November 10 , 2007

Swimming, biking, running and flying under radar

 

By Pete Williams

 

CLEARWATER, Fla., Nov. 8 — When 1,500 elite-level triathletes compete in the second annual Ironman 70.3 world championship here Saturday, they will be greeted mostly with ambivalence by residents of the Tampa Bay area.

Like pro beach volleyball and off-season tennis exhibitions, triathlons draw only modest crowds of spectators. But officials of World Triathlon Corporation, which owns the Ironman brand and created the 70.3 championship as a shorter, mainland version of the 30-year-old Ironman championship in Hawaii, say that is missing the point.

At the participatory level, the sport is booming. More than one million people will compete in a United States triathlon this year, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, mostly in shorter sprint triathlons consisting of as little as a quarter-mile swim, a 10-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile (5-kilometer) run.

Few athletes can commit the time to train for a full Ironman-distance event, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. Unlike newcomers to running, who can complete a marathon with a committed four-month training program, most novice triathletes need years to work up to an Ironman, which requires about 30 hours of weekly training.

Before the 2006 triathlon season, W.T.C. branded a series of 26 half-ironman races “Ironman 70.3,” a reference to the total mileage in a half-Ironman that, while less than the 140.6-mile Ironman events, is a more attainable goal for most athletes. Some longstanding half-Ironmans became W.T.C. licensees and saw entries soar once the familiar M-dot logo was attached.

“The term half-marathon didn’t do justice to the amount of effort it takes to train for one of these races,” said Bill Potts, the marketing director for Ironman. “When you finish a 70.3 event, everyone can quantify just what you’ve done.”

Top finishers in this year’s Ironman 70.3 series received automatic bids to Saturday’s race. Though most will finish well behind the few dozen pros in the field, the championship offers the rare opportunity for weekend warrior age groupers to compete alongside the elite.

That, W.T.C. officials hope, is what will boost interest in the 70.3 series and perhaps generate more fan interest and news media coverage of triathlon.

“I can’t pitch to Barry Bonds or tee off with Tiger Woods, but I can be on the starting line with the top people in triathlon,” said Bob Babbitt, the publisher of Competitor magazine, a group of regional endurance publications. “What other sport can offer that?”

The M-dot logo, designed for just $75 in 1980, is easily recognizable. But at the pro level, triathlon remains mostly under the radar. NBC’s coverage of Saturday’s event will not air until March. Athletes will compete for a piece of a modest $100,000 purse, which mirrors sponsor opportunities that pale in comparison with those offered to pros in other sports.

“Bike companies want Tour de France guys, and shoe and swim sponsors want Olympians,” says Murphy Reinschreiber, an agent who represents several pro triathletes. “We’re not anyone’s core sport, and that’s a limiting factor.”

Race directors generate income from thousands of entrants paying $200 for a 70.3 event. Providing pros complimentary entries and a $100,000 purse does not produce a direct return.

“Every race sells out quickly with age groupers, which is great, but it puts the pros in the backseat,” says Richie Cunningham, 34, a pro from Australia. “They figure they don’t need the pros to promote the races.”

The Hawaii Ironman started in 1978 and is known for its punishing heat during the bike and run courses through the lava fields of Kona. The 70.3 world championship begins with a swim in the Gulf of Mexico off Clearwater Beach, followed by bike and run routes along the flat terrain of Pinellas County.

That requires much cooperation from local officials, who agreed to hold the event and handle traffic for five years in part because W.T.C. has had its headquarters in nearby Tarpon Springs since 1989, when James Gills, a local eye surgeon and real estate developer, bought the Ironman brand from the former race director, Valerie Silk, for $3 million.

W.T.C. officials say Ironman-licensed products, including Timex watches, Foster Grant sunglasses and the races themselves, will account for $500 million in sales this year, although W.T.C. does not reveal its royalty rate.

The 70.3 field is an affluent group, with an average annual income of $161,000. Race volunteers Thursday morning were applying the finishing touches to the gated transition area that will hold competitors’ bicycles, many in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.

A modest crowd of 8,000 is expected. Only a few reporters turned out for a morning news conference Thursday.

“The sport is still only 30 years old,” said Craig Alexander, 34, the top male pro on the 70.3 tour, who sometimes wonders why he does not see himself on ESPN highlights. “With this sport growing in popularity among amateurs, eventually we’ll break into the mainstream consciousness.”

 

© Copyright 2007 The New York Times

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