Triathlon: Unions, Money, Excitement and the Valuation of a Professional Triathlete

In this I hope to address the idea of a union or player’s association for professional triathletes, where money comes from, and why professional triathletes present little value to potential sponsors.

Lack of Money and Television Coverage:
Why is there ‘no’ money or a lack of money in triathlon? It is a lack of excitement. The main stream public maybe consider triathlon to be a sport in the way they consider running to be a sport, that is ‘an activity.’ Lets propose TV coverage of long course triathlon. What do we show? Mass start? That is pretty exciting. Unfortunately at almost every race we have wave starts simply because of logistics and course safety. Not very exciting. Do you want to watch a bunch of 50+yo women go off into the water and then coming up? Probably not.

Unfortunately until there is consistent television coverage the sport will remain more of a hobby or event. This holds true for pros. Name another sport in which a professional athlete must hold down a full-time or at minimum part time job? Especially one that has no relation to the sport. I have friends that do competition shooting. Sounds pretty cool to run around a course and shoot at targets. I would love to do that, but the money is not there.

Where does money come from? Sponsors? Participants? Not really. It comes from advertisers. Why sponsor a single athlete or 3 athletes when you can sponsor the NYC Marathon and know that every time it is mentioned it is referred to as the ING NYC Marathon or for Nascar the Sprint Cup (formerly Nextel Cup)?

Now lets look at advertisers, while an event may have a sponsor name with it, advertisers are going to show up during the commercial breaks and create a distraction from the event.

Advertisers want eyes and ears, they could care less if there are 50 people or 5000 people participating if there are 500,000 watching. So how do you create a draw? Excitement. I am not a fan of Nascar but it is a great example. In Nascar many people claim to watch because they are waiting for the next crash. Sponsors exist in Nascar because of television. Television creates an outlet from advertisers to place logos on sponsored athletes.

Did you know that Tony Stewart was sponsored by Burger King? I did, I watch television. Did you know Chris Lieto was sponsored by Purple Patch? I did not and I follow more of what Chris does vs Tony. Heck I do not even know what Purple Patch is.

Let us return to the subject of excitement. Kona this year Crowie won by nearly 2min, 3rd place was almost another 2min behind 2nd. What is exciting about that? What was exciting about a 10m pace line on the bike? What is exciting about long course triathlon? Nothing? Maybe a mass start swim start? Its great your family cheered you on at the race, but did they care about anyone else? Or even really pay attention? Probably not.

Let us look at the NYC Marathon compared to the Western States 100. The WS100 is a much ‘greater’ accomplishment. However what is exciting about individuals running by themselves for the most part? Nothing unless they fall?

As a professional athlete unless you can create buzz and get the media excited (the media gets excited when they think someone is willing to watch / read them), you really present little to no value to your sponsors.

How many people can name who won Kona in 2001? Who can name who won the 2004 Olympics? Now who remembers the Superbowl Shuffle? How many NFL players from 20 years ago can you name? How many professional triathletes from 15 years ago without the help of Google. Even Nascar has development that can start very early by racing go-karts.

Now let us take on the union. Let us compare USAT to the NFL.
NFL Player Association:
TEAM sport
Athletic development from a young age
Fight to throw money to acquire talent
Common goal among team members
Receive benefits from players association, retirement, health, representation
Little international appeal
-Kids grow up playing football.
-Players and teams become icons, both in and out of the sport
-Your father, uncle, grandfather, older brother, mother were fans of the TEAM.

1000s of races
Television coverage? 90min of Kona
Athletic development?
Common goal for athletes?
USAT cares more about official sponsor of cycling shoe insoles
BIG international appeal
Large turnover of winning athletes
Where do old athletes go (Where in the world is Peter Reid)?
Did anyone dream of racing for 8hrs a few times a year for a living for little pay.

What does a union accomplish? What are your common goals as athletes? Nothing? As an individual sport, athletes must address root ‘issues’ within the sport. Let us look at TBB or the Hungarian national team. While the individual athletes are out there to win, they often do not compete against one another and in common training they can push each other to excel. From a sponsor’s perspective, sponsoring a team of athletes makes more sense than individual that compete against one another.

