Chris McDonald is a man who has just about done it all in triathlon – he’s a professional athlete, coach, club founder, manufacturer, and sponsor. The 7-time Ironman champion founded the Big Sexy Racing team five years ago which now features nearly 300 members and a dozen sponsor relationships. He’s also started a clothing line named Own Way Apparel. He was a featured panelist at the recent Triathlon Business International Conference and was ready to share his unique view of the industry from many angles.
Chris, thanks for your time. How're you doing?
Thank you for the time mate! How am I doing...things are going great! At the end of last season I took a pretty solid break from training and spent some quality time with the family, but also spent time working on some of my business ventures before I kicked off my training for 2018.
What were your immediate thoughts and feelings coming out of this year's TBI Conference?
You know, I attended TBI for the 1st time last year as a panelist and was pretty taken aback by everyone’s doom and gloom. I walked away thinking everyone was just about ready to throw in the towel. For me personally, I think every down turn is an opportunity and a time to re-invent yourself. So going into the conference this year, I can say I had low expectations, but to be honest: I was pretty blown away. I felt everyone was a lot more upbeat, people wanted to talk about what we could do rather than complain about what was being done. All in all I think it was a super positive few days that will make a difference in the sport of triathlon.
During your presentation, you mentioned the channel conflict between clubs, retailers, and manufacturers. How do you think these relationships can evolve so everyone can benefit?
This is obviously a touchy subject for many as we move into times of direct-to-consumer and the ability to purchase through Amazon with free two-day shipping. The way I look at it, is I think all 3 can co-exist and all 3 can help each other grow their market share.
When you look at the decline in triathlon participation over the last few years, we’re losing a lot of people to the MOB (mud, obstacle, beer) events. Why? Because they were looking for an experience or experiential moment rather than a bucket-list item. Why is this important? Because I think this is what people are craving on all levels, and at the moment, it is missing from a lot of the retail platforms. If you are just a place to purchase an item people can easily do that online from their phone or computer and get have it on their doorstep within two days. I believe the very best multisport shops create an experience: they have a great sales staff, a friendly environment, and they carve out a small place for people to hang out. An example would be I can buy inner tubes online for $2.95, but if i have a great relationship with my LBS and I love the experience of going, I will go there and pay double. And I do!
This is where I believe the clubs can work with the retailers. Does the retailer need to give discounts? No! What they can do is provide a place for gatherings, a team night, fit sessions, a "Clubhouse", per se. It’s no secret I am very close with Mark Miller’s Precision Bikes in Lafayette, Louisiana, which is a shining example of doing it right. People leave work, buy their lunch, and go hang at the bike shop over their lunch break. It is like the “Cheers” of bike shops. Shoot, I fly all the way from Colorado to go hang out there! Good customer service and connecting with your clients will always trump the internet.
The team is also a part of the experiential treatment. Being a team is not, “Hey, I am on Team Big Sexy Racing.” We are truly there for each other through thick and thin. We’ve seen divorces, births of children, illness, natural disasters-we have all helped each other during those times of need, and people sense that. Triathlon can be a selfish sport, so at as many races as we can, we create a tailgating experience. Spouses, children, family and friends have a place to gather, cheer, and have a fun day. That’s what it’s all about. I always say you’ve got to take your team to the finish line. Your family and friends have sacrificed also so why not try to make their experience fun, too?
One topic that always tends to come up around TBI is identifying who all of the stakeholders are. Would you consider professional triathletes to be stakeholders in the triathlon industry?
Should they be? Absolutely. Are they? I don't believe so.
This is also a very touchy subject and I believe I could ruffle some feathers. When triathlon was in its very early days (early 80s through the 90s) the sport was in a massive boom. You had very few "Professionals" and the ones that were racing were really looked up to. In that era the "Pros" job was train hard, race hard, and win races. Back then, this got a lot of attention. It was before the internet and in the days of mostly print media. The sport relied on print to get their news out and whatever you put on the Pro moved product. The Pro was a valuable asset to the companies and their stakeholders.
It is not the ‘80s anymore! Now people all over the world know who won a race in real time, and there are 1000s more races and 1000s more professionals. People’s need for information is immediate and attention spans are fleeting. This leaves the old school form of a professional dead in the water. However, I believe this form of living opens up another market. Since most folks spend so much time working and alone, they have the desire to be a fan/part of a group.
Now, who do I think is at fault that, in relative terms, pros earn peanuts compared to the 80s? I would say it’s a 50/50 split between the companies and the pros. With the advent of social media, it’s all about "likes" and "followers". Let’s be honest. Does that move the needle for a company? In my research, not really, especially when it’s easy for some people to simply go out and purchase followers just to make their sponsors happy. But, that is what is being asked of the pros. Share, “like”, “follow”, but the companies are seeing no ROI and therefore think, “why do we even bother with pros?” But, that’s what they are asking for!
