Roommates: Ironman and ITU

Ironman bought Lagardère Sport's endurance division. This includes races that make up part of the ITU world championship series. It also includes footraces and cycling races, just like when Ironman purchased USM Events in Australia. In that acquisition Ironman bought a number of properties including what was Challenge Cairns along with significant cycling events.

Same thing here. Just, the Aussie acquisition and this one also included a number of ITU's flagship races. Because of these purchases Ironman now owns 6 of the 9 events in the ITU's World Triathlon Series.

Is it Ironman's intention to own so much of what's important to the ITU? Or, is it a coincidence that the companies, the managers, the talent, Ironman is acquiring include properties of great significance to the ITU?

First let's be clear on what Ironman bought.

Lagardère Group is a large French conglomerate – a media, travel and entertainment company. Lagardère Group splits itself into 4 divisions. It is one of the world's major consumer book and magazine publishers, and owns Hachette Group. It has deep travel and retail interests. One division is Lagardère Sports and Entertainment, and this division is like IMG – which was sold last year and which owns Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, Beijing and Alp d'Huez Triathlon, and major footraces – and it's in some ways like Infront, which the Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group acquired several months before it bought Ironman.

Ironman purchased only the endurance division of Lagardère Sports' Sports and Entertainment. What remains of Lagardère Sports' Sports and Entertainment is the very kind of company IMG now is, just as of yesterday Lagardère Sports' Sports and Entertainment is now out of the endurance sports business. Note that Ironman and not Wanda, and not Infront, is the acquirer here.

Much or most of this endurance division Ironman just bought was built by Christian Toetzke, whose company Upsolut Sports was purchased in 2007 by Lagardère. The ITU partnered with Mr. Toetzke in 2011, when the company was still named Upsolut Sports. He is a triathlete himself.

Ironman also via this deal acquired “IEC in Sports,” which was a Lagardère subsidiary, or at least in acquired what IEC has that is germane to this analysis: this company owns (or did own) the current international broadcast rights to the World Triathlon Series.

Mr. Toetzke will now work for Ironman as its new Chief Development Officer and Global Head of Cycling. Is Mr. Toetzke's new title a clue to what Ironman really wants? Was it more ITU races, or more cycling properties? That's what makes this acquisition curiously similar to the USM purchase in Australia. In that acquisition and in this, the ITU business was just part of a deal. It could be that these ITU races were the motivators behind both purchases, but it could be that in each case the ITU properties were not Ironman's main interest – that it's just a coincidence that Ironman now owns so much of what is important to the ITU. In fact, the Wall Street Journal just wrote about this new acquisition and entitled it, Cycling's New Player: Ironman.

Either way, the irony of Ironman's purchase of Lagardère Sports endurance division is not lost on triathlon's oldsters. The ITU's Marisol Casado and Ironman's Andrew Messick are friendly. But the predecessors of each – Les McDonald and Ben Fertic, of the ITU and Ironman respectively – were wartime combatants. The ITU sued Ironman twice and lost twice, trying to keep Ironman from declaring its races world championships. In an act of defiance Mr. McDonald forced through a resolution in the ITU's worldwide Congress expelling Ironman from its governance.

The ITU very quietly, with much less fanfare, reversed this in 2006. But if you wonder why Ironman is a WADA signatory today; why it has an anti-doping division; why it is an “international federation equivalent” in anti-doping parlance; why it has its own officials, most of this began in 2005, because of what happened at that Congress in 2004.

But that's all over now. Sort of. It's not that triathlon's world governing body is biased against the kind of racing that Ironman produces. It's a question of interest and attention. Ironman racing is just not part of what the ITU does; not part of its mission; not what it spends its time thinking about. The ITU isn't funded by, and has no specific interest in, Ironman racing. But every one of its daughter federations where Ironman races exist are funded heavily by Ironman racing, because Ironman racers sanction. So, these organizations were thrown together even before today's announced acquisition.

ITU President Marisol Casado gave a gracious statement on Ironman's press release: “I fully believe the transition of these events to IRONMAN will serve to further strengthen our sport on a global level.” Is the ITU privately happy or privately not? I don't know. Ironman and the ITU are now roommates. We'll see how well they live together.