About 20 races in the U.S. offering prize purses a year ago no longer offer that money. The net loss in prize money at these races represents a decrease, year-over-year, of very roughly $1 million in prize money (in the case of Ironman, the money was not lost, but reallocated to other events). Of the roughly $12 million in prize money offered triathletes worldwide over the course of a year (by our count), this is a significant amount and it disproportionally hits athletes racing in North America.
The race organizers who've pulled their money from these events didn't go out of business. In most cases the races themselves remain; it's just the pro purses that are gone. Ironman, Life Time, HyVee and Challenge have depopulated the money from about upwards of 20 U.S. events.
Pros have complained about this, and amateur enthusiasts as well, but if you listen to the RDs who've pulled or reallocated their money in each case it's simply a business decision. "If we can't show a measure of the return to a sponsor, and to Life Time, those sponsor dollars eventually dry up," said Life Time Fitness's Kimo Seymour. We did a "scientific deep dive analysis of the market," said Challenge's Zibi Szlufcik, resulting in the money pulled from 5 of its North American events.
It's not that the pros can't generate a return for specific races, just they often don't. "Pro registration coming last minute doesn't help us at all in promoting the event," said Mr. Szlufcik. I remember Jan Caille, the builder and longtime race owner of the Chicago Triathlon (now part of the Life Time series, and one of the events no longer offering money) saying to me one time, "I'll know who's in our pro field on race morning, when I'm out there spectating the start line." Terry Davis, owner of the Wildflower Triathlon, told me basically the same thing.
Sometimes prize purses don't make sense because of a glut of races on the calendar, especially in a region. Why offer a $25,000 or $40,000 purse when the inventory of first, second and most third tier pros in a region is already sucked up by other races? It's nobody's fault, but a purse might nevertheless not make sense.
But does that explain Life Time's decision? It's not that pros as a group are selfish, self-centered, or unable to understand the concept of symmetrical consideration in a business relationship. Rather, in my experience it's that a lot of pros just haven't given it any thought. "How many professional triathletes do you think there are who race the kinds of races we, and Ironman, produce?" Mr. Szlufcik asked me. "About a thousand," I replied. "I think it's about 50," he replied back. Maybe 100, maybe 150." And this, from the race organization that might be more ardently attached to the cohort of professional triathlete than any other. I knew exactly what he was talking about.
What Mr. Szlufcik meant was that a lot of pro athletes haven't given thought to what the RD needs to recoup in consideration for the prize money and travel help offered, so, they don't behave as business people would.
I proposed a calendar the last time the pros tried to form a union, and during the mobilizing effort prior to that (there is another effort to form a pro union currently afoot). Such a calendar would be hosted by this union (in my mind), and would simply be a database of all races offering money. Every pro in the union must announce his or her annual race schedule, forming such schedule in the blind, not knowing who else is entered in each race. That schedule must be returned by, say, January 31 of the racing season, and maybe a different date for southern hemisphere racing.
Once the calendar is populated by all the pros' schedules, and the athletes see who is and isn't racing particular races, they have until February 15 to adjust their schedules. Then, from time-to-time, athletes can further adjust schedules, but the union polices athletes who prove to be serial unreliable predictors of their seasons. As athletes are already capable of maintaining whereabouts (ADAMs) databases for anti-doping, maintaining a current race schedule would not be overhard.
What flows from this? For the RD, he knows months in advance who's coming to his races. Now he has a fighting chance to leverage that start field against sponsorships and media interest.
Every stakeholder benefits. As a former manufacturer this would have meant a lot to me. If I can get an athlete to come to a race a couple of days early I can take him or her to 2 or 3 retail outlets in the area, have the athlete address a tri club at one of these retail outlets, as well as the media. I'd have the athlete available at my expo booth for an hour during the expo. This not only helps the athlete generate his value to me, he can report to his other sponsors of the visits to retailers, and speaking gigs, that attended his race.
This is the value proposition both for RDs and for manufacturers. And for the sport in general. This is why, and when, pro triathletes matter. Some of these athletes are already doing this. These are the 50 to 150 to which Mr. Szlufcik referred.
As any close follower of triathlon knows, no such pro calendar database exists. We certainly do have professional athletes, as a group (or groups) making their demands known. But I have noted a conspicuous lack of attention paid by these groups to what athletes might do to help earn the money paid to them.
I have heard athletes say that they earn their money from both sponsors and RDs just by training and racing in the product and in the race. As a former manufacturer sponsoring pros, and a former RD paying out that prize money, unless that pro's last name is Brownlee, Gomez, Ryf, Jorgensen, Kienle, Carfrae and maybe a dozen others, those days are long gone. That ship has sailed. If that ever was the case, it's not any more.
What a lot of athletes now do, that they did not previously do, is communicate. They write, they blog, they podcast, they produce videos, they participate in reader forums, and this is a new give-back not around when I was a sponsor, and the truly enterprising and articulate pro helps earn his or her value that way. This is the notable improvement in athlete value that today's pros generate. Still, these efforts, while powerful and useful, are fragmented, often not mentioned or noted or leveraged by those who actually do pay the money: RDs and sponsors (this is not the fault of the athletes, but by those not activating the value these athletes offer).
There is no organizing force that advocates, mentors, polices, harmonizes and optimizes the efforts and behavior of triathlon's pro athletes. "The sport badly needs a union," Mr. Szlufcik told Slowtwitch over the weekend. Think about this. Mr. Szlufcik's company is a service provider that, on paper, ought to hate the idea of a union on principle, yet he's almost pleading for one. In my conversations with Ironman's chief executive, Andrew Messick, he's evinced a similar desire. Both these organizations are genuinely eager to hear what pros have to say, but they find it damnably hard to know when a message from a pro or group or prose is representative of the pros as a whole.
Still, if these race organizations like Challenge and Ironman need to hear what the pros are saying, it would behoove the pro athlete to listen to what the RDs are saying. One wonders if Life Time might still offer a cash series had the pros generated a foundational platform that made their value obvious. Like a databased calendar to which RDs and the sport's stakeholders could refer.