Professor Multisport: Why Is Racing Triathlon So Expensive?

For the same reason Beyoncé tickets cost a fortune: because it’s an awesome, bragging-rights-for-life experience.

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For the same reason Beyoncé tickets cost a fortune: because it’s an awesome, bragging-rights-for-life experience. With secondary market ticket prices averaging $353 a pop for her 2016 Formation Tour, the Beyoncé experience is valued right up there with a 70.3. And tickets in major metropolitan areas cost more than twice that, just like Ironman can get ridiculously expensive the closer you get to tall buildings. (Remember when Ironman New York was going to cost $1,200!?)

Seriously though, it does tend to be more of a money suck to race tris in the U.S. than in other places. We know this because we talked to triathletes from other places and they told us of magical things that occur in their native lands that make a tri addiction more of a cute tick than a potentially intervention-worthy spending problem.

Let’s jump to Australia. Our tour guide is five-time sub-nine-hour iron-distance badass Rebekah Keat. On this jumbo island, you can expect to pay comparable entry fees, she says. However, your travel likely won’t cost as much—you don’t need to get anywhere long before the race because the time change among many of the major costal cities is only half an hour. And you won’t have to acclimate to altitude. The country’s highest mountain peaks at 7,310 feet, and unless you sign up for the Australian Alpine Ascent—a race that goes 6,443 feet up that mountain and bills itself as the “World’s Toughest Daylight Triathlon”—your blood won’t need time to get on board with your athletic aspirations.

The Ironman brand, Keat says, doesn’t have as much power there because Aussies equate Ironman with a surf lifesaving event (and they’re really into surf lifesaving). Maybe that’s why it’s ever so slightly cheaper to enter an iconic M-dot event in Oz. Ironman Australia’s biggest price tag in 2017—including the Active fee—was $703. Most U.S. Ironmans are running $725 these days, before the despised reg fee.

So far, that leaves us with this: Traveling to races in the U.S. is expensive because it takes more time and more hotel nights should you venture across the country or up a mountain. And Ironman might be a little cheaper if you already live in Australia. But those things don’t explain the bigger issue you’re likely referring to: U.S. entry fees are often hella pricey, even if you’re not doing a WTC event. And the reason for that, my friend, is culture. Triathlon savant, longtime Slowtwitch reporter and German person Herbert Krabel explains from the allemand perspective.

“To some degree, people in the U. S. think it’s got to be more expensive because if it’s not expensive, it can’t be that good,” he says. “If you have a half that only costs 60 bucks, you’re like, ‘What shortcuts are they taking?’”

In Germany, people happily flick $30 to race organizers for a sprint. (See: Ravensburger Triathlon, now in its 33rd year.) If you pay for the famous 34-year-old Allgäu tris early, you can nab the Olympic race for the equivalent of $66 and the half for $142. It’s not that they’re not Beyoncé-level experiences; they just cost less. Why? Germany has a different insurance climate, for one thing. “You just can’t sue as easily,” Krabel says, so race organizers there don’t have to worry as much about liability coverage. Then there’s the beer.

“If you were going to put on a race in Los Angeles, you would get a few spectators and then everyone else in the area would be like, ‘Why the hell did they close the streets?’ In Ravensburg, you basically charge people $5 to watch it. And there’ll be people walking along and they’ll pay because it’s entertainment,” Krabel says. “Along those lines, because people are interested, it’s easier to get people to help out and be a volunteer race promoter or volunteer race manager. You have more professional race promoters here in the U.S., and they want to make money, and you don’t make money if you charge little. And in Germany you don’t have to have the cops—if you were in a smaller town like my hometown, you talk to the fire department and say, ‘Hey! We’ll buy you guys two cases of beer on Sunday afternoon—can you make sure these intersections are covered?’ and then I’ll just do it.”

Considering cops and permit fees alone can eat up to 25 percent of an event’s total cost in the U.S., according to SavageMan race director Greg Hawkins, you can see why the more laissez-faire approach across the pond might leave more money in your pocket. But don’t get Krabel started on travel costs—gassing up your hatchback to get from your German homebase to anywhere else in that country and beyond can require a dip into the kids’ college fund. Maybe that’s why Germans are so happy to chip in to put on local events. Plus, the beer’s pretty good.

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