Do or die. Go big or go home. To the victor goes the spoils. Whatever your favorite winner-takes-all cliché, it describes pro triathlon’s lack of a middle class. In all of triathlon—from short-course ITU to long-course Ironman, only fifteen athletes earned more than $100,000 in prize money over the past year. And only 25 athletes earned middle class wages between $50k and $100k.
Which means a full 95% of pros won less than $50,000 each, with 75% earning less than $10,000. And those percentages don’t even include the 500-plus athletes racing in the pro division who aren’t fast enough to win anything at all. They’re not included in this analysis because only in the most twisted definition of the word could someone who earns no money be considered “professional.”
We’ve waited a year for this data—the first ever comprehensive tally of triathletes’ prize earnings. Spanning the 2014-2015 Kona Points season and the 2015 ITU World Triathlon Series, it covers $9.5 million in prize payouts, spread across 120 races. Not only does it give us one way of ranking the best triathletes in the world, it also illuminates just how little money is in professional triathlon.
So who is the best in the world? Javier Gomez ($243,000), Gwen Jorgensen ($218,000), and Daniela Ryf ($212,000). No surprises there—only their final order and exact winnings were in question. Gomez came out on top by winning the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2014 (that race kicks off the Kona Points season), in addition to the $80,000 bonus that he and Jorgensen claimed for winning the ITU World Series. Ryf accumulated the bulk of her winnings at the Ironman 70.3 and Hawaii World Championships, as well as the lucrative Challenge Dubai. These three were the only ones to earn more than $200,000 in the year.
Twelve more athletes broke $100,000—all of them except Vicky Holland and Mario Mola raced exclusively long course. Of the 25 middle-class earners, only eight were ITU athletes. These ratios of long-course to ITU athletes are to be expected, as only 32% of triathlon’s total prize purses comes from ITU racing.
Of the 40 athletes earning over $50k, twenty-one were women, and nine of the 40 made the bulk of their money from one or both of the lucrative Challenge Bahrain and Dubai races—events that will likely not pay nearly as much next season.
Javier Gomez was the only athlete to make substantial money at both ITU and long course. A handful of ITU athletes raced the occasional long course, and a handful of long-course athletes made a little money at some high profile non-drafting short course races. But otherwise, the athletes stuck to their specialty.
In total, 841 athletes earned prize money, comprised of 397 women and 444 men. ITU athletes made up 190 of these, and they were evenly split between women and men.
Looking more in depth at the earnings distribution, we see a median winnings of $3250. We also see that the top 1% of earners (8 athletes) took home 15% of the total winnings. The top 20% of earners (168 athletes) won 60% of all prize money.
And it’s in the this top 20% that fans will find the names they most recognize—athletes consistently on the podium throughout the year. Below that is a mix of athletes—newcomers making their way to the front; old-timers fading from the scene; the injured; and a whole, whole lot who are fast enough to get their pro card but who will rise no higher than squeaking into the money in races with a shallow field.
So what does this tell us about the sport? Most obviously, that no athletes are getting rich off of it. While Ryf may pull off the million dollar triple crown win, seasonal earnings of $100-$200k may only last for 5-10 years for even the greatest of athletes. And that certainly doesn’t leave one set for life.
But why should fans care? Here’s one reason: it’s not enough income potential to draw all of the top talent into the sport. While anyone with elite potential is likely identifiable in high school or college, they have no idea if they can be one of the top four in the world until they’ve devoted years more into training, possibly sacrificing other career options. And if they do become the greatest? They get 5-10 years of nice but not spectacular earnings, followed by maybe another 5 years of comfortable sponsorship earnings if they’ve marketed themselves well.
The result is that fans don’t get to see many deep fields. Imagine if every Ironman had a field of Frodeno/Kienle/Don/Potts caliber on the start line? And while it’s fun to watch Jorgensen sprint away from the best in the world, wouldn’t it be more fun to watch her matched stride for stride by five similarly talented women? If we can figure out how to pay the top 100 athletes $100k/year, and the top 10 close to a million, we might see that depth of talent drawn into the sport.
And where should money come from? Some say it should be diverted from the bottom of the field (who’s not making a living off of prize money anyway), effectively doubling the salaries of the top 150 athletes. Others think this hurts developmental athletes too much, and the answer is simply more money total in the prize purses. Either way, that’s a much longer discussion sure to continue through the year.
Check out the prior version of the triathlon money list.