Many sporting events can leave a lasting impact on their host city. Just look at the Olympic Games for extreme examples—both for the positive effects and the disastrous consequences of putting on the world’s largest athletic contest. The Olympics have the power to revitalize neighborhoods, inspire generations of young athletes, and develop world-class venues for future endeavors. But the Games can also drive cities into massive debt and leave behind facilities that fall into disrepair after years of neglect due to lack of funds.
Fortunately, triathlons do not require that same level of financial commitment. And generally, when a tri comes to town it has a positive impact on the community—in part due to the focus on mass participation and creating healthy lifestyles. But what happens when a race leaves? And what does that legacy look like in the future?
A Financial Boost
When pitching a new community on the idea of hosting a race, one of the most quantifiable benefits is the race’s impact on the local economy. Ironman has touted that, on average, for a 70.3 event, athletes will travel with two to three people and stay three to four nights at a destination. And when it comes to a full Ironman, that entourage expands to three or four people. Those groups—which tend to consist of affluent visitors—spend money on activities, accommodations, restau- rants, and at other local businesses while they’re in town.
Although it varies based on each race, some recent economic impact data places that number anywhere from $10 million (for Ironman 70.3 Indian Wells in 2019) to $20 million (2018’s full Ironman and 70.3 Santa Rosa combined) to a whopping $30 million for the week-long Ironman World Championship festivities in 2019.
That monetary bump can also extend well beyond the event week or weekend. In Germany, Challenge Roth has had a long-term financial impact on its small Bavarian host town. “What the race has done is put Roth on the map,” said race director Felix Walchshofer. “Sure, July is vital for our local economy, but the economic benefit continues throughout the year, as athletes come here to train and experience the iconic race course. Over 13 million euros pour into the local economy every year.”
Creating Destination Traincations
In 2002 and 2003, USA Triathlon hosted its Age Group National Championships in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho—back when the only triathlon there was a local small-town race. “Once we got there, we learned that it’s an amazing town,” said USAT’s chief sports development officer Tim Yount. “It has a beautiful lake, a beautiful resort, and an amazing countryside.”
USAT put its footprint on the race early on by creating a lively, fun event centered around the town. At first, triathlon wasn’t met with open arms—tacks were thrown on the bike course, for instance. It took some time for the community to embrace the sport and the athletes.
Ironman entered the scene a year later and solidified Coeur d’Alene’s place in the triathlon world. Residents eventually came to appreciate how much the race benefitted them, and the area transformed into a community known for fitness and endurance sports. “We have become one of their flagship summer weekends,” said Ironman regional director Dave Christen. “So much so that hotels, restaurants, and tour groups try to form their business models around that expected tourism.”
Christen says that the local real estate market has also seen an uptick thanks to triathlon. “There are these outlying examples of real estate agents that say, ‘This is our busiest time,’ because a lot of people are buying vacation homes after they visit these race locations,” he said. “Real estate is one of the sneaky impacts we see, but it’s not something we can track because of how widespread it is over the calendar year.” Even if not every athlete is buying a second home in a race destination, many do consider a visit for a traincation before race day. After the inaugural Ironman Mont-Tremblant took place in 2012, the Canadian city’s tourism board leaned into the fact that their destination offered an appealing place to train even when the race wasn’t on. Through its website, you can organize a training camp, with amenities like a marked open-water swim course, an aquatic complex with an Olympic-sized pool and treadmills with Ironman course simulators, and a permanently marked (and repaved) bike course. Mont-Tremblant is not alone in its “traincation” appeal. The long-standing Laguna Phuket Triathlon—now almost 30 years running—helped turn Thailand’s biggest island into a training hub. Multiple bike shops have sprung up over the years since it started; the triathlon-focused Thanyapura Sports Hotel opened in 2013; and Z Coaching—led by German Ironman legend Jürgen Zäck—has made the island its main home base for training camps.
"We have become one of their flagship summer weekends. So much so that hotels, restaurants, and tour groups try to form their business models around that expected tourism."
- Dave Christen, Ironman Regional Director on Coeur d'Alene, Idaho
Because of how the sport is seen by outsiders, triathlon has the unique power to affect their opinions about a destination and spur new perceptions to take hold. Take Milwaukee. When USAT decided to host the Age Group National Championships there from 2013–2015, Yount received hordes of emails with people complaining, “What are you doing? This is an old beer town, it’s dirty, and why would anyone want to go there?” But once athletes arrived and saw the waterfront, opera house, and beautiful venues, he said they realized, “Wow, this is a cool town.” More than 5,000 athletes showed up the first year, and the race grew every subsequent year. “People started realizing that this was one of the most amazing secrets for a triathlon venue that we’ve ever seen,” he said.
The trickle-down effect did not stop there: Tri clubs expanded in the area; the number of events in and around Milwaukee grew; new NCAA programs started. The experience led USAT to decide to return to Milwaukee this fall. “They’re ecstatic we’re coming back because the impact is really excessive,” Yount said.
