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Sometimes you eat the bear

Written by: Dan Empfield
Date: Tue Oct 12 2010

"And sometimes, well, he eats you." So says The Stranger to The Dude in Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski.

After observing the work product of various race organizations over the Summer and so far this Fall, observations by The Stranger are, at this juncture, in order.

Ironman (in the form of WTC) is probably no smarter, no more intuitive, it's no more professional, and in several cases no better funded, than other well-equipped and well-managed race organizations. It's just more intrepid.

But it hasn't made forward progress solely through strength and brawn. It's pushed up its shirtsleeves and outworked its competitors. Meanwhile Life Time Fitness abides. (Or so I seem to have observed.)

I'm going to use Life Time Fitness as a proxy, and I could be writing this about a number of race producers. Life Time Fitness is an apt example because it's got a series that works—or did so up through 2010—as a worthy counterbalance to Ironman's ambitions and expansion. But The Life Time Fitness Series has lost NYC Triathlon to Ironman, and instead of picking up one of Charles Brodsky's two Washington DC events, it got neither—rather Ironman picked up one of them.

As I spectate this—having interviewed several folks in and proximate to both the Ironman and Life Time Fitness' organizations—Life Time Fitness is a nimble Gale Sayers, moving East and West, surveying the line for an opening. Ironman is Bronco Nagurski, legs pumping straight ahead, moving North and South, inartful perhaps, breaking china, nevertheless picking up yardage.

There's nothing wrong with contemplating, calculating, holding meetings, choosing wisely, but while Life Time Fitness is thinking about and planning its event expansion, Ironman has boots on the ground and—armed with rifles and shovels—is taking ground town by town, yard by yard. At some point it's going to be too late for Life Time Fitness to expand. Ironman will have taken every town worth taking.

Even now, it's looking less like a campaign and more like a siege. This, because Life Time Fitness either lacks the will and focus at the top, or the talent at the point of execution. In any case, there seems to be a lack of urgency.
One hurdle at Life Time Fitness is that its brand and its business are focused primarily elsewhere, rather than in triathlon. Ironman does not own health and fitness clubs. It's got one job: To take everything in triathlon worth taking. Unless the owner of Life Time Fitness—Bahram Akradi—imbues and invests his events division with a clear, unequivocal, and public will to compete, he's going to lose his series.

If that happens, he'll still be a very successful businessman, and each of his series races will continue on without losing much by not being in any series per se. Each series race will continue on as a strong, independent event. But the synergy and branding of a series he'd certainly lose, along with the sponsorship and accompanying series prize money needed to fund a good pro field and season-long spectator interest.

Maybe that's the problem. Maybe that's why the urgency seems absent. There is no business category at Life Time Fitness for which the Life Time Fitness Triathlon Series, and the Race to the Toyota Cup, are survival imperatives.

Assuming Akradi does, however, take up the gauntlet, and redoubles his company's efforts to compete toe-to-toe in triathlon against Ironman, he needs to hold one very simple, very direct, meeting with his events division. He needs to say something like: "I want a half-dozen cities in focus on May 1 of every year. By October 1 I want races announced for the subsequent year in two of those cities. One of those races we will either purchase or partner with. The other is an event we will incept, build and own."

I don't think Akradi would have to make this speech at any other time in triathlon's history. I just think he has to make it now, because the race is on, the game is afoot, and in the business of big-time events you're either going to take market share, or it's going to get taken from you. Just ask owners of marathons with 2500 participants how well they sleep at night once Rock and Roll starts casting its gaze upon their towns.

To be sure, I keep hearing about one or two events added to the Race to the Toyota Cup next year. Still, it's mid-October, at this point the series is down one race heading into 2011, and I'm losing confidence that it's going to look any sexier in 2011 than it did in 2008.
Ironman and Life Time Fitness are not the only actors in this play. Competitor Group and its new TriRock series will have something to say about Ironman's mounting national hegemony over multisport. So will significant regional race organizations like Terry Davis' Tri-California Series that includes Wildflower, Pacific Grove and Treasure Island Triathlons. There's IMG with Escape to Alcatraz, the London Triathlon, Ironman Australia, Abu Dhabi, and Triathlon Alpe d'Huez. And I'm not forgetting Rev3Tri—Charlie Patton is not going to watch his brand go gently into that good night (indeed, I hear Rev3Tri's name a lot in prospective venue after venue around this country).

Still, what Ironman's hard push means for all these companies is: Be urgent, or be absent. Once Ironman places a significant race in Seattle, or Atlanta, or Boston, or Vancouver, or Toronto, it's going to set the agenda for these towns. The chance of another large race owned by a competing organization occurring here diminishes.

It's not as if these other organizations don't have the heft to compete against Ironman. Certainly IMG, Competitor Group—with its Rock and Roll Marathons—Life Time Fitness and Tri-California can boast of records of success in building big, impactful events from the ground up.

Just, it seems to me they fight using Marquis of Queensbury rules. Ironman competes as if it's in the Octagon.

Ironman is leaving its competition openings. Its 5150 is a severe leveraging of the Ironman brand—indeed, the word "Ironman" isn't even part of that new brand—and maybe the weight of that cantilever is too much to sustain. As strong as Ironman is with its own Ironman and Ironman 70.3 brands, as headbadges go its 5150 is a 98-pound weakling in comparison, for reasons I've stated elsewhere.

