The Business of Long-Distance Triathlon: A Playbook for Growth

All in a Day’s Work: $30,000 vs. $3 million

At 6:40 a.m. on Sunday, July 5th, pro triathletes Jan Frodeno and Daniela Ryf toed the line of the shore of the Langener Waldsee in Germany. They were there to compete in Ironman Frankfurt—along with 65 other professional and 3,000 recreational triathletes from all over the world. Like the better-known Ironman World Championship, held each October, in Kona, Hawaii, the Frankfurt race was a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.  

Frodeno crossed the line victorious 7 hours and 49 minutes later—a blistering pace. Ryf dominated in kind, taking the women’s field in 8 hours and 51 minutes. Both broke course records, on a day when temperatures hit the 100 degree mark, and 35% of the registered athletes did not finish the race.

For their efforts, Frodeno and Ryf each won $30,000. Runners up Sebastian Kienle and Julia Gajer collected $15,000 a piece. The prize purse for the race was $150,000, and the balance of the money—$60,000—was divvied up between the remaining top ten male and female pros.

Frankfurt is one of five races in a Regional Championship series launched by Ironman this year. There are no qualifying criteria for pros to compete in the series' races. They need simply register. There is, however, a complex system for pros to qualify for the World Championship. By winning in Frankfurt, Frodeno and Ryf sidestepped that process—as did the regional series' other top pro finishers—automatically receiving slots to compete in a field of 95 pros on Hawaii’s Big Island this coming Saturday. The Kona purse is $650,000. Winners will take home $120,000 each. 

A week after Frodeno and Ryf cleaned up in Germany, tennis players Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic pocketed just under $3 million each for their Wimbledon victories. The Wimbledon purse was $40 million. In 2015, tennis' Grand Slam tournaments will pay out close to $150 million. By contrast, total winnings in professional long-distance triathlon—including all half- and full-distance races—will be less than $7.5 million this year [1]

The driver of the difference in prize money available to the two disciplines: an exponential difference between the size of the two sports' audiences. Tennis draws viewers, viewers draw sponsors, sponsors yield full purses and rich endorsement deals for champions—Williams and Djokovic are two of the highest paid athletes in the world.

Despite the rigor and athleticism involved in winning an Ironman, relatively few people are aware that each year over 1,000 pro triathletes around the globe participate in more than 125 long-distance races hosted by Ironman and competing race organizer Challenge. Even fewer know the names of the world's top male and female pro triathletes.

The pros briefly enter and fade from view, when a two hour recap of the World Championship is broadcast in the United States one weekend afternoon every November. Although broadcast rights for live sports command peak rates today, Ironman self-produces the Kona recap and pays NBC to air it, six weeks following the race [2]

Real or Imagined: The Ten-Hour Stumbling Block

On Twitter and Facebook, in online forums, and on triathlon websites, blogs and podcasts, there is a small but passionate community of triathletes, coaches, journalists, bloggers and fans who regularly discuss and debate the second- or even third-class status of long-distance triathlon as a professional sport.

There’s much criticism and finger-pointing, complaining and frustration. Pros blame Ironman, Ironman blames pros. Challenge blames pros, Challenge blames Ironman. Media and bloggers blame anyone they can. Everyone has blamed Ironman's Wall Street owners [3]

In the end, most of these conversations dead-end here: no one will watch a ten-hour event live. No audience, no sponsors. No sponsors, no prize purses. The sport appears stuck.

But on the eve of this year’s World Championship, following the recent announcement that Ironman is being sold, it’s an ideal time to ask: is the assumption that no one will watch a ten-hour event live correct? Or, asked differently: is race length really an insurmountable obstacle to growing long-distance triathlon’s fan base, to turning it into a world-class professional sport, by today’s standards?

In fact, with a little imagination, it’s easy to envision a scenario in which Ironman and Challenge host races boasting prize purses of $2 million, $3 million and even $5 million, with enthusiastic, global audiences, rosters of deep-pocketed sponsors and well-known athletes, some of whose individual annual earnings top $2 million, $5 million and even $10 million in winnings and endorsement deals, year-over-year.

What would it take to bring this back-of-the-envelope scenario to life?

Streamline the Sport: Classify + Rank the Pros, Refine Race Calendars

In other pro sports—including tennis, golf, cycling, surfing, NASCAR and Formula One—there are development classifications, with tournaments, tours and races staged specifically for new pros entering the field. Competing in these contests, new pros gain experience, earn a living, sharpen their skills and work their way up to qualify to compete in the sports' headline events.

