USA Triathlon

Any discussion of the current state of triathlon as well as its future success and prospects repeatedly intersects with USA Triathlon. USA Triathlon cannot wreck triathlon in the United States, nor can it save it. But it can make make things easier and in the great majority of cases it does.

It is undeniable, to me at least, that USAT has been an incalculable force for good, though from year to year I and others have our gripes with it. I've been dealing with USAT or its predecessor TriFed for 25 years, so what I write will benefit from a panoramic view of this sport's history and its intersection with USA Triathlon (if you go back about 30 years, to the inception of this organization, you'll find Dave Scott's dad Verne Scott as its founder; he's getting inducted into USAT's Hall of Fame in the above image with another USAT legend, Mike Greer, looking on.)

I'm going to list a number of hats USA Triathlon wears and this list below is not exhaustive. It produces pro and age group national championships, world championship qualifiers, it's got a framework in place for training coaches, it advocates for triathlon when called upon (e.g., during the attempt — successful — to get women's tri accepted as an NCAA sport), it provides for representative elections that empower (at least in theory) the sport's adherents (you and I), and so on. But I'm not talking about any of that below. While these things are important, a lot of this could and might have been achieved by industry or other advocacy were USAT not there to play a role. I'm writing below about things USAT can uniquely do to further the growth and health of the sport (in my opinion). Some of what USAT does that is important still won't make it into today's installment — its youth outreaches, for example — and I'll talk about these efforts in the next installment.

Race Fairness

As noted in my initial installment of this series USA Triathlon was not really the initiator of triathlon's rules of competition. That was mostly the work of the Bud Light U.S. Triathlon Series, back in the early 80s (below are Jim Curl and Carl Thomas, founders of that iconic series, as they were inducted into USAT's Hall of Fame in 2010). But USAT has taken up the slack since the late 80s or early 90s and soldiered on, producing and updating a set of rules that are fair, reasonable and enforceable. If you do not see a USAT official at your local USAT-sanctioned event know that your RD is foregoing the payment of, on average, about $180. That is about what an official would have cost your RD. Two officials would have cost him double that (slightly less, actually) and so on. The exact cost is $90 for an Oly distance race or shorter, and $150 for half-distance races and up. A head referee receives an additional $40 so, really, the first official will cost $130 or $190 and then the base rate for the 2nd and so forth. This is exclusive of the officials' expenses, tallied at 56 cents a mile driving and any costs for travel (lodging, air fare, rental car and so forth), i.e., officials are inexpensive as long as they're pretty local.

USA Triathlon does a good job at making sure trained officials are available. As of this writing there are 10 officials clinics remaining on the 2014 schedule. This is where interested parties are trained to be officials. Last year Charlie Crawford, the longtime chair of USAT's officials committee and the architect and husbander of the officiating program for decades says that of 782 races requesting officials last year 18 requests were not fulfilled. That's 782 weekends we're talking about, as in, if there are USAT officials at, say, Life Time Chicago, and that weekend consists of a kids race, a sprint, and Olympic and an industry race, that's 1 out of the 782 race weekends for which USAT provides officials. If a race has over 500 entries paid I think the RD, if he's a sanctioner, is squeezing his nickels pretty hard if he provides no officials at all.

Because only 18 out of about 800 race weekends that sought officials got officials this process undeniably works. This is one class of service where USAT does not make a profit out of a program that benefits mostly AGers.

Race Safety

It is assumed by prospective registrants that there's a layer of safety associated with USAT races, as in, a USAT sanctioned race is going to be safer than a race that does not undergo a sanctioning process. USAT itself assumes this. It lists as a benefit to sanctioning RDs, "Delivering athlete peace-of-mind by ensuring industry-wide safety standards."

Indeed, it warns of that RDs who do not sanction, "How high are the safety standards? Some race directors may want to cut corners on safety by avoiding USA Triathlon's stringent sanctioning criteria (usually to reduce costs)." This is found under the heading, If you are considering a non-sanctioned race, ask yourself...

USAT sanctions about 4300 events a year and roughly half, or almost half, are triathlons and other multisport competitions. In her article on swim deaths last year ESPN's Bonnie Ford noted that neither of USAT's 2 executives most closely associated with sanctioning, "would confirm how many sanctioning applications are rejected, saying USA Triathlon tries to work on plans that are substandard to make them acceptable."

