The state of the sport

by Dan Empfield 5.21.02 (www.slowtwitch.com)

This series of articles was first published on the TriBiz Reader. For those who didn't read it there (the series is still ongoing as of this date) here is the Slowtwitch analysis of where the sport of triathlon sits as of early/mid 2002, complete with the best estimates we can generate as to how many triathletes and events there are in the U.S., the trends, and the causes of the trends.

USAT MEMBERSHIP AND TRENDS
HOW MANY U.S. TRIATHLETES ARE THERE?

THE RISE AND FALL OF TRIATHLON
CASE STUDY: TRIATHLON IN UTAH
WHAT FUELED TRIATHLON'S INCREASE



USAT MEMBERSHIP AND TRENDS

The USA Triathlon reports that as of the end of last month over 14,000 had signed up for annual memberships to our sport's national governing body. That compares to just below 9,500 exactly one year ago.

Memberships are for 12 months (not calendar years), so those who have renewal anniversaries later in the year will not renew until their old memberships are due to expire. What portends for all of 2002 remains to be seen, however the estimates of the always-conservative USAT office keep being revised upward.

The rolling number of annual members now sits at about 36,000. At the end of 2001 the rolling membership total was 32,800+. At the beginning of 2002 USAT's stretch goal was to hit 40,000 by the end of the year, and now that seems almost a certainty. When one extrapolates 2002 YTD sign-ups over all of 2002 the number is 49-thousand. While it is unlikely that number will be achieved, 42- to 45-thousand seems within reach, and now 45-thousand is USAT executive director Steve Locke's stretch goal.

Is this indicative of an increase in overall triathlon participation? It's hard to say. While USAT's annual memberships are up, its one-days are down (though it's too early in the year to tell whether this trend will continue). One explanation is that the annual fee remains $25 while one-days increased from $5 to $7. There is also the convenience factor. It's easier to become an annual member now by signing up online, and 65% of all annual members now sign up that way.

There are additional reasons for USAT's rise in memberships. The number of races sanctioning with USAT is rising. As of last month 397 events have sanctioned as compared to 232 that time last year. The total number of events sanctioned in 2001 was 719 (a record year), and Locke would be disappointed if this year's number wasn't at least 800.

Tomorrow we'll make estimates of exactly how many triathletes there are in the U.S., and how many races they do each year.

HOW MANY U.S. TRIATHLETES ARE THERE?

How many triathletes are there in the U.S.? It's a bedeviling question because there's no real way to find out. But we think we can come pretty close.

We'll first take a look at USA Triathlon's numbers. Our national governing body reports that there were 116,000 one-day licenses bought last year, and when you take out duplicate names it boils down to 58,000. This means that one-day license buyers raced an average of two times per year. On top of that, USAT licensed just shy of 33,000 annual members. If you add the two groups up you get 91,000.

Certainly there were a certain number of one-day license buyers who then said, "Oh, heck, I'll just get an annual membership," and whose names therefore fall into both categories. On the assumption that there weren't more than a thousand of those, the number of distinct people who raced a USAT event last year was around 90,000, and if that number is high it is probably high by no more than 5,000.

That was last year. The number is likely to be somewhat higher this year, judging by USAT's own year-to-date stats on annual license buyers. We might also mention at this point that the number of USAT annual members is striking when one considers the recent past. It is likely that USAT will sign up 45,000 annual license holders this year. Only five years ago that number was 17,000, and only two years ago it was 22,000.

Back to the math. It seems that 85,000 to 90,000 is not a wholly bad guess as to the number of distinct athletes USAT served last year, as it also reports about 175,000 national ranking "data points"--the number of finish times that needed to be tabulated in creating the national rankings. There will certainly have been some error or failure rate in having all USAT races scored (a few race directors might fail to send their results in to USAT, for example). Assuming that, and assuming roughly two or "two-point-something" races per person per year, the math is about right.

If we assume that, with the growth from last year to this, USAT will serve between 90,000 and 100,000 customers in 2002, how do we extrapolate that out to the total number of those who'll do at least one triathlon this year? One way would be to look at the total number of events. USAT will sanction about 800 races this year. Our best guess (and we may be off) is that there are about 1,400 races around the country, and if not that many, certainly at least 1,200. This is not counting races that involve winter events, or canoe paddling, or anything other than traditional triathlon and duathlon formats.

