Now let’s talk about professional triathlon. Race directors/Ironman are concerned with the short-term bottom line, race over race. If these same entities were to look long term and see the possibilities of promotion of the professional triathlete, the sport could reach levels of notoriety seen by sports such as golf and tennis.

I get at least 5 mass sent e-mails a day from race directors asking me to come race their event. Instead of looking big picture these race directors are trying only include their circle of athletes. They are not attempting to touch the greater audience. When is the last time you heard a promoter pitch a race as, “Come race WITH Craig Alexander, Chris McCormack, 2014 Ironman Champion Sebastian Kinle and a field of over 50 other Ironman Professionals as they battle for the $50,000 Grand Prize at Ironman France!”? Never! You don’t hear this. Athletes get an e-mail reminding them to sign up, and the athlete deletes the e-mail or signs up. What the race organizers are missing out on is the possibility of growth within their company and ultimately the growth within the sport.


Athletes/viewers want to associate and cheer for someone. If there is no one those athletes/viewers can recognize and get behind, it is just another day of closed off streets with a bunch of idiots out running around in spandex. A professional triathlete can only self-promote so much. Eventually they run out of people to bring into their circle. The athlete needs help growing into a personality for the sport. Let’s look at 2014 Ironman World Champion Sebastian Kinle. On Twitter he has almost 18,000 followers. This is the World Champion of our sport. He only has 18,000 followers. You would think every person who races an Ironman event and who has Twitter would follow the World Champion (Very rough math- approx. 200,000 athletes).

Sure professional triathletes could go out and download an app which gets you fake followers to build your ego, but I believe Sebatian’s followers are all real people. And this is Sebastian Kienle. What are the mid-pack pros supposed to do in order to gain publicity in the sport?

Working with Sponosors

If you look at my current Twitter feed it is filled with Professional Triathletes promoting this company or that company, but what these companies fail to recognize is that the Tweets from the athletes are ok, but the Tweets/promotion of the athlete by the company are really impactful. It is rare to see companies promoting the athletes who use their products racing this race or that race.

Yes they say “Jim Lubinski uses our product, here’s a picture.” But what would be more impactful to the consumer would be to say, “Watch Jim Lubinski, using (insert product) at Ironman South Africa this Sunday brought to you LIVE on ironman.com.”

It MUST be a two way street. A professional athlete promotes a brand, and the brand must buy-in to promoting the athlete. So what does Ironman/Race Directors/Sponsors get out of promoting the individual professionals? Why would they do it? The PGA Tour reported their revenue in 2011 to be approximately $2 BILLION! Is that reason enough? Let’s remember, the PGA Tour is comprised of only professionals. Viewers watch and have a vested interest in the competition because they can relate to the specific golfers, they respect their talents and abilities, and they want to see the competition between the best in the world.

With Tweets like the one above by @TriMatt18 does it look like professional triathletes are respected for their talents, ability, and dedication to being the best? I’d say no, because no one is cultivating that respect within the sport let alone outside of the sport. Professional Triathletes could bring a lot more to the sport that they already do, but we, as professionals, need help from the entities that we support.

Tell Us What to Care About

I’ll tell my followers/sponsors that I am going to race Ironman South Africa, but where is the reciprocation. Ironman South Africa will hold a pro press conference which 15 people will attend. 75 professional athletes will rack their bikes and hit the water 1st and no one will watch. An Ironman South African Champion will be crowned and 50 people will be there to see it at the finish line.

There is no vested interest in the Professional Athletes competing because viewers have not been told who to watch. I have come to a realization that in life people do and follow what they are told to do and follow. Look at the Kardashian’s. There are people all over Los Angeles that look like that family but no one is following their every move. People follow the Kardashians because they are told to. Kim Kardashian is promoted by news channels and entertainment so viewers are vested in her life. If viewers we not told about Kim K and her family they would be just another group of uninteresting people roaming around La-La Land.

When there are athletes viewers can associate with and know, is when the sports starts to gain major traction and buy-in from the public at large. Without this focus, golf would be just another sport with masses of overweight men out swinging sticks around, just as triathlon currently is masses of fit athletes exercising all day causing traffic nightmares.

Triathlon entities need to work on promoting the talent and success of our professionals so the sport and the triathlon community at large can all benefit in the long run. Other Sports Examples: Watch Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks take on Sydney Crosby and his 1st Place Penguins. Lebron James and his Cavaliers battle Dwayne Wade and the Miami Heat the Sunday on NBC. Jeff Gordon, Dale Jr, Kurt Busch and a field of 40 other Speed Demons rumble through California! NASCAR this Sunday on FOX.

Triathlon: Come race my triathlon or watch an athlete tracker on-line.

Note: Ironman IS moving in the right direction. Ironman South Africa with feature GPS units on each Professional Athlete as well as biometrics such as real time individual Heart Rate and Power included in the ironman.com broadcast. This is great for the Professional race!

Follow Jim on twitter. 

About the Author

Jim Lubinski is professional triathlete. He is also head coach at Red Performance Multisport. He is a N.A.S.M. certified personal trainer and host of "Jim and the Other Guy", a Podcast on iTunes. www.jimlubinski.com