October 8, 2007

Triathlons: In it for long run

 

By Pete Williams

Correspondent

 

When 1,800 athletes enter Kailua Bay for the 30th annual Ironman World Championship on Oct. 13, they will represent not only the elite of the triathlon world but also perhaps the most desirable demographic in sports.

With a disproportionate share of entrepreneurs, executives, physicians and attorneys, and a willingness to spend thousands of dollars annually on entry fees, travel and top-of-the-line equipment and training, the group that travels to the Big Island town of Kailua-Kona is only the most visible portion of the sport’s explosion in recent years

According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, more than 1 million people competed in either a traditional or an off-road triathlon in 2006, and more than a third of them raced in 10 or more events. Membership in USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, has grown from 19,000 in 1999 to more than 100,000 as of September. Thirty-one percent of USA Triathlon members fall in the desirable 30-to-39 age group, with 35 percent female, up from 11 percent in the early ’90s.

The 60,000 subscribers of Triathlete magazine have a median income of $122,600, according to co-owner Mitch Thrower, with 93.4 percent earning more than $100,000. Average income among athletes competing in the 22 official Ironman events: nearly $160,000.

“No participatory sport in the country comes close to this demographic,” said Murphy Reinschreiber, an agent for a dozen pro triathletes.

“Yachting and equestrian might exceed us by a few dollars.”

This is a sport where even modest bicycles cost $1,000, and $4,000 bikes are common. Entry fees for Ironman events, which are mostly nonrefundable, average $425. Since the races sell out nearly a year in advance, some athletes enter five, even though their schedules and training will allow for just one or two.

“The sport attracts high-income, driven, focused individuals who are able and willing to pay the price in time and money,” said David Samson, the Florida Marlins president who completed the Hawaii Ironman last year.

Pro triathlete Heather Gollnick has watched amateurs fly in on private jets for her one-day coaching clinics in Bradenton, Fla. That’s not an unusual story in a challenging, time-consuming sport viewed by well-heeled businesspeople as another outlet for their type-A personalities.

“To some degree, people can buy their way into being competitive,” said Melanie Valerio, a U.S. gold medalist swimmer at the 1996 Olympics who recently began coaching triathletes and competing in the sport herself. “They spend a fortune on bikes and then hire coaches to help them develop the capacity to fully appreciate them.”

The triathlon boom has been fueled by athletes looking for a sport that’s less taxing on the knees than avid running and yet offers more challenge than completing a marathon. It appeals to both the extreme sports crowd and holdovers from the ’70s running boom.

The introduction of triathlon as an Olympic sport in 2000 has helped. So, too, has mention in TV plots such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Bachelor,” where Andy Baldwin’s passion for the sport was a recurring theme, to the point where the chiseled U.S. naval officer subjected his female suitors to a mini-triathlon. (Baldwin, 30, plans to compete in Kona.)

Though “Bachelor” contestants struggled with the sport, women are triathlon’s fastest-growing segment, which is no surprise to Dawna Stone, a Hawaii Ironman finisher who late in 2005 won NBC’s “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.” After a year working for Stewart in New York, Stone returned to St. Petersburg, Fla., and her two-year-old magazine, Her Sports + Fitness. Unlike now-defunct publications such as SI for Women and Women’s Sports and Fitness, Stone’s startup has thrived, focusing on triathlon.

“For women, it’s no longer about quick-fix, starvation diets and losing 10 pounds,” said Stone, whose publication sponsors amateur female triathletes. “It’s about getting off the couch and competing, even if it’s just a women’s-only sprint triathlon.”

The growth of the entry-level sprint-distance triathlon might be most responsible for the triathlon boom. With as little as a quarter-mile swim, a 10-mile bike ride, and a three-mile run, the “sprint tri” requires as little as 12 weeks of training, less for experienced swimmers. Women-only events and off-road races requiring mountain bikes also have expanded the sport.

Then there’s the appeal of rank-and-file “age group” triathletes competing alongside pros, at least until the pros dash into the water in the first designated wave.

“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, publisher of Competitor magazine, a group of regional endurance publications. “What other sport can offer that?”

 

‘We’re not anyone’s core sport’

Yet for all the talk about triathlon’s wealthy demographic, attracting sponsors and fan interest hasn’t been a slam dunk. Officials from World Triathlon Corp., the private Florida-based owner of Ironman, project sales of licensed Ironman products, including races, at $500 million for 2007, but do not reveal their cut of the pie.

Ironman has had a rotating cast of sponsors over the last decade — current partners include Ford, Gatorade and Timex -— and though NBC for years has aired Emmy Award-winning, Ironman-produced coverage of the world championship in Kona, the event is not broadcast until weeks later.

About two dozen U.S.-based pro triathletes earn a modest living by pro sports standards, generating between $300,000 and $500,000 annually between prize winnings, endorsements, appearances and coaching. Sponsor income might be greater if triathletes were viewed as elite-level in one sport as opposed to very good in three.

