Grow the Sport by Cultivating Local Triathlon Heroes

In a recent TRS Triathlon post by James Doran, he proposed some Big Hairy Audacious Goals including getting Ironman into the Olympics, which while seeming logical, completely misunderstands the Olympic event qualification process. I do like two of James’ goals though: promoting junior growth and promoting pro athletes. Read the Doran article here.

Over on the establishment side of triathlon, they still want a professional triathletes’ “union.” That has failed before and will likely fail again as envisaged in Dan Empfield’s Slowtwitch article “Pro Athlete Race Calendar.”  In the current environment, professional triathletes are seen by race directors as tools rather than jewels. Tools can and will be replaced. But there is another model, collaborative and constructive rather than combative; one that has proven successful in the corporate world and already has a place in triathlon.

Recent developments pointed to in the Empfield article include:

  • Twenty races have withdrawn prize money.
  • The race directors allege that they get no return on their investment in prize money through publicity when pros fail to commit to races.
  • The pros they are trying to woo are, for the most part, not local (see Professional Triathlete—Local Hero?).

Money or commitment?

Challenge, Ironman, and Life Time have all pulled prize purses. They were offering big paydays but only getting small fields, and I assume race directors were not happy that their much-lauded prize money could go to a relative “unknown”— either a nomadic pro or, potentially worse, a local nobody. And that is where the race organizers have it wrong.

In my TBI blog I noted that endemic sponsors are effectively a cartel. Trying to organize pros as currently envisaged simply extends that cartel, passing control to a hierarchy of race organizers. Those who can pay the most would hold all the chips in any bargaining, and it is classic cartel behavior to essentially divide up the market to meet their own needs.

What is needed instead is a root-and-branch rethink of how we develop, manage, and reward professional triathletes. Instead of thinking of the sport as individual businesses with a common product, the race format, we should think of triathlon as a global corporation made of business units that each have their own profit and revenue objectives.

In the corporate world, professionals are developed to be the leaders in their specialist domains. The main objective within each business unit is to sell product and meet operational expenditure targets, and in triathlon the race and the professional are key to achieving those goals.

Rather than simply being seen as tools that are in limited supply and for which different races compete, professionals should be grown and developed at all levels: local, regional, national, and international. Not merely their racing performance but their professional skills, their personal value, their sponsors, and their race value. The focus is on local, home-grown talent. Recognizing talent, developing talent, rewarding talent.

A Model Already Exists

This is in essence what the ITU has done with short-course racing. The ITU is the corporation, and countries are divisions within the corporation. The ITU is by nature global, but in any country we can see that local heroes dominate the story. In the USA this is starting to happen around Gwen Jorgenson. As I drove to London Heathrow Airport last week, I was not surprised to hear triathlon mentioned on the sports segment in a national radio show. The UK has been cultivating local short-course heroes for twenty-odd years.

This approach is fragmented or nonexistent in long-distance racing and, most importantly, almost nonexistent even in short-course racing in the USA and Canada. Here the race organizers, the sponsors, and most people who have a financial stake in the sport are hoping, praying, and putting money up for the next “Iron War”—the Dave Scott vs. Mark Allen battle. In the USA the phrase “go big or go home” seems to be the mantra.

Most recently that’s what Challenge did. They went big and announced big prize money; no one committed, and they withdrew the money. What they should have done was go local:

  • Find local talent and pay them to race, especially in their local area.
  • Develop them as brand ambassadors, market them as local stars, develop them as professionals who have a valuable role in inspiring the local community.
  • Give them nonexclusive but binding contracts that require them to race specific races, but allow them to participate elsewhere.

Growing the Sport for Everyone

This would essentially be the same as the corporate world, where businesses that compete also collaborate. The race organizers would work developing local athletes for specific races, paying them to race as well as prize money. A professional union or association would provide the nonracing development, marketing, ethics, representation, etc.

Yes, there will be injuries; athletes will quit, too fatigued; some just won’t be good enough to endure. Yes, there will be cheats; drugs and other things will go wrong, but this is where a professional organization comes in. It would work to develop programs, standards, benchmarks, and contracts and represent the professionals. It would work with race organizers, event managers, and governing bodies to help identify and develop local stars.

As local stars become regional and national stars, both through race results and increased media exposure, you would have the local, national, and international equivalents of the Iron War. Over time, Dan’s idea of a race calendar and pro prize purse would become part of the overall professional environment—it just wouldn’t be all there was.

This requires a completely different way of thinking about prize-money purses. It would, over a period of three to five years, also eliminate the bugbear of the professional triathlete: the nomadic, mercenary lifestyle. Instead, you’d have one or two big races per year that professional athletes would aspire to compete in, the world championships at a given race distance, and the equivalent of a hall-of-fame game, but their other races would all bring in enough money either out of competition or through sponsorship, grants, awards, or potentially even salaries.

There are very few triathletes who come from nowhere to win big. Yes, it happens, but for most it’s a journey of four, six, even ten years. Those hotshots can still exist, they can still travel the globe trying to find a big purse or any easy qualifier, but under this system they wouldn’t be the focus.

The Power of Local

As I’ve written before, the general media in a given major city really doesn’t care if Chris McDonald comes to town and whups the local guys. The likes of Chrissie Wellington, Dave Scott, Mark Allen, McDonald et al. are relatively few and far between. Banking all your investment on attracting the next major out-of-town mercenary will never work. Even if a union existed, if its sole purpose were to negotiate who showed up at which races for what prize money, the sport and professional triathletes would never grow significantly. Endemic sponsors and race organizers would continue to only pay what they have to, and nonendemic sponsors would drift in and out of the sport.

Trying to organize A- and B-level pros around a pro race calendar that lists the prize money is just another attempt to control professional triathletes and make the “tools” fit into a preconceived idea of what the race organizers want. Instead, we need local heroes, competing in local races, fighting for local sponsors knowing they don’t have to race in three or four continents throughout the year to make a living and get a chance for the big one. We need those people to be the focus of the local media so that when the big nomadic triathlete comes to town and gets whupped by the local guy, it’s real news. This can only be done when local media cares, when local businesses see the value of association, and when local communities buy into the sport.

About the Author

Mark is an Executive Director at Dell in Austin TX. He's an IT optimist and a keen triathlete. In 2003, he was voted British Triathlon volunteer of the year and formally ran the Tri-Force triathlon club in the UK. He also own a small, boutique, sports management company that works with triathletes to help them achieve their best, on the journey to professional triathlete, and beyond.