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The trend reflects the changing role of age-groupers in triathlon.
In recent years, prize purses for professional triathletes have been significantly reduced—the HyVee triathlon, once a 1.1 million dollar event, is no more; the Life Time Tri series cut the majority of its professional prize purse; Ironman has redistributed its prize money and eliminated pro races at several events.
But that doesn’t mean prize purses have disappeared altogether. Instead, more and more races are offering cash winnings to amateur age-group athletes in hopes of attracting a large competitive field. Entrants in 2016 Toughman events, for example, will compete for their share of $30,000 in cash and prizes in a series of qualifying races culminating at the Toughman National Championship in September.
“We support age groupers and have done so since we started Toughman 10 years ago,” says Race Director Richard Izzo. “We would rather put the money into supporting the age groupers.”
Iowa’s Pigman Triathlon also offers cash prizes for athletes in hopes of attracting a competitive age-group field to the race, says Race Director John Snitko: “We offer prize money because we want to get good racers to our event each year. Most of the time a good field will attract other racers to an event.”
It’s a strategy that works on William “Biff” Capune, an age-group athlete from New York City. “I do seek out races with good award prizes,” says Capune. “I’ve probably won a few thousand dollars’ worth of prizes over the years.”
But Capune recognizes he’s in the red, even when he’s on the top of the podium: “I know I’ve spent 10 times that amount on race entries and race travel, so it’s not a good investment. But we all seem to like the race swag, even though the finisher’s shirt is probably worth only $15 and we spent $280 to enter the race, we still wear it with pride.”
For race directors, an age-group prize purse seems a small investment when faced with the possibility of customer loyalty from athletes like Capune. Given that the age-group athlete pool makes up these races’ main consumer, it might make sense to lure this crowd with monetary awards.
But Does It Work?
Do age-group prize purses actually attract a larger group of athletes? Though some races, including Pigman, swear their prize purse is a selling point for athletes, others have seen lukewarm results. In 2014, the Rev3 triathlon series announced age-group prize purses for several of its events, only to pull it for future seasons.
“We discontinued offering prize money for age groupers for the 2016 season,” says Rev3 founder Charlie Patten. “The idea was to attract top age groupers to come and race with us. What we found is that it didn’t drastically change age-group participation at our events.”
However, Patten did say offering prize money for a series of races, as Toughman is doing, seemed to be an attraction for athletes. Rev3 is considering an age-group series in the near future.
The Rise of the “Professional Age Grouper”
Some argue that an age-group prize purse is an oxymoron—the very nature of professional racing is that they do it to win money, while age groupers do it for hobby. But Izzo says the trend of amateur prize purses cater to an emerging trend of athletes: the “professional age grouper.”
“There are actually three distinct groups in triathlon: Pros, age groupers and a hybrid of triathlete that is ‘pro age grouper,’” explains Izzo, who describes the last group as talented amateur athletes who take training and racing as seriously as any professional athlete.
Patten has seen an increase in this demographic as well: “We have found a large number of age groupers actually race as a profession, or to further their professional goals, like coaching.”
One such athlete is Sonja Wieck of Greenwood Village, Colo. As a competitive age-group athlete, Wieck spends up to 30 hours per week training and travels often for races and training camps.
“I absolutely go where the competition is,” says Wieck. “When I race I really like to race the best of the best in the amateur ranks because I love being in the mix and going head to head!”
Izzo argues age-group prize purses are a necessity to create such strong age-group fields: “This is where our Toughman series comes in. We can support this niche. And we encourage these athletes to come and race.”
Bridging The Gap Between Amateur and Pro
Though professional athletes certainly lament the loss of opportunities to collect a paycheck at the races, don’t assume they’re bitter about the increase in age-group prize purses.
“I think the problem there has previously been in the sport is that there is not enough help for elite age group athletes turning pro and there is a huge void between them and the 100 or so pros actually making a living,” says Rich Allen, Executive Director of the Professional Triathlon Union. “This leaves perhaps a thousand pros in No-Man’s Land, struggling to survive.”
Age-group prize purses can give promising athletes resources to develop their talents at the amateur level. Allen says creating an infrastructure to nurture these athletes can help to eventually create “real professionals making a decent living.”
The Changing Face of Triathlon
Though the majority of triathlon events still award age-group winners with things like free entries and decorative trinkets, cash prizes are certainly indicative of how amateur triathlon has changed over the years. With the absence of pro competitions at certain Ironman races, age-group athletes like Wieck can now win Ironman events, a notion that would have been unheard of five years ago when every race featured a professional field. Many brands sponsor amateur triathletes—some even eschew pro sponsorship altogether in favor of age-groupers.
Every Man Jack is an example of one such brand. The line of men’s grooming products sponsors a team of high-performing amateur triathletes instead of professionals.
“While a pro triathlete would likely have a larger reach, elite amateurs are also great influencers within the sport and within their communities,” says Ritch Viola, founder of Every Man Jack. By using a team made of their brand’s target audience—active males—Every Man Jack has a nationwide crew of ambassadors both on and off the race course. With a smile, Viola adds: “Have you ever been to Whole Foods Market and not run into a triathlete?”
As triathlon continues to grow and evolve, so too will strategies to capture the attention of age-group athletes. Though it’s unlikely amateur prize purses will ever eclipse those of the professional fields, that Toughman’s $30K purse even exists speaks volumes about changes taking place within the sport.