“Bike companies want Tour de France guys, and shoe and swim sponsors want Olympians,” Reinschreiber said. “We’re not anyone’s core sport, and that’s a limiting factor.”

Though it would seem the money in the sport is to be made from the participants, not from spectators, that’s not necessarily the case. Timex has produced Ironman-branded watches for more than two decades, even though just a fraction of them are sold to triathletes. Foster Grant sells the bulk of its Ironman-branded sunglasses at retailers such as Wal-Mart and Sports Authority for between $20 and $45. Brand manager Sal Siano points out that were Foster Grant to produce a line with the features triathletes would want, they’d run $100.

“In the mass markets, it’s more of an aspirational thing,” Siano said. “People want to be associated with triathlon and Ironman, even if they have no intention of ever doing one.”

In other instances, appealing directly to the triathlon demographic helps manufacturers justify prices. Erin DeMarines launched the 3Bar energy bar last year, and wondered how the product, priced between $2.29 and $2.69, might fare against cheaper, more-established bars such as Clif Bar, itself a sponsor of triathletes.

With packaging featuring a swimmer, runner, and cyclist, DeMarines found her marketing didn’t just appeal to triathletes. “People figured that if the bar could meet the energy needs of triathletes, it definitely could benefit them,” she said.

The triathlon crowd helped Tanita Corp. in 2005 launch its Innerscan Body Composition Monitor, which looks like a scale but also gives readouts on body fat percentage, bone density and other variables. Some company officials wondered how they’d market a $129 product that most people would view as a simple scale. Becoming an Ironman-licensed product helped shift the demographic.

“We knew Sam’s Club and Bed, Bath and Beyond weren’t going to carry it,” said Beth Mackey, marketing director for Tanita. “But triathletes got it, especially once they saw it in bike shops and Sports Authority.”

The only thing keeping triathlon from greater visibility, industry experts say, is more television exposure and high-profile athletes. Ironman events often seem like beach volleyball tournaments, with massive sponsor inflatables, pulsing music, overcaffeinated announcers and modest crowds. But triathlon does not have a Karch Kiraly, a Misty May or even a Gabrielle Reece, whose celebrity status helped draw interest to the women’s beach circuit in the mid-’90s.

Like professional tennis, pro triathlon has shifted from an American-dominated sport to one ruled by foreigners. It was hoped that Lance Armstrong might return to his triathlon roots after completing last year’s New York Marathon — he was a promising pro triathlete as a teenager — but he’s expressed no interest.

“This may never be a huge spectator sport, but if I’m a retailer, I’m after this crowd,” said Dan Empfield, the founder of Quintana Roo bicycles who now runs www.slowtwitch.com, a popular triathlon training site. “Runners date their sport, but triathletes are married to it. There’s so much more to buy.”

Nobody was thinking sponsorship and marketing three decades ago when Ironman was created.

 

Humble start, defining moment

Triathlon dates to a 1920s event in France, but did not emerge in this country until a group of athletes began training together in San Diego in 1974, leading to the first Mission Bay Triathlon, which attracted 46 competitors.

The first Ironman race was born from a beer-fueled debate about which athletes were fittest: swimmers, cyclists or runners. U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Collins proposed a Hawaii event that combined three races: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 miles), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (112 miles) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles).

Collins suggested the winner be called the “Ironman” and 15 men participated in the initial event Feb. 18, 1978, in Honolulu. A dozen athletes completed the race, led by a 27-year-old taxi driver who finished in 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds.

Collins lost $25 on the event and agreed to hold it again in 1979. Half of the 30-person field dropped out after weather postponed the race. That might have been the end of Ironman if not for Barry McDermott, a Sports Illustrated writer in Hawaii covering a golf tournament who stumbled onto the triathlon. SI ran McDermott’s 10-page story, which portrayed a ragtag bunch of fitness enthusiasts pushing themselves beyond physical limits.

Before Collins could capitalize on the surge of interest, he was transferred to the mainland. He delivered a box of leftover trophies, entry forms and a rulebook to Valerie Silk, then 30, who with her soon-to-be ex-husband owned a Nautilus health club that served as an initial Ironman sponsor.

Silk paid a graphic artist $75 to design the M-dot logo. In 1981, she rebranded the race the Nautilus International Triathlon to howls of protest, before bringing back Ironman for 1982, along with a sponsor: Bud Light.

Anheuser-Busch paid $15,000 for presenting sponsorship and ABC returned for a third year at $5,000 to broadcast the event on “Wide World of Sports.” Young ABC executive Robert Iger supported the event, though during the ’82 race his on-site producer summoned Silk to the ABC trailer to protest Anheuser-Busch’s camera crews and a lack of compelling footage.