Certainly USAT has the big races, and therefore it's not fair to just affix a multiplier of 1.5 or 1.7 to the number of athletes USAT serves and claim that this is the total number of American triathletes. Plus, many of those already counted in USAT stats will be among those competing in non-sanctioned races.

Here is where we must make our biggest assumptions. If we take the number of non-sanctioned races (our guess is 600) around the country and assume that these races will draw only 70 percent of the number of participants that a sanctioned race will draw, then we've got an extra 50,000 athletes. If we further decide that a third of those athletes are already counted in our examination of the customers USAT serves, then we've got about 35,000 unlicensed athletes to add to the roughly 95,000 that USAT licenses. That would put the total number of triathletes at 125,000 or 130,000 for this year.

This is only a count of those who will actually race. This does not count what we will call "soft triathletes." These are the ones who might read triathlon magazines, who may've raced in the past, and who certainly intend to race in the future. It includes the injured and those who can't justify racing at the moment due to time constraints or finances. They are part of the triathlon "family," but they will not race in 2002. What is this number? Lew Kidder, whose stats and institutional history are as good as any in the sport, reckons it to be 10 percent or 15 percent of the total number of triathletes calculated above. We at the TriBiz Reader rather think there are as many soft triathletes as those who will race this year: i.e., there are an additional 130,000 of them running around. That's a wide variance and obviously it's based on how loosely you define "soft."

There may also be regional differences. Here in California we have an awful lot of people who are part of the triathlon "scene" but who may not race for a year or even for several consecutive years. That might not be as prevalent a phenomenon in the rest of the U.S.

THE RISE AND FALL OF TRIATHLON

Ninety-thousand is a fairly reliable estimate for the number of athletes in the U.S. who will compete in a USAT-sanctioned triathlon during 2002. The less precise figure for the total number of triathletes competing this year in the U.S. is 130,000. The number of those who consider themselves triathletes but who won’t race in 2002 is much harder to pin down.

While I’ll not often resort to anecdotes for this article series I think this past weekend’s Ralph’s Half-IM California is typical of a trend. One thing of note was the number of spectators, estimated by race officials and police at 15,000, and the degree to which those spectators have competed and will compete in triathlons but may not do so in 2002. I competed in the race, and as I think back on the large number on the side of the road cheering and watching, I recognized many that I know fall into the category of "soft triathlete."

The other thing I noticed was the large number of those in the race who, it seems to me, took time off for some period of time and have returned. Triathlon is the "Hotel California" of participatory sports: You can check out any time you like but you can never leave – at least not forever. In the field and racing at high levels were Kevin Moats, Nick Martin and Liz Vitai, all names from the past and now of the present. They are three of quite a few who, like me, stopped for anywhere from one to (in Vitai’s case) more than a dozen years, and are now back at it. This is one reason for triathlon’s upsurge over the past few years. It appears that triathlon in the U.S. has reached the level of participation it enjoyed at its peak in the late 80s, both in terms of participants (roughly 130,000) and the number of races (1400).

But why the decline in the first place? One first needs to look at the engine behind triathlon’s original rise. The sport was largely driven in the 1980s by the race directors. As I think back on who they were, the names that come to mind are Charlie Houlihan (Crawfishman), Dave McGillivray, Murphy Reinschreiber (Horny Toad, Triterium), Lew Kidder, Carl Owens, Charlie Lincoln (World’s Toughest), Dave Hornung, Sally Edwards, Rick Kozlowski, and many I’m not mentioning. All these people had one thing in common: They raced Kona themselves in the very early years and birthed and grew their races fueled by a personal passion. (They were aided by those who were also bitten by the Kona bug and covered these races in print, and Mike Plant and Bob Babbit come to mind.) Those RDs who didn’t necessarily race in Kona were still touched by it (via the TV stories or by personally spectating), and Jim Curl (USTS) comes to mind.

While the passion of these RDs took triathlon a long way, passion only goes so far. By the late 80s many of the races above went away for a variety of reasons: Many of the RDs moved on in their professional lives. Certain of the races crumbled under their own weight. By that I mean that as races grew, the organizations that ran them grew, and races became so attached to their sponsor dollars that the loss of a title sponsor would often spell doom. Also, as these races grew complaints about social disruption grew as well ("The race kept me from making it to my church on Sunday"). In some cases, a death in the race spelled doom (Farmer’s Branch in Texas).