Headline events showcase the sports' best talent. Event calendars trace familiar arcs each year. Points systems are used to rank pros’ standings throughout the season. Rankings intensify competition between pros—points are tallied to populate end-of-season tournaments and to allocate performance bonuses. Rankings and predictable schedules make seasons compelling and easy to follow—for fans and sponsors alike.

Today, in long-distance triathlon, the sheer number of pros and the volume of races throughout the season is overwhelming [4]. Pro athletes are neither classified nor ranked [5]. Apart from the newly introduced Regional Championship series, there is no discernible organization to the race calendar. The result: when compared to other pro sports, long-distance triathlon's race season is not particularly competitive and is exceedingly hard to follow—for fans and sponsors alike.

If professional long-distance triathlon is to up its game, the sport needs to be streamlined, with the pro field rationalized, classified and ranked and race calendars further refined. Elite amateurs have to be eliminated from the pro line-up. Development pros need opportunities to compete, win prize money and advance, and the sport’s top athletes—the elite pros—need to be racing head-to-head in marquee events multiple times throughout the year—not just at Kona. Paired with a ranking system, well-designed series can yield exciting races and good viewing all season long, at all levels of the sport. 

Reluctant Allies: Ironman + Challenge

As owner of the sport’s championship race and dominant footprint, Ironman is long-distance triathlon's premier brand—and its heavyweight. Using pro tennis, golf and surfing as templates, it would, in theory, be easy for Ironman, with the stroke of a pen, to narrow the field of pros eligible to compete in its races, to establish its own proprietary pro classification and ranking system and to create a calendar featuring elite and development race series and titles—carving Challenge out of the pro business all together.

There are two primary reasons that this hasn’t happened to date—one administrative, the other strategic. First, the administrative: triathlon is an Olympic sport. Although long-distance races aren’t part of the world games, the sport’s governing federation, the International Triathlon Union (ITU), has jurisdiction over the accreditation of long-distance pros.

To implement new, exclusive pro qualifying standards, Ironman would need ITU clearance, and it is unlikely that the ITU would sanction an Ironman-specific qualification system—especially one eliminating pros from the field. Though it’s the heavyweight, Ironman can’t act alone.

Then, the strategic: Ironman needs Challenge. Long-distance triathlon is one of the few professional sports in which amateurs (known in the sport as age group athletes) compete side-by-side with pros. Today, age-groupers are the lifeblood of the long-distance triathlon industry. And for them, Ironman is, at its core, a luxury product—on par with apple, Mercedes or Louis Vuitton.

Ironman races are expensive and hard to get into. Finishers' medals confer status. Athletes tattoo Ironman's M-Dot logo on their bodies—just as they do apple’s iconic fruit and Louis Vuitton's instantly-recognizable LV. And just as Louis Vuitton’s business benefits from Coach, Gap and H & M’s fashion and accessories in the market, so Ironman benefits from Challenge's races on the calendar. They are less expensive, easier to get into—feeder-events, complementary to the Ironman experience.

Ironman and Challenge are symbiotic. Together, they expand and grow the universe of age group athletes inspired by and participating in the sport. Ironman can’t afford to take Challenge down. 

Navigate Complexity: Enlist the ITU, Include the PTU

So, how to achieve the objectives of rationalizing, classifying and ranking the long-distance pro field and refining race calendars? In particular, while taking into account one final layer of complexity: Ironman and Challenge are corporate entities. In many major markets this limits their ability to cooperate and collaborate directly on activities that can be perceived as jointly managing their business.

The answer: enlist the ITU—and include the pros.

In late July, a small group of leading long-distance pros announced their intention to form a Professional Triathlon Union (PTU). Although the group got off to a rocky start, they are now seeking to engage a broad base of support within the pro community and to launch formally on January 1, 2016. The concept of a pro union—or a pro advocacy group—is a great one. The pros need a voice, and Ironman, Challenge and the ITU need a pro talking partner.

Assuming the PTU is able to achieve critical mass and to set a clear vision in a timely fashion, all of the players essential to the design of an organized, competitive long-distance pro field are in place. To rationalize, classify and rank the field, the ITU—as honest broker—can bring everyone to the table to construct a system that has buy-in from all parties.