Silk was enduring a tantrum when college student Julie Moss began her epic struggle to reach the finish line. With legs giving way, Moss staggered and crawled to the finish line, prompting broadcaster Jim McKay to call it the most inspiring sports moment he had ever witnessed.

“People used to say, ‘ABC should be giving you a lot more money,’” said Silk, who no longer is involved with the sport. “I let them have it practically for free just to be on TV.”

Moss’ moment of worldwide fame gave Silk the leverage to land a new three-year deal with ABC averaging $100,000 annually. Gatorade came on board as a sponsor and Silk struck a licensing deal with Timex.

Never much of a sports fan, she viewed Ironman as a huge community party with her the host. Instead, she spent much of her time dealing with trademark issues. Marvel Comics owned a little-used character named Iron Man. Mistral, a windsurfing company, had a similar M-dot logo. Those disputes were resolved when Silk agreed to include the word “triathlon” whenever Ironman or the logo was used.

By 1989, she had grown weary of managing the event. After turning down one potential buyer, she sold Ironman for $3 million to a group headed by James Gills, a Tampa-area ophthalmologist and triathlete who from the time he purchased Ironman to today ranks as perhaps the wealthiest person in sports that nobody has ever heard of.

 

The triathlon tycoon

 

Gills does not have a Wikipedia entry, but he’s hardly lacking in exposure. The 72-year-old ophthalmologist claims to have performed more cataract and lens implant surgeries than anyone else in the world and his face is on billboards and in newspaper ads throughout the Tampa Bay area touting his massive eye surgery practice.

When Gills bought Ironman and created World Triathlon Corp., he already had completed three Ironman races, along with several excruciating double-Ironman distance events.

The St. Petersburg Times estimated his net worth at the time in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It has grown significantly since then, and not just because of Ironman. Gills made another fortune in real estate, buying up thousands of acres just north of Tampa in the early 1980s to create a planned community in Pasco County, now the fastest-growing county in Florida.

Most people assume that World Triathlon Corp. headquarters is in Hawaii, where it has an office, but it’s actually in Tarpon Springs, west of Tampa.

World Triathlon Corp. is tucked away in a modest suite of offices on the second floor of St. Luke’s Cataract & Laser Institute, Gills’ sprawling eye center. There’s no giant M-dot logo to mark the entrance, just a few framed Ironman articles and religious essays. Gills, a devout Christian, has written 27 self-published Christian books and distributes them to more than 2,000 jails and prisons.

Those that do business with World Triathlon liken the organization to NASCAR, and not just because Gills’ son — partner ophthalmologist, Ironman triathlete and company board member Pit Gills — bears a striking resemblance to Jeff Gordon.

Just as NASCAR forces nonlicensees to use “stock car racing,” World Triathlon Corp. aggressively enforces the Ironman marks. Two years ago, the company announced the creation of Global Tri Group Inc., a rule-making body that many in the industry saw as an attempt to compete with USA Triathlon, which certifies races, implements rules and provides insurance to race directors. World Triathlon Corp. instead opted to stick with USA Triathlon guidelines.

“They’re in it for the business,” said USAT communications manager Jason Mucher. “We’re about growing the sport at the grassroots level. We’ve clashed a bit in the past, but we each recognize the other’s role in the sport.”

Like NASCAR, World Triathlon is always expanding its stable of new events and cities — Ironman Louisville debuted in August, becoming the 22nd event. In 2004, the company created Iron Girl, an all-women’s brand that this year held 11 events: three triathlons and eight road races.

Last year, Ironman branded a series of 26 half-ironman races “Ironman 70.3,” a mileage reference that, while less than the 140.6-mile Ironman events, is a more attainable goal for many athletes. Some longstanding half-marathons became Ironman licensees and saw entries soar once the familiar 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, marketing director for Ironman. “When you finish a 70.3 event, everyone can quantify just what you’ve done.”

Indeed, the bragging-rights factor might be the sport’s ultimate draw. Many people can claim to have visited Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil or Japan, but how many can say they’ve completed an Ironman triathlon there?

Triathlon has jump-started interest in related events, especially duathlon, the run-bike-run races that attract triathletes in the winter, and nonswimmers year-round. One of the more popular tours is the “Muddy Buddy,” a two-person relay event involving mountain biking, running and mud pits.

New triathlons are sprouting up everywhere. There’s even a clothing-optional event. In August, the inaugural Bare Hare Sprint Triathlon attracted 30 athletes to the Bar-S Ranch, a 400-acre nudist club in Reidsville, N.C..

Sue Butts, the aptly named co-director of the event, said she failed to land sponsors, in part because the race wasn’t announced until May. She notes that she still attracted a field twice the size of the inaugural Hawaii Ironman and has received feelers from sponsors for 2008.

“We believe it’s an event that the right sponsor could really do a lot with,” she said.

 

© Copyright 2007 Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal

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