The Business of Long-Distance Triathlon: A Follow-Up

Last August, I was thinking about the business of professional long-distance triathlon. As I was thinking, I created a chart.


The chart illustrates the challenge facing pro triathlon and its athletes: the sport has an incredibly small audience. Even smaller than other niche sports, like cycling. Even surfing. This makes it hard for pro long-distance triathlon and its athletes to attract and keep major sponsors. 

Other sports on that chart have development divisions, athlete rankings, seasons, series, tournaments and championships. There are clear paths for athletes to grow into those sports. Each has a strong digital platform. Most have live TV coverage. 

It’s easy and it’s fun for fans to follow them and their athletes, 24/7. And for big sponsors to be involved. Annually, those other sports are able to award prizes in the many multiple millions of dollars. 

Each of those sports also has an association or teams that represent their athletes’ interests. Except UFC, where ongoing efforts to create the MMA Fighters Association are gaining traction

If pro long-distance triathlon is to grow, evolve, the sport must create a product and cultivate, build an audience. To get and keep an audience’s attention, pro triathlon needs a development division, athlete rankings, a season, a series and a championship. It doesn't need live TV coverage right away. It definitely needs a digital platform and social media presence, so fans can follow races and engage with athletes, on and off course.

Last October, I published an article about all of this, right before Kona—which is Ironman's championship race. In it, I suggested that the sport’s leaders, Ironman and Challenge, collaborate to develop the pro business.

That suggestion had issues. Antitrust regulations would need to be navigated in both the US and the European Union. Also tricky: no love is lost between Ironman and Challenge. The likelihood that they cooperate voluntarily? A long-shot, at best.

There is another alternative. It’s probably a better one. Triathlon’s pros take the lead. They design, build and own their own rankings, race season, series and championship. In fact, most other individual pro sports have gotten organized this way. Including tennis, golf. Now cycling. Even bull riding.  

Last summer, a handful of top pro triathletes launched what could be the ideal development vehicle for the pro sport: the Professional Triathlon Union. But lift-off was rocky. Lots of shade has been thrown

The PTU’s name and its proposed structure are likely problematic. (This article on the MMA's efforts to organize explains the distinction between a Union and an Association in individual pro sports). 

But the spirit is not. Triathlon’s pros can take charge and drive the sport forward, if they want to. This is what it would take:

A core design team, including a handful of retired pros who have the time and energy to commit to tackling a big task: spearheading change. A few candidates: Faris Al-SultanBelinda Granger and Tom Lowe all retired last year. Tom Lowe is married to Chrissie Wellington. And maybe Craig Alexander can fit it in—between his ongoing wins. There are so many others, if these five aren't interested. It wouldn’t hurt to have a leading coach or two in the mix, as well. Craig Alexander is Two-for-One.

A clear, strategic vision and a creative, viable business model. No need to reinvent the wheel. Copy and adapt. Learn—by meeting with other pro associations of all shapes and sizes: the PGA, the Association of Tennis Professionals, Velon, the World Surf League and the Professional Bull Riders, amongst them. Draw from their histories, wins and losses. Craft a vision and plan that are relevant to long-distance triathlon today. Court pro buy-in, engage and enlist broad-based pro support.

Constructive, collaborative conversations. Armed with a vision, plan and buy-in, break down silos, bring industry leaders along. Identify, pitch and win investors and sponsors, create new partnerships where needed. Use conviction, transparency, cooperation and communication as weapons of choice. Plus patience, persistence.

And a set of smart lawyers. Like these, at Skadden Arps and Winston + Strawn. Or any of these

Triathlon is big business. By 2020, the global market will exceed $10 billion. A pro product would make it bigger. The sport brings hundred of thousands of pro and amateur athletes together around the world, in ways few other sports do. And, it’s a great time to be an accomplished athlete with a big audience.

Bottom line: it’s very much in pros’ interest to take the helm and turn pro long-distance triathlon into a structured, stand-alone business. It’s an ideal time to do it. And based on triathlon’s track record and the experience of pro athletes in other sports, no one is more likely than the pros themselves to get the job done. Pros will benefit. Many, many others in and outside of the sport will too.

In the end notes of the article that I published in October, I wrote this:


Building a truly world-class pro sport—creating inspiring and engaging entertainment, attracting a sustaining audience, broadcast partners and sponsors, offering multi-million dollar prize purses and creating multi-million dollar athletes—will really only be possible when there are exciting stories to tell, stories whose through lines play out across multiple seasons. To bring stories like that to life, it will take deliberate, strategic culling of the pro field and organization of competitive race series and seasons—and a shared vision by each of the industry’s key players of what they can accomplish by doing so. 


I’m tossing the ball to the pros. And urging them to take it, run with it. With conviction. No lies: organizing the sport will be hard. Just as hard as winning Kona. Maybe harder. And just as—maybe more—rewarding.  

This article appeared originally as a series of tweets on Twitter. You can see that series here.