The outcome: Ironman and Challenge will have the raw material they need to fashion competitive race series and seasons for the pros—and to produce attention-grabbing entertainment—for fans and sponsors alike [6]

Prime Currency: Powerful Stories, Well-Told

Today, Ironman and Challenge are event companies. Their product: races. Registrations and host city fees drive revenues. They are courting a finite—albeit global—universe of age group athletes—amateurs who are willing and able to invest the time and money to undertake a consuming, demanding test of endurance—ideally, repeatedly, in far-flung locations all around the globe. 

Armed with a ranked pro field and competitive race series and seasons, Ironman and Challenge become, in addition to event companies, media companies. Their product: stories.

Stories are prime currency in today’s information-driven world. And with effective telling of the pro’s powerful stories—across training sessions and finish lines, race series and seasons—long-distance triathlon can be transformed into a world-class professional sport. 

  • The Lead Characters—The pro field—outstanding male and female athletes from more than 50 countries
  • The Settings—Race courses and training grounds   
  • The Special Effects—Data-rich broadcasts, real-time analysis, performance-boosting technologies
  • The Supporting Cast—Pros’ families, coaches, sponsors and equipment manufacturers. Host city mayors, race directors, announcers, course marshals, referees and volunteers. Retired pros, celebrity athletes, age group athletes, triathlon media, bloggers and fans 
  • The Through Lines + Drama—Friendships, rivalries, injuries, comebacks, coaching controversies, romances, cheating, honor—and race-by-race results and rankings, at the finish

With smart slicing, dicing and packaging of material that includes so much more than just on-course action, long-distance triathlon’s ten-hour live events become the heart of a valuable business. By placing the pro field front-and-center and leveraging a potent combination of race broadcasts, digital tools, new technologies, social media campaigns and innovative partnerships, Ironman and Challenge can attract, engage and entertain a global audience, generating rights deals, sponsorship commitments and multi-million dollar prize purses.

Well-told, pros’ stories will inspire new athletes to jump in the game and veterans to return repeatedly to the course—deepening the pro field, enhancing competition, upping race entries and revenues—expanding and growing the sport worldwide.

How might the storytelling play out? 

NASCAR's Approach: Maximize Near-Term Opportunities, While Investing in Emerging Models

Below is a series of screen shots from NASCAR's iPad app. Using the app, fans can follow their favorite drivers' standings in each of NASCAR’s race series. 

 
 

Throughout the season, they can use driver rankings and data to populate NASCAR fantasy teams. In between races, they can watch NBCSN's mid-week Preview Show, view practice videos and in-car footage and purchase race tickets. And on race day they can listen to and view exclusive in-car audio and video, while monitoring drivers’ stats on the leaderboard and watching the race—on television, at the track or, via subscription, on the app itself.

The app is a powerful tool for NASCAR—and it is closely tied to NASCAR’s website. Together, they enrich the NASCAR race viewing experience, broaden and deepen connections between fans, drivers and teams, amplify sponsor visibility and generate revenue—from sponsors, advertisers, in-app subscriptions, purchases and upgrades.

Perhaps most importantly, with a strong digital presence NASCAR is positioned to navigate and capitalize on the rapid-fire changes in the strategic landscape for sports rights holders today—one which, on the one hand, is producing record-breaking television contracts for rights holders, and, on the other, seeing audiences migrate en masse to digital viewing platforms—mobile, in particular [7].

Although NASCAR was hammered by the recent recession, it has proven to be a particularly canny operator in this environment, seizing the opportunity to lock down a hefty, multi-billion dollar 10-year television deal—in the face of declining TV ratings and race attendance—while, at the same time, investing in robust digital assets [8].

By doing this, NASCAR is priming itself—financially and strategically—for a not-too-distant future in which sports leagues and associations will bypass television partners altogether, broadcasting directly to their audiences online—via mobile platforms, in particular [9]

The NASCAR fundamentals:

  • Maximize near-term rights opportunities, while investing in emerging business models
  • Harness new technologies to tell stories that entertain on every platform in different ways—on race day and off
  • Catalyze conversations and create lively community—with drivers, teams, tracks, fans, broadcast partners, media, celebrities, sponsors and suppliers

The results: 

  • A surge in TV ratings in the second half of 2014, corresponding with a new, more competitive Chase race format
  • A 45% increase in visitors to NASCAR.com from 2013 to 2014, with over a billion page views during the 2014 season
  • More sponsors in the sport than ever before—including a return of sponsors who left during the recession
  • A deal with Hollywood talent agency IMG to manage the sport’s rights distribution
  • Prize purses that average between $5 and $6 million for key races—topping out at $20 million for the Daytona 500 

Craft a Storytelling Strategy: Turn NASCAR’s Playbook on Its Head

The NASCAR playbook is an excellent guide to crafting a storytelling strategy for a pro sports property in today’s dynamic rights holder market.

