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What Dimond and Jordan Rapp can learn from Crowie and Orbea: When lawyers get involved, no one wins. An op-ed from former Triathlete editor-in-chief, Brad Culp.
Lawsuits are a relatively rare occurrence in the triathlon industry. SRAM and Shimano have had their fair share of suits against one another, but that’s no surprise when competing companies each own hundreds of patents (think Samsung and Apple). Ironman (WTC) has levied and defended against plenty of lawsuits, but that’s what happens when you’re a billion-dollar global business. But when it came out that Dimond was suing pro triathlete Jordan Rapp, I, like most of the triathlon community, was very surprised.
Perhaps most extraordinary was the way that the information went public. That happened when Rapp made a post on the popular Slowtwitch forum asking for help paying for a legal defense, which included a link to a GoFundMe page. (It’s since been deactivated and the money has been refunded.) I have precisely zero legal background, by my initial response was that the post would not help him in court. The post made claims that Rapp was concerned over the safety of Dimond’s frame, and that’s what drove him to break his contract and sign with Diamondback. Dimond responded in a press release that the post was the first they’d heard of Rapp’s safety concerns and that they’d always produced safe frames.
Such a case—in which a pro and their bike sponsor spat—is not entirely unprecedented in triathlon. At the 2011 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Henderson, Nev., Craig Alexander rolled into a transition with a brand-less frame that was very clearly a Cervelo P4. This came as a shock because he was under contract with Orbea at the time. Information leaked out that Crowie wasn’t happy with Orbea’s slow development of a “superbike” and that it had put him at a competitive disadvantage. Orbea filed suit for breach of contract, Crowie showed up to Kona with a brand new Specialized Shiv and went on to set a new course record, and whatever happened between Crowie and Orbea remains a bit of a mystery. Neither side ever commented on the matter publically.
Orbea may have taken a small PR hit because it was obvious that the world champ was unsatisfied with its product, but that was more than wiped away when the brand debuted its first superbike two years later and Andrew Starykowicz began rocketing it to world records.
The Dimond versus Rapp situation is clearly different, but there’s a valuable PR lesson to take away from Orbea vs. Alexander. Basically, settling things as quickly as possible and behind closed doors is what’s best for the image of the brand and the athlete.
Dimond faces a PR backlash on two fronts: First, there’s a public claim that their bikes are unsafe—something they vehemently deny. Second, they come off looking like the big corporate bully suing the poor little pro triathlete for a six-figure sum. Dimond obviously knows they’re not going to receive $150,000 from a pro triathlete. Even Daniela Ryf and Alistair Brownlee could not afford that kind of lawsuit. However, it’s a figure large enough to force Rapp to either take it to court or negotiate some kind of settlement. I’m sure both parties would prefer the latter, as was the case with Crowie and Orbea. When you consider the cost of a Dimond—which can run up to $7,600 just for the frameset—a suit of $150,000 doesn’t represent an absurd number of potentially lost sales. Nonetheless, a bike company run by a pro triathlete suing another pro triathlete for more than the biggest prize purse in the sport doesn’t look good.
No matter what the outcome of a litigation or settlement, Rapp will also take a PR hit. If he can somehow prove that Dimond’s frames are unsafe and put him in danger, athletes on the Slowtwitch forum and elsewhere who look to him for product insight will have serious questions about why he promoted a product he knew was unsafe. He went so far as to give away a Dimond frame in 2015 for World Bicycle Relief. Giving away a product you believe is unsafe is not a good look. If he fails to prove that Dimond breached the contract by providing an unsafe frame, then making his claims public and asking for donations to mount a defense will look equally as bad.
I don’t know how this ordeal will shake out, but as a fan of the sport and both parties involved, I can only hope that it ends the same way as the Orbea versus Crowie episode, with both sides dodging any further brand damage.