The USPro Tri Team features 10 American athletes, and they are led by Ryan Bates. Sal Farruggia had a few words with him to learn more about the team and concept behind it.
Slowtwitch: Hi Ryan, How has your week been?
Ryan Bates: Thanks Sal, doing well. I finally have a little bit of a break here between some races, so time to focus on sponsorship work and my personal training.
ST: What work have you gotten done this week?
Ryan: As director of the team, a big part of my job is pursuing sponsorships full-time. I also happen to race as a pro too, but my “real job” is running the team. I spend a lot of time managing relations between the team and our current sponsors, but most of my time is spent pursuing large corporate sponsors.
ST: What is the USPro Tri Team and what is its mission?
Ryan: We are a team of 10 American pros, and I would say our main goal is to improve the standings of the USA in our sport. It seems odd that the USA would need much help with this, but if you look at our results compared to the rest of the world it seems like we are really quite behind. If you look at the Hawaii Ironman results we only had 1 American in the top-20 last year. At 70.3 Worlds we had 3 Americans in the top-15 so not quite as bad, but still not as great as you would expect. On the ITU scene we are currently getting completely dominated by other countries. It’s not a knock at all on the American guys who achieved those excellent positions, but rather an effort to make us more competitive as a whole! For a country that really is responsible for creating the sport, and hosting a huge percentage of the largest triathlon events, I think we should be doing a lot better. I wish I could say I was talented enough to be one of those guys, but hopefully instead I have created a team concept that can at least provide a springboard for up and coming American pros. I look at a guy like Manny Huerta who was on our team last year as a great example. Did we make him that good? Of course not, but hopefully we provided a helpful link that enabled him to continue on toward his successful Olympic quest.
ST: Which professionals are part of your roster?
Ryan: Myself, AJ Baucco, Daniel Bretscher, Mike Caiazzo, Brooks Cowan, Ryan Giuliano, Jim LaMastra, Kyle Pawlaczyk, Zach Ruble and Tony White.
ST: How do each the athlete and the sponsor benefit from their involvement with the USPro Tri Team?
Ryan: The other major aspect of pro racing that our team addresses is the massive expense involved. Unfortunately triathlon is extremely expensive and time consuming, which creates some very large hurdles for up and coming pros. Most pros eventually become broke and frustrated, and leave the sport as a result. Basically you earn almost zero money as a pro until you can get into about the top-5 results on a regular basis. Even then it can be very tough financially to keep afloat. That’s a huge task when you consider that most pro races have fields of 20-30 pros from all over the world. And with all of the time commitment needed to train properly it is very difficult to have another job. But somewhere something has to give, so it’s a big juggling act of time and finances for most up and coming pros. Pretty much every guy on our team has either a part or full-time job, as we are very much a blue-collar type working man’s team. But we’re not complaining either, we race triathlon simply because we love it! You would have to be crazy to get into triathlon just to try and make money. Sure there are some world class pros that make good money, but for each of those type of pros there’s a boat load of other guys who are making zero.
Essentially what our team provides are many of the necessary tools to keep our athletes in the game. We provide our guys with a very nice product package, along with a small amount of performance bonuses, which eliminates much of their necessary expenses. We have some great sponsors to work with who provide us with a ton of gear. No one is ever going to get rich from being on our team, but if we can at least keep them afloat then they have a much better chance of succeeding. Some guys might only need our help for a year, some guys might be on our team for a decade and that’s just fine. Younger pros find it critical to keep them afloat, while some of the more established pros find that it’s simply much easier than having to go out and struggle to find sponsors on their own.
ST: Who is your title sponsor and what does their support mean to the team?
Ryan: We have actually taken an approach much like pro cycling teams, where we have certain sponsor packages available, and if not filled then we keep them open until they are. We were fortunate enough to have GEICO on board with us these last two years as one of our larger sponsors, and that relationship will provide a huge springboard for our continued growth. Our major goal for the future is to take on another major sponsor or two, which is necessary to keep the team alive. We also are looking for a long-term deal with a major bike sponsor brand. In the past we have worked with some smaller brands, but are seeking a large brand to work with for quite a long time.
