The Changing Future of Triathlon? Industry Takeaways from the TBI Conference

Women. And one guy. Talking about women.

As much as the Triathlon Business Conference at times resembles a high school cafeteria, with everyone trying to decide which table is the cool table, while attempting to look casual about it, it’s still a weirdly important gathering of triathlon insiders. At least until there’s a new guard that takes over. 

I braved that gathering of triathlon insiders and talked about triathlon for almost 48 hours straight, so that you don’t have to. And I now bring you this dispatch of key issues the industry will be dealing with for the next few years. According to the brain trust.

What do women want?

Since, as women, we all want the exact same thing, you can be sure that what we want is for that thing to be decided by a group of primarily 50-year-old men. Hah, just kidding. No actual decisions are actually made at TBI.

There’s a lot more to be said about how triathlon is going to deal with its women problem, but the primary problem is that the sport needs women right now more than women need it. The theme of the conference might have been “The Changing Times in Triathlon,” but it could have been sub-themed “So, Women, Eh?” From Kyrsten Sinema’s keynote speech on the first day to the hot topics jam session on the last day, the need to figure out how to appeal to and sell to women was weaved through everything. And if I ever happened to stand near another woman, the odds were consistently high that someone would start taking our picture. To showcase all the women.

Kyrsten Sinema talks about doing her first triathlon despite not knowing how to swim. A common problem for women.

Kyrsten Sinema talks about doing her first triathlon despite not knowing how to swim. A common problem for women.

With female participation at around 34-36% overall in the U.S. (depending on whose numbers you look at), and with those participation rates dropping drastically as the distances get longer or you leave North America, women are the obvious market to move into. What that will involve varies from retailer to retailer and from race to race, but expect to see more women-only events, more women-focused beginner outreach efforts, more marketing tinged with pink. There was also a lot of talk about making triathlon less intimidating with pool swims and indoor races and manicures at expos. For the women.

The future is not Caucasian men. Or Americans.

While triathlon is growing worldwide, participation has leveled off the last couple years in the U.S. And since everything always must constantly grow, that means, even though the U.S. is still by far the sport’s biggest market, it’s already passé. 

Essentially, there isn’t much more room to expand into triathlon’s core demographic — the white, 40-something man with a high-powered corporate job who has time and money. If you want to grow participation, so you can sell more bikes and wetsuits and coaching plans and timing systems, then you’re going to have to do it in China and Brazil (both growing markets), and to women. 

But. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if there are a limited number of spots at certain races and if you’re trying to get a higher proportion of women and minorities from underserved markets into those races, then at some point those new markets are going to come into direct conflict with triathlon’s core demographic. And I don’t think the 42-year-old corporate executive male triathlete is going to take that well.

Who will survive the shaking out of a crowded marketplace?

There are a lot of races. This may seem un-true, what with everything being bought up by WTC. But those two competing undercurrents are going to come head-to-head in the next few years. The marketplace is crowded with mud runs, local 5Ks every weekend, obstacle course races, and lots of triathlons. According to USAT, even as the number of events is skyrocketing, the number of people at any individual event is stagnant or declining. Anyone can (and does) declare themselves a race director. (Kelly Burns Gallagher did a fairly thorough presentation about the legal and liability issues facing race directors, from fair labor wage claims that could be brought by volunteers to weather-related liability problem, which are only going to get worse with more extreme weather conditions. And, well, suffice it to say: I don’t think all race directors have fully thought through all these things.)

“There is a bad need for a healthy alternative,” said Zibi Szlufcik. Presumably he meant an alternative to Ironman. Challenge hopes to be it –¯\_(ツ)_/¯ — and will be returning to the U.S. by 2017, since they “flopped” here on their first attempt, he said. They will also be establishing a World Championship event, which will not be Roth.

But the other big race that everyone is looking to is Norseman and the Xtreme triathlons they produce, like Swissman and Celtman, which are so extreme they don’t even have time to write the “e” in front of Xtreme. 

I think this underlines a fundamental question that triathlon will have to answer: What is at the sport’s core? A lot of the ideas about how to get more people into triathlon revolve around making it less intimidating and easier (so even women can do it…). Make the swim shorter! Why even have a swim! Biking is scary too! What if we just put on a run, people like running! I understand the need to get rid of the fear factor and I love wacky events, but triathlon’s appeal is in its challenge. By underselling that you’re undercutting its value as a sport. Things can be fun and still be hard. (See: Norseman) Why aren’t we marketing more races as both fun and hard? 

The suggestion that reducing that intimidation factor needs to go hand-in-hand with reducing the cost of entry went over like a ton of bricks with a group of people whose business is making money off the sport. So. 

The other question underlying this shaking out of the marketplace comes down to what you see as the marketplace. Why should I do a triathlon when I could do a Spartan Race instead and not need to buy a bike or have to listen to anyone talk about their FTP? 

Pros v. age groupers, or ‘getting your money’s worth’

TBI is primarily made up of retailers, race directors, and executives. And those industry professionals — who do not necessarily have the time to train or race within the industry they are selling in — could not have been more down on professional triathletes. Even one of the token pros, Greg Bennet, was down on pros. Yet, at the exact same time they were all complaining about how unprofessional professionals are, they were hailing a USAT marketing plan to promote Gwen Jorgensen going into Rio. (She, and the U.S. women’s tri team, are going to be featured in NBC’s coverage.)

For whatever reason, people are able to understand that Gwen or Sarah True can be inspiring and can motivate someone to try triathlon. People are also able to understand that someone’s random friend doing a triathlon can be inspiring on an individual level. Yet, they can not extrapolate anything in between. If your random friend gets faster and starts racing elite, she is evidently no longer inspiring — until she qualifies for the Olympics. This seems to demonstrate a lack of marketing imagination to me. And a lack of understanding about how advertising and brand awareness fundamentally work. 

At the panel on amateur club teams, there was a consistent and general sense that sponsoring pros isn’t worth the money and that pros don’t drive sales or participation. And the industry executives were definitely totally sure it wasn’t because they were doing anything wrong with their marketing or their utilization of those pros. Instead, they all want to pour their money into age group recreational teams. Because those suckers will do anything you ask in exchange for a discounted t-shirt.

There are a number of ways to run an age group club team, and a number of benefits that can accrue from those teams for the sponsors and for the athletes. Some do a good job. Some are selling coaching plans and calling it a team. (Andy Potts, I’m looking at you.) But, as an athlete, it isn’t super clear to me why I would want to pay for the privilege of prostituting myself on Twitter for a 20% discount on a product I don’t even like. All this talk seemed to forget that it’s not just about the value you can ring out of an athlete (pro or amateur). There has to be a value to them too.

There was also widespread agreement that the Pro Triathlon Union, which is really an association and not a union, is too mismanaged and over-reaching to enact meaningful change. Sorry, pros. Sounds likes it sucks to be you right now.

About the Author

Kelly O'Mara
Kelly is a reporter and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She quit triathlon for a few years, because triathletes can be annoying, but now she's back into it and only hanging out with the non-annoying triathletes. She blogs about stuff at Sunny Running.