I have routinely asked this question of a variety of folks at USAT, specifically, "Have you denied a sanction to anyone over the past 2 years?" The question is either unanswered, or it's parried by a question of relevance. Isn't it better to coach an RD in how to make his race safer? Yes, that's true. Still, I can't find an example of a sanction that's been denied over the past 3 years to any RD. Zero denials is a difficult stat to square if it's in fact true. The optics of this are not attractive. But before we remark further on the apparent lack of sanction declines we ought to look under the hood of the sanctioning process.

"USA Triathlon tries to work on plans that are substandard to make them acceptable," says the organization of itself. Its sanction application is online. It's a series of toggles and text boxes that a prospective sanctioner needs to answer. I think USAT, just by the posture of its online application, is asking a lot of the right questions. You can't proceed with the application if you don't fill in the name of the agency tasked with the job of water quality, and the specific person, and that person's phone or email. Same with the law enforcement agency in charge of traffic control if the race crosses major intersections. Same with medical personnel.

What I don't know is whether any of this information is used pre-race, as in, whether anyone actually checks to see if the water is being tested. USAT warns of non-sanctioned races, "Is the water quality properly tested for contaminants? There are no assurances the water is tested in non-sanctioned races." in her ESPN article Ms. Ford writes, "The online sanctioning application sets out two absolute requirements for the swim course: proof of a water quality test, and a minimum number of lifeguards."

But I don't see that any actual water testing is required by USAT, only that you list the agency or company in charge of the body of water. It's not that I think bodies of water are unsafe for swimming, and the very fact that there is an agency in charge of a body of water, with a permit granted, speaks to the great likelihood that the water is tested. Still, is USAT's sanctioning triggering activity or oversight a non-sanctioner does not enjoy? Does USAT contact any of these agencies pre-race and ask about testing protocols? Or, does USAT maintain a database of bodies of water and it knows through past experience that these agencies test routinely? I don't know. My questions to USAT have not yielded detailed answers.

Back to the sanctioning app: You must upload course maps for swim, bike and run, and the schematic of your transition area during the application process and I think all these questions and requirements are good. If you're a sanctioner the process does cause you to have to think about the race you're producing. Me, I would like to take a deeper dive into the actual traffic plan if I was running sanctioning, as in, the traffic flow of all contestants from the time they enter the water ‘til the time then cross the finish, but I'm hinky that way.

My one real disappointment in the sanctioning process was the lack of anything resulting from the work USAT did to analyze swim safety. While Ironman's SwimSmart program takes a lean-forward approach to the swim, and analyzes each of its races to see what works best — streaming starts, mass starts, wave starts — I don't see where USAT has altered its sanction process in response to its own commissioned study on swim deaths in triathlon. Does USAT not think it wise or appropriate to ask its RDs whether they allow for a warm-up? And how this fits into the athlete traffic plan? USAT does a nice job, with its sanction application questions, causing the RD to think about things he might not otherwise have considered. But when people die in triathlons the swim is where it happens, overwhelmingly. Swimmers start out too fast. They panic. They are swum overtop at an inopportune moment. Maybe it is just my observation, and how it strikes me, but it seems to me the sanctioning app deals more with what the RD has in place after a bad thing happens in the water than it does about keeping bad things from happening in the first place.

Race Cost

On the unfortunate page on USAT's website where it berates non-sanctioners the website asks you (the contestant) to consider, of a non-sanctioner:

Is the race organization solvent? Are they strapped for cash? Is there a flight risk? Unfortunately, there are examples of race directors taking participants' money and folding without any accountability.... And ... Some race directors may want to cut corners on safety by avoiding USA Triathlon's stringent sanctioning criteria (usually to reduce costs).

In the most recent case of an RD reneging on a debt — the non-performance of promised prize money — that was a USAT sanctioned race. I have not found a nexus between sanctioning and non-payment of bills. I haven't found anything in the sanctioning package that touches on the financial wherewithal of the RD. But this does bring up a point. USAT's selling feature to RDs has been the inexpense. The fee the RD pays is between $200 and $450 per race, depending on how far in advance of the race the RD chooses to incept a sanctioning process. A private insurer can't beat that. So, how is the race going to "reduce costs?" I don't see anything in USAT's "stringent sanctioning criteria" that is financially burdensome to the RD and certainly the sanctioning costs are not burdensome.

