When I pulled up the start list for St. George 70.3 this weekend, the 2021 North American 70.3 Championships and a preview for the World Championship course in September, it was hard not to notice the spreadsheet of pros’ names rolled over onto a third page—and the names at the top were big names, the kind of names you don’t normally see back-to-back-to-back in May. Daniela Ryf v. Holly Lawrence v. Paula Findlay. When was the last time that happened? (The answer: 2019 70.3 Worlds is when.)
And while the men’s field this weekend isn’t quite as nuts, you still have Lionel Sanders v. Ben Hoffman v. Ben Kanute v. Rudy von Berg, plus another 6o guys. In total, there are more than 110 pros fighting for $100,000. According to Thorsten Radde, of TriRating, it’ll be the biggest 70.3 pro field ever (if 99 of them actually start) and certainly the biggest field outside of a world championship race.
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There were more than 60 pros who lined up for Galveston 70.3 a few weeks ago—the first U.S. Ironman branded race of 2021. And then dozens were in Florida a week later for a 70.3 there. Challenge Miami, back in February, was packed with big names, like Jan Frodeno and Lucy Charles-Barclay, who flew to the U.S. in the middle of a pandemic for a chance at a cut of…$50,000???
What is going on?
In short: Pros, they’re just like you. They have COVID fatigue too. They want to race too. They’re antsy and bored and eager to see their tri-friends too. But pros, they’re not like you. They also need the money. For some, it’s been a long time now without any prize money or sponsor bonuses. The prize money list for 2020 had a (predictable) 90% drop from 2019 across all the different race organizers—minus the money paid out by the Pro Triathletes Organization.
So right now, yes, you’re seeing every pro who can make it to any race they can make it to get on the start line. But will it last?
To a degree, it’ll last for a bit. It’ll probably even last all year, as long as races continue to be impacted and demand is pent-up. That’s just basic economics. (Daniela agrees.) If you look at races in the Northern Hemisphere through this point in 2019 v. 2020 v. 2021, you see a drop in the number of events around mid-March last year and then they pick up again mid-March this year. But we asked Radde to pull the stats on the field sizes, and you also see the average number of pro starters per Ironman-brand race skyrocket—it goes from 27.7 in 2019 to 30.4 in 2020 up to 42.6 so far this year. That’s a big jump.
Eventually, this may settle back down. You can start to get a sense of that by looking at New Zealand and Australia, where events have been able to go off as normal—albeit with no one allowed in or out of those countries. And when you expand the stats to all race organizers worldwide what you see in January and February (when most races happening were happening in the Southern Hemisphere) is very consistent and average field sizes across all three years. No one’s rushing to a start line anymore in New Zealand or Australia because start lines aren’t in short supply.
Is this good or bad?
Yes, with more stacked fields, we’ll get to see more big name match-ups this year and that’s always exciting. That’s part of what drove high viewership numbers for the PTO Championships at Challenge Daytona back in December—because it was the rare chance to see the biggest names across all the distances go at it. It’s long been argued that what triathlon is missing (the one thing!) is a real pro circuit and what that requires is a few key races with the biggest names going head-to-head. You can’t pump up viewers if they don’t have anything to get pumped up for. Pre-COVID, there were hundreds of events happening with multiple pro races every weekend all over the world, and the talent was spread out and diluted—and that gets boring to watch. Of course, this all presupposes that you can watch the races. And maybe the stacked fields and the demand to see them will force better race coverage across all the organizers.
But—and to me this is a big “but”—what happens to the up-and-comers, to the development talent? If every race is stacked and the names that are already names are claiming all the money, then what’s left for the people who aren’t big names yet?
Sure, someone is going to say those athletes have to be good enough to crack through, they have to prove themselves on a bigger stage and now they have a bigger stage to do it on. Someone else is going to say if they’re really good then they’ll be good enough to make it, and who cares about the person who’s 20 minutes behind Daniela anyway?
Well, I care. Because Daniela has to have people to beat. Time trials are boring to watch. And someone has to be the next Daniela. Even Daniela wasn’t Daniela overnight. If there are no second tier events, then where do the next greats come from? Think about it like the age groups that are so ridiculously competitive they don’t even feel fun anymore. If the same four guys are always going to win and get to go to Kona, then everyone else starts to feel discouraged, they start to think ‘why not try a swimrun instead or a trail race,’ they think there’s no point in this.
In a regular year, the differences in prize purses created a kind of first tier and second tier of pro races—the greats don’t bother themselves for pocket change. That system needed to be cleaned up and streamlined—there were too many races and too much of a monopoly—but now, in this COVID season, it’s been turned on its head and I worry ultimately that isn’t great. Even if the stacked fields and the crazy match-ups are fun to watch, they’re a product of desperation and desperation rarely bodes well for athletes or for the sport.