How California Triathlon Puts on $30 Races

The SoCal-based event producer is breaking down financial barriers to triathlon—and wants others to follow its lead.

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Thom Richmond wants to tear down this financial barrier to triathlon entry. “There’s an area that’s completely ignored,” he says of tri’s demographics, which skew toward mostly male, white, high-income earners in their middle 40s. “That’s not where most of the country is.” Pointing to U.S. Census Bureau data, Richmond believes there’s growth potential for triathlon, but costs must be lowered in order to attract newcomers—from all socioeconomic backgrounds—to the sport.

A 49-year-old engineer by trade and an age-grouper triathlete by passion, Richmond is a former Southern Californian who now lives in Virginia. He followed his wife to “Old Dominion” after she received a sweet job offer: VP of admissions at Washington and Lee University. The family made the move in 2015, but Richmond maintains strong California ties. He used to work at the Walt Disney Company (lots of friends) and in 2010 he helped found the non-profit California Triathlon—a now nearly 5,000-member strong tri team—where he still serves as a very active board member.

The main mission of California Triathlon is to make multisport affordable by providing resources, coaching, and support for all. In the team’s early days, Richmond felt California Triathlon was leaving a lot of people behind, so board members worked to “level the playing field in terms of access,” he explains.

Nearly a decade later, Richmond has launched Cal Tri Events and puts on races across the Golden State, a good majority in SoCal, where early bird adult entry fees typically start at $60 and youth prices at $30 including insurance, so no USA Triathlon membership or one-day waivers are required.

The events are first-time-triathlete and family friendly. No fancy gear needed; show up with whatever you’ve got. Richmond says the whole point is to bring new participants to the sport. He gives an example of a price incentive: A kid signs up for a Cal Tri relay event and recruits his parents as teammates. The child does the signing up (youth rate) so all three compete for a total price of $30, which includes the cost of insurance, and each gets a swag bag.

“We want to get gamed by a 15-year-old kid and his parents,” Richmond explains, “because we get three people exposed to triathlon.”

But how does this grass-roots model pencil out? Cal Tri has race underwriters, and most are non-endemic—brands like BMW, MillerCoors, Snapple, Subaru. Historically, California Triathlon team members have brought these big names onboard through their own connections as employees of the companies. The brands enjoy the good PR of association with a family friendly, healthful-minded nonprofit. And, as Richmond points out, they benefit in another way: Cal Tri race participants aren’t spending big cash on tri gear. Instead, he says, “90 percent of the spend of our athletes is non-endemic” (think cars, food, etc.).

California Triathlon and Cal Tri are also very volunteer oriented, Richmond says. Offer your time as a race volunteer, get a complimentary race entry into a future event. Richmond believes volunteerism is “rare” in tri, but he advocates “paying it forward,” which seems to be working. The organization’s 2019 schedule looks pretty full, with dozens of training events (most of them free) and several races on the calendar.

Cal Tri also sourced its own insurance at $2-3 per person instead of using USAT’s, so athletes don’t need a USAT membership or race-day waiver to compete. (Seventy percent of Cal Tri race participants are non-USAT members, Richmond says.) Cutting USAT ties has its advantages or disadvantages, depending on perspective: Results from non-USAT-sanctioned events can’t be used for USAT Nationals qualification. Perhaps more importantly for some race directors, however, is that there’s no data sharing with USAT—theoretically, this means the governing body doesn’t get intel on a race market it might consider moving in to.

Beyond racing, Cal Tri and California Triathlon bring free clinics and training to tri newbies, and big names have stepped up to participate. One legend who recently joined the California Triathlon mission is Mark Allen, a six-time Ironman world champion. Richmond laughs when asked how he and Allen partnered. “He contacted us! I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a joke.”

“One of the greatest things that can happen in sports is to help new people enter it,” Allen says, adding that California Triathlon is helping break down barriers to entry, while also providing training support and staging races “that are creating a groundswell of renewed interest in triathlons.”

Allen does offer his own training and clinics outside of California Triathlon, so some cynics might view his new relationship as financially driven. California Triathlon members, after all, are a potentially lucrative lot for any coach or trainer. But everyone involved insists dollars are not the focal point. Richmond says California Triathlon’s mission is—and always will be—growing the sport by introducing it to those with “the biggest heart, not the biggest pocketbook.”

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