In fact, the costs to sanction are quite high, but they are not paid by the RD. In my polling of race directors it seems to me that right now about 80 percent of all triathlons in the United States are sanctioned. It is just my observation, not the fruit of a study, that the larger and the more expensive races are sanctioned, presumably because — among other things — those entering the race are more likely to be annual USAT members already; some will covet the chance to improve their USAT AG rankings; and the incremental cost of 1-day insurance ($12) is almost trivial compared to the rest of the entry expense.

But other RDs see that $12 as a numbers killer. Insurance is now widely available to RDs for about $2 a head. One insurer liberally used by RDs across the country is Camp Team Insurance out of Denver. This and other insurance brokers rely on policies offered by United States Fire or Atlantic Specialty, both earning an AM Best rating of "A" (from a low of D to a high of A++), and financial strength categories (surplusses) of XI in the case of Atlantic Specialty or XII for United States Fire). These financial strength categories start at I(1) and end at XV(15).

If you're a USAT sanctioning RD you don't get your own policy. You are an additional insured on USAT's master policy. Under Camp Team and just about all the other non-sanctioning insurance sellers, there is a master policy for these RDs but it's different than what you get from USAT. When you pay a premium to a Camp Team carrier you're a member of the master policy, but it shows the RD as the policy holder. Each RD is awarded his own policy. Is it better to have your very own policy? Arguably not and I'll make that case in a moment.

These carriers will write a base policy of $1 million of face amount coverage per occurrence, $3 million aggregate. RDs can buy up to $4 million worth of excess coverage beyond the $1 million base amount. This is pretty standard and not dissimilar to what USAT offers.

But it should be noted that USAT is not just offering insurance, it's offering a whole suite of services. If you buy coverage from Camp Team or similar, you're not buying anything but insurance coverage. You're not buying "rules of competition" or the ability to purchase the services of trained officials. Your event exists outside of any ranking system. And you aren't supporting a number of programs that USAT funds (such as youth programs and Olympic development, and we'll talk about youth programs in the next installment).

Still, the 20 percent of RDs who do not sanction complain of what they see as a huge mark-up in the cost of raw insurance. This might not matter to an RD charging $300 for a half-distance race, but it matters to those who produce races costing $60 or $75 dollars. This hollowing out of the middle of triathlon — affordable triathlon — is something I referred to in the initial installment. Here's an interesting stat: USAT, while providing officials to almost 800 events, had "more events cancel their order for officials — 73 last year — the most in any year, ever," according to USAT's Charlie Crawford. "I do notice," he said, "when an event ends up with much lower entries than expected, we are more likely to get a cancellation of the officials request by the RD." Is this metric — RDs cancelling officials previously orders — a glass peering into what's happening to triathlon in the U.S.?

"What is an event hiding by not sanctioning?" writes USAT on that page warning its members of the dangers of competing in non-sanctioned races. "The fact that a race director is unwilling to share information with the National Governing Body is often a red flag for numerous underlying issues." But a number of race directors split up their race weekends into sanctioned versus non-sanctioned events. They might sanction their longer, more expensive races, while using private insurance for a kids race or a shorter, less expensive event. There is no difference in the safety measures the RD is taking. He's not hiding anything. He's simply unwilling to see his numbers ebb away, year after year, because the percentage of the cost to do his race devoted to insurance is so high.

If the average age of triathletes is increasing (it probably is) and if the number of adults racing in the U.S. remains steady (it probably is) then what seems most likely is that there is a shift upward in our sport toward the more serious, competitive, spendy customers. USAT's policies are engineered — probably not intentionally — to abet the gentrification of triathlon in America.

Stability and Financial Strength

While I find USAT's warnings of non-sanctioners laughably Calvinist in its hellfire prescriptions, there is a very real reason that USAT's existence and financial health is an imperative for triathlon in America and, indeed, every country with triathletes needs this. During the decade of the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s USAT's executive director was Steve Locke and his tenure was marked by one overriding theme and trait in retrospect: the financial health of the organization during an exceedingly difficult time. He ran the federation like a household run by somebody who'd seen the worst of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, because he did see it, at least triathlon's version of it. This federation somehow found a way to increase its own financial reserves year after year even during this very difficult era for our sport.

