Can Ironman's biggest international competitor finally find footing in the United States?
This weekend, Challenge makes its return to the U.S. with a “middle distance” (ie. half-iron distance) race in Daytona, Florida, and an accompanying series of events—a sprint tri, an aquathlon, duathlon, 10K, and 5K runs. It marks the first time the brand has returned to U.S. soil since its break-up with Rev3 in 2015. And for one of Ironman’s biggest competitors, there’s just one question: Will it work this time?
“All eyes are on us,” said Challenge CEO Zibi Szlufcik. “We must be excellent.” But he believes this time around will be different because the structure of the race is different. In the past, Challenge operated in the U.S. via licensee models and partnerships. This time, Szlufcik said, they’re fully involved in the operation of the event. “Now it is the real Challenge experience,” he said.
Challenge, best known for its famous iron-distance event in Roth, Germany, is the second biggest triathlon brand after Ironman. It runs around 40 races all over the world and is well-known in Europe and Asia. The race in Roth attracts nearly 6,000 athletes, and the event in Taiwan gets over 4,000, according to Szlufcik.
Yet, the company has never found its footing in the U.S.
The Challenge Family operates its events in a number of ways: Some are owned and managed by the company directly, some are licensed to local race directors who pay a fee for the name and basic institutional support, and some are set up as partnerships with equity ownership. When Challenge first came into the U.S. it ran a licensing model, with local American race directors running a handful of events under the Challenge name.
Then in late 2014, Rev3 and Challenge announced a North American merger. Seven months later, the partnership fell apart.
“It was not the best match,” said Szlufcik.
According to Eric Opdyke, president of Rev3, when the two merged it was an opportunity to really compete against Ironman—maybe the best opportunity anyone had in North America. Rev3 operated a string of popular medium-sized American events and Challenge had its international prestige. The plan, he said, was for him to oversee the existing Challenge licensee races in North and South America, for Rev3 to give up its name “for the sake of the greater good” and to re-brand as Challenge, and to then use the lure of Roth to create a championships topping off a series of Challenge events.
“It didn’t work because we weren’t able to cohesively bring these races together,” said Opdyke.
There were disputes and arguments over who was to blame. Rev3 felt it couldn’t lose any more of the money it was pouring into the project and Challenge felt things weren’t up to their standards. By the end of 2015, the partnership was over and Rev3 went back to operating its own half-distance races (though with the increasing market pressures medium-sized events have felt across the country).
Since then, Rev3 sold its biggest assets to Ironman—Quassy, Williamsburg, and Maine. “If Ironman stays in that market, it’s next to impossible to compete against them,” said Opdyke. Their Maine event had around 800 athletes originally, but when they licensed the Ironman brand name it jumped to 2,300 athletes, without anything else changing about the race.
It’s that Ironman brand name recognition that’s hard to overcome, particularly in the U.S. While non-Ironman brands, namely Challenge, have been successful in Europe and Asia, they haven’t found as much success in North America. “That’s the $1 million question,” said Opdyke.
But if Challenge can succeed in Daytona, it’ll be to the benefit of amateur and professional triathletes.
“Competition is generally a good thing,” said pro Dylan McNeice, who races countless Challenge events and has won the popular Challenge Wanaka race in his home country three times. Ironman races, he said, are consistent and well-run—you know what you’re getting. But the Challenge races have more of “a local vibe.” Plus, for the pros, there are a few more perks: prize money that runs deeper, a mid-tier points series for up-and-coming pros, homestays, and meals at some races.
“I would hate to think where we’d be for pros if Challenge didn’t keep Ironman in check,” he said.
He’ll be racing in Daytona and hoping everything goes as well as possible. “If they put on a really good show, it gives them a chance to get a foothold,” said McNeice.
Szlufcik is betting the Daytona track will be the draw Challenge needs to make its triumphant return to the U.S. For over two years, the company was approached with proposals from potential licensees but Szlufcik said no. The Daytona deal is a partnership between the Daytona International Speedway, a local licensee and race director, and Challenge, so everyone has “skin in the game,” said Szlufcik. “We must be excellent or nothing,” he said.
The race will all be held at the famous track—swimming at a man-made lake in the middle, circling the raceway before heading down the beach, and finishing with a run inside the stadium. “Everyone in the world knows about the Daytona 500,” said Chip Wile, president of the speedway.
Both Wile and Szlufcik think the venue will be a draw, along with the family element. So far about 1,400 people have signed up across all the events, with closer to 2,000 expected by the weekend.
If it works, then Challenge will slowly roll out more American races from there, but they’ll be “much more conservative and selective,” said Szlufcik.
And if it doesn’t work, then the U.S. will continue to be a largely one-brand show—for now.