But don't bet the 5150 is going to remain an unimproved, unpolished brand for long. If you're a successful race organizer, roll up your sleeves and equip yourself to coexist alongside a company that does what you do; with very hard working and very ambitious men and women doing it; and an appetite for expansion in your direction.

If I sound anti-Ironman, I didn't write artfully. I'm pro Ironman, and I'm pro Ironman coming—or endeavoring to come—to your town and mine.

What's my point, then, urging, advocating for, gently prodding forward, Life Time Fitness? Because I believe in a market in balance. Life Time Fitness is a bulwark. As The Stranger said about The Dude: It's good knowing he's out there.


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Race series - Pro vs Age group 4 out of 5 stars

Do age groupers even care?

Reviewed by: Mark Cathcart - Austin, TX, Oct 14 2010 9:09AM

I have to say that there is little interest amongst the ordinary age grouper/community in triathlon race series. Most don't even know if their local race is part of a series, or not, and those that do, mostly don't care. The different races in the USA for any given series are too far apart to make it practical or affordable for anything other than "professional" athletes to take part in more than one race, or one race plus the "final".

So, the interest is mostly amongst both those that can afford to race in a series, and those that do or hope to make money off a series, which include athletes, manufacturers, suppliers, retailers, sponsors and the whole media industry that goes along with it, inc. magazines and websites, like, err, slowtwitch. Now of course sweeping generalizations don't work 100%, sure some people are genuinely interested and invested in improving the sport, I'd say you are one of those Dan.

But ultimately, the majority interested in a series it's mostly about the money, not the community. Sprint races are fun, hard and fast; but difficult to cover in a way which makes them TV friendly, even in the Internet era. Olympic/International harder, 70.3 and Ironman near impossible to make interesting. Hence the IM fixation on special people rather than pure athletic ability.

Thus the point of a series mostly about locking in venues, dialing up profit and as we've seen recently, even using monopolistic-like practices to minimize competition. Getting commercial partners aka sponsors in helps cover the expense of putting events on, doing media coverage, providing prize money; but the basic event doesn't become more interesting just because there is more prize money.

The WTC is making it harder for pro's to qualify for IMH and the 70.3 finals which will for a while ramp up the quality of pro start lines at their normal races. However, unless the WTC break out of their normal rut on getting sponsors, this is unlikely to last. The 5i50 series is an attempt to capture some of the opportunity for the pro fields and sponsorship at shorter distances, I remain skeptical about anything it can/will do for age groupers though, except raise prices. The individual race organizers are going to have to pay something for the "business" of being in a race series, the only way they are likely to cover the additional brand and experience costs is to increase the number of competitors, and/or raise prices, neither of which actually make the race better or more interesting.

I'm actually really impressed with the proposed Super Sprint Triathlon Grand Prix series - It's not a completely new format, but it is a radical way to make a pro race series more tv friendly, more attractive to watch and is purely a pro race/series.The general development of race series is, I assert, bad for the average age grouper. They are paying to subsidize pro races, their participation is used as a carrot for advertisers and sponsors, who require a level of event for media coverage that is simply not needed to provide a quality event for the community.

Dan's article on WTC vs. The Rest 3 out of 5 stars

Steve Handwerker

Reviewed by: Steve Handwerker, Oct 13 2010 2:10PM

Anyone who mentions classic Chicago Bears in any type of article is OK by me!

Aside from that, WTC is and has always been arrogant. Graham Fraser and some of the other former franchisees were the antithesis of the parent company WTC's employees. Most of the other leading event companies have been and/or or are good people and good business people, but, as Dan mentioned in other words, they need to have more chutzpah and focus. The world needs more than one big game in town.

Fair analysis but a bit incomplete 3 out of 5 stars

Mike Abegg

Reviewed by: Mike Abegg, Oct 13 2010 11:56AM

Disclaimer: Although I am not a Life Time Fitness employee, I do receive in-kind compensation from them for volunteer duties at the Minneapolis race. And I've raced an Ironman(TM) event as well.

As always, a well-thought-out and reasoned commentary. I do think you give the LTF series a bit of a short shrift, however. First, you note the loss of New York but don't credit the series for having added Philadelphia in 2010. So right now the '11 series has the same number of races as '09. (Although as an East-Coast guy I'd never equate ANYTHING Philadelphia to the same thing New York.)

Second, certainly LTF has taken a strong move forward by acquiring Chicago, it no longer is simply a member of the series but an actual LTF-O&O like Minneapolis and Dallas.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the LTF Tri Series has a role within the company such that in concept it should be focused on those areas where the LTF clubs are concentrated. The value to LTF of the races is really in the amount of revenue it can generate from getting people to join the club, sign up for personal training, masters swims, etc. So the New York race is less valuable to LTF than to Ironman, since there are no LTF clubs in New York. I can certain speculate (and I have NO inside knowledge of this, trust me) that LTF might respond by looking to add/create races in places like Phoenix, Denver, Detroit, or Atlanta where there's a significant club presence already.

(Sorry this is a little long-winded.)