In an article on TRS a couple of months ago, I suggested one way that pro triathletes could start to control more of their future was to form a representative body. I, personally, am glad to see that there has been progress made on this front since it helps with the legitimacy of the sport. A representative body that can speak for the athletes, help promote them, and work directly with the media, is very important in a niche sport like triathlon. However, I want to address some of the potential hurdles, economically, internally, and structurally, that the Pro Triathlon Union may face.
It is important to understand that most economic research shows there are no financial benefits to the members of a union, it is the union itself that benefits. So to join a union for purely monetary reasons is typically not worth it. With that said, sports unions hold a different power because of the uniqueness of the talent of its members.
In the sports industry, unions have demonstrated power, and that has correlated to higher pay, better playing conditions, and better long-term care to its members (lets push the NFL/ brain injury arguments to a different website). However, these strong, well defined unions, exists for team sports that negotiate against a singular body or league that represents a set of owners.
Triathletes are similar to professional golfers and tennis players; individual contractors whose pay is directly proportional to their performance. Not only does that correlate to prize money, but sponsorship as well. For tennis and golfers there doesn’t appear to be a need for a union, and the players’ themselves don’t seem to want one. So why do triathletes need one? If it is just about money, then that is a problem because a union has to be more than just getting its members higher pay.
With that in mind, the Pro Triathlon Union needs to address some pretty important questions to sustain long-term success. I will ignore triathlon specific issues like #50womentokona, drafting, and white race kits. Let’s address each big picture item with the potential problem and optimistic solution.
1. Who is the management the union is negotiating against?
Problem: This something that is still unclear. Is it WTC, Challenge, and any and all race promoters? Is the intent to leverage its members to get higher payouts, thus making membership worthwhile? The problem with that is that they are negotiating against a company(s) that has no obligation to increase the payout structure unless it is necessary.
That leads to a scary question of whether pros are necessary. Ignoring that for the meantime, will the PTU encourage its members to strike races if WTC and Challenge don’t increase the pro purse? A strike or boycott of a race is very dangerous, especially since most of the top pros rely on their performances at these races for bigger sponsorship payouts. In most strike scenarios, the players cave first.
Solution: The best outcome is a coordinated agreement between the PTU and WTC/Challenge – which may lead to a certain number of athletes represented at each race, and a specific payout structure for the given athletes. This will provide some security and allow a coordinate promotion of the events. This solution relies heavily on the ability of the PTU to negotiate with both WTC and Challenge. As well as Challenge and WTC negating between themselves.
2. What does it mean to be a professional athlete since all athletes are not created equal?
Problem: The problem with union representation is that is cannot represent the interest of everyone equally. In the NBA there is a specific pay scale related to years of service, if you are rookie, and whether you are a free agent. Does the PTU plan to force management to pay athletes for how long they have been triathletes, or compensate athletes differently that choose to race lower KPR events versus bigger ones?
Simply stated, how can the union represent the interests equally of an athlete like Andy Potts versus Chris Leiferman. Their needs are very different. Andy may want bigger payouts at fewer races and Chris may want smaller payouts distributed across many races.
Solution: PTU membership cannot represent everyone equally, but its goal is to maximize the overall pie for all those that are involved. Ultimately, this may lead to fewer pros and that is probably a good thing. There are 374 golfers listed on the PGA money list while there are 617 pro triathletes with at least 1 KPR point. How can there be that many pro triathletes? The PTU can be the system to effectively weed out those very good athletes from true professionals. A smaller representative body will actually allow better representation for the members.
3. Where is the economic model that demonstrates the payoff to an athlete is better through union membership?
Problem: This is tough. Do top tier athletes plan on sharing their sponsorship dollars and prize purses with less accomplished pros? If there is no chance for higher pay why would a lower tiered professional join? What sacrifices are the athletes willing to make to increase the pot for everyone, versus it becoming a straight redistribution of the wealth? Unless the payout structure changes, there is very little incentive for a pro, especially a top pro, to join from a monetary standpoint. The idea of union is in directly conflict with how the best athletes are paid. This especially true if the PTU has no leveraging power to increase prize purses.
Solution: If WTC and Challenge decided to put all the prize money into a pool, and then distribute it as if it was a salary, and have a bonus for race wins, then there is an economic model to negotiate. This would allow for a degree of stability and incentives for performance.
4. What are the non-financial benefits?
Problem: A union like the UAW negotiates on behalf of its members for more than just salary. It is about hours worked, vacation time, healthcare benefits, child care, etc…but many of these non-pecuniary benefits don’t apply for triathletes. Although it would be funny if the PTU stipulated that all of its members were not allowed to train more than 40 hours a week and to take a mandatory two week vacation. What would Lionel Sanders do with all his extra time? If the union is more than just about money what else are the members getting? The insurance doesn’t count because of the changing healthcare laws.
Solution: The real non-financial benefit here is the singular voice the union can provide. I think back to the Actual Starky “accident” in the Middle East. If the PTU had been established with real clout, Starky wouldn’t have had to fight the individual battle he did. He would have had the voice of every pro behind him, and hopefully, strong legal representation. Hopefully the PTU can get to that place.
5. Can the PTU launch a world ranking for global events?
Problem: This requires the buy-in from WTC and Challenge. It is possible that WTC and Challenge do, but at such a cost that WTC/Challenge reap any of the financial benefit from the potential prestige of the event.
Solution: Here is where I think the union is on the right track and has its biggest bargaining chip. Establish a worldwide ranking system, have it sponsored, and those that participate can benefit from the system. It puts the livelihood of the athletes in their own hands. This is exactly what we suggested in our previous articles. Set up a racing structure over the year, get it sponsored, and own the rights to it completely. If it is coordinated with WTC and Challenge correctly, and it is marketed correctly, then the PTU has established something real, something of value, and something that can be leveraged.
To this I say bravo.