The life of a professional long course triathlete isn’t exactly glamorous. We beat the crap out of our bodies, we piss ourselves in races, we don’t party (in season), we don’t stay up late, we wake up early, and yet we thankfully do it again and again – over and over. We are gluttons for punishment and live to train and race.
While pro triathletes are a tough lot, there is one area where you’ll hear most triathletes whine like little girls – money. While there is a lot of money to be made in the sport of triathlon, a sport which grows 15% year-over-year and where the mean income of Ironman participants is over $170,000/year, the pro athletes share of the pie is very little – especially in regard to prize purses.
Case in point: Ironman Florida. At this race, if you were to prorate the prize purse for the men’s field the signed up, you’d end up with about about $176/athlete. Considering it cost approximately $1,200 for my trip and I made $0.00 in prize money, my net was -$1,200 (and a lot worse if you include opportunity cost, etc.). While I sucked it up at Ironman Florida, Victor Del Corral kicked ass. Yet he still only grossed $5,000 for the win.
The real winner on the day was World Triathlon Corporation. With over 3,000 participants paying more than $600/pop, with Panama City Beach paying probably $250,000 to bring WTC to the city, more money from expo participants paying to exhibit, and other sponsors. I’d reckon WTC probably grossed $2.2-2.7M, although we’d never know because it is a private company.
Good for the WTC, they killed it at Ironman Florida and countless other races around the world this year. They’ve figured out a replicable system that works for the masses and are the only for profit company that I can think of, other than Harley Davidson, where people actually permanently tattoo the brand’s logo onto their body.
But the point of this post isn’t to complain about “poor ole me” and “look at this big, bad corporation making all this money.” The point of this post is to propose a solution for pro athletes to increase their leverage and make more money.
Before I delve into a long term future strategy, I’d like to talk about the status quo for long-course pro athletes. Pros right now have essentially (4) race options:
- WTC Ironman Brand Races
- Rev3 Races
- Challenge Races
- Independent Races (e.g. Abu Dhabi, MetaMan, Wildflower, etc)
WTC realized the threat of competition from other races potentially drawing away pro participation and implemented a brilliant master stroke – Kona KPR points. For all triathletes, Kona is essentially like Gollum’s precious ring from Lord of the Rings. They are obsessed with it. Sponsors are obsessed with it. And especially, age groupers are obsessed with it.
The KPR systems is essentially the way pro athletes qualify for Kona. How do you get KPR points? By racing lots and lots of WTC races. WTC has a stranglehold on pros wanting to race Kona and have doubled down on a strategy of getting them to race. Considering an athlete can really only “peak” at a few long-course races a year, if you want to get to Kona, those races have to be at WTC races if you want the best shot at getting to the precious Big Island. It’s fricking brilliant and the pros, with little protest, sucked it up and went for it.
So why not protest? Why not all athletes just band together and say “screw it, we aren’t going to do WTC races, we are going to take our talents elsewhere.” Well, there’s two problems with this:
- The prisoner’s dilemma, or for the sake of this post, the pro’s dilemma. Anyone not familiar with the game theory and prisoner’s dilemma can learn more HERE. Essentially athletes would defect from a “pact” of not doing WTC races when they’d realize that they’d have a shot of winning a lot of prize money if no one showed up.
- Does WTC really care if pros don’t show up? Are age-groupers, the WTC’s bread and butter, not going to sign up if there’s not a pro field. For the most part, I don’t think age groupers care too much. Many of these athletes are just looking for personal challenge or just check it off their life bucket list. Do you think the 45,000 people that did the Chicago marathon this year really cared they there was an elite field of 100 mostly East African runners finishing ahead of everyone?
Right now there is so much frustration and desperation amongst the pro contingent that some athletes sell their race “schwag” (medals, shirts, race bags) on Ebay immediately following a race to generate that little bit of extra income. It’s pathetic and sad, but that is the situation a lot of athlete are in. Living day to day. Clif bar to Clif bar.
So what’s to be done? While I fully accept that pro triathletes are never going to be making the kind of money of a professional Formula One driver, NBA star, or MLB player, I think it is entirely reasonable to expect a future where pros don’t have to sell their frickin’ schwag bags to have enough money to eat.
Here’s a potential solution: The World Triathlon Majors Scenario
In this scenario, triathlon would essentially imitate the general spirit of the World Marathon Majors that include the BMW Berlin Marathon, Boston Marathon, Virgin London Marathon, Bank of America Chicago Marathon, and ING NYC Marathon.
All of these events have different race organizers, yet they pool together to offer an interesting, independent, and dynamic series for the pro athletes.
The key for this scenario to work would be getting Rev3, Challenge, and Independent race organizers to participate. This pooling of competition would be the only way you could get enough leverage to get WTC to participate in the series. The only way WTC would want to participate is if they saw the smaller organizers syphoning off prestige by attracting the best athletes and attention.
A random sample of this program could be:
- Panama 70.3
- Abu Dhabi Triathlon
- Oceanside 70.3
- Rev3 Quassy Half
- Challenge Roth
- Independent Championship Long Course Race
Athletes could help organize the framework of the series by having certain standards for inclusion into the series. For instance:
- Series races would need a minimum threshold of prize money per race, say $250,000 paid out 20 deep
- Series races would need to organize at least 100 home-stays for athletes
- Series races would provide limited travel assistance
- Have separate port-o-potties for pros (in all races that Thomas Gerlach competes in)
We are not talking about re-inventing the wheel here. The wheel already exists in other sports, like nordic skiing: http://www.swixskiclassics.com/
I am certain that with the right effort, REV3 and Challenge would kick in money to the series. If it was framed right and got media attention and coverage a large visionary sponsor could potentially step in cover the series. This might be “pie in the sky” thinking. But with the pace that triathlon is growing in the world, there has got to be a creative way for the right company(s) to realize a return on an investment with funding the series. The opportunity is too big for nothing to happen in this space. WTC has been able to capitalize on age-group participation, but people are eager for something new, challenging, innovative, and different. Brett Sutton has been stomping his feet up and down for a long time and seems eager for a solution, yet doesn’t offer much in a way of a framework.
I am happy to throw my attention in energy into helping to create a solution for pro athletes, the questions is: