What Is Pro Triathlon Union?

The main goals—and criticisms—of the newly formed pro triathlete organization. Plus: What it will take for Ironman to rally behind PTU.

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The main goals—and major criticisms—of the newly formed pro triathlete organization. Plus: What it will take for Ironman to rally behind PTU.

On July 29, a group called the Pro Triathlon Union was announced as “a new global union representing all professional non-drafting triathletes,” according to the press release. An international group of 15 well-established pros, as members of the founding board of directors, have been the main drivers of the new union. They are Jodie Swallow, Rachel Joyce, Helle Frederiksen, Mirinda Carfrae, Meredith Kessler, Mary Beth Ellis, Angela Naeth, Sebastian Kienle, Pete Jacobs, Dirk Bockel, Dylan McNiece, Timothy O’Donnell, James Cunnama, Andreas Dreitz and Scott DeFilippis. Rich Allen, a retired British pro triathlete based in North Carolina, where he runs a sports marketing/consulting company, was approached by some of the athletes to serve as Executive Director. There are also numerous business and legal advisors, as well as former pros such as Torbjorn Sindballe, who counsel PTU on a volunteer basis.

The group first met up at Challenge Bahrain last December and again in Dubai to map out their plans. “These are the ones that stepped up and are passionate about changing things,” says Allen, who was quick to acknowledge early outside criticism that the board of directors narrowly represents the top tier of professional pro triathletes. “We appreciate that down the road we need to diversify to make sure everyone is represented on the board.”

The group’s areas of focus and advocacy include athlete representation, creating a professional code of conduct, better race coverage (including more live TV) and bigger prize purses, standardized drug testing, promoting gender equality and ethnic diversity in the sport, development initiatives and a uniform pro card criteria, among other goals. First-year pros pay an annual membership fee of $200, second- and third-year pros pay $400, and fourth-year and longer pros pay $600.

“The popular sports such as soccer, baseball, and basketball didn’t get to where they are today without grass roots movements to help boost the visibility of professionals, which ultimately has a beneficial impact on the entire sport,” says founding board member Meredith Kessler. “The National Football League would not be the juggernaut it is today without the player’s union balancing the power between all entities involved. The Professional Tri Union can have this type of influence on the sport we all love.”

Within hours of the formal introduction of PTU, Challenge Family announced its pledge of support, stating that any pro entrant to a 2016 Challenge race must be a PTU member.

“It’s very simple—it gives the athletes more bargaining leverage,” explains Allen. “If the athletes go to Challenge and say ‘we want more prize money’ or ‘we want the races in the U.S. brought back,’ they would do that through the PTU, and we would engage all the athletes and come up with a business plan as to how this would help the Challenge races—how it would help bring participation levels up and draw sponsorship dollars. A race organization has to see a return on any investment they’re going to put into the professional sport.”

Allen says the PTU will hold the pros accountable to any deals that it makes with Challenge (or any other race organization), which could be any number of activities or commitments that help promote the race series and sport. If a pro doesn’t follow through, his or her PTU license could be revoked.

Not everyone is eager to buy in to a pro union.

“I’m honestly not a fan of unions in the first place, but forcing me to do anything generally results in me not wanting to do it,” says Olympic champion and top Kona contender Jan Frodeno. “Challenge wants every pro to buy another license with so far zero benefits? $600 for what? And even the things they ask for seem so far-fetched. Ask any race organizer how much live TV coverage costs. Travel insurance? Many federations cover all that anyways. So far it’s nothing substantial that I’ve heard of.”

Allen acknowledges that the global nature of triathlon, with various international federations taking a distinct approach to everything from pro license requirements to athlete benefits to drug testing, presents significant challenges, so one of the PTU’s first initiatives will be an effort to standardize a lot of things. This is where the ITU would come in—Allen says he’d like to see uniform pro qualifying criteria, drug testing protocol and drafting rules.

Ironman already has its own anti-doping program, which is funded by an $800 license it requires of its approximate 1,000 pro athletes. Asking pros to pay an additional $200-$600 for a PTU license was a major sticking point for Ironman CEO Andrew Messick.

“We’re uncomfortable with obligating our professional athletes to incur an additional fee,” says Messick. “They pay a fee to race in our events and that fee is entirely allocated towards our own independent WADA-approved anti-doping effort. An additional cost of $600 felt like a big ask for a number of athletes, and we aren’t yet comfortable obligating any professional triathlete to pay that.”

Allen acknowledges that the PTU will need to explore ways to make the membership more affordable for “low-income” pros. But membership is necessary, he says, because of operational costs and the “need to build up a pot of money in case we need to help an athlete in a difficult situation.” Allen, who hails from an ITU background, says he never had to personally absorb the cost of drug testing, and there may be a way to fund Ironman’s drug testing program so they can do away with the $800 pro license.

Challenge Family, unlike Ironman, does not require an annual pro fee (just a license from the athlete’s federation/governing body) to cover drug testing. Their spokesperson says “it is a contractual requirement for all races to work with their local federations to implement anti-doping procedure,” and in almost all cases Challenge foots the bill. The race organization is in the process of “refining the drug testing system to a global program,” the details of which are forthcoming.

The other major issue that Ironman’s Messick says he needs more clarity on before getting more formally involved with PTU: whether or not the PTU represents a critical mass of professional triathletes.

“We want to be cautious because we have a lot of experience dealing with our athletes and we know that issues that first- and second-year triathletes have are very different from the types of issues that athletes that, say, finish in the top 10 in Kona have,” he says. “Before we recognize any group as representing the professional triathletes, it’s important for us to understand that they’ve been duly designated to represent everyone. We would like to wait until that gets clarified before we make a decision on our representation of the PTU.”

Having a direct communication conduit between Ironman and its professional athletes—as a united and truly representative body—would provide very useful insight that could potentially drive meaningful change at Ironman. For example, Messick has previously said that without a clear picture of where Ironman’s pro triathletes stand as a collective whole on the issue of disparate slots for pro men and women at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, he doesn’t know that 50 slots for women and 50 slots for men is truly the desire of the broader pro community or just the demand of a vocal minority.

“There is no counterparty for us to discuss the question of if we’re going to have 100 professional athletes at Kona or how we allocate those pro slots,” says Messick. “Is the KPR the best system? Should our current mechanism of allocation be changed? Should we pay deeper, which means you pay the first place person less? Should we take some of the money in the Kona prize purse and have that allocated to everyone that qualifies? These are areas where we think having a representative voice of professional triathletes is useful to us. But the trick is—and what we require—is that they in fact represent all pro triathletes.”

Allen insists that diversity of membership is a top priority moving forward, but that the union had to start as a small, core group to be effective: “I think this would have been a big mess if we just said, ‘hey pros, let’s launch a union.’ You would’ve had too many opinions, and it would’ve never gotten off the ground,” he says.

Allen is confident that PTU can eventually speak with authority for the pro triathlete community, and he also understands that in addition to meeting clearly established expectations for professional behavioral standards, the athletes must also bring financial value to the table. “If we can get the majority of pros in the PTU, then with anything we take to Andrew he’ll know it’s the opinion of the majority,” says Allen. “I think issues like ‘50 Women to Kona’ are things PTU would vote on. I would present it to WTC as a business proposal—there needs to be more collective thought on our end to come up with the answers, to say ‘this is how it will work, and this is how it will benefit you.’”

The first membership term begins January 1, and PTU is appealing to the full spectrum of non-drafting triathletes, from XTERRA racers to rookie Ironman pros to Olympic-distance specialists. (The group feels that “there is a solid communications structure in place between the drafting professionals, their National Federations, and ITU athletes’ committee and the ITU Executive Board” and that “ITU athletes do have sufficient support and representation through these channels.”) The group will have its first board meeting in October, and around that time will introduce new members to the board, Allen says.

There has been some questioning of PTU as an actual union, because pros aren’t technically employees of the race organizations. Allen says that discussion is an irrelevant distraction: “I don’t see the point in people standing in front of us arguing whether or not we’re a union—I don’t think it matters. We’re defined by what we achieve.”

Union or not, PTU’s Meredith Kessler is optimistic about what a formal, truly representative body of pro triathletes can accomplish.

“Tennis in the 1960s is where triathlon is today,” she says. “There were some great visionaries who helped raise the visibility of the sport to the mainstream public, not just the country club elite. The PTU in the sport of triathlon can have this same influence and results.”

But real change will require not just strength in numbers, but initiative by a wide cross-section of pros and constructive dialogue, says Allen.

“This is just the beginning—things need fine-tuning and adding, but we’re here to listen to everybody and make this work only if everyone is on board. We’re not going to move forward if everyone just wants to bicker and complain.”

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