But if NASCAR is a well-oiled machine, whose established product, audience and brand allow it to strike multi-billion dollar, 10-year deals with traditional broadcast partners—even when business is off—Ironman and Challenge are sexy newcomers: they have a valuable, but untested, product, a passionate, but small, audience and strong, but nascent, brands.

Long-distance triathlon presents potential broadcast partners and sponsors with seductive growth opportunities—it is global, it is competitive, it is participatory, and it features both male and female pro fields—and with real issues—live events are long, they are in every time zone possible. If Ironman and Challenge are to apply NASCAR’s tactics, they will have to turn the NASCAR playbook on its head.

Today, neither Ironman nor Challenge has an app. Their websites are badly designed and poorly organized, when it comes to showcasing and tracking the pro side of the sport. Live race broadcasts, while improving, remain hinky. This all makes sense, given the current state of the pro field and race seasons. There is no product.

Capitalizing on audience migration to digital platforms, investing in and launching well-designed, integrated mobile apps, websites and live race feeds will be imperative, with an organized pro field, race series and seasons in place. Digital HQ’s can serve as the main stage, home base—central, essential foundations from which to invest in, build and own an audience for the sport—and woo global broadcast partners and sponsors

Equipped with nimble digital platforms, Ironman and Challenge can: 

Cater to Super-Users: Every powerful brand—be it a consumer product, a sports team or a movie franchise—has them: super-users, fanatics. They stand in line for two days for the newest product release, commit to season tickets years in advance, attend the midnight screening of the latest series installment—and are all-in for related upgrades, merchandise offerings, future installments.

It is vital to cater to this audience—they foster enthusiasm, provide early and crucial product feedback, bring others into the fold. In long-distance triathlon, these fans exist today. They are the ones who will, in fact, happily watch an entire ten hour race, no matter the time zone or broadcast quality. They know each of the top pros’ strengths, weaknesses and track records.

They are hungry for data, stake bets before races, analyze strategy, tactics and performance—segment-by-segment, Tweet about equipment choices, post to Facebook and online forums about race results. And, they are, like the sport itself, global.

High-quality, data-rich, digital race broadcasts—available in both online and mobile formats—will feed this important audience, no matter what market they are in. 

Entertain, Educate, Engage: Digital platforms open the door to entertain, educate and engage with many fans in lots of different ways—on race day and off. 

In addition to feeding the super-users, high-quality, data-rich, digital race broadcasts will be the basic raw input—grist—to entertain, educate, engage a broader audience. Race footage can be broken down, chopped up, added to, layered on and turned into material that draws fans in, keeps them coming back. 

Digital programming must-haves include: 

  • Pro Photos, Bios, Rankings—Incorporating personal details, social media and sponsor links, historical and in-season performance data, race results and highlights
  • Athlete Tracking and Race Alerts—Prompting fans to tune in—when their favorite athletes are training, racing and moving up in the rankings, when key races and race segments are underway or complete 
  • Enhanced Race Feeds, Race Highlight Reels—Boosted by pros’ real-time, on-board bike footage and race performance data, live mic audio from course marshals and volunteers
  • Post-Race Analysis—Conversations with pros, celebrity and age-group athletes, coaches, sponsors and families—featuring the sport’s leading media and blogging personalities
  • Fantasy Triathlon—Tracking pros' across individual races, race series and seasons—integrated with athlete tracking and race alerts
  • Race Registration—For age group triathletes, highlighting races with pro fields—and preliminary and final pro start lists, for those that do
  • Equipment, Training, Nutrition and Recovery Pointers—With input from gear gurus, pros and their coaches, nutritionists, physical therapists and trainers—in written, video and AMA-style formats
  • Travel Tips for Key Race Locations—Peppered with suggestions for off-course to-dos, for athletes’ friends and families

Catalyze Conversations, Create Community, Online and Off: With the basics in place, there’s limitless room to play. Flourishes can—and should—incorporate new technologies, social media campaigns and innovative partnerships—connecting pros and fans, raising pros' visibility, expanding the sport's presence, catalyzing conversations and creating community, energy and enthusiasm for the sport, its stories and its people—online and off, around the world.  

