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Last Weekend Now: State of the [Pro] Sport

How the pandemic helped professional triathlon get out of a rut, and what it means for the future of the sport.

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Covid isn’t over and it may never be, but all across the country, and world, people are inching toward post-pandemic normalcy. In the two years since Covid became perhaps the most popular word in our nomenclature, triathlon has been on a very wild ride.

First was the doom-and-gloom phase, which started in early April of 2020. That was peak lockdown; while we were all doing our part to flatten the curve. As the curve continued to disobey our most valiant efforts, it became clear to pro athletes, race directors, and tri brands that 2020 was going to suck big time.  And it did –  it really sucked most for pros, whose livelihoods are almost completely based off racing. No races meant no prize purses, no bonuses, and in many cases, no base salaries from sponsors, because any reasonable contract states that a professional racer has to actually race.

Enter the Professional Triathletes Organization (PTO) and its billionaire bankroller, Sir Michael Moritz. A little reprieve from the lack of prize purses arrived in the form of checks based on their 2019 world ranking. It didn’t amount to much for those needing it most, but, by the end of the year, PTO was the only race organizer putting on a major, big-money event with their debut PTO Championship at Challenge Daytona (now CLASH Daytona). Coupled with the long-awaited debut of the Collins Cup in summer of 2021, and all of a sudden there’s a big new player in the pro tri game—and they’re eager to pay pro triathletes real money.

RELATED: Was the Collins Cup a Success?

Woman in a full body wetsuit running past a checkpoint with a film crew behind her
Daniela Ryf exits the swim at the Collins Cup. (Photo: Courtesy PTO)

The PTO weren’t the only ones doubling down on their commitment to pro triathlon in the midst of the pandemic. Super League Triathlon (SLT) introduced the Arena Games in spring of 2021, which mixed pool swimming, trainer riding and treadmill running in a competition powered by Zwift. Those who were skeptical at first (like me) quickly realized that the format actually worked well for a live broadcast and might have some legs post-pandemic. World Triathlon thought so highly of it that they’ve partnered with SLT to produce the first ever e-Sports Triathlon World Championship series this year.

RELATED: Yes, There Will Be An Esports Triathlon World Champion This Year

SLT is funded by a Russian oligarch, Leonid Boguslavasky, who probably lost more money today than everyone who is reading this column will ever make in their lifetime, combined. But one of the best parts about being a billionaire is that you can afford to lose billions, and Boguslavsky isn’t just dabbling in triathlon. While most billionaires buy their way into Kona (looking at you, Prince of Bahrain), Boguslavsky got into Kona the old-fashioned way, racing his way to a qualifying time. He is also on the start list for the upcoming Ironman World Championship in St. George. He loves triathlon and SLT, and he’s not leaving us anytime soon.

Let’s not forget the two greatest things to happen to triathlon during the pandemic: The debut of the triathlon mixed relay at the Olympics, and triathlon reaching the 40 universities needed for recognition as an NCAA women’s sport. The Tokyo Games that were at once doomed went off without much of a hitch, and the triathlon mixed relay stood out as one of the marquee events of a somewhat lackluster Olympiad. Going forward, it’s an event that has the potential to get huge numbers of eyes on the sport an inspire the next generation of pros.

Spectators cheer during the men’s Olympic triathlon race on July 26. (Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

While not official just yet, the inclusion of triathlon as an NCAA sport for women is all but certain, and that is a really big deal for the future of the sport. For the last 30 years, most of the best 18-22-year-old triathletes were forced to choose a different varsity sport (usually running) to compete at the NCAA level and receive a scholarship. In some European countries, athletes at this age are able to join the military and essentially become a professional athlete. Now female triathletes in the U.S. (and Canada) will have a similar option, and they won’t be years behind the rest of the world should they decide to make triathlon their job after college.

Now, if you’ve been reading this thinking, “This is way too positive. What have you done with Brad Culp?” Rest assured, there are still plenty of turds in the rose garden. Triathlon, as a whole, isn’t really growing and it hasn’t been for some years. Participation is down, and there’s more to blame than the pandemic. Ironman is having so much trouble filling a world championship in Utah that I’m like a week away from turning down an invite.

RELATED: I “Bought” A World Championship Spot to St. George

It’s not great news for professional triathletes, who rely on sponsors, events, and trust funds to pay the mortgage of a two-bedroom townhome close to but not in Boulder. Collectively, there is less money being pumped into the pro triathlon ecosystem by triathlon brands now than at any time in recent history. It’s not that brands don’t see the value of supporting pros (although some of them certainly do not). It’s that many of them are struggling mightily to stay afloat after two years of uncertainty, reduced revenue and supply chain issues. Many pro triathletes can’t even get a new groupset, let alone a contract.

But that’s a natural ebb and flow of a [relatively] new sport. After a few decades of unfettered growth, the sport was due for a bit of regression. The triathlon industry probably had to shrink in order to grow again. We were due for a bit of a purge. But now, the sport has the pillars in place for a few more decades of steady growth at the professional level. Being a pro triathlete will never be easy, but it’s becoming a whole lot more professional.