Steve Locke's stewardship looks better and better to me the more I understand what it was he was doing (ably aided by USAT's executive most loved by a generation of athletes, Tim Yount, shown above, at left). The very best reason for this federation to exist is the thing almost nobody talks about: the ability to weather the drying up of the availability of liability insurance for race directors. Indeed, the time could come when this federation is large enough to self insure, buying only reinsurance and the ability for a carrier to pay for defense costs. We're closer and closer to inoculating ourselves against disaster.

And this leads us to the question of safety and continuity. There is a reason why it's actually helpful for an RD to not have his own policy, granting him his own rates (as is the case with Camp Team). If somebody dies in that RD's event, there is no telling what his rates will be next year if he can even get insured. If somebody dies in a USAT race, the RD's rates are fixed. His policy, his rates, are the same next year as last year. If the current interest by insurance companies in triathlon event coverage goes away — and this interest is cyclical — USAT's coverage is still there.

Not only does USAT's coverage cost more than the market, it should cost more, because USAT should be setting aside an amount of money for that future catastrophe that may happen and probably will (because it already has, in the early 90s, and because of the cyclical nature of markets). As of now, USA Triathlon has about $7 million in what amounts to a reserve in case of catastrophe. This is mostly in the form of long term, but liquid, investments. USAT's payroll increased by about 50 percent between 2008 and 2012, and its "program revenue" (what it collects from sanctioning and insurance) increased from about $8 million to about $9.6 million, but the long term investment line item fell in the period from 2008 through 2011, from just over $5 million to $4.8 million (according to USAT's published financials, and it's understandable considering the financial landscape during those 4 years). These investments were back up to $5.7 million at the end of 2012 and if you add up certificates of deposit, stock, money funds, etc., you get $6.3 million at 2012-end, not counting a boatload of cash it did not have at the end of 2011 ($3 million versus some few hundreds of thousands). I don't know the disposition of that cash (whether it's needed for operations or prior to its conversion to investments). Its 2012 combined tax returns (the org was changing situs, so it has both Calif and Colo tax returns) show revenues minus expenses (earnings if it were not a non-profit) of about $2 million. Realize I'm not a CPA or a trained CFO, but I'm making an uneducated guess at about $7 million in reserves at 2012-end, as a hedge against that day.

We don't know yet about 2013 because USAT and its accountant did not release 2012 until December of 2013, so it's probably not going to be known what USAT's financial situation is as of end-2013 until late in 2014.

In my view, the future of the sport in the U.S. is linked to the health of USA Triathlon in this sense: If things go famously, USAT's value is in high performance (i.e., Olympic) programs, and in a general husbanding of the sport (rules, officials, and a sound, if expensive, insurance option for RDs). USAT's most urgent value is in what happens of things takes a turn for the worse such as, for example, another liability insurance crisis. The question will then be, if the ship is taking on water what gets jettisoned? It's got to be everything other than sanctioning, and that means the coaches, the stipends, the travel: everything that represent the high performance program, including WTS races in which USAT partners and everything that is an Olympic-development cost center. Everything except insurance and sanctioning. But will USAT's leadership do that? Will these be the sacrifices USAT's leaders will make?

In my opinion, yes, because of its executive board makeup of Barry Siff as president, Jack Weiss as treasurer and Mike Wien as VP. This is a clear signal that the federation's board of directors is focused on the need for a strong sanctioning program. This is why it was so critical that the attempt to seat elite athletes in general directors seats in the last election for the most part failed.

Still, a benchmark of long term investments equal to 1 X revenue would not, I don't think, imperil the federation's tax exempt status and would represent an understanding of the prime focus of the federation. That would mean increasing USAT's long term investment portfolio from $7 million to about $12 million.

True North for USA Triathlon

This federation claims that its race event coverage is stronger — that its policy is better — than the policies offered by other insurance options. But we can't know, because USAT will not publish its policy. It shows a policy summary, but it does not allow you to see the actual contract that it has with its insurer. That weakens USAT's claim. It kind of takes the wind out of the question USAT rhetorically asks on its website of non-sanctioning races: "What is an event hiding?"

However, what it can point to is many successful litigation outcomes. You don't know how the process will unfold until coverage is invoked. USAT's insurance and defense has been tested dozens and dozens of times since 2000. This is USAT's strength. And, of course, the fact that somebody can die in an RD's race and that RD can still hold that race again the following year, and at the same rate that everybody else pays.

