Since its launch in January, the Professional Triathletes Organization (PTO) has been busy generating plans, cash, and controversy for a big year ahead.
Five years after the idea of a pro triathlete organization was first discussed, the PTO was finally launched this past January with major investment from Crankstart Investments, the investment vehicle of billionaire venture capitalist Mike Moritz, well known for his early investments in Google, PayPal, and YouTube. What’s happened since the announcement and what’s happening now?
Under the agreement, the PTO now operates as a non-profit organization, with its commercial enterprises—like its flagship race The Collins Cup and any future events—working as a for-profit entity with the PTO retaining 50% ownership and Moritz retaining 50% ownership. The PTO board is made up of athlete representatives—who are voted to the board by their peers—alongside Crankstart Investment representatives.
For the first time in triathlon, this is giving pro athletes a much-needed voice coupled with decision-making power. Indeed, on its website, the PTO describes itself as: “A not-for-profit entity consisting of non-drafting professional triathletes who have come together to promote and contribute to the triathlon community and celebrate the sport we all love so much. It is modelled on the PGA/LGPA organizations in golf or the ATP/WTA organizations in tennis. A professional representative body is the natural evolution for sport.”
The goal, then, is “to showcase the passion, talents, determination, struggles and achievements of the dedicated professionals who strive to realize the highest levels of the sport and inspire all those who participate in triathlon, from the seasoned age grouper to the newbie.”
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At the time, the PTO also announced details about its first event, a Ryder Cup-style race pitting teams from the U.S., Europe, and the rest of the world against each other. The Collins Cup, scheduled to take place in Samorin, Slovakia, at the end of May, in conjunction with The Challenge Championship there, will be the marquee event that the PTO hopes will become profitable, earn the pros money to invest back into the organization, and ultimately kickstart bigger plans.
It sounds great, but almost immediately there were questions, criticisms—and now some news—about how it will work and what happens next.
Pros’ Questions About the PTO
I’m all for pro athletes having more ownership of our sport and the stated goals of the PTO. But we have to honestly ask whether the format of the Collins Cup moves us forward or is simply reinforcing systemic issues in our sport.
— Sarah True (@sgroffy) January 21, 2020
How ironic, Jan. At the outset of this endeavour, whilst on the athlete board, I approached you to support the idea. You refused saying you want to see if it comes to anything first…
— James Cunnama (@JamesCunnama) January 23, 2020
While there will always be complaints and criticisms when something entirely new is launched—especially when it involves hundreds of athletes—there were some common questions that came up immediately after the choreographed social media announcement.
Notably, a few athletes wondered why they weren’t included in the launch, including prominent names like Sarah True and James Cunnama. The reason, Adamo noted, was that the organization was only able to reach out to the top 50 men and women (per the organization’s ranking system) in advance.
Now that the announcement is public, all licenced professionals are invited to become PTO members. There are no costs or membership fees involved, according to the PTO.
More than a few people have also been confused by the Collins Cup’s prize money structure, which is awarded based on those rankings, and were concerned it would simply widen gaps between the “haves” and the “have nots.” The $2M prize purse up for grabs at The Collins Cup is only available for the 36 athletes who qualify (18 men, 18 women), which has led some to point out those who already have a lot get to win more.
According to the PTO, the purse distribution will be based on the relative order in the PTO world rankings of the 18 male and 18 female athletes who contest the event, from $125,000 each for the top ranked man and woman to $20,000 each for the 18th ranked man and woman.
That appears to mean actual performance at The Collins Cup won’t reflect the amount of money participants go home with, since it will be determined by their rankings going in.
In February, the PTO also announced a new annual bonus program, which offers another $2M to the top 100 ranked men and women at the end of the 2020 season. Top-ranked male and female athletes receive $100,000 each, while those men and women ranked 20th would each receive $10,000. Those ranked from 21 to 50 would take home $5,000 each and those placing 51st to 100th would each net $2,000. It’s a bonus program that Rachel Joyce, multiple Kona runner-up and co-president of the PTO, says “rewards athletes for outstanding performances throughout the season.” It is also designed to bring more parity among the “haves” and the “have nots.”
The biggest question, though, is simply: Will it all work? Will fans tune in? Will the PTO be able to create a PGA tour for triathlon?
What Happens Next for the PTO
Now that membership is open to all pro athletes, the goals of the PTO are also expanding—with bigger targets like a series of races and potentially buying Ironman. Adamo even says the organization could consider using the new $2M bonus program in an “innovative way” to help pro athletes make ends meet as the spread of CO-VID19 is leading to travel bans and race cancellations worldwide, impacting their ability to earn prize money.
“We are an athlete-oriented organization and this is a very unusual circumstance, so we will see what we can do to help athletes if they are locked out of earning prize money from racing,” he says. “It is fortuitous that we have recently announced the $2M bonus program, so if we need to tide athletes over while they aren’t able to race then this is something we would consider. This is the great thing about having a collaborative system like ours.”
But first: The Collins Cup on May 28-30 in Samorin, Slovakia, which may be facing its own challenges in the wake of the global pandemic.
Plans for The Collins Cup include three teams (U.S., Europe, and the rest of the world) where six athletes (three men, three women) each represent those regions. Three athletes at a time will then go off in a head-to-head race, with points awarded for the winner of that race-within-a-race. Ten minutes later, the next set of three athletes go. An expansive broadcast is planned covering all these different head-to-heads that will allow viewers to hear from captains giving direction to their athletes and hear from the mic’d athletes themselves, as well as see power numbers or other metrics on screen. It’s not yet determined if that will be via TV or online. It’s also not determined if the race will be able to continue as planned.
Speaking to Triathlete last week, Adamo said it was “too early to say” if the race would take place, adding that his team are still working closely with local authorities and “everything would be dictated by circumstances on the ground closer to the time.”
He also said it had been the PTO’s goal to announce more races for the 2020 season, but given the current climate it is more difficult to do so now.
If The Collins Cup has to be canceled or postponed, it would certainly take the wind out of the PTO’s sails, but doesn’t necessarily mean the effort can’t still get off the ground with the investment from Moritz.
Is the PTO Really Going to Buy Ironman?
In early February, the PTO sent an open letter to the board of directors at Wanda Sports Group (WSG, owners of Ironman) and Andrew Messick, CEO of the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), “renewing its interest in buying Ironman.” It said: “We strongly believe that it is only with the assistance of the PTO and its professional athletes that the WTC business has the ability to stabilize and grow, and that without our cooperation the WTC business would deteriorate.”
The PTO followed this up in early March with another strongly-worded letter, and included lines such as: “Failure to allow the PTO the opportunity to be part of any sale process will adversely affect the WSG shareholders.”
But given the current economic climate and global crisis, Adamo acknowledges now is not the time to talk about the PTO’s desire to buy Ironman from Wanda, though he says there is definitely a high degree of interest to get involved when the time is right. He believes, together with another “like-minded” investor, the PTO could be a “very attractive buyer for Ironman.”
He adds: “Our investors want to invest in the athletes because they think they’re assets, whereas the Wanda mentality is ‘just cut costs, I don’t care what you cut, just cut them.’
“We think it’s our obligation that this asset [Ironman] not be sold to another entity that is going to be doing the same thing. We have our own capital and we can work with someone else. We think that we’re a very attractive buyer.”