Do Ironman pros matter?

Before asking what pros should get paid, we need to know what they’re worth.

Prize money and athlete compensation have become a hot-button issue in professional triathlon in the last five years. As WTC’s holdings have expanded athletes have complained that they don’t feel their rewards have increased proportionately. Increased participation has fostered a larger fan base that has vocally supported them through social media. The matter reached new heights last year when the Real Starky crew publicly shamed WTC’s prize purse offering at Ironman Lake Placid with a GoFundMe campaign to give a “bonus prize purse” to athletes.

Meanwhile, WTC has redesigned the prize purse structure in ways that make life more difficult for some pro athletes. The KPR system favors top finishers in Kona and forces lower-tier athletes to race more frequently during the season to make the cut. Meanwhile, prize money is being consolidated to a select group of races according to WTC’s categorization of championships. In essence, athletes are either being funneled toward a narrower range of events fielding the best of the best or forced to work harder on a periphery that offers less return on their physical investment. Neither proposition sounds entirely fair.

World Triathlon Corporation CEO Andrew Messick has gone on record more than once expressing a mixture of concern for and doubt of the value of professional athletes in the sport. In an interview with Tim Carlson of Slowtwitch.com last year he said he doubted if Ironman could support the livelihood of 900 professional racers, let alone the roughly 1,100 currently registered pros. Yet he still felt there was value to a pro field and that it was in the sport’s interest to increase its stock:

I don’t know [what pros contribute to WTC’s bottom line]. But whatever it is I’d like it to be higher. … I have seen that the role of the professional athlete is dramatically enhanced relative to the success of the business of that sport. I think and I have said this from the day I walked into the door: I believe that our top tier professional triathletes should be more famous than they are. They should make more money than they do. They should be more relevant and they should have higher profile among the media, in the host cities, and among the age group triathletes. How we do that is something that collectively we have yet to figure out. But we would like it to happen. Because that is one way to make the pie bigger.

Despite Messick’s overtures to giving pros greater exposures, WTC’s recent initiatives suggest its moving further away from its stable of home grown athletes. The company made a $1 million donation to the Lance Armstrong Foundation commensurate with Armstrong’s agreement to race Ironman in 2012. It then threw significant effort into working with Gordon Ramsay and Hines Ward to promote the race series in 2013, and Apollo Ohno last year. There have also been several expansion races and buyouts from competitors.

All of this costs money, and vastly outweighs increases in the professional prize purse.  This has intensified criticism from the pro community that WTC isn’t doing enough to leverage them. From finance to media presence, it doesn’t seem that WTC is all that interested in its pros, and especially when it comes to prize purses they seem undervalued. But is that really the case?

History

It first helps to understand the history of professional competition. Ironman was never intended to be a professional sport. In many respects, it wasn’t even a competitive event. The original story Barry McDermott wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1979 focused on the contestants’ idiosyncratic personalities as much as their athletic background.  The single greatest moment in Ironman history arose from the efforts of Julie Moss– an amateur first-time competitor– crawling across the finish line while ABC cameras filmed her. Furthermore, the creation of professional ranks was a total fluke. Valerie Silk decided to offer a prize purse for the first time in 1985 after she was pressured by would-be competitors and the elite athletes participating in her event.

Immediately after the prize purse was announced, sponsorship and licensing from companies like Budweiser and Timex poured in. The transition from amateur participation event to professional competition was one of the single most fateful decisions in the sport’s history. While Silk made the choice deliberately, it was not with the vision of turning Ironman into a global multi-million dollar operation. People still remember the legendary “Iron War” between Dave Scott and Mark Allen, but only because so many people were already paying attention to Ironman by 1989; in large part thanks to the efforts of amateur athletes.

The first decade of Ironman history echoes Messick’s thoughts on the future of the pro field– professionals owed their role to the visibility of the sport, not the other way around. This dynamic seriously undermines the professionals’ argument that they bring value to Ironman, and its heritage lives on through the notoriety of Rick and Dick Hoyt, Jonathan Blais, and Sister Madonna Buder. It cannot be ignored that in their efforts to bring attention to their various causes, these noble amateur athletes gained an outreach that extends far beyond the majority of professionals.

