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Conviction: Tough Love For Xterra

The only triathlon subset that isn’t following this upward trajectory is Xterra, the global off-road triathlon series.

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This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

Almost any way you look at it, triathlon is growing. There are more races and more athletes. Prize purses are getting bigger. Draft-legal triathlon has sprint and team world championships in addition to Olympic distance. Short-course non-drafting has multiple series, notably Life Time Fitness and 5i50. The Challenge and Rev3 series are becoming viable alternatives to World Triathlon Corporation’s Ironman machine.

The only triathlon subset that isn’t following this upward trajectory is Xterra, the global off-road triathlon series.

Why is that? Xterra takes athletes on unparalleled adventures. Through mud, between trees, over rocks—it’s a completely exhilarating alternative to its occasionally monotonous asphalt-bound counterpart. So what is it about Xterra that has hindered growth?

I love Xterra racing—and it’s with this love that I’ve attempted to pinpoint reasons for its lackluster performance, in the hopes of helping it grow.

Those at Xterra’s helm are quick to identify its endemic growth barriers. It’s hard to find swimmable bodies of water close to good mountain-biking trails. It’s hard to accommodate hundreds, much less thousands, of racers on Xterra courses. And it’s harder to ride a mountain bike than a road bike, making the sport less accessible to the average neophyte.

These inherent barriers all have merit. But they are neither insurmountable (not every Xterra bike course needs to be UCI cross-country worthy) nor completely exclusive to Xterra. Cyclo-cross, for example, is a skill-intensive sport that is USA Cycling’s most rapidly growing sector. Muddy Buddy is another example of a race series that incorporates off-road cycling and is hugely successful.

Nor, more importantly, do these barriers explain the subtle decline in participation in Xterra USA’s triathlon series.

Outside the U.S., Xterra race organizers are doing something right. Exposure is high and races are growing. Xterra South Africa sells out at close to 1,300 athletes and has expanded into a multi-race series. The stories in Brazil and Europe are similar.

Numbers at the Xterra World Championship in Maui have held steady in the upper 400s over the past few years, likewise the U.S. National Championships in Ogden, Utah, have remained in the upper 200s. But Xterra USA’s “points series” races, where amateur racers can qualify for the U.S. championships, are shrinking.

Take for example Xterra Forest Drive in Aberdeen, S.D. It’s a point-series race with a clean and accessible body of water and a challenging and meticulously groomed mountain bike and trail run course. It also has a spectator-friendly layout with nearly a dozen opportunities to view racers from a single vantage point, a supportive and athlete-friendly town and devoted volunteers.

In 2010, Forest Drive ranked second in the entire Xterra series in participant satisfaction. Yet after entries dropped from 140 in 2010 to less than 40 in 2011, Xterra Forest Drive race organizer Craig Harrison says he’s unlikely put on the triathlon again in 2012.

How does a worthy event disappear? In this case, geography and economics are logical suspects. A second points race in South Dakota was added to the Xterra calendar in 2011, luring racers from neighboring states who’d made the trip to Aberdeen the year before. The down economy also likely hurt—Harrison says that all multisport races in his area are smaller by around 20 percent.

Sadly, Xterra Forest Drive is no outlier. Xterra Portland, with its established athletic community, has also seen a decline in entrants by 50 percent in its three-year history.

So it’s not just geography that’s plaguing Xterra USA’s point series. Furthermore, the economic argument is unlikely, as road triathlons as a whole have seen steady growth in the past few years despite the slow economy.

Looking past external factors, it seems that variables within Xterra’s control are at play.

Its biggest problem is one of marketing and exposure. To be blunt, Xterra’s social media presence is lacking. Other race series are tweeting, posting live updates, streaming races in real time. Meanwhile, it’s impossible for even a seasoned peer-to-peer Internet user to find Xterra results until hours after the race is over, much less live updates or streaming.

Instead Xterra has focused a lot of its media efforts on TV broadcasts of its championships. Yet that’s an inefficient use of resources—TV viewership is on the decline.

That Xterra seems relatively complacent about attracting new triathletes is only exacerbated by its sometimes-baffling scheduling decisions. For example, at the 2011 Xterra Richmond, one of six regional championships, Sport (sprint-distance) racers started a mere 25 minutes before the championship event. Sport is designed for newer racers. They traversed the same course, but with fewer laps. Richmond is one of the most technical mountain bike courses on the circuit. Unsurprisingly, the fields quite literally collided along the mountain bike course.

Xterra cannot afford to scare new racers away. In Harrison’s words, “once you’re hooked, you’re hooked,” but if your first experience is a bad one you’re unlikely to come back.

Indeed, that more than 2,000 paying customers return to Kona year after year to have their dreams, souls and bodies crushed by Ironman is proof that our definition of multisport fun is subjective—and subject to good marketing.

Some form of regime change likely needs to happen if Xterra is going to survive. One possibility is further expansion of ITU’s Cross Triathlon series. A second possibility is that a guardian angel swoops in on a carbon 29er (a.k.a. “wings”).

That angel might actually materialize. Indeed, Lance Armstrong was fifth at the 2011 Xterra USA Championships in September.

More “Conviction” articles from Courtenay Brown.

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