A similar thing happened in Cleveland after the USAT Championships were held there in 2018 and 2019. “People were surprised—Cleveland is an amazing city,” Yount said. One New Mexico couple, he said, enjoyed their race experience so much that they ended up moving there, citing the active lifestyle and welcoming people as the reason.
“We try to expose a location, city, or community that maybe hasn’t been seen as a place for an investment to occur to support the sport,” Yount said. For cities like New York and Chicago, a triathlon is just a blip on the event calendar. “But the secondary markets are prime for amazing venues—places like Milwaukee, Omaha, Cleveland, Portland. These are cities that are still coveted not just because they’re just interesting places, but because they have the ability to embrace what we do.”
It’s a philosophy that both tourism boards and race directors are happy to embrace. Ironman California, set to take place in Sacramento this October, may be the next surprise triathlon destination. Visit Sacramento, the city’s tourism board, has been heavily involved in developing the event to showcase the best of their region. “We strategically seek out communities that align with what we want to align with,” Christen said. “When you have a partner who is willing to put their fingerprint on that event—that’s when we see communities benefit the most from us being there.”
Growing the Flock
At the heart of every triathlon community are, of course, the athletes. As Ironman’s global director of training and coaching Earl Walton puts it: “If you put an Ironman anywhere in the world, you create triathletes.”
Every time a race takes place, there’s an inevitable increase in community awareness—and ultimately in new triathletes, new clubs, new training groups, and typically new local races. “When an Ironman comes to town, there’s a seed that’s planted,” Walton said. “People think ‘Someday. Someday I’m going to do that.’ It’s just that idea that it’s coming to town and ‘now’s my chance.’ It also brings together the idea that your neighbor is doing it, or the guy in the next swim lane is doing it. It’s like a viral thing.”
Maybe nowhere has this happened more acutely than in Tenby, Wales, where Ironman Wales has been held since 2011. Locals of the tiny seaside town are not just supportive of the race—a huge number of them have done it. Over a decade, as local triathlon clubs and kids’ triathlon groups boomed, the Welsh village claims to have become home to the most triathletes per capita, according to a 2018 New York Times article highlighting the “Iron Town.”
Walton has witnessed how a flagship race can have this impact on the growth of tri clubs and athletes in places like Muncie, Indiana; Des Moines, Iowa; and Lubbock and Waco, Texas. “If you tap into it, it just explodes,” he said.
Traverse City, Michigan, is another spot where an untapped collection of aspiring triathletes sprung up. When Ironman 70.3 Traverse City was announced in 2019, “it was interesting to watch new triathletes pop up in the Midwest,” Christen said. “It converted not only Traverse City into a triathlon region, it created more racers within 300–500 miles of that location.” (The race has since been moved to the nearby city of Frankfort and renamed Ironman 70.3 Michigan.)
"When an Ironman comes to town, there's a seed that's planted. People think 'Someday. Someday I'm going to do that.' It's just that idea that it's coming to town and 'now's my chance.'"
—Earl Walton, Ironman Global Director of Training and Coaching on Tenby, Wales
Inspiring a Healthy Lifestyle
After 15 years living away from her hometown of El Paso, Texas, Gabriela Gallegos returned to an unhealthy city with high rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. She was eager to find ways to encourage health and wellness and bring the sport she had picked up back to her hometown. She founded Race El Paso, which now includes the Mighty Mujer Triathlon, a women’s-only sprint that takes place in locations like El Paso, Austin, Miami, and Tucson.
Gallegos eliminates the intimidation factor by kicking off Mighty Mujer with a happy hour. She asks women from various races, ages, and backgrounds to share their stories. “Our goal is to make sure anyone who is there can identify with something,” she said. “It’s a great opener instead of asking someone to show up for a bike or run.” She also hosts intro clinics to help new triathletes learn (or improve) their swim, bike, or run skills. A few years ago, Gallegos even secured a deal with the local NBC affiliate to do a two-hour broadcast of the event. That exposure not only helped to grow the race into a force in the community, but it also encouraged more local support and more locals adapting a healthy lifestyle—and bringing their friends and family along with them.
The health of the host community is something USAT thinks about too. “We have a chance to come into the school system and tie into a health or fitness curriculum,” Yount said. It gives kids the chance to connect what they’re learning in class with what they see on the race course. “They come out and cheer for us, and those values carry with them as they see healthy people who make the right decisions. I think ultimately that’s where you have the most impact.”
Of course, many races have created a symbiotic relationship with their local community—donating money, creating a community of spectators and supporters, and tapping into local volunteers to keep the races running. Every July, at Challenge Roth, more than 7,500 volunteers sign up to help with the race festivities—an impressive number considering Roth is a town of 25,000. “Triathlon is an integral part of everyone’s lives here,” Walchshofer said. “It has been here for over 30 years—the children who grew up with it are now adults with children themselves, and so the cycle continues.” Beyond the race course, hundreds of residents provide homestays for athletes and line the course to support them. Organizers have also developed close relationships with schools, charities, and emergency services. As the race grows, so, too, do the number of organizations it supports, Walchshofer said.