Athlete Value

Yet there are those who argue that today’s top professionals do bring value to the table. Among them is Franko Vatterott, an agent for many professional triathletes, most notably Craig Alexander. He reasons that “Pros add legitimacy to the sport. Take Crowie for example. When he goes to a race you can see there’s a definite increase in media impressions, both locally and online. There are lots of metrics that show his impact in getting attention for a race.” What those metrics translate into is another matter, though. When Ironman events routinely sell out within days or even just hours, it’s debatable that they need further advertising. The registration rates essentially tell WTC that people will give them $25,000,000 annually without even knowing which pros are coming to a race.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. The Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics concluded that success in NCAA competition had no benefit for either the quality or quantity of new student applications or even the amount of donations from alumni associations for sports programs. Applying the same principles to Ironman, it means professional competition isn’t likely to increase the number of people signing up for races or the amount of money they’re willing to pay for entrance fees. It therefore seems intuitive– and research bears out (.pdf)– that professional athletes’ reputations are most valuable to sports equipment manufacturers, that the bulk of an athlete’s earnings come from endorsement deals, and that winning has the greatest impact on their value (.pdf again).

The only significant addition pro competition might bring would be television coverage to a broader audience, but local television does not typically broadcast races and Ironman Live is not a cheap production. Vatterott says the lack of improvement in broadcasting might be a matter of shortsightedness on the part of race organizers. “I think a lot of races don’t plan to go into the red for three or four years before making a profit. Look at Rev3 Quassy. That was a great event that had maybe the best live broadcast ever. But they sunk a lot of money into it and pulled the plug after just one year. The plan wasn’t there to keep it going long enough to take hold. Today the best broadcast in long distance triathlon is of course Kona but Challenge Bahrain was pretty good too.  The Ironman Championships are sponsored by GoPro and they don’t have cameras running on all the athletes’ bikes. It makes you wonder why not. The pro cycling tour is starting to do it. Why hasn’t triathlon gotten there yet?”

The answer to that question may go back to the original point Messick and history make– the sport has to succeed before pros can gain notoriety. For all its growth and success in the last 30 years, Ironman is still owned and operated by private equity. It doesn’t exactly have NFL-level resources. To get there, it may take another Julie Moss moment. But if that’s the case, it might be waiting for Godot. Moss’s drama has been reenacted time and again by the likes of Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham and Paula Newby-Fraser. It’s hard to shock the world to its feet with a rerun of 1983. People are looking for new models, and there are sports out there offering them.

Triathlon’s Competitive Landscape

The CrossFit games are probably the most prominent example of upstart sports leveraging a unique interaction between professional and amateur competitors. Like many industry experts, Vatterott is skeptical of CrossFit’s staying power and considers it more of a “fitness fad.” But with its week-long championships carried live by ESPN, a prize purse of $2 million, and a robust sponsorship with Reebok, that skepticism may be driven by a slight degree of jealousy.

Next to CrossFit is Tough Mudder, an “everyman” race series that has gained enormous participation in recent years. Even without an officially recognized professional field, this year’s championships in Las Vegas will pay out $60,000 to the top five men and women and top three teams. It’s not clear if either organization has genuine staying power, but Tough Mudder already boasts more than 50 races in eight countries compared to WTC’s 125 Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events around the world, and all without the use of professionals. In some respects, CrossFit was better positioned to enable professional competitors from the start, because it is better positioned to foster amateur participation.

Even Vatterott concedes that Ironman has unique challenges to growth, and that the money athletes are currently receiving is fair within the given constraints. “WTC and triathlon aren’t making enough of an economic impact right now. You can’t pay athletes huge sums of money when it’s not there to give. This is a lifestyle sport, and the model is very different because it’s fueled by participation. The thing people like about the professional element is that you can line right up at the start with the pros and get to be on the field with them. You can’t do that with basketball or NASCAR. But one of the biggest problems it has is that there’s a very high entrance cost. Craig Alexander’s bike costs more than my custom Italian racing motorcycle. It’s pretty crazy when you think about it. To do something like CrossFit all you need is to pay a gym fee and buy a pair of shoes. So until we can grow the sport more and get more people involved, things are going to stay this way. But pro money is going up and I think we’ll see things continue to improve.”

Conclusion

Going forward, it remains a complicated task for the athletes and WTC alike to articulate what value professional competition adds to the overall success of Ironman. If the athletes want more from WTC, or any race organizer for that matter, they’ll have to justify it. If the race organizers want more from the athletes, it’s on them to develop a strategy for getting it. There has not been much progress toward either end, perhaps going back to the accidental nature of how the pro field emerged in the first place. Insofar as WTC is concerned, professional competition is a marketing tool, and it’s very difficult to use a tool without knowing why you have it in the first place.

Follow Jim Gourley on twitter.

photo credit: MACCA Ironman Hawaii 2010 via photopin (license)

About the Author

Jim Gourley is the author of Faster: Demystifying the Secrets of Triathlon Speed and The Race Within: The Story of the Ultraman Triathlon. He is a regular contributor to Tom Ricks' blog "The Best Defense." His work has been featured in Men's Health, Stars and Stripes, and several triathlon and cycling publications.

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