A handful of prototypes:

  • Where NASCAR fans can listen to and view in-car audio and video, tri fans and athletes can layer their own performance data on top of pros’ Garmin or Stryd files for inspiration and motivation—and to compete with each other, in advance of races. 
  • Contests award trips to the San Diego Low Speed Wind Tunnel, to training camps with pros and their coaches in Australia or Switzerland, to Regional Championship races or to Kona. Prizes are won by posting to Strava against a given goal—such as top workout time, effort or most-improved—during a specific time period.
  • Limited edition Tory Burch tri kits, swimsuits and running gear, designed in collaboration with top pros, are sold from a Tory Sport pop-up shop in Kona—where Tory and her executive team complete the World Championship race.
  • Intel or UnderArmour host annual contests to develop endurance-specific performance technology—judged by a panel of experts comprised, among others, of Ironman, Challenge and ITU executives, pro and age group athletes [10].

Each of these activities is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Periscope-worthy. A full-on, unified effort to raise long-distance triathlon's voice on all social media platforms should be a top priority for all in the industry, including sponsors and programming partners [11]

Gather Data, Partner with Broadcasters and Sponsors: The ultimate goal: create a portfolio of broadcast rights and sponsor agreements that supports and sustains multi-million dollar global race series for elite and development athletes. The process of getting there: iterative.

The digital-driven programs and initiatives described above can be designed to build a fan base for long-distance professional triathlon and to be financially self-sustaining while doing so—through sponsorship, subscriptions, event fees or a combination of all three. Data generated and gathered can be used to fine-tune the programs and to validate the sport’s entertainment appeal.

As audiences expand, Ironman and Challenge will be positioned to weigh competing broadcast right alternatives. To optimize the revenue and cost equation, while creating and solidifying the fan base, they will need to balance a complex matrix of decision-making inputs, strategic tradeoffs and creative deal structures. This balancing act will take place repeatedly, as old contracts expire, new opportunities arise, the landscape shifts—and the sport grows and Ironman and Challenge’s negotiating leverage increases. 

Considerations will include:

  • Audience Size and Reach—Today, television partners, such as ESPN, NBC Sports, FS1 and Eurosport have larger active audiences for live sports than emerging digital players, such as YouTube, Yahoo, Facebook and Tencent, Alibaba and LeTV. That scale will tilt, eventually, given the deep pockets and global reach of the emerging players. 
  • Broadcast Format—Potential partners' appetites will vary—according to their own stage of development, as well as that of the sport—from post-race highlight reels to partial- and full-length live broadcasts. 
  • Broadcast Control and Cost—In rights deals, broadcasters have historically assumed responsibility for broadcast production. The downside: relinquished control of the storyline. Looking to a future when they bypass broadcasters altogether, and recognizing the importance of controlling the storyline, more and more rights owners—including NASCAR, Formula 1 and the World Surf League—are bringing some or all of their production work in-house. The downside: increased broadcast costs.
  • Broadcast Partner Brands—Savvy selection of broadcast partners—and design of broadcast format—will enhance the brand of long-distance professional triathlon, and, by extension the brands of Ironman and Challenge as well.
  • Contract Scope, Exclusivity and Duration—In today's rapidly evolving media environment, there’s value in flexibility for sports rights holders. To achieve flexibility requires give on contract terms and value. 
  • Emerging Business Models—Broadcast partners—especially traditional broadcasters—building their own digital platforms may want to retain—or at the very least share—ownership of audience and sponsor relationships over time. The opportunity: craft win-win partnerships that build the sport's audience and sponsors near-term, and allow broadcasters to continue to participate in those relationships long-term. 

The Payoffs, The Tradeoffs

A ranked pro field, competitive race series and seasons, good storytelling via integrated digital platforms—these are the ingredients that will energize super-users, entertain and engage a global fan base, catalyze conversations, create community, and lock-in global broadcast and sponsor partnerships—turning long-distance triathlon into a world-class professional sport.

The business case for investing in the pro side of long-distance triathlon is irrefutable. Between September 1, 2015 and September 1, 2106, Ironman and Challenge will host over 175 long-distance triathlons in 37 countries [12]. Fewer than half of these will take place in the US and the UK—where the market for triathlon events, equipment and travel was $3.5 Billion in 2014 [13].

