Ironman: Is it all about Pipe?

There are now about 300,000 swim-bike-runners in the United States, perhaps double the number of a decade ago. Not included in this number are those who no longer actively compete but who still read the magazines, buy and use the products, and still consider themselves multisporters. This makes triathlon, as an affinity group, maybe a half-million strong, maybe stronger.

Triathlon's organic growth proves the sport's relevance and staying power, reaching a target size that makes it attractive to major league investors. You don't need investment expertise to state this. Simply observe what's happened over the past 12 months. Both of triathlon's major print magazines, and its most important event conglomerate, have been purchased by two different private equity firms for which triathlon, five years ago, was barely a pimple on the sporting world's back.

And, nobody thinks the absorption of Ironman marks the end of the shopping spree. Most in a position to know think private equity and other investors are just warming up—triathlon is not half done getting acquired.

As for why the Gills family sold, one could ask the opposite question: Why did they hold out for so long? Private equity firms like these that now own the Ironman, and Triathlete Magazine, routinely divest in 5 or 7 years. Against that backdrop, keep in mind the Gills family owned the Ironman for 20 years.

Several plays have been made for the Ironman over the years. Why didn't the Gills family sell earlier? In addition to financial considerations, I think Dr. James Gills always understood that—like the Indianapolis 500, the Boston Marathon, the Kentucky Derby—the Ironman is not just a property to be bought, sold, parsed and parceled like your garden variety equity. It is a social and cultural institution and will be there long after Dr. Gills has solo-ridden into that great transition area in the sky.

If I'm right, this ought to give us hope. One assumes that the new owner of Ironman offered the Gills family assurances, giving them a comfort level necessary to execute the sale of Ironman—passing the torch to a group that will honor the "Ironman Experience" to which the Gills family has so often referred.

Still, we're talking private equity here. While there is at least one veteran Ironman competitor in the upper echelons of this private equity company, this is other peoples' money were talking about. It might've been a passion buy when Dr. Gills acquired the Ironman in 1989, but Ironman's new owner can't afford that sort of luxury. This is an investment, and the sort of return private equity fund investors typically expect anticipates a sale in several years that will return some multiple of the sale price just paid.

What is Providence Equity Partners thinking here? What strategy involves retaining and even improving the Ironman Experience for the competitor, while reaping a significant financial reward for the new owners? I don't think it involves raising entry fees or packing more people onto start lines. I don't think it involves cutting expenses.

Throughout my business career a truism has attended the purchase of every company or property in which I've been involved: The equity I acquired meant more to me than it would've to someone else. There was something about that company from which I specifically benefited—something that made the company a premium purchase for me. Hence, the purchase price, while perhaps executed at market value, represented a discount to me, because of the special utility that company provided me.

That's what I'm hunting for here. It's that sort of narrative that might explain why a private equity firm would buy a property like the Ironman.

That special value the Ironman represents might become evident only after future purchases are made. For example, should Providence Equity Partners purchase Competitor Group, Inc., from Falconhead Capital (the other private equity group buying up multisport properties), it would have the premier brand in triathlon, the premier race licenses, and the important print publications. Compelling though this narrative might be, it would surprise me if this is it.

I suspect the answer lies in the properties Providence Equity Partners already owns or owns equity. Specifically, I think it's all about Pipe.

What does Providence do? What's its theme? While it holds some investments in the medical industry and in education, mostly the fund is invested in Pipe, and in the content that flows through it. Providence owns media and entertainment, both content and delivery. For example, it owns a big stake in MGM (content) and it owns movie theaters (content delivery, or if you prefer, Pipe).

Providence paid $100 million recently for a 10 percent stake in Think of WebTV, but better, much better. Hulu is a one-year-old child of parents NewsCorp and NBC. Subscribers can watch content for free, and the revenue stream is advertising. So far, so good for Hulu, based on this industry review published on CNET earlier this month.

Does Providence tend to leverage the properties it owns or in which it invests? Consider this directory of MGM movies available on Hulu. Providence, along with Sony Corp and other investors, bought MGM in 2004 from Kirk Kerkorian. Providence then bought into Hulu in August of 2007, and two months later MGM and Sony announced the licensing of their content to Hulu. Maybe this was all a coincidence. I'd wager otherwise.

Providence Equity Partners also owns or holds significant stakes in large internet service providers throughout Europe. It owns satellite, cable and broadband internet in the U.S. and in Europe, and television and broadband providers in the Rocky Mountain states and in Europe. Earlier this year, Providence acquired Clear Channel's 56 television stations. It owns the eight TV stations belonging to Freedom Communications. It owns Univision, the largest Spanish language network in America. It owns big stakes in Bell Canada and other telephone providers.

In other words, Providence owns Pipe. A lot of it. And when you own Pipe, it's convenient to own programming to send through your Pipe.

Is this what the purchase of Ironman Triathlon is all about? Providence, on its own website, touts Ironman as, "One of the leading sports brands in the world," and, indeed, we like to think it is. My analysis—bare of juice (I have no mole on the inside)—is that we'll see more Ironman programming, both online and perhaps over television.

And of course Providence Equity Partners is a founding investor in YES, the Yankee Entertainment and Sports Network. Is there an Ironman channel in our future? Why not?

In my wandering, casting about for Providence's intended direction for this brand, I may be proved well afield of the path. Above is just my best guess. Nevertheless, the Ironman Triathlon is a social institution, and perhaps I can be forgiven my earnest interest—on behalf of our readers—in the motives and plans of its new owner.