Triathlon’s crazy growth has slowed down. As a result, the industry is looking at ways to reach new demographics (see Women for Tri board, USAT’s expanded Splash and Dash series) and shake up the multisport scene (see Escape Triathlon Series, Super League Triathlon, swimrun races, Pro Triathlon Union).
Among those initiatives is USA Triathlon’s focus on growing the youth demographic in 2017 and beyond using a multi-pronged approach that USAT CEO Rob Urbach laid out in January. The organization is specifically looking at targeting kids around the middle school years, Urbach says, because of evidence of a significant drop in youth sports participation at that age. “The statistics that we see is that there’s a 75 percent drop [in sports participation] from kids going from middle school to high school,” Urbach says. “Most of those kids are quitting [sports altogether]—they’re playing rec league basketball, and they can’t make their high school team, right? So if the team is going to carry 12, 14 kids, and maybe 100 kids might have played basketball in middle school and elementary school,” then they’re not all going to make it. Similarly, with swimming for example, kids realize that 99.9 percent of them have no shot at the Olympics, and the bulk of them aren’t going to swim at a high-level, D1 school “because a million kids are swimming,” he says.
That’s where triathlon comes in. USA Triathlon is hoping to reroute many of those kids—preferably before they give up on sports and start leading a “relatively sedentary lifestyle”—by getting them involved in multisport and triathlon. “We are an ultra, uber-inclusive sport in so many different ways,” Urbach says. “Think about other sports—the beginning tennis player can’t play with the advanced tennis player. The newbie on a basketball court is not going to make the high school team. … You don’t have the culture where, if a kid can’t wait to play on his football team and he doesn’t get any playing time or realize that he’s not going to make the NFL or do much high school football, he can still be part of a triathlon program and be valued differently as part of that team dynamic.”
Topping the list of USAT’s plans is accelerating its high school program—last year, it awarded 20 grants (up to $1,000 each) to high schools to help them start triathlon programs, and this year it’ll be 75 grants. Those high schools also receive “triathlon in a box,” so to speak—a ready-to-go program with best practices, training programs and educational resources. (USAT will also be offering the triathlon in a box to summer camps to implement this year and expose more kids to triathlon.)
Last year was also the first of the USAT High School National Championship, and Urbach says the plan is to have each of the 50 states, including Alaska, establishing its own high school state championship over the next three years. It will do so by reaching out to the race directors of already established local sprint races, and asking them to have a high school wave. “For these kids to be designated high school champions is a pretty powerful thing because they’ll have their own race [within the race], and then, so race directors will have more registration and they’ll be able to compete against other high school kids, which we think is sort of more exciting,” Urbach says, as compared to just winning the 16–19 age group at a local race.
In addition to setting up high schools to accommodate more triathletes, USAT has a pilot program within middle school P.E. classes that exposes students to triathlon through a module (a focused one- or two-week block in which students learn the ins and outs of a specific sport, e.g., ultimate Frisbee, soccer or badminton). The middle-school program provides both education and resources, such as external learn-to-swim clinics at the local YMCA, led by local USAT coaches.
In addition to the YMCA, USA Triathlon is partnering with other community-based youth programs, such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Girls & Boys Clubs and Girls on the Run to gain more exposure with the youth demographic. It’ll also be marketing to youth swimmers by partnering with local swim teams.
From a race perspective for 2017, USAT has also enhanced its Splash and Dash Youth Aquathlon Series—it now has 50 races in all 10 regions. Aimed at kids ages 7-15, the series is a great entry to the multisport world, as it doesn’t have the same equipment requirements (no bike!).
On the local level, USAT will be leveraging its already established infrastructure of 40 high-performance youth teams around the country to generate recreational involvement in triathlon in those communities. While those teams and teams are generally focused on recruiting the fastest young triathletes and getting into the Olympic “pipeline,” USAT will be adding what’s referred to in other sports as the “rec” or “house league.” “It’s kind of like Real Madrid soccer club has 16 different levels of youth programs under the Real Madrid brand—from the beginning players to the junior team trying to make it as pros,” explains Urbach. “So it’s kind of the same concept,” of adding to the “bottom of the pyramid,” so to speak.
Race directors are also seeing the opportunity for growth within the youth market—race organizer Ethos recently announced a permanent U23 pricing initiative going forward for its events, including the Boston Tri and Lobsterman Tri. In an attempt to reduce the cost barrier to participation for young athletes, the entry fees will be reduced by 50 percent off the final registration price for U23 athletes competing as individuals.
USA Triathlon hopes that its initiatives will not only drive short-term growth in the sport, but Urbach hopes it will also drive long-term growth. “Many people do leave and then come back … Career, family, our sport takes a little more time than others,” he says, “and we believe that a lot of these kids may do something else but they’ll come back.
“We think we’re in the right place at the right time,” Urbach says. “We believe this initiative could transform the process of USA Triathlon not just in the next couple of years with a lot more kids coming in, but imagine what that does for the whole industry.”