The Next Triathlon Boom? Ironman’s Expansion Into Asia

Ironman is targeting a new hotbed of triathlon, where racers can expect a unique experience—and maybe even a world championship slot.

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Ironman is targeting the new hotbed of triathlon, where racers from around the world can expect the unexpected—and maybe even a world championship slot.

Although the sport of triathlon is in a healthy place, its growth in the United States has slowed dramatically from the boom it saw in the U.S. in the mid- to late 2000s (for example USA Triathlon’s overall membership, including annual and race-day members, jumped 28.9 percent from 2008 to 2009, but fell 3 percent from 2012 to 2013). The same can be said for Europe and the New Zealand/Australia regions. Both are still very strong, with races selling out regularly, but the regions are now fairly saturated with events and the pace of growth has no doubt stalled.

There is one region, though, that has caught the attention of the industry, and specifically Ironman: Asia. The most populous continent on the planet is realizing the benefits triathlon can bring to an economy and the population’s overall health, and Ironman Asia-Pacific CEO Geoff Meyer is leading the effort to meet that demand, as well as grow the sport in areas where the sport is still very new.

“Asia is really a growth market for us,” Meyer says. “We’ve got to do it well and do it slowly, and not make the mistakes that we’ve seen in the past. Over the last three years I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of it.”

A past mistake Meyer refers to is a poor licensing model that saw several events (such as Ironman China and Ironman Malaysia) struggle to meet the quality standards of the brand and were eventually canceled.

“There were licenses that kept falling over in the Asia region,” Meyer says of the initial struggles. “You have to have that support network for the license model to really work. Ironman has globally moved away from the license model to more of an owned model because you can really then look after the quality control, and they all feed into the network globally.”

The current model in Asia is now a combination of Ironman-owned races, with a few key partners still operating as licensees. The difference now is that those licensed races are given better support from Ironman and specifically the staff in its Malaysia office. The gold standard of races in the region is a licensed 70.3 put on by Sunrise Events: the Cobra Ironman 70.3 Philippines in Cebu.

“We’ve seen great growth from the Philippines model, which six years ago was 400 ex-pats doing a race to now it has two 70.3s and two 5150s and they’re sold out and 90 percent of that race is local athletes,” Meyer says of the success.

One athlete who has experienced the passion for triathlon in the Philippines and Asia in general firsthand is three-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander. “It’s incredible,” Alexander says of his experiences racing in and traveling to Asia as an ambassador for Ironman Asia-Pacific. “I went up to Malaysia last year, and the passion the people had, the volunteers, everyone was amazing. It was the same in the Philippines. I went to the inaugural race in Subic Bay. It’s a first-year race, and it was amazing to see the community get behind it. They’re passionate about triathlon, and there’s a demand for it there.”

Though the enthusiasm for the sport in Asia seems to be growing at an exponential rate—Challenge Family, XTERRA and IMG Worldwide have also added events—Meyer and his team are cautious of expanding too quickly and realize that localized efforts must be put in place before other races reach the level of success that has been seen in the Philippines. Because of this, Ironman is including some shorter race distances and duathlons as part of the events in Asia to help athletes become more familiar with multisport.

“We’re trying to develop that local base, and that takes a lot of time with the grass roots,” Meyer says. “If you go to Malaysia, swimming is not a natural thing that Malaysians do. You don’t go to the beach on the weekend and swim; it’s just not part of the culture. So we have to work on that with local groups to do ocean swims and all kinds of stuff to make sure they’re getting the preparation.”

In addition to the physical challenges that come with introducing a sport that involves swimming, biking and running, Ironman is also aware of the hurdles that putting on such a big event can bring to a community.

“We’re a circus that comes to town and no one really knows what the circus is until we roll it out,” Meyer explains. “But when they see the big benefits of what the event is: the economic impact, the tourism benefits, the media attention and all those kind of things, the community then goes, ‘Wow this is fantastic,’ and really embraces it.

“We need the communities to embrace the sport because Ironman is a sport that you need a big finish line, you need a crowd environment. The competitors need the yells and the screams. If you have a finish line and there’s no one there, it’s going to be a pretty miserable experience. That’s where the communities are so important. That is happening in Asia. The circus is coming to town and they don’t know what it’s about, but once they do and they get involved in it, they’re starting to love it.”

On top of the enthusiasm from the local communities, the events in Asia have also seen athletes traveling in from around the world to get a unique experience—and in some cases, go after a world championship spot.

“It’s been amazing how many Europeans have been traveling over to the Asian races just to get into the 70.3 worlds at Zel am See [in Austria, set for Aug. 30],” Meyer says. “We had 150 Europeans come to the new Korean race [in Gurye in October], mostly to chase the 70.3 worlds spot, and it’s the same thing with Kona. Kona is very hard to get into and people are choosing to travel to race.”

Thinking about competing in one of the Asian events? When asked why American triathletes should consider making the journey to compete, Meyer was quick with his answer: “The experience.”

“I think we put on a really good race,” he continues. “Come to Australia and come to Asia, and it’s a completely different experience. I think that’s the exciting thing the American athletes are seeing. We just offer something that’s slightly quirky and slightly different. Asia is part of the journey. Expect the unexpected.”

See the complete Ironman/70.3/5150 Asia Schedule below:
5/10/15 – Ironman 70.3 Vietnam
6/7/15 – Ironman 70.3 Japan
6/7/15 – 5150 Subic Bay
7/5/15 – Ironman 70.3 Incheon
8/2/15 – Ironman 70.3 Philippines
8/23/15 – Ironman Japan
8/23/15 – Ironman 70.3 Bintan (Indonesia)
10/4/15 – Ironman 70.3 Gurye Korea
11/1/15 – Ironman 70.3 Taiwan
11/8/15 – 5150 Bohol (Philippines)
11/14/15 – Ironman Malaysia
4/3/2016 – Ironman 70.3 Putrajaya (Malaysia)
2016 date TBD – Ironman 70.3 Subic Bay (Philippines)
2016 date TBD – Ironman Taiwan

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