Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Now For Ironman?

"I just did an Ironman"! I heard these words two years ago from a man seated behind me on the shuttle-bus that was taking us back to the car parking area after the inaugural Muskoka 70.3 race. The fellow had been going on and on to his friends how he had quit smoking, lost 40 lbs and trained for a whole year for this, "Ironman" race. It was an impressive, inspirational, and in truth a really great and genuine story. Was I to turn around and tell the guy that in reality, he had only done half an Ironman. No, I just sat their, listened, took it all in, and then as the bus came to our destination, stopped and we all got up to get off, I congratulated him on what he had done. Had the venerable and legendary Ironman just reached a tipping point?

It started off as a drunken bar-room challenge back in the late '70's between some U.S. Navy personnel stationed at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. Who was the fitter athlete - the swimmer, the cyclist of the runner? What if they bolted together Hawaii's best known endurance challenges - the 2.5 mile Waikiki Rough Water swim, the 112 mile around Oahu Bike Race and the 26.2 mile Honolulu marathon. Surely the winner of this crazy challenge would be the best all round endurance athlete. The winner, as Captain John Collins, the acknowledged leader of this challenge said, would be called an Ironman! As Collins wrote right on the race instructions, "Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life" And so it began, as a quirky and obscure challenge and race that back then few knew about, beyond a small circle of endurance athletes.

The Ironman really started to come into it's own 10 years on in the late 80's when Dave Scott started to own the race and set performance standards that were starting to be eye-openers for many. The famous "Iron-War" between Scott and his nemesis Mark Allen in '89 was a high water mark for the event in terms of performance and how fast humans could go over these crazy distances. The Ironman race by this time had spawned a small group of Ironman races around the world, but it was still, relatively speaking small group of serious endurance athletes who took part and raced these races. Each Ironman race had the feeling of a meeting of this endurance club. Everyone knew everyone else!

From the get-go many of the participants and racers beyond the top Pros such as Scott and Allen, were classic type-A sorts of folk - very driven and very passionate about their training and about Ironman. I first became aware of this passion when in the late 90's the Ironman Canada race, dealing with a onslaught of entries that was starting to overwhelm the event, floated the idea of having people qualify for it ( Note: starting in the late 80's Ironman Hawaii the so called World Ironman Championships, had been for the most part a qualify-only event). There was mass outrage on the triathlon newsgroups - remember those - about having to qualify for Ironman Canada! It was a testament to the passion that many of the Ironman race participants felt for their race.

Which brings us to this year and the last few months. The World Triathlon Corporation(WTC), has been in change and in advancement mode now for several years, but a string of changes in the last year with an aggressive corporate expansion policy has many asking, "What happened to Ironman?" Obviously, it no longer refers to just the original 2.5/112/26.2 distance as the WTC has branded races half that distance, their so called 70.3 races, Ironman as well. Can you brag about doing a 70.3? The WTC has also gone shorter, buying up a bunch of known "Olympic" distance races and series and branding them 50i50 races. With this latter move they have been careful, to not associate these shorter races with the Ironman, but people in the know, know the association, and they do have the now iconic "i" short for Ironman the name of the event.

What's behind all this? My guess is three things: the first in the most obvious - money. There is a mis-conception that these big Ironman and 70.3 races are huge money makers. I have heard the opposite - that they are not the profit centers that everyone thinks they are. Therefore, more races, of whatever length means, more money. Second - is simply the age-old exercise in the business, of brand extension. Once a business and a brand have tapped out one market, and the possibility of growth in that market is small or nothing, you need to expand into other markets and extend the reach of your brand. Finally, in many businesses, ounce you have X-number of customers/users/participants, your challenge becomes not so much finding new ones, but keeping the ones you have! Hence affinity programs of some form to keep the masses on-board.

Of course, there are still those very passionate folk within the sport who don't like any of this and the WTC and the Ironman brand has been getting a bit of a rough ride of late. On the very popular Slowtwitch forum recently , at one point 1/2 the subject threads on the first page were devoted to discussions about the WTC, many with a negative tone, about various moves the WTC has made of late regarding, race expansion, rule changes, miss-management of races, extraordinary revenue generators through affinity programs and other changes.

It must be said that over all this time, the WTC have been an outstanding steward of the Ironman brand, and of marketing the sport of triathlon in general. Races sell out quickly now, but it was not so long ago that this was not the case and the sport of triathlon was in the doldrums. Kudos to the WTC for keeping the flame alive and the lights on through some previous lean times.

Clearly when you say the word "Ironman" these days, it has a different meaning, to different people. The guy on the bus at the beginning of the blog, has a different idea of it than I, and many others do - but he's still right. The people railing against the WTC getting all corporate and expansionist perhaps yearn for the days when, one time race owner, Valerie Silk, used to send out personal Christmas cards to all Ironman Hawaii finishers. Back then, when mine would show up in the mail every year, I thought that was pretty cool! The problem is, once you go forward these days in the world of business and sport, it's hard to go backwards and the WTC is trying to expand it's business in a big way and has taken the word Ironman and it's original and iconic brand along with it.

The really big Irony, no pun intended, to me is that while there is a heavy over-emphasis on all-things Ironman in the sport of triathlon, the real growth action in the sport is far away from the Ironman. The Danskin, and Trek Women's tri series are huge women-only events that dwarf most of the WTC's events in participants and are the key front door to the sport of triathlon for many of these women. Might some of these women go on to do a full Ironman, or 70.3 race someday? Perhaps they will, but for now, they are happy to put a short swim/bike/run together and feel the accomplishment and garner some bragging rights, much like participants in the first Ironman did, all those years ago!

Where this all goes over the next few years will be rather interesting.

How do you feel about the direction the WTC is going in?

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I really appreciate the recent comment you made on my blog re: Hamilton Half Marathon! It means a lot coming from someone with your experience so thank you!

As for the WTC, coming from a pro sports background, I understand the limited avenues to making revenue. Sometimes you have to think outside the box which is not always going to be popular with fans or customers. They have made a few tough decisions of late and that is business.

I am not their biggest fan (too expensive to race on a reg basis) but I have supported them this season to see what all the fuss was about.

To be honest, I am glad I tried their series but also realize that many other options carry the same or better value for the cost to race with WTC (in my case 70.3).

I may not use their services this season (2011) as I will tighten my budget and stick with local races in the Ontario region.

That is one of the big things triathletes must remember before they get their "Hate On" for WTC.

They must consider that WTC is just one of many options and they do not have to select them. Getting sucked into the brand, to say you are an Ironman, is very material. If I ever decide to do the full Iron Distance but go with the Ottawa race, I will still be proud enough to say that I completed an Iron Distance race.

I know there are other issues people have with WTC but there is not a lot of use in worrying about someone's business when you have a lot of other players in the industry offering quality races.

I guess it may be tough to say that when you are a pro or top AG with World Championships as a goal but for me, the average AG, I just ignore the WTC pressures and enjoy the competition and people on the local events.

Love reading your blog so keep up the great, informative writing!

Thanks again!

Larry Bradley



Good points all around.

If you'll excuse the tri-pun, the WTC is in transition, and they are bound to have some detractors as the transition from one phase of their business cycle and size to another.