People want to know the "why" not the "what". They need a cause or a tribe to follow, as more of their life is spent working. They don't really care "what you did" or "what you are riding" or "what you ate." They want to know why you did what you did and why you ride what you ride. More of a true sense of story that they can follow. Now you might have a pro who has a much smaller "social" following, but has a story of why. They have branded themselves like a C Corp, so it is not about the, “Look, I am a Pro and I won X race”, it is about the why they are faithful to their sponsors, how they interact with people at races and online. They actually spend some time being a real person. So what if they have a smaller, but loyal group that identifies with their brand and image? At least it’s real. I work closely with my sponsors. I know how much the team and me move the needle. I have learned (and am still learning) what works and what doesn’t work. I have turned away deals because I don’t believe in the products. I’ve turned away deals because I don’t like the way I’ve been treated. It’s about honesty and integrity.
I think companies would be better off asking their Pros to take it to a personal level. Instead of requiring X amount of tweets and FB posts, ask a Pro to find one individual to mentor. This one person will become a lifelong fan of not only the the athlete, but their products. Likewise, you know his or her family will also be affected and it then becomes a ground swell affect. Right now the retention of athletes is tough, but I think with my suggested model it is better for the growth of the sport, it is better for the retention of athletes who are looking for that experience, and it is better for the companies as they are having a direct impact that can be tracked.With this model, I believe you can take the sport to a whole new level-as you would create "fans of the sport" and "fans of the athletes".
There is always the argument that the Pros are being asked to do the job of the marketing company...which we are! But, instead of wincing about it, why not think of yourself as a marketing company? Which is exactly what we are! Look at the NFL: you have guys getting paid $90 million a year, but you still see their bosses making them be interactive on a personal level. Some people may say, "But yeah, they do it because they are getting paid $90 mil.” The way I look at it is this: what we are doing now is not helping the sport to grow and you we are NOT getting paid $90 mil, so we may as well try something else.
Would I like it to be like the old days where you raced hard, won races, and got paid? Sure, but it ain’t! And it is never going back.
Were you disappointed in being one of the few registered professional athletes at TBI?
One of the few? I believe that would be the only. [Ed.: Chris was one of two pre-registered professional athlete attendees.] I will give Ben Kanute props for coming on the third day. Again, this was my choice to be away from my family to go, and I just believe more professionals should think about it. Do I think we need every registered professional there? No. Do I believe we need a good subset of pros? Yes. TBI had manufacturers, retailers, coaches and race directors. I think the professional athlete is part of the whole equation that is missing and needs to be taken into account.
Personally, the professionals are the only way we can really take triathlon to a new level. It is an area where a small part of the equation can make a difference on the view of the professional athlete from an industry standpoint, which can ultimately help change the direction of the sport. Whether an athlete likes it or not, they have to view themselves as a business. As Mike Reilly kindly put it at the conference, “If you are in the business of triathlon and you are not at this conference, you are not in the business of triathlon.”
Speaking of other professionals, Big Sexy Racing has a stable of professional triathletes. How will you cascade messaging and the importance of initiatives from TBI to your professional athletes?
Funny you should mention the Big Sexy racing pros. In 2017 we tried to do something different by supporting several professionals and asking my sponsors to also support them. It was a massive eye opener for me. It put me on both sides of the coin, and I could see very clearly why companies get frustrated with pros. It also showed me a way I think we, as professionals, can add a lot more value to the industry.
Has it turned me off sponsoring athletes? Absolutely not! My clothing company, Own Way Apparel, will be supporting upwards of 10 pros this year. I am putting my money where my mouth is! We are helping each pro create an identity, a brand, something that can be marketed to non-endemics, too. It is our way of celebrating the athlete as a whole-who and why they are that way and not just "what” they use.
Another major push coming out of the conference is Time to Tri. What will BSR/Own Way Apparel be doing to support the Time to Tri initiative?
Again, I am willing to put my money where my mouth is. I personally mentor several youth athletes and will be looking to do even more of it on a local level in Boulder. OwnWay donates almost all of our fit kit items to underprivileged youth groups. Own Way also tries to go out of the way to celebrate athlete diversity and equality! We have been shipping many athletic Hijabs around the world so women of certain faith can participate in triathlon. This is just a small part we can play.
It sounds like you're going to be a very busy man in 2018. So lastly: where will we be seeing you on course this year?
On course....I will be traveling back down south to give IMNZ a roll around. Way back when, it was the race where I qualified for my pro card, and Taupo is a pretty special place. My focus race for the mid-season will be my local hometown race of IM Boulder. I’ll splatter in a few 70.3s for training races and see where I am on the KPR.
Let’s not forget that all of these things don't happen because of me. There is one very special lady who does not get the attention she deserves, and I could not do 1/4 of what we do without her. I know Dan agrees with me on this one.
[All photos: Chris McDonald]