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Can a non-Ironman-branded, non-World Triathlon Corporation-owned triathlon become a viable world championship event?
This article was originally published in the May/June 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
From my perspective, our sport is building momentum to the point where an alternative to the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, will see success.
It’s getting harder and harder to call triathlon a “fringe” sport with the exposure it’s getting these days. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta is spearheading a triathlon fitness challenge for the third year in a row, four-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington is now a contributing writer for CNN, Kelly Ripa mentions the sport in her national morning show, and I’ve lost count of how many non-athlete grad student nerds have informed me that Lance is now a professional triathlete.
We’re in the mainstream.
Meanwhile, participation numbers are increasing with staying power. Active.com recently reported that “96 percent of current triathletes indicate they plan on participating in another triathlon.”
Is there supply for this increasing demand? WTC continues to expand its Ironman series, with four new races in 2012 and no new cancellations. (Ironman China was cancelled in 2011 and remains off the calendar.) Even after some races had their age group allocations reduced, new races mean that more Kona slots will be sold in 2012 than ever before.
Does this impact the quality of the Kona age grouper experience? Maybe, maybe not. The race itself has been a soul-crusher for decades now, and an extra hundred or so athletes won’t change that. What is more likely to change, as more athletes enter iron-distance racing, is demand for a marquee experience.
Meanwhile, conditions are ripe on the pro side of the sport for a Kona defection, because the WTC has not adjusted its physically demanding and potentially dangerous pro qualification standards. In the September/October 2011 edition of this column I discussed the Kona Pro Rankings system and its possible effects on pro health, including injury from over-racing. This year, the WTC is extending Kona qualification across all three of its championship events—Kona, the Ironman World Championship 70.3, and the 5150 World Championship—to the winners of each. And while this adds intrigue to the sport by pitting the best racers from each distance together, it doesn’t alleviate the over-racing complaint levied by many pros, because these series winners must still “validate” their Kona qualification by finishing a second Ironman—no small task when an Ironman is 140.6 miles of grueling racing. Craig Alexander won both the 70.3 and Ironman World Championships in 2011. So, per the new rule, he has twice qualified for Kona this year. But he still has to complete a full-distance Ironman event prior to Kona in order to race, even if he’s sick or injured, which he was in 2011 when he validated his Kona spot at Ironman Coeur d’ Alene.
Admittedly, the sharing of champions across WTC brands affects only a very few athletes. It seems more a symbol and a marketing tool than anything else. But things haven’t improved for up-and-coming athletes, either. Their primary complaint is that prize money breakdowns have changed for the worse. For example, where WTC’s $50,000 races paid eight deep per gender in 2011, with $8,500 to the winners, they pay six deep in 2012 with $10,000 to the winners, making it more difficult for young pros to finance their careers, thus eventually diluting the pool of racers and hurting the sport. With close to 500 professionals vying for Kona points, and 28 total Ironman races, it’s easy to argue that this top-heavy change is bad for athlete development. (It also stands in poor contrast to the ITU’s prize money allocation for its Olympic-distance World Triathlon Series, which has increased from $150,000 to $170,000 per race for 2012 and is now paying 20 athletes per gender, up from 15.)
If we have indeed reached a tipping point in which enough athletes—age groupers and pros alike—want an iron-distance alternative to Kona, what would that alternative have to look like?
To have at least the same draw as Kona, it would need to have a standout location, event legitimacy and a well-chosen date. To have more draw than Kona, it would need the first two factors plus a better prize purse. More family-friendly amenities might also be in order—the “addictivity”-touting Active.com report also revealed that 43 percent of athletes travel to races with their families.
Challenge Roth is the best current contender. The course location is stunning, it has a 10-year history, it typically sells out at 3,100 slots, and it boasts a mystique similar to that of Kona—as it is the place where top athletes such as Wellington and Andreas Raelert go to crush world records. Furthermore, starting in 2013 the Challenge Family will be leveraging the popularity of Roth: Challenge Wanaka in New Zealand will offer winners of each age group Roth entries and homestays (something WTC doesn’t even do for its pros).
Challenge Roth’s early July date is well-positioned for travel and training schedules and doesn’t conflict with other premier events. Right now all that’s missing at Roth is the better prize purse—Roth offers 73,500 Euros, or about $100,000. Kona now pays out $650,000. Both races, incidentally, pay 10 deep.
If Challenge Roth were to put up a million-dollar prize purse paid out to the top 20 or 30 athletes, call it a championship, and hold the race on the same day as Kona, athletes would go—even, I think, the big-name professionals who’ve been such a fixture at Kona. Such an event could only be good for the sport.