Guys on our team are selected first and foremost based on their attitude and ability to represent our team and sponsors well. Getting good results is a very distant second. I would rather have a “great guy” as opposed to a “great athlete” any day. If they can be both then perfect! I think if you ever meet any of our guys you’ll find out they are very down to earth nice guys. Most of them are triathlon coaches as well, and are very active within their community. We all have a ton of experience being age group athletes over the years, and just because our membership card now says “Elite” doesn’t mean anything changes. All of our training partners are fellow age group triathletes. Anyone should feel free to talk about anything with us at any time. We love doing expo booths at events, and helping out everyone from advanced age groupers to first time participants.
ST: When did you quit your job and start going full time with the team?
Ryan: In 2008 I worked for a major cable company selling TV ads, which is where I gained the experience selling sponsorships and ad space. I had been racing as an age grouper for over 12 years at that point and was considering getting my pro card. I knew I could qualify, but also knew I would never be fast enough to earn a living at it. Running the team would allow me to make a living in the sport that I love, while at the same time making an impact on the sport and helping others.
ST: How much of a personal investment was that?
Ryan: It was and still is huge. I had no idea if it would work out but was willing to take a chance. I didn’t want to regret missing out on something I truly believed in. The first few seasons were really a struggle financially, especially when I knew I could just go back to a desk job and have a very nice steady income. Wish I could say I had some big trust fund somewhere. I owe a lot to my wife, had she not kept her desk job then none of this would have happened. Quite frankly I’m not sure why she put up with it, but I’m glad she did!
ST: How have things grown since then?
Ryan: We are still a very small budget team but I think we do quite well for the small resources we do have. There are some things we’d like to work on like getting a more professional looking website etc. We have experienced a growth in sponsorship backing and athletic ability every single year though. We still have a long way to go, but that’s always a positive sign to continue growing in a down market.
ST: Any plans to include women on the team?
Ryan: I get this question all the time! We just started with the men’s team partly because a lot of them were guys I knew from my own racing. We are planning though to start a separate women’s pro team here shortly, just have to find the funding.
ST: Do you see teams like yours playing more of a role in the future of triathlon?
Ryan: Honestly I don’t know, but I really love our format. I think our guys truly love the team concept. While we obviously can’t race together like a cycling team, we do race together at the same races quite often. As far as I know we are pretty much the only pro team that does that. I set up expo booths at races as often as possible, and then we try to have as big of a team as possible at each race. Some races we may have at least 5 guys racing, which is really cool when we make up 25% of the pro field! When the gun goes off, it’s game on, and we are every man for himself. After the race we are back together as a team, and enjoy the friendship and support we provide each other. Each guy that is successful helps out each other guy on the team by doing well for our team results and sponsors. If I have a bad race personally, I can still sit back and enjoy the fact that my teammate did well for us. With that many guys racing, we are bound to have good and bad results at each race. Some weekends one guy is on fire, the next weekend it’s a different guy.
ST: I noticed the team travels to a good amount of Rev3 races.
Ryan: I think Charlie and crew have created a great new series and I hope they do quite well. They seem to have done well right off the bat, and the family type atmosphere is perfect. We do races from many different organizers, but Rev3 really treats the pros and age groupers as though we are all very important.
ST: What advice can you give very competitive age groupers that might be looking to acquire modest sponsorships?
Ryan: I would say you really need to give a great reason for someone to sponsor you specifically. Companies receive thousands of requests for the same thing, so you need something that stands out. They are usually looking for someone that can help sell their product, rather than someone who is just fast. I know that’s what we focus on here…..promotion is the key to our success, good race results are a bonus.
ST: How have you enjoyed racing professionally?
Ryan: It’s a blast! The main difference is that you get to start with the wave of fastest people, and race head to head instead of doing a time trial. Strategy can be quite a bit different and is much more important. You are now racing instead of time trialing, which is why sometimes a guy flies and sometimes he blows up and walks. The field is smaller and abilities more evenly matched, so there is a lot more action/reaction like a bike race. Finishing time is much less relevant, but rather focused on your placing within the finish order. Not much else really changes. You don’t get any magic pay check by turning pro, so it should be because you want to race with the fastest guys/gals. Be prepared to keep your ego in check, because going from winning age group races to getting your butt kicked in pro races can be a shocker! Personally my goals are to keep moving up, just like any age grouper’s goals. If you’re 800th then maybe your goal is to be top 700 next time. If you’re 25th pro then maybe your goal is to be top 20 pro next time.