How do we address these issues?
First we must reform the sport to create excitement. How do we create excitement to enough buzz for event to be picked up by television in hopes of attracting advertisers? There are many ways to do this. One big way is to take ITU?Dextro/LTF series to impressive venues. Use Euro Disney and race through the park. Go to Central & South America and race near ruins (for background effect). Washington DC was a great venue but with poor planning on the American market. Go to national parks and race, go to out of the way places in Russia and make the events seem more fantastical. You do not need spectators or large amounts of them. If you want spectators go to large cities in Asia and make the courses multi-loop.

Lets move on to IM and the 70.3 races. Mind you I says races and not series, because they are individual races that have absolutely NO bearing or relevance to other races. With 40 races for 70.3, the excitement dwindles because no one cares about your 40 year old self racing a $15,000 bike. You care about yourself, but no one else does. Get over yourself. People care about professional athletes, they care about excitement and dreams.

The 70.3 races MUST become point based. Whatever the point designation becomes should NOT allow athletes to make it to a World Championship race because they showed up to some backwater race in nowheresvilles Kansas or Malaysia and simply finished. 70.3 is still a short enough distance where there can be a 10month ‘season’ that leads up to a World Championship. Lessen the prize purse at qualifying races but greatly increase the amount at the Championship. So that there is a true monetary incentive to qualify to race.

People like underdogs and teams. A team is an institution or can become a dynasty. Look at the Boston Red Sox, like any team they have plenty of fair weather fans. But they also have die hard fans that have been fans for decades hoping, dreaming, praying and pulling for their TEAM to one day make it. The individual players come and go, but the team endures. Triathlon has an incredibly high turnover of athletes. They may linger in the pro ranks for 10 years, but they have only shined for a 1-2years, look at Macca. He is quickly fading and trying to work with Under Armour in their development of new products.

What does a union accomplish and what potential areas can/should you as a professional athlete bargain for? More money? Why do you deserve it? Where is it going to come from? Look at SAG (Screen Actors Guild), it was created in help create safer environments for actors to work in and eventually allowed them to break free of being ‘owned’ by individual studios that dictated their lives. What do you have to fight for? How do you have it bad? A union will not bring excitement. In my mind I can not figure out what a union will/can accomplish.

Somehow triathlon could become team based, not relay, not BS pay me $150 to get a uniform and then discounts. I am not truly sure how team based triathlon could work. But with such a high turnover of athletes in the sport and those that can/do win, fans have nothing to root for. The team also gives ‘older’ athletes something to develop into as they age. Look at cycling, team managers, coaches, are in many cases for pro-cyclists.

As it stands now each athlete is out for themselves, to feed themselves and feed their familes. Why should Matt Reed help you out, when he is worried that in a year he could break his leg, be out of the sport for a year and never truly come back. What will he have to show for the years he spent racing? How many washed up pros are out there?

Race often. People want to know what is going to happen this coming weekend or next weekend. This leads back to a point series.

Responsibility to Sponsors and Potential Sponsors:
What are you doing for them? Since receiving money or product what have you done to give them business? You can talk fancy about brand awareness and mind share. In the end that is BS for someone who is actually not performing well. No one cares until a sale is made or a dollar changes hands.

What did you do last month for them? Last week? Yesterday? Today? Anything? Did you cut and run after receiving something. When you started you were worth nothing to a sponsor, you won a local sprint? Great $5. Winning more races awesome, $100. Should you be worth more? Probably not, outside of winning races what are you doing to bring attention to yourself? Without putting yourself out there on a consistent basis you are unable to create value. You must first prove what you can do both in and out of races, so that when you approach a company you can say here is what I do, here is how I can help you.

What are you doing to build your own brand? How are you as an athlete increasing your value? Are you taking public speaking courses because you stutter or have a problem in front of groups? Are you taking business classes? Have you talked to an account? Lawyer? Agent? Financial Professional? about your plans. Have you sought advice from legitimate sources outside of the industry? Or even in the industry? Are you posting worthwhile information on forums? Are you helpful or do you tear into people. Are you whiteneing your teeth? Are you making yourself a preentable looking show piece for a company? An object or trophy for them to show off? You should be. What else can you give them?

How did you spend your earnings? Its fine to spend them on food/rent, did you really need to shave another 10grams off the bike? or buy that new laptop? Could the money have been better spent?

Hopefully someone out there will take some of this advice to heart.

Disclaimer: I am not a professional athlete or coach. I am a countless age-grouper who is not even that fast, but what I can do is demonstrate specific ROI to sponsors that have invested in me. I can also demonstrate specific value. I work full-time in marketing and I am a single father. So I also raise my daughter.