Ironman may hold the market share and power, but why not broaden your mindset (and race calendar)?
Monday’s Wall Street Journal article, “Ironman or Iron-Distance? A Triathlon Branding Battle Brews” raises a topic often discussed around the Triathlete magazine offices: How does Ironman continue to sell out races in minutes while dozens of other race organizers offering the same distance struggle just to fill slots?
It seems like a press release arrives every other day about Ironman adding another 70.3 in [fill in the country]—it’s gotten to the point of ridiculousness that in our upcoming August issue we joked that you can practically hear Oprah shouting “And YOU get an Ironman!” while flinging M-dots across the world. (Just this morning, in fact, new Ironman 70.3 Dublin!)
According to the most recent USA Triathlon data, yes, our sport as a whole is still growing—based off USAT memberships, around 5 percent every year—but the number of sanctioned events has tripled in the last seven years, a rate that makes it hard for smaller-budget races to stay afloat. Especially considering they’re going up against a brand whose followers not only plaster the backs of their cars with M-dot stickers, but who actually tattoo the company’s logo onto their bodies.
The WSJ article explained Ironman’s dominance compared to other events, including Germany-based Challenge Family, whose flagship race Challenge Roth sold out its 4000 entries in around three minutes for this year. WTC was either threatened enough by the competition—or Roth’s clout didn’t carry over—and recently bought out some of Challenge’s events, including Challenge Cairns (now Ironman Cairns) and Challenge Copenhagen (now Ironman Copenhagen).
Ironman’s proven track record allows WTC to show community decision makers the amount of participants—and therefore anticipated income—they can bring in wherever they go. (It’s worth mentioning the exception of the takeover of Challenge Penticton from Ironman Canada last year, which has become a complicated story, detailed well by Dan Empfield at Slowtwitch here.)
Where Does the Power Come From?
Yes, Ironman has Kona, and therefore the upper hand. There is no denying the mystique of the Big Island. Top age groupers will do whatever it takes to chase a slot; back-of-the-packers who will never reach the start line still dream of what it would be like to run down Ali’i Drive. Kona attracts the best athletes, which attracts media, which attracts sponsors … or some version of that circle… and history keeps repeating itself.
Plus, unlike “marathon,” the generic term for 26.2 miles, Ironman is the default name for 140.6 miles and a proprietary title for branded races. It’s definitely clunky to try and tell your friends, “I’m doing the Great Floridian…it’s an ‘iron-distance’ race…you know, 140.6 miles…like an Ironman but not an Ironman…” And a lot of people place a hefty significance on both bragging rights and hearing their name called by Mike Reilly.
In a recent Competitor Radio interview, WTC CEO Andrew Messick said, “We’re pretty serious about the professionalization of our races and I think our athletes and customers are going to increasingly expect it and demand it. I think there’s a great opportunity for races around the world; I don’t feel nearly as optimistic about the guy who starts a race in his hometown and doesn’t sweat the details the way we do. I worry that there will be less tolerance over time for that.”
Ironman is the Starbucks: They provide a high level of quality and experience you’ve come to expect, and when it comes to racing for that many hours, it’s a good feeling to know what you’re getting yourself into. I love my afternoon Venti Iced Coffee just like I love the Ironman experiences I’ve had (and will continue to have). But why not try the local roaster to get something new, unique and potentially more rich/rewarding?
Exercise Your Options
With the inaugural Challenge Atlantic City approaching June 29, I’m eager to hear how first-time Challenge racers find their experience, and to see how the race series does in North America going forward. As Challenge CEO Felix Walchshöfer acknowledged in the WSJ article, he doesn’t expect to go head-to-head with Ironman; he wants to “give triathletes another choice.”
And that’s the beauty of racing triathlon—you have options. Remember your first race? It was likely a small, local event where you kept things simple and fell in love with the sport. I’d encourage you to keep a variety in your race calendar: plug in a couple local races to support the little guy, put together a Challenge relay team and vacation in an exotic locale together, be intrepid enough to try a non-WTC half- or full-distance race, and you can still shoot for that 70.3 or Ironman PR on your favorite course.
It might take a certain level of confidence to do a non-Ironman race, especially considering it can get a little lonely if you only have a couple hundred other competitors out there. But, as I discovered at Challenge Penticton last year, outside of having a lot more space on the bike course, it’s also empowering to know you’re there because you just want to go up against the miles and try something with a different vibe. And to know everyone around you is there for the same reasons.
Do a race where you don’t care about your PR or age group placement, but where you’re there to conquer a new challenge that could be rewarding for a myriad of individual reasons. Need some suggestions? Some of my favorites: Rev3 Quassy, Wildflower or Savageman for halfs with relentlessly demanding terrain; Escape From Alcatraz, American Triple-T or the Cannes International Triathlon for unique distances on tough but scenic courses; Leadman Tri Bend or the Santa Barbara Triathlon for the gorgeous backdrops as much as the post-race dining and beer and wine options; Challenge Roth for a bucket-list race of epic proportions; Norseman or Celtman Xtreme Triathlons if you’re absolutely crazy. (I also have plenty of Ironman and 70.3 recommendations where those came from.)