Triathlons of all sizes offer charitable components: The Ironman Foundation—the company’s philanthropic arm— has raised over $50,000,000 for non-profit initiatives since its inception in 2003; the Challenged Athletes Foundation raises funds for (and awareness of) paratriathlon and adaptive sports at its annual San Diego Triathlon Challenge held in October; the Malibu Triathlon has raised millions for pediatric cancer research at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles; Denver’s Tri for the Cure donates to breast cancer research; the grassroots River Roux Triathlon in Louisiana uses proceeds to fight childhood obesity—and the list goes on. All of these provide tangible and meaningful ways to give back to the organizations and locations that support the sport.
Of course, volunteering at an event goes both ways—it can provide a way for the people in the community to be involved and raise money for a nonprofit organization, but the unpaid labor can also be fundamental to keeping race directors and race companies operating. The practice has stirred up controversy in recent years and a few class-action lawsuits against for-profit race companies have raised the question about whether it’s legal to use unpaid volunteers as key operational labor. A 2014 case was dismissed on procedural grounds, and the question remains largely unanswered.
“Ironman has been a valuable event to Santa Rosa and the relationship has been one of the best we’ve had. When the time is right, hosting events—whether large or small—in a community such as ours will be extremely important and have a positive impact.”
—Kim Link, Visit Santa Rosa on Santa Rosa, California
When Races Leave
And then sometimes races leave, for a variety of reasons—because they’ve lost sponsors or their hosting contract, or because the race directors simply can’t run the events without the financial support of local partners. Sometimes participation numbers fall too low to support the cost of the event and it simply doesn’t make financial sense anymore. Sometimes the race organizers can get a better deal elsewhere. In that New York Times article, the residents of Tenby, Wales, noted they worried their beloved race would be moved to a bigger and flashier destination.
After a triathlon has positively impacted a community, what happens when it leaves? Do all those new facilities and clubs go away?
COVID-19, and the loss of in-person races last year, provide a small example. The city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, reported that the cancellations of both the Ironman and 70.3 races there represented a $22.8 million economic loss. That financial impact is also undoubtedly felt in destinations that have lost big races—like Santa Rosa, California, where a series of natural disasters (wildfires, flooding) and other challenges (power shutoffs, COVID) led to a mutual decision to end their Ironman and 70.3 races.
Dealing with those crises affected not only Santa Rosa’s police and fire departments—which are both necessary for putting on events—but also taxed the city staff who help organize the races. “It wasn’t even, ‘do we have the money?’ It was ‘do we have the bandwidth?’” said Santa Rosa economic development division director Raissa de la Rosa. “That became the overriding consideration. Plus, as good as the economic impacts can be from events such as Ironman, if the tourism dollars are down, that means the funds we have to do these events whittles away.”
Both parties are hopeful that there will be an Ironman in Santa Rosa again someday. “Ironman has been a valuable event to Santa Rosa and the relationship has been one of the best we’ve had,” said Kim Link of Visit Santa Rosa. “When the time is right, hosting events—whether large or small—in a community such as ours will be extremely important and have a positive impact.”
“Santa Rosa has been through a lot in the last five years,” Christen said. “It became very clear that Santa Rosa—who we plan to work with in the future as soon as they’re ready— wasn’t able to support the events. It’s not because they did anything wrong, they just got a raw deal from nature. A lot of times it’s out of their control.”
From an athlete standpoint, losing a race “just sucks,” Walton said. “It’s super disappointing when your favorite race leaves town. And it sucks for [Ironman] too. The concern for us is that we lose athletes and the community loses athletes. The goal is to never leave a region empty.” That’s part of why the company is also always looking at where it can add new races in order to serve a community or region.
Sometimes, Christen said, communities just change direction. “They want to focus on a different approach or spend their energy on something different, and we’re OK with that,” he said.
One non-Ironman example of a change in focus happened in Des Moines, Iowa, where the Hy-Vee Triathlon took place from 2007 until 2014. The substantial prize purse—which peaked at $1 million—drew a top professional field and brought expo- sure to the sport. It helped turn Des Moines into a triathlon destination and upped its profile in the region—until Hy-Vee (a food store giant) decided to put its sponsorship dollars into different wellness initiatives, including an at-home kids’ fitness programs and a series of kids’ triathlons that raise money for the Pinky Swear Foundation, a charitable organization that supports children with cancer.
Although the loss of the event was felt across the sport—particularly for pro athletes—the legacy no doubt had an impact on growing the overall Des Moines triathlon population, which still exists today, and ultimately helped pave the way for a new Ironman 70.3 race that will debut there this year.
Leaving behind a positive legacy, even after they exit, is something that’s important to race directors who are in it for the long haul. “It’s not just about taking care of the community, you have to take care of the athletes and the volunteers and the people in the city,” Yount said. “When we go into a city, we all need to leave it better than when we got there.”
From May/June 2021