What The New York Times got wrong—and right—about our sport.
It’s always exciting when the mainstream media covers our sport, especially when triathlon makes it into a paper as big as The New York Times. It’s also always a little entertaining to see what they get right….and wrong. By now, you’ve probably read The New York Times’ story on triathlon participation decline and the industry’s efforts to now attract more (and younger) athletes by eliminating barriers and making the sport cheaper.
In general, yes, the story got the broad strokes right: We know triathlon participation declined over the last five or six years after a period of massive growth in the 2000s. We also know there were a number of reasons for this, some having to do with market shifts and some, yes, having to do with a perception of triathlon as too hard and too expensive. The sport, in general, as outlined in the NYT, is now trying to change that perception and attract more diverse and younger athletes.
But, USA Triathlon CEO Rocky Harris, said the one big thing they missed: It’s already happening. Triathlon participation is already starting to go back up. “We’re now seeing that trend change,” said Harris.
So, in general, yes, the mainstream media got our triathlon basics right. However, we do have a few triathlete-y specifics (and one big one) we’d like to nitpick.
“A road bike, the type used by most racers, generally costs at least $500, with many priced at over $1,000.”
For a story about how expensive triathlon is, the paper seems to have undersold how expensive it is really. While you can certainly races (and race well) on a bike that costs $500 or less, it’s fair to say there are many triathletes on bikes that cost over 10 times that.
Here, I think, there may have been a simple semantics misunderstanding. In most bike industry data the category “road bike” refers to a wide variety of bikes including gravel bikes, time trial bikes, and, well, road bikes. Yet, $500 still seems low. Even according to the most recent monthly data from Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, 18,296 bikes were sold in the “road bike” category at a wholesale value of $25,159,034—which comes out to $1,375 per bike. And that’s not even the retail price.
Now there are all kinds of caveats and addendum on this number, and it doesn’t even focus on just time trial bikes, so we just asked the BRAIN guys: What’s the average retail price for a time trial bike? They said about $3,400.
That’s quite a bit higher than $500.
“The average entry fee, $90, has held fairly steady for several years…but some registration fees can exceed $300.”
One of the other big costs that seems to have been underestimated is exactly how much races charge. I can’t think of the last time I paid less than $90 for a triathlon, but I can definitely name the last time I paid over $300. For the average price of all races to work out to $90, then for every $700 Ironman entry, there’d have to be seven races that cost zero dollars. That’s just math. So how did they even get this number?
It turns out it comes from a report based on RunSignup data. That means it only includes races that use the RunSignup platform for registration. I.e. it doesn’t include any race that use another registration platform, like Active.com—which means it excludes all Ironman brand races.
What is the average price of registration? Hard to say exactly. USA Triathlon says it ranges for sprints from $70-90 and for Olympic distance races from $90-110. The last Triathlon Business International report on race revenue from, which used data from Active.com, found race fees had increased in 2015 to $183.07 on average. That was four years ago, and I don’t think prices have dropped $90 since then…
Where is Ironman?
This brings us to the elephant not mentioned in the room. The New York Times published an entire article about the decline of participation in triathlon and industry efforts to reverse this trend without using the word Ironman one single time. The company was never mentioned, as if it simply isn’t the biggest race company in the sport with its own Women for Tri effort.
We asked Ironman for participation numbers, but haven’t heard back yet. However, because Ironman results are fairly public and data nerds can consolidate and analyze those numbers, they often do. Russ Cox crunched the Ironman participation numbers a year ago and found, going by Kona qualification years, a slowing and leveling off of participation around 2016 (though not much of a decrease since then). When you look at per race participation numbers, to account for a growth due to the addition and acquisition of new races, you see more of a drop since 2013/14, but again a leveling off in the last year.
This correlates with some of what we learned from the Ironman IPO filing (also not mentioned in The New York Times’ story): fairly level revenue over the last three years. And what Gary Roethenbaugh, founder of MultiSport Research, has found as well. His data shows that:
- For Ironman 70.3 the number of events shifted down, from 31 in 2017 to 29 in 2018.
- However, the Ironman 70.3 distance has witnessed a steady rise in average event participation. 2017 saw an average of 2,030 athletes racing Ironman 70.3. This rose to 2,230 in 2018.
- Helping to stabilize participation, full distance Ironman events also saw an increase in average participants, from 2,360 in 2017 to 2,510 in 2018.
- Data from both Ironman and USAT points to a slower rate of decline in 2018 – with around 400,000 individuals overall racing triathlon in the USA last year.
- Early indications on the market in 2019, however, point to participation numbers stabilizing.
“Membership in USA Triathlon grew from 21,341 in 2001 to 174,787 in 2013, then declined to 130,470 by the start of this year.”
OK, so this is the big question and one we thought would be fairly easy to answer: Is triathlon paricipation still declining or has the trend started to turn around?
It turns out it’s actually a lot harder to answer this question than you’d think and our reporter brethren at the Times now have our sympathies. (Though the same RunSignup report they used earlier to gauge the average price of triathlon entries refutes their own arguments, as it has the number of triathlon participants on the RunSignup platform rising from 34,166 in 2015 to 101,927 in 2018.)
Though you can look at any given race and see rises or falls, the challenge is aggregating all that on a national level. USA Triathlon is in the process of overhauling its data systems on the backend, so that it can get a more accurate count, but that means it’s hard for them to say right now how many people are triathletes. We do know USAT membership peaked around 174,787 in 2013 and we know by 2015 that was down to about 161,298. But USAT CEO Harris said the organization has now seen over 5% year-over-year growth in total participation from last year to this year, and eight of the last nine months have shown year-over-year growth in annual memberships—which is the longest sustained period of growth since 2012.
Why is it so hard to figure out how many triathletes there are? Well, because it depends on how you count. That RunSignup survey only used race data from the RunSignup platform. Active.com has run similar reports in the past using just race data from its platform. And then there are larger general sports and fitness reports like those run by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), which survey a segment of the population and then extrapolate based on a complicated algorithm, kind of like how polling works.
And for what it’s worth, SFIA says triathlon peaked at nearly 2.5 million participants (defined as having done at least one triathlon) in 2015, but has leveled off around 2.1 million people the last two years. The organization also says over 1.5 million people additionally did an off-road triathlon in 2018. Roethenbaugh states, however, that he believes these numbers are misleading, likely referring to the number of people who have ever done a triathlon (on or off-road) rather than an annual total. According to his research, the number of people who toe the start line at a triathlon annually is closer to 450-500,000.
The New York Times took the time to showcase how movers and shakers in our sport are welcoming newbies and keeping it fresh, and for that, we are grateful. But that message got lost in a headline and opener of doom and gloom, and some facts that lacked nuance and proper sourcing. Yes, participation is down from its peak, but is not in free fall; we’ve been seeing signs of a leveling out and recent gains that signal a more positive future than that story credited.