Extrapolating conservatively from those figures, it’s reasonable to estimate that the global market for the sport in 2016 will be at least double the US and the UK markets of 2014—or $7 billion. And with Dalian Wanda’s investment in Ironman—and expected focus on China, it’s plausible to anticipate that the global market will expand at least 10% a year for the next five years—so that in 2020, it will exceed $10 billion—without any focus on the pro side of the sport.

Turning the spotlight onto long-distance triathlon, creating an audience for the professional sport, turning it into a viable—and lucrative—career choice, will boost those numbers. Investing in the pro business would expand the market $850 million, were it to grow the market by an incremental 2% a year, from 2016 to 2020, while an incremental 5% impact would yield $2 billion, over that same five year period, and 10% would yield over $4 billion. These numbers should make everyone in the industry sit up and take notice. 

There is a convincing qualitative case for pro investment, as well. With its global footprint, long-distance triathlon brings hundreds of thousands of individuals together to compete and to play all over the world in ways that few other sports do. Training attention on the pro sport—and the ever-growing list of countries represented in the pro field—inspiring others to participate at all levels, to cross borders, to join in conversations, in community and in races—will, as Nelson Mandela said of sport, “unite people in a way that little else does.” 

At the same time, it would be naive to ignore the potential downsides of commercializing the sport. Money comes at a cost. In sport, its most obvious cost is cheating and doping. When there’s more on the line, athletes are willing to put more at stake to win. Ideally, a sport-wide commitment to a hard line against doping—potentially with penalties and sanctions that are tougher than those required by the World Anti-Doping Agency—will be an outcome of ITU-led conversations designing the pro qualification and ranking system, positioning the sport at the front of the anti-doping pack. 

This Saturday, at 6:25 a.m., Jan Frodeno, Daniela Ryf, 93 other pro and 2,200 age group triathletes will toe the line of Kailua Bay in Kona, Hawaii. Less than ten hours later, the 2015 male and female Ironman World Champions will be crowned, winning $120,000 each, with the victory. During the course of that race on Saturday, and in the hours and hours of individual and collective training and racing leading up to it, valuable, inspiring stories unfold—stories of hard work, competition, heartbreak, perseverance and victory. Is race length really an insurmountable obstacle to growing long-distance triathlon’s fan base, to turning it into a world-class professional sport, by today’s standards? It doesn’t need to be.  

In March 2016, I published a follow-up to this article. It is here.


Notes:

[1] In 2015, Ironman will award $5.1 million to pros competing in over 100 Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races. Purses range from $15,000 at smaller Ironman 70.3 events, to $250,000 for the Ironman 70.3 Championship in August and $650,000 at Kona. More details here.

While Ironman competitor Challenge does not report its total annual pro prize purse, it’s safe to estimate that awards paid by Challenge in 2015 will total well-shy of $1.5 million. In July, Challenge awarded a €75,000 purse at Roth, its top race of the season. Over the course of the rest of the year it hands out awards ranging from €15,000 to €50,000 at more than 25 half- and full-distance races worldwide. Details here.

Finally, a three-race, 70.3 distance series, sponsored by the Crown Prince of Bahrain may pay out $1,000,000 to Daniela Ryf, who has won the first two races in the series, if she wins one more race later this year in Bahrain. More details here.

[2] Four recent contract renewals that have incorporated meaningful upgrades for rights holders:

  • In October 2014, the NBA signed a nine-year, $24 billion broadcast agreement with ABC, ESPN and TNT. At $2.67 billion a year, its annual value is nearly three times that of the agreement it replaces. Revenues are split roughly 50/50 between team owners and players.
  • In February 2015, England's Premier League auctioned the UK television rights to its games for the period 2016 to 2019. The winning bids from Sky and BT totaled £5.1 billion—a 71% increase over the expiring contracts.
  • In May, ESPN inked an eleven year, $825 million deal with the US Tennis Association for exclusive US broadcast rights to the US Open, outbidding CBS—who had held the rights for 45 years—to win the contract.
  • Over the last fifteen years, the International Olympic Committee's rights revenues have increased 85%. In June, the organization signed a record-setting $1.44 billion agreement with Eurosport, granting exclusive European TV and digital broadcast rights to the Olympics from 2018 to 2022.

