Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Is the long distance professional triathlete dead?

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I fully accept that writing material destined for public consumption from a position of (at least partial) ignorance is dangerous and usually best avoided. But having been party to a twitter conversation over the last few days, it got me thinking and inevitably that led me to start tapping away on the keyboard, if only to get my own views on the matter in order.

What are we talking about?  Long distance triathlon. But specifically, the feasibility of being a professional long distance triathlete in the current climate.

What led me to ponder the prospects for triathlon pros (I’m never going to be one myself, after all!)?  Well, it was a post from a British neo-pro long distance triathlete, Lucy Gossage, where she calculated that despite coming an impressive third at the Ironman 70.3 Mallorca race, reconciling her winnings against her travel costs etc, she still made a net loss by attending the event (not helped by having to pay for her own parents to attend the awards event to see their daughter on stage!).

Whichever way you look at that, that’s unsustainable.

The prize purse in total for Ironman Mallorca 70.3 was US $15,000, I believe.  And if I understand it correctly, that purse was spread across the top five men and women (ten in total).  So for her third place, Lucy took home $1,250 less taxes (correct me if I’m wrong).

Now, to put this into some context (at least, my version of a context), there were approximately 3,200 age groupers racing in Mallorca (me included) and we each paid €225.00 to enter.  Basic maths suggests then that the gross income to WTC (owners of the Ironman brand) was in the region of €720,000, or to keep things all in one currency, about US $927,300.

In that context, the total prize fund of US $15,000 equals about 1.6% of gross event income.

Now, okay.  That’s too simple.  Let’s not forget two things: 1) WTC no doubt had costs associated with the race (it’s impossible for me to know what percentage of the infrastructure, police, clean-up, athlete freebies costs were paid by the local Mallorcan authorities versus the WTC, but they had to fly out staff etc for the event at least) and 2) the WTC is a commercial organisation designed to turn a profit.

But even if we make a huge assumption and calculate that the net income after costs was just $200,000 (that assumes WTC spent $727,000 on the event, which I find hard to believe), that still means a prize fund of US $15,000 was equivalent to just 7.5% of net income.

So it’s difficult – from the outside, at least – to avoid concluding that the pros really are getting a pretty raw deal from the race organisers.

Eyes Open

That said, the information about prize funds, Kona points etc is all publicly-available on the WTC’s website.  So there has to be an argument that pros have no excuse for not knowing the situation before deciding whether to incur the costs associated with racing.

That’s not to say I don’t sympathise; but just like I had to realise I was never going to be a rockstar or Formula One driver and instead had to accept that a day job would be necessary to fund my triathlon ‘hobby’, surely anyone tempted to turn pro needs to go through the same thought process and decide rationally if they can really live the life they want to lead based on their likelihood of earning a living through being a professional sportsman/woman.

It’s sometimes easy to look at the very top sports personalities in triathlon – I’m thinking Macca, the Brownlees, Gomez and the now-retired Wellington.  They appear to lead pretty comfortable lifestyles.  Who wouldn’t want a piece of that?

But Alistair and Jonny are just two competitors in a field of what, 60-65 athletes on an ITU start-line?  What about the other 63 athletes? Do they ride free bikes, have entire wardrobes provided by sponsors or cars provided at no cost?  Probably not.

The death of the professional long-distance triathlete?

Leaving ITU racing (i.e. Olympic and Sprint distance races) to one side, I think the situation for the long-course professional triathlete is even worse.  And there are a number of potential reasons for this:

1.    WTC is a commercial organisation – I’ve said it before, but the WTC is about as far from a not-for-profit as you can get.  Influential figures like Brett Sutton have spent much time and energy recently calling for change in how long-distance racing is organised and funded – and for sure they know more about the situation than me.  But it seems clear the WTC’s number one priority is the WTC, not the individual athletes.

2.    Long distance racing is booooooring and thus not TV friendly – okay, a lot of people reading this will disagree. But then we’re already triathlon fans! Imagine trying to build an audience for a race format where (and accept I’m being deliberately controversial here) they swim for nearly an hour, they sit on a bike for five hours, then run a marathon.  Oh, and they do so mostly individually (i.e. no drafting).  For TV alone, the logistics of doing a decent job of covering a 70.3 or full Ironman race must be daunting!  And that’s probably why (in my opinion) most of the race coverage I’ve seen is pretty damned dull.

3.    It’s not spectator friendly either – I’ve supported friends and loved ones at races in Australia, Germany, England and Wales.  And I have to say, from a spectator’s point of view, some races are seriously tedious.  You see the competitors start the swim, maybe see them half an hour later if it’s a two-lap swim, onto the bike, maybe 2-4 times on the bike depending on the course (that’s maybe four times over the course of five or more hours, though!), and then hopefully 3-4 times on the run.  Hardly the most enjoyable day out.

