Life Time and the ITU: Peace?

When Life Time Fitness CEO Bahram Akradi heard about the International Triathlon Union’s plan to launch a six-race Super Series and Grand Final in major urban capitals to replace what had been a one-day World Championship with a points chase like NASCAR, some triathlon insiders thought he might be worried.

After all, his Life Time Fitness Series partnership with New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas -- joining his groundbreaking, big prize money Minneapolis event -- had been a rousing success in its inaugural year of 2007. By sweeping the series, Greg Bennett took home an eye-catching $500,000 and created a buzz not only within the sport but also in the general sports-hungry public.

If anything, the ITU proposal, together with plans for worldwide high definition live television, had a points chase structure similar to the Life Time Fitness series. The ITU’s goal of racing in major urban capitals mirrored the way Life Time Fitness picked its big-city races in North America. And the ITU drew upon a similar pool of elite, Olympic-level triathletes. The ITU’s proposed one-race-a-month structure from April through September does overlap the July-through-October Life Time Fitness series schedule.

Instead of perceiving the new series as some sort of threat, or simply offering polite applause for the ITU’s commitment to grow the sport, Akradi saw an opportunity somewhat akin to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s daring agreement to talk peace with Israeli Premier Menachem Begin in 1977. Unasked, Akradi volunteered to encourage his partners to put any or all of the life Time Fitness races – and the generous Life Time Fitness prize money -- in the Super Series mix. And furthermore, Akradi offered to host a triathlon peace summit to bring the ITU and USA Triathlon and major promoters and sponsors in the Life Time Fitness series together to share ideas and resources to “raise triathlon to the international prominence it deserves.”

“I think all the parties need to come together and do the right thing for the sport,” said Akradi. “I would like to play the role of the middleman, pay all the expenses, and bring all the parties together to discuss what we could do to make the sport become as big as it could be – on a level with international soccer, tennis, golf, basketball, cycling or swimming. If we are not together, if we continue to act alone in conflict and in competition with one another, nobody will win.”

Pointing to the huge success of many U.S. and international sports, Akradi says that the path has already been clearly defined. “Just look at the National Football League – it was never as big as it became after the merger with the AFL,” said Akradi. “There are no two NBAs, not two Major League Baseball leagues, no two NHLs. If triathlon’s leaders can work together and just follow the blueprint established by all these successful sports, we can succeed.”

As an opening concession, Akradi said he would be happy to give up his preference for classic non-drafting rules in order to “achieve a unified set of rules for elite, professional Olympic distance racing throughout the world.” In more detail, Akradi said: “Back in June, when floods threatened to cancel the third US Olympic Trials in Des Moines, I offered to change the our Minneapolis Life Time Fitness race to a draft-legal format to serve as an alternate site for the Trials. (His proposal was accepted by USA Triathlon but was not needed when the rains abated in West Des Moines). Consequently, I can tell you I am willing to go either way on drafting rules to achieve a universal standard for pro racing. If the ITU wants a clear winner and does not want to subject Olympic racing to controversial post-race judgment calls about the draft zone, that argument makes sense. I am much more in favor of the two entities coming together to choose one set of rules to achieve the greater good for the athletes.”

While Akradi may be operating with a big dose of naïveté by inviting himself to the ITU’s big new party, he may have some attractive assets. First of all, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles and Dallas might each be good candidates for iconic American urban triathlon venues. Unfortunately for Akradi’s vision, Los Angeles race director Jack Caress and the ITU are on the permanently estranged list after a bitter legal contractual standoff over monies owed after Caress’s race direction of the 1996 ITU World Championship in Cleveland.

While Akradi thinks Life Time Fitness’s Minneapolis venue fills the iconic landmark bill “because Minneapolis is the Land of Lakes,” and Life Time’s New York race would fit “because it goes through Central Park,” neither site offers the postcard-familiar, dramatic urban amphitheater feel the ITU is looking for.
Presumably lacking access to LA, Chicago would be the only site left with the spectacular urban backdrops and huge crowds that might fit in with the ITU’s plausible targets of Hamburg, Sydney, London or Madrid.

But perhaps equally important, as the ITU is still seeking sponsors to meet its ambitious prize purse goals, Life Time Fitness and its trendsetting large purses would help the ITU meet its economic targets.

While the ITU was still firming up the cities and dates on its 2009 schedule, industry types familiar with the old tensions between Life Time Fitness and the ITU wondered if this new Super Series didn’t include a payback for old scars. That is, the fierce complaints issued by ITU President Les McDonald when the original Life Time Fitness race in Minneapolis and its huge prize purse drew entries away from the ITU’s July race in Corner Brook, Newfoundland.

A subplot to that dispute was the recent deterioration of the relationship between the ITU and USA Triathlon, which refused to accede to ITU pressure to withhold sanctioning to Life Time Fitness. With the modern ITU and USA Triathlon largely past old feuds, Akradi’s idea to ask the two to work together at the critical juncture in the sport’s growth may be just crazy enough to work.