By the early 90s there was a definite lack of races, and perhaps the U.S. state most emblematic of the rise, fall, and resurrection of triathlon is Minnesota, where two of the states biggest races – Turtleman and U.S. Swim and Fitness – went away, and only this year are both back again (the latter as the new mega-race: the Lifetime Fitness Triathlon). Likewise in Michigan there were 50 triathlons in the late 80s and that number fell to around 20 during the 90s. It is only now edging back toward 50. Georgia, Texas, California, and a lot of other states suffered similarly.

Triathlon rose in the early- to mid-80s for a variety of other reasons: the gripping visual of Julie Moss in ’82; the waning of the running boom in favor of a meatier challenge; the self-indulgent spirit of that decade. Why our sport came back to earth cannot be blamed solely on the dearth of races. Our sport seems to be cyclical, and if a lot of the old guard are coming back it’s only because they left, and that seemed to occur between ’88 and ’95. They took up mountain biking, they went back to school, the got careers (or paid attention to the careers they’d been neglecting), they became adventure racers or ultramarathoners.

Now, in 2002, we found ourselves back at our peak. Before the series is over I’ll write about the reasons for triathlon’s resurgence, how we’ve gotten back to our zenith, and where we’ll again plateau.

CASE STUDY: TRIATHLON IN UTAH

Utah, a state with a modest triathlon history, is getting its own sold-out Ironman this year. With the race less than a month away—it will be June 8—we thought it would be interesting to talk with Chris Bowerbank, whose TriUtah will organize seven races this year, and who networks with many more. We wanted to know how the triathlon landscape in Utah is shaping up these days, and how it might be changing with the arrival of the M-dot.

TriUtah, for example, is offering a new, tempting half-IM in the fall, the Kokopelli Long Course Triathlon, along with a series targeted for beginning triathletes that is modeled on the popular Tri-for-Fun series staged every year in Northern California.

The half-IM is set for Oct. 26 in St. George, which is nestled in Utah’s stunning Red Rocks region.

"That time of year has perfect water and air temperatures (both in the mid-70s), and we are hoping to draw athletes from Utah as well as many of the adjacent states including California," Bowerbank said. "Much like the [perennial early sellout] St. George Marathon, we are hoping the half-IM will become our marquee event."

TriUtah has just launched a new website and triathlon club. To learn more, visit http://www.triutah.com.

TRIBIZ: It's my recollection that TriUtah is a fairly new organization. How did it come about, and how many people are involved now?

CHRIS BOWERBANK: TriUtah started four years ago as a partnership between myself and my friend John Anderson. In that first year, we organized a single off-road triathlon event, the Jordanelle Triathlon in Park City, Utah. At that time, quality open-water triathlons were few and far between in Utah, and my partner and I decided to put on the highest quality event possible. In that first year Timex was our major sponsor and donated $4,000 in Ironman watches as prizes, and we had 140 participants. Since its inception, the Jordanelle event has been the largest locally organized triathlon in Utah. It has morphed from an off-road tri to a sprint/Olympic road event, with the inclusion of an open-water kids tri as of last year. In 2001, the event capped at 500 participants. TriUtah is comprised of two managing partners (myself and John) with 14 other triathletes volunteering their time for the TriUtah triathlon club, which is starting up the beginning of May.

TB: Would it be fair to say that the possibility of an Ironman coming to Utah has spurred interest in the sport and then that once the IM was secured that interest has really taken off? I'm seeing a lot of first-year races on the schedule for this year...is it the IM that is driving interest?

CB: The answer to that comes in three parts: 1) The biggest drawback to triathlon growth in Utah has been communication. In the past it has been difficult for triathletes to know when events were occurring, where other triathletes live, etc. Beginning in 1999, we started assembling an email list that has since grown to over 1,650 athletes in Utah and the Intermountain West. It is my opinion that improvements in communication (especially e-mail) have had the greatest effect on Utah triathlon community growth. 2) We saw the most significant growth in the triathlon scene beginning approximately two years ago. In 2000, our Jordanelle event drew 180 competitors. In 2001 we capped at 500, prior to any Ironman Utah bid. Each year we average approximately 40 percent first-timers, and we've tried our best to cater the event to newbies. That growth is most likely the reflection of the overall increase in interest in triathlons throughout the country. 3) Ironman Utah is only now beginning to advertise to the local public. The effect that Ironman Utah will have on triathlon participation in Utah is yet to be determined. Dan Empfield's prediction that a new triathlon community would be born out of Ironman coming to Utah has yet to be tested. IMU's effect will likely be evident towards the end of the 2002 triathlon season. We've increased the number of TriUtah events from two in 2001 to seven in 2002 to gauge interest.