The most important thing the federation can do to ensure a successful future for triathlon is keep adding money to its investment reserve against that day. Adding $1 million a year, as it has done quite a few times, ought to be the goal, until we at least reach that 1 X revenue benchmark (I'm happy to hear from those more wise than I in such matters whether my 1 X revenue target is unreasonably high or even too low). Otherwise, USAT has spent an awful lot of time on Olympic development and that's a good thing, but its attention to race safety has, in my opinion, been less ardent — not substandard, just not as ardently addressed as has been Olympic development. When I put on a USA Cycling criterium in my hometown a number of years ago, that organization sent out a seasoned representative, weeks in advance of my event, to walk the course. He and I discussed the turns, the closures, the width of the course, the finish, everything that would affect the safety of the event. USAT does not do anything remotely like this nor should it, except maybe for the biggest races. Still, is USAT doing everything it can and should?

Ms. Ford wrote for ESPN,

Half a dozen staff members reviewed sanctioning applications for 4,300 events this year. Matejka told "Outside the Lines" that every application is read and that there is correspondence with each applicant by phone or email. However, in a deposition excerpted in a brief filed this year in a wrongful death civil suit in Mercer County, N.J., she testified that safety plans were not reviewed.

I do not know anyone who would handle sanctioning better than Kathy Matejka. I've known her a long time, she's a true pro. Still, I wonder if her silo inside USAT, which is the engine that provides that organization with the great majority of its income, shouldn't be staffed up so that every application is read, every traffic and safety plan pored over, every race director was contacted in such case there is any anomaly or question, with more drill down on every event's swim safety plan.

More specific traffic plans, and the swim leg overseen in more detail, some acknowledgment during sanctioning of the need of a warm-up area, would be welcome. The lack of a swim warm-up area should be a pro forma denial of sanctioning in my view, until the RD expresses why he cannot provide this and what he intends to do to mitigate this. In short, why did the Ironman corporation unveil SwimSmart? Why didn't USAT do it?

Finally, I think USAT needs to address the problem of the high incremental cost of its insurance for low-cost events. I asked Slowtwitchers what they thought a sprint or Olympic triathlon should cost, all in, including insurance, sanctioning, and online registration engine fees. The consensus seemed to be about $90. I also polled Slowtwitchers, asking, "If an RD did not sanction with USAT, rather it insured its race elsewhere, and the race cost was $10 cheaper as a result, for 1-day license buyers, would that make you more or less likely to enter it?" Fifty-eight percent said "no impact," 28 percent said "more likely," and only 14 percent voted "less likely." Triathlon is getting more and more expensive and the market is driving that. But USAT's business requires it to consider the product it offers and the cost it charges. Should it consider scaling its 1-day charge for races that have low entry fees?

If it did so, its revenue would decrease incrementally, unless that charge is offset by greater entries (and by the decision of non-sanctioners — producing perhaps 20 percent of all races — to come into the fold). Further, attention to the sanctioning process — adding to Ms. Matejka's staff — comes at a cost. How do you do all this and add $1 million a year to the federation's "rainy day fund?" You cut somewhere else.

In 2005 USAT and the USOC each contributed roughly $550,000 to Olympic development. The USOC still contributes that amount, but USAT's contribution has quadrupled in that time. USAT also deficit spent, according to one person inside the federation in a position to know, about $750,000 per year for each of the 2 years the WTS race in San Diego was produced (when you include USAT board member and meeting travel and costs, just the whole San Diego experience, all in). Were that race not contested — assuming that cost estimate is correct — could you have bought down the 1-day for races under $90 from $12 to $9, and the 1-days for kids races from $12 to $6?. And with money left over to more closely oversee the sanctioning process?

I'm not suggesting that USAT spend a dime less on Olympic development, including what it wants to spend on a U.S.-based Olympic style race. It just needs to do so only after everything else it needs to do to keep the revenue engine running smoothly is shorn up, and it needs to recognize and acknowledge that sanctioning is the very last thing you mess with when times are tough. You price annuals and 1-days correctly, you staff for sanctioning appropriately, because if you rob from these core functions you rob from the engine that fuels Olympic development.

The welfare of triathlon and triathletes in the U.S. will, in my opinion, rest significantly on USAT's continuing excellent work in the many facets of sports governance to which it as attached. It just needs to pay a bit more attention to the weaknesses in our sport. In my opinion, those weaknesses are the ebbing strength of the under-$100 triathlons across America; Secondly, USAT can break new ground as an empowerer and policer of triathlon RDs, as they become not just producers of open water events but industry leaders in their production.