There are myriad cases similar to these four. Two primary factors set the tone: first, strong television ratings and advertising revenues for live sports. According to Kantar media, in the US, advertising revenues from live sports broadcasts on network TV are up 35% over the last five years. They totaled $8.5 billion at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, during the 2014-2015 viewing season, representing 37% of total ad revenues and up from $6.3 billion during the 2010-2011 season.

And second: incumbent network and cable broadcasters are seeking to lock in deals and lock out emerging online media players—including YouTube, Yahoo, Facebook, Amazon, and Hulu and, from China, Youku Tudou, Tencent, Alibaba and LeTV, among others.

[3] In 2008, Providence Equity Partners purchased Ironman’s parent, World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), from owner James P. Gills. All though deal terms were not publicly disclosed, Providence reportedly paid in the range of $50 to $80 million in the transaction.

In 2014, WTC issued $240 million in debt, using most of the proceeds to pay a dividend to Providence, and in late August this year, Providence announced that it had reached an agreement to sell WTC to Chinese real estate, media and entertainment firm Dalian Wanda for $650 million, plus assumption of debt, valuing WTC at about $900 million. The deal is expected to close by year-end.

[4] Qualifying for a long-distance pro card is straight-forward enough that there is a meaningful universe of athletes who compete as pros only because it is cheaper to do so, not because they will ever lay down a race-winning performance. These athletes would be considered elite amateurs in other sports.

There is another group of pros who are similar to the new, development pros in other disciplines. They are committed to making a living as pros, they are learning the ropes, delivering solid results, and occasionally popping up as top five or top eight pro finishers—two or three years away from regular podium contention.

And there are the top—or elite—pros. They make their living as long-distance triathletes. Consistently placing as top three or top five finalists—even in the toughest of races—they are backed by blue-chip sponsors. Their names are easily recognized by those who follow the sport.

Of today’s more than 1,000 pro triathletes, roughly 400 to 500 fall into the elite amateur category. Another 100 to 150 at most fall into the elite pro group, leaving 350 to 500 in the middle development category.

[5] In short-course triathlon, pros compete in a nine-race series, held from March to September each year, in cities around the globe. The pros are ranked following each event, and end-of-season standings are used to award a bonus pool of $755,000 to the top 35 male and female pros. Winners receive $80,000 each. 2015 rankings are here and bonus distribution is here. While there is no development field in short-course triathlon, there is an Under 23 race series.

Ironman uses a points-based ranking system to allocate pro slots at Kona. The system is complicated, the rankings are specific to Kona qualification, and few people outside the pro universe know about or pay much attention to them. Further, there’s no real incentive for pros to reach for top placement in the rankings. In fact, many seek to race just often enough to amass the points required to secure a spot at Kona, and not so often that they’ll be over-raced when they get there.

Challenge, TRS Triathlon and USA Triathlon—triathlon's governing federation in the United States—publish money lists, ranking pros based on cumulative winnings throughout the season. USAT's is the most comprehensive and user-friendly of the three. It includes five years’ of historical data and is searchable by year, gender, short-course and long-distance races. Money lists, however, often fail to reflect athletes relative performance during a season accurately. They can be skewed by differences in prize purses between races and by number of races completed, which is why other sports—including short-course triathlon—use points systems, instead, to rank pros.

[6] There are numerous organizational and structural considerations to be negotiated and finessed in the design process, and there are lots of ways responsibility for the long-distance pro field could be allocated and race seasons could flow, as a result.

One simple outcome could look like this: the ITU issues pro licenses and administers pro classification and ranking. The development side of the pro field is handled by Challenge, the elite side, by Ironman. The development World Championship is hosted at Roth—Challenge’s biggest race of the year, held in Germany, each July. Title winners receive slots to race with the elite field at the World Championship—hosted by Ironman at Kona, in October.

Another: Ironman and Challenge form a joint venture that assumes all responsibility for the pro side of the sport, including pro classification and ranking, race hosting and broadcasting. Pro race series play out at a mix of Ironman and Challenge events throughout the year—perhaps as described in the paragraph above. Broadcast rights and sponsor revenues accrue to the JV and are distributed according to predetermined formulas to Ironman, Challenge and the PTU, with part remaining in the JV to organize and promote the sport.

[7] In the United States, smartphone app engagement has surpassed desktop engagement, according to comScore. An average of 30 to 50% of major digital properties’ audience—including google, YouTube, Yahoo and Facebook—is mobile-only. In 2014, according to Mary Meeker of venture firm KPCB, there were 5.2 billion mobile phone users world-wide, 40% of whom were on smartphones. Global mobile data traffic was up 69% year-over-year—and 55% of total mobile data traffic was devoted to watching videos, while Benedict Evans of Andreessen Horowitz predicts that more than 75% of the world population will have internet access by 2018, and by 2020, over 4 Billion people will have smartphones.