Of those seven events, two are "tri-for-fun" events modeled after similar events in California. We are holding one event before IMU (May 25), and one after (July 13), and we are excited to see whether IMU will have an effect on participation rates. To be honest, we do not know what the participation numbers will be like. However, we are optimistic that all of our races will reach their modest caps. As a side note, we have already seen an increase in the number of inquiries from people looking to start their triathlon training.

TB: Please fill me in a little bit on the history of triathlon in Utah.

CB: I have lived in Utah for only the past six years, so I am by no means an expert in Utah tri history. However, from what I've learned/heard/gathered over that time, here's what I know: The history of triathlon in Utah is long yet quiet. Scott Tinley has written in the past about an event he participated in (along with Paula Newby-Fraser, Mike Pigg, and others) in Provo approximately 20 years ago when a local hotel builder offered a significant prize purse for an event at (ironically) Utah Lake, where IMU will be held. Other triathlons have come and gone over the years, including events in Heber (venue for the 2002 Winter Olympics), Lake Powell, etc. For many years, the Utah triathlon scene was kept afloat by a series of sprint triathlons put on by a single local race director. Although his series still remains, interest in other local events started in just the past few years (Jordanelle, Utah Summer Games, Yuba XTERRA Triathlon, etc.) have shown the greatest growth.

TB: Please tell me a little bit about TriUtah. Is it run as a for-profit business or as a non-profit club? Or did it grow out of one or the other?

CB: TriUtah is a division of Summit Event Management, LLC and is run as a not-for-profit division. Much of the income goes back into race organization costs, purchasing race equipment, and supporting our new triathlon club. Our primary goals are to 1) organize quality multisport events that benefit the Utah triathlon community (in the future, we hope our events will become annual "must-do" events similar to Wildflower, Vineman, Pacific Grove, etc.), and 2) serve as the primary resource for triathlon-related information in Utah such as training tips, event information, race directing, etc.

WHAT FUELED TRIATHLON'S INCREASE

How deep was the dip in triathlon in the early through mid-1990s? It's hard to say for sure, but USA Triathlon's numbers are illustrative. As we've written earlier in this series, USAT's annual memberships ought to hit about 45,000 this year. The previous membership highs were recorded in the (executive director) "Verne Scott era" of 1986-88, and the apocryphal numbers bandied about are in the range of 33,000 to 36,000. That was when USA Triathlon (then TriFed) had a very attractive insurance policy for race directors and no one-day memberships.

Then started the decline for various reasons--including USAT's inability, due to a commercial liability insurance scare, to get a good policy for its sanctioning RDs. Memberships declined through Executive Director Jim Freim's administration (late '80s) to about 23,000, and when Mark Sisson took over USAT's reins there were fewer than 400 races sanctioning with the federation, or about half the number that sanctioned last year.

Current Executive Director Steve Locke took over as USAT's administrative head in January of 1992. The membership decline continued, to about 17,000 only three years ago. Then the remarkable resurgence began through USAT's good work and other market and cultural forces. What are the reasons behind triathlon's resurgence? I can identify these:

1. No race organization has done more to aid the recent influx of American triathletes than the World Triathlon Corporation and its North American licensee. All these Ironman races around North America have helped build not only new athletes, but new race organizations. One need look only at one Southwestern state. Only two years ago the total number of triathletes in Utah might've numbered in the very few hundreds. Utah now is a triathlon hotbed, with a full calendar of races held over a wide range of distances. Likewise, the Ironman in Madison is the hottest ticket in town, and last year's short-course World Championship qualifier in Lake Placid happened partly because an Ironman was already there.

When an Ironman race hits town a local race staff is born capable of producing smaller standalone races. These will be attended because local Ironman entrants won't be happy with only one race on their schedules. Some of the 600 to 1,500 volunteers will catch the bug and become converts themselves. City officials will be kinder to the notion of granting permits for triathlons once they've got an Ironman, and cities proximate to the race will want their own triathlon.