4.    There are a lot of “professional” long distance triathletes – again, I openly confess my ignorance, but having attended four Iron-distance and a couple of 70.3 events I’m not sure I’ve seen the same athlete more than twice.  Ergo, my logic dictates there are literally hundreds of WTC-accredited ‘pros’ going after what appear to be very limited prize purses.  The economics just don’t seem to stand up?

5.    Long distance triathletes don’t attract the sponsorship – again, this is based on a logical assumption, rather than deep knowledge, but I think it stands up.  TV coverage (with a helping hand from a little thing called The Olympics…) has made the top ITU professionals household names. More people than ever recognise the names Brownlee, Gomez and Jenkins.  With the notable exception of Chrissie Wellington, could those same people name Leanda Cave, Rachel Joyce, Lesley Patterson et al? I doubt it.  And that means that while the better ITU athletes can supplement their race winnings with sponsorship deals, my guess is that it’s more difficult for the long-course athletes to secure similarly lucrative deals.

6.    Long distance triathlon isn’t a BTF focus – so again, this is assumption, but I’m guessing that Lucy, Tamsin, Tom and other aspiring British pros get little or no support from the British Triathlon Federation, which is focused on Olympic distance racing. So these long-distance guys perhaps not only miss out on access to support staff, training programs and resources available to their short-course cousins, but probably don’t get the same commercial support either.

Even if I’ve gotten some of the above completely wrong, these points seem to all compound the idea that life as a long-distance triathlon professional is anything but an easy one.

So what’s to be done?

I’m not sure.  I wish I had the answers. I’d set up a rival format to WTC and create a more attractive race series that would attract the very best athletes and get the world excited about triathlon!

For me – and again I’m going to be controversial here, so I really don’t expect everyone to agree with me! – long-distance triathlon is primarily an age grouper sport.  Having just completed my first official 70.3 race, I loved the challenge and want more.  That’s great for WTC – they are bound to make more money out of me.

But the fact is that I loved PARTICIPATING in the sport. I went for no other reason than to race.  No offence to any of the pros, but I didn’t care who was racing in the pro field.

The only reason I attended the other long-distance events was because I was supporting age groupers.  Being brutally honest, I didn’t go to the see the pros (in fact, I was so busy rushing from place to place to support that I hardly ever even saw the pros!); I didn’t go to sample the ‘atmosphere’; I didn’t go to watch ‘how it should be done’.

I could be wrong, but I suspect I’m not alone.  And that unfortunately relegates the pros to little more than a side-show (I said I was being controversial!).  One of the supposed draws of racing WTC is that you get to ‘share the course’ with the pros at the same time (in fact, in Mallorca I set off an hour after the pro wave and never saw one the whole day!). 

But from a spectator’s standpoint, maybe that’s a mistake?  Maybe the pros should race – as they do in ITU events where there are age group races alongside – one day and the age groupers the next (or maybe even set the pros off later in the same day, so the age groupers can cheer them on)?  Maybe the pros should have shorter circuits with a higher number of laps, so that spectators see more of them?  Maybe the pros should be able to draft (to be clear, it’s only a question, not a suggestion!)?

Whatever the magic formula is, for me the basic format of the WTC events needs to be addressed so that they draw more crowds and viewers (on TV or via web-streaming).  Only when they are more people actively watching will more money start coming into the sport (putting aside the argument about the commercial nature of the WTC – follow Brett Sutton on Twitter if you want to get involved in that argument!). At that point, maybe the ‘professionals’ will be able to give up the day job and actually focus full-time on long-distance triathlon?

And if the above issues can’t be addressed, perhaps the painful truth is that we just need to accept that long-distance triathlon isn’t (yet) capable of being a ‘professional sport’ in the way that the WTC currently promotes it? Perhaps we should focus on the thousands of age groupers who make up the bulk of each race and accept the long-distance triathlon is essentially an amateur sport?

I personally think there is room for professional long-distance triathlon. But right now the WTC is trying (or not) to sell a format that the mass market doesn’t want to buy.  Fix the product, fix the sales strategy and maybe the sport will benefit?

I realise there are MASSIVE gaps in my arguments above, but considering this blog post is already over 1,800 words long, I think I’d better leave it there!  I welcome any other viewpoints on how the sport we love can better support its professional community.

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Matt Fisher runs - so it's all his fault! He pretends to be a triathlete, but really he is a husband, father and company VP. But he has raced for the GB Age Group squad a few times and is a two-times qualifier for the IM70.3 world champs