[8] In August 2013, with television ratings down 47% and track attendance down 42%, NASCAR signed a 10-year, $8.2 billion rights contract with Fox Sports 1 and NBC. The deal, which runs through 2024, represented a 46% increase in annual fees over its expiring agreement with Fox, ESPN and TNT.

Eighteen months earlier, in January 2012, with two years remaining on contract, NASCAR repurchased the rights to NASCAR.com from Turner Broadcasting, bringing its digital product development—including both its website and mobile apps—in-house. At the time of the repurchase, NASCAR.com was receiving just 6.5 million unique visitors a month. NASCAR redesigned and relaunched the site in January 2013, and during the 2014 race season it had over one billion page views. The mobile app was downloaded 4.5 million times.

[9] For more on the future of television over the next twenty years see Netflix Founder and CEO Reed Hastings’ May 2015 presentation at the re:publica Conference in Berlin, and, on the future of sports broadcasting specifically, see WWP Founder and CEO Sir Martin Sorrell’s August 2015 address to the International Olympic Committee in Kuala Lumpur.

[10] For the last two years, Formula 1, Tata Communications and Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 Team have collaborated on the F1 Connectivity Innovation Prize. The first contest yielded entries from teams of technologists from around the world and was won by a British team. Winners of the second competition will be announced October 6, 2015.

[11] On Twitter, NASCAR has 2.1 million followers. By comparison, Ironman has 191,000 followers and Challenge has 14,000. NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson has 1.1 million followers. Jan Frodeno has 27,400, and Daniela Ryf has 8,400. Relative figures across other sports and other social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, are similar.

For long-distance triathlon, these shortfalls represent a significant opportunity. Today, money is being left on the table. Concentrated efforts by Ironman and Challenge to amplify their social media presence and to actively promote the pros—and vice versa—will yield rich dividends for all. The sport’s sponsors and ancillary players—media, bloggers, coaches, retired pros, host cities—can be engaged to participate in, help with and benefit from the efforts.

[12] Of these, 125 will feature pro fields and prize purses.


This article is also published on Medium. Its seeds were sown in April this year, when I participated briefly in a conversation about Ironman’s strategic direction on the Slowtwitch forum. My initial post in that conversation is here. My thinking on many of the strategic issues that I raised in that post has evolved, as I’ve written this article, thanks in part to the feedback I received there, as well as to developments in the triathlon, media and advertising industries since that time. I consulted with a number of independent triathlon industry players right after participating in that conversation—no one from Ironman, Challenge, the ITU or the PTU.

The focus there was Ironman, whereas here, I’ve attempted to remain balanced between Ironman and Challenge. I believe the sport and the industry is healthier, more interesting and dynamic—and will grow faster—with both companies in the mix. It’s undeniable, however, that Ironman has the upper hand—and that Challenge has made a number of potentially self-destructive missteps during the past year. Further, their franchise-driven business model may simply be too tough to sustain.

The upside: if Challenge goes away and Ironman is left running the show, it should be easier to accomplish the initiatives I’ve described and suggested here. If Challenge does go away, it’s likely that someone else will see an opportunity to jump in to fill their role as global upstart in the industry. It is possible that this could be Virgin Sport, which would potentially be a positive development: it seems unlikely that they would be interested in the pro side of the business—and likely that they would do a great job organizing and hosting accessible age-group races—of all distances.

Also—there is a whole set of topics I’ve left out here, by necessity—especially on the question of organizing the pro side of the sport, where issues such as teams and profit sharing could affect pro rankings and race series, seasons and prize purses. I personally hope that triathlon remains an individual sport. I think the introduction of teams would drastically change the sport’s dynamic—and raise the pressure to cheat and to dope, considerably. One need only to look to cycling. If the pro sport does take on greater importance, I think profit sharing is a must-have—and I hope the PTU has the clout, creativity and muscle to work with Ironman, Challenge and the ITU to structure a fair arrangement. 

Even without a streamlined, classified and ranked pro field, many of the digital tools and partnerships I've mentioned here can be used today to enhance long-distance triathlon's visibility and appeal to fans and sponsors. But 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.