2. Good races went away in the six-year period between 1989 and 1995, and now they're storming back. In some cases they're returning under the management of their previous organizers (like the Lifetime Fitness Triathlon in Minneapolis) and in other cases through a new breed of race director. As previously described, in triathlon's first run-up these RDs were largely competitors in the early Hawaii Ironman races who came back and started races in their hometowns. Now triathlon promotion is a business. Race organizations all over the country run by Fred Sommer, Shannon Kurreck, Rick Kozlowski, Graham Fraser, Jan Caille, Terry Davis and others put on many of America's best races, and it's not simply a labor of love for them, it's where they derive their (sometimes quite lucrative) income.

As a result of these professional race organizations the old races are coming back and new ones are forming. When I "re-founded" the old US Triathlon Series in 1997 (a series again no longer in existence), I did so because of the alarming lack of races and local race organizations to stage them. While my attempt to do so had mixed results, the paucity of races and local organizations that was part of the scene in the mid-'90s is now no longer the reality. Graham Fraser can live in New York and put on a race in Oceanside, California because there's an infrastructure of staff and volunteers there. Six or seven years ago that was not the case.

3. One cannot minimize the impact that non-profits can bring to racing. You only need look at the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to see what non-profits have done for the running industry. Indeed, one reason triathlon is having a hard time finding sponsors for its star athletes and some of its bigger races are the gaudy registration numbers at the Revlon 5k and any local Race for the Cure. (Footwear companies tend to put their money into a 25,000-person 5k over a 2,500-person triathlon.) The non-profit phenomenon has helped triathlon as well, and the obvious example is the Leukemia-Lymphoma Society's Team in Training. There are so many TNT members in the San Francisco area that finding a race that isn't filled is a real problem. Almost all of Terry Davis' races--Wildflower, Escape from Alcatraz, Pacific Grove, Treasure Island--fill very quickly, and it's partly due to the 400-800 entries that TNT members take up at many of these races. That reality has now hit the ground in Los Angeles and San Diego, and to a smaller (but growing) degree on the East Coast.

4. It's not easy to tell how much the Olympics has meant to triathlon, but it was a very popular event among viewers and has certainly added new athletes to the sport.

5. People in general and Americans in particular are addicted to convenience. While it's still hard work to train for a triathlon, entering one (and in one fell swoop making the emotional commitment to train and race in one) is only a mouse-click away. The Internet has made it easy for newbies to dive into the deep end, and with their very same browser to learn what they need to know to become a triathlete. Online registration is so much a part of triathlon that certain race directors don't even print paper entry forms. Terry Davis' Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, for example, opens its online registration on a Saturday morning many months before the event, and by noon that same day the race is full. Likewise it's easy to become a USAT member, and the great majority of annual memberships are sold online.

6. Finally, I just think a lot of people who left our sport are coming back. I have no data to support this. It's just what I appear to see. Perhaps it's due to the increase of new, and the return of old, races. Maybe it's because those who couldn't find a way into an Ironman now all of a sudden can. Maybe it's due to the decline of other activities (like mountain biking) that in retrospect might've been a transitory diversion for multisporters.

We've gone from 17,000 annual USAT members to (a 2002 estimate of) 45,000 in three years. Approximately 130,000 people will compete in at least one triathlon in the U.S. this year. When will the next plateau occur, and what will the number of triathletes be then? We have a lot of things going for us in this run-up that we didn't have in the late 1980s:

-> Triathlon in its current iteration has been mainstreamed, which is to say it isn't an extreme sport and therefore not subject to the whimsy of fad followers.

-> Cities, race directors, sponsors and risk managers all know what to expect from a triathlon.

-> As was the case with smoking in the 1960s and '70s, private researchers, the office of the Surgeon General, National Institutes of Health, and even the Centers for Disease Control have taken up the gauntlet of getting Americans fit again. That same critical mass of energy that fueled a decline by more than half in the number of smokers is hell bent for leather to make Americans fitter and leaner, and it's becoming apparent even to gullible consumers that there is no magic pill for fitness.

For a growth in participants from, say, 130,000 to 200,000 over the next three or four years, some additional race registration inventory must be generated. The availability of currently unused geographically convenient courses (to which participants can drive in a half-hour to an hour) is certainly sparse. There are enough triathletes nowadays, though, to support more races of the "Wildflower weekend" model, and courses in less-traveled areas will need to be opened up.