But Akradi’s initial vision that many of his Life Time Fitness events could immediately join in the Super Series is probably too ambitious, too sudden. Even if the ITU were moved by Akradi’s good will, proven success and motivation to promote the sport, the ITU Super Series is not likely to accept more than one North American race in the first year. After all, they are leaving behind the current 12- to 14-event World Cup points series to focus on a half dozen higher prestige, World Championship points series with global focus. That likely means events in Europe, Australia, and Asia, leaving room at the table for one U.S. and/or Canadian site in 2009.

During this period of uncertainty before the ITU announces in November its Super Series roster of cities and 2009 schedule, Akradi has also drawn a line in the sand, so to speak. He says that he will not sit by idly if the Super Series summer schedule appears to be aimed at direct competition with his Life Time Series. Practically speaking, the ITU has its hands full trying to nail down permissions and dates for its ambitious roster of big city center extravaganzas. The ITU may not care if the dates they have worked out conflict with some events in the Life Time series. After all, Life Time Fitness cited the necessity to hold their event during a fixed, annual Minneapolis civic festival as a reason why they could not avoid conflicting with the ITU’s Corner Brook event.

Akradi remains optimistic all the old wounds have healed.. “If what we have done has created a model that another agency wants to copy, that's flattering,” he says. “I also think it could help the sport – as long as it is collaborative and not competitive.”

But if he perceives ill intent, Akradi says he will respond. “While I am very much in favor of bringing the two together and let the sport become the biggest it can be, neither will I let Life Time Fitness become second fiddle to another series,” he said. “If they push us, I will add a million dollars of my personal funds to make our series twice as big.”

When asked if he foresaw any competition with Life Time Fitness affecting the ITU Super Series fields, Mahony said: “Looking at the standard of athletes who compete in Life Time Fitness, I believe those who run the best events in our World Cup series are a higher caliber of athlete.”

While the Life Time Fitness series to this point may attract some athletes whose talents are especially suited for the time trial bike format and do not prosper in draft-legal racing, it’s hard to argue that Life Time’s pro fields, which have included Emma Snowsill, Vanessa Fernandes, Barb Lindquist, Loretta Harrop, Sheila Taormina, Brigitte McMahon, Michellie Jones, Peter Robertson, Stephan Vuckovic, Simon Whitfield, Greg Bennett, Bevan Docherty, Hamish Carter, Craig Alexander, Andy Potts and Hunter Kemper – plus non-drafting standouts such as Craig Walton, David Thompson and Becky Lavelle – are anything less than first rate.

The intriguing thing is that when you hear what Bahram Akradi and the ITU crowd say they want for the sport – they share the same dream, almost word for word.

“A big part of what we want to do is to put major financial and marketing clout to build superstars,” says Mahony. “We consider our triathletes, who can push bikes at 1000 watts in a surge and 400 to 500 watts for hour, and then run 29:30 off the bike, to be equal in talent and excitement to the best soccer, football, basketball stars in the world. Our races often come down to finish line sprints that must be decided by photos. We think triathlon has athletes of amazing character and charisma performing at amazing levels in a sport that promotes a healthy lifestyle. We want to make a big effort to make them household names.”

From the beginning of his passionate investment in the sport, Bahram Akradi has been singing the same tune. “First and foremost my goal and objective has been to help the sport of triathlon get the recognition it needs to make it equivalent to the world’s biggest professional and Olympic sports. I am always in awe how athletes like Emma Snowsill can swim at a competitive level with the best in the world, can bike hard like Olympic cyclists (2000 US Olympic Triathlon trials competitor Karen Armstrong just won Olympic gold in cycling) and then run at a 5:15 pace for six miles. I want triathletes to get similar stage and broadcast time as stars in other sports who are no better athletes.”

Referring to the misunderstandings which have come between the ITU and USA Triathlon, and the rocky times such conflicts have given athletes, Akradi says he would like to act as a mediator who doesn’t take sides. “Those conflicts have been childish, immature and destructive,” said Akradi. “We need to come together and do the right thing for the sport.”

While Akradi’s vision may be a little US-centric and not precisely fit the goals of the ITU’s bold move, his bold, naïve olive branch and obvious resources and talents might just be a positive step on the road to triathlon joining the world’s global sports titans.

And if it doesn’t work, Akradi is not worried. “What is the worst that can happen?” he asks. “That somebody says no? We are already where we are now. I am not afraid to make suggestion as to what I believe is right for everyone. It’s not for you or I to worry if it won’t work. To combine the ITU series and the Life Time Fitness series could be phenomenal for the athletes and the sport. It’s better to get a bunch of people together and ask ourselves how we can make it work than insist that we cannot.”