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Every year, Thorsten Radde of TriRating compiles the data available from public prize purse info to create an aggregated list of the top triathlon prize earners and the money paid out to pro triathletes for the year.
For 2020, the prize money list was publicized last week and the message is clear: With almost no races last year, pros struggled to earn any prize money at all.
According to Radde, Ironman paid out just $200,000 at full-distance races in 2020 and $234,000 at 70.3s—a 92% and 89% decline from the previous year. Challenge paid out just $16,600 (a 98% reduction), Super League paid out $50,000 at one event (a 95% reduction in total prize money), and the World Triathlon Series paid out $250,000 including its bonus pool (an 89% reduction from 2019 amounts).
There are a few caveats: Ironman did pay the pro athletes for competing in their VR pro races over the summer, around $1,500 per person, and World Triathlon did pay prize purses for several second-tier World Cup races—which were not included in the list because they hadn’t been included in previous year’s compilations and Radde said he wanted to provide a clear comparison. There have also been Zwift’s pro series with money, and a few independent races with prize money.
But the major entry into the market in 2020—ie. the only way most pros made any prize money at all last year—was the Pro Triathletes Organization and the prize purses they put up at smaller PTO-backed independent races and at the PTO Championships in Daytona. In total, the PTO paid out $3.8 million to 296 athletes, including the $2.5 million bonus pool they put out earlier in the year to help athletes who were struggling financially. All of the top individual earners on the prize money list—Anne Haug, Paula Findlay, Gustav Iden, Lionel Sanders—earned nearly all of their winnings in 2020 from the PTO.
Additionally, many athletes’ contracts have clauses built in that pay bonuses or a bulk of their salary based on performance at races. Without races, athletes lost not just prize money but sponsor bonuses as well—though Radde said he didn’t include anything outside of prize money in his calculations because it’s not public data.
While none of this is new information or shocking given the lack of events last year—and many athletes are quick to note they were grateful for how lucky they were and how good they’ve had it during the pandemic, still the new numbers starkly highlight the financial struggles many pros faced in 2020. At the time of the announcement of the PTO bonus pool, Ben Hoffman noted, “Many pros barely scrape by…” Others have expressed concern about making ends meet and watching bank accounts shrink over the last 12 months. Cody Beals estimated he lost about 40% of his income last year.
This is the most difficult time in the past 30 years to be a professional triathlete.
— TJ Tollakson (@tollakson) February 11, 2021
It would be hard to make predictions about what happens from here. Prize purses had already been decreasing pre-COVID, and that trend doesn’t seem to be reversing (with the exception of the PTO). It also continues to be exacerbated by the lack of races on the calendar. As Radde also notes, the published 2021 Ironman pro calendar through early June has just $850,000 in prize money available, where the equivalent time period in 2019 had $1.5 million up for grabs.
It’s also hard to know how pro triathletes will recover or return to racing in 2021 and beyond. Some pros retired or stepped back this last year; some used the year to pursue other goals; some have opted to get pregnant and will return later in the season. And some are clearly ready (or hungry) to get back on a start line.
Just take a look at the start list for Challenge Miami in March: men & women. It has only $50,000 total in prize money, paid out ten deep, yet it’s attracting world champion Jan Frodeno and Kona runner-up Lucy Charles-Barclay, along with a long list of the top triathletes in the world. They’re eager to go back to earning a living as an actual professional athlete.