Does Triathlon Really ‘Need’ More Pros?

The problem of a large pro field was evident at the Ironman World Championships on October 10th. Even though the professional fields consisted of only 58 on the men’s side and 42 on the women’s side (please ignore the elephant!), the commentators were unable to recognise the whole field (even those first out of the water). In most other sports, commentators are able not just to name all the competitors, but, in many cases they can tell you details about the players to add to the drama of the event.

It might be the size of the field, and the chaotic nature of the swim exit, but, as someone who has watched a lot of other sports over the years, I was surprised at the apparent lack of research and preparedness on the part of the commentators.

(In contrast, USAT president, Barry Siff, did a fantastic job of calling the elite super-sprint races at the US Age Group National Championships—lots of texture, richness of details, and establishment of rivalries among the athletes.)

What got me thinking about this topic, though, was a question Kim Osborne on Twitter, a couple of weeks before the race in Kona:

That question sparked an interesting conversation. I figured it would benefit from a discussion that was a little more coherent than a back and forth of 140-character snippets. So I wrote this.

For me, the question really comes down to the ‘value’ professional triathletes provide. Which, in turn, boils down to three things:

  1. What is the value of professional triathletes?
  2. How does ‘professional’ status benefit the athletes?
  3. Is the competition among the professionals enough to generate enthusiasm among (new) fans?

Before we answer those questions, though, we should figure out what exactly a ‘professional’ triathlete is. Depending on the governing body, there are different criteria for what makes a professional triathlete. And differences in usage can make the phrase a little misleading.

According to USAT, triathlon’s governing body in the US:

The terms ‘elite’ and ‘professional’ are used interchangeably but USAT prefers that these athletes be referred to as ‘elites’ in order to align with the ITU [International Triathlon] and USOC [US Olympic Committee].

By contrast, the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), owners of the IronMan and 5150 families of races, refers to all top tier athletes as ‘professional’, including those holding elite national licenses.

More confusion arises because, as aspiring pro Meghan Skidmore points out, while USAT doesn’t distinguish between elite and professional, “some races have [separate] pro and elite classes.”

Finally, the way the words are interpreted can cause some confusion. As former elite Kelly O’Mara explains: “The elite license is an ELITE license, not a professional license and certainly not commentary on whether or not you make a living racing … because few people do make a living that way.”

American pro, Kyle Pawlaczyk, confirms this: “Most pros, either out of choice or necessity, work part-time or full-time jobs.”

In light of Pawlaczyk’s observation, we’ll stick with ‘professional’. ‘Elite’ is a label of ability: the elites in are simply the best in the field. We’re interested in how and whether ‘professional’ triathletes make a living. Elite athletes exist because the sport exists. I want to know whether professional triathletes are necessary.

One way of trying to figure out if professional triathletes are necessary is to consider the value they provide. Of course, the value of professional athletes in general is esoteric. They certainly provide entertainment (and inspiration) for fans. They can provide value to sponsors through endorsements.

The main challenge for triathlon when it comes to ‘providing value’ is that, as Jarrod Shoemaker explains, triathlon “is a participation sport.” (As Jim Gourley notes, Ironman was not created with the intention of developing it into “a professional sport.”) Professional triathlete Jim Lubinski argues that while triathlon and golf can both be boring to watch, golf thrives on “the notoriety of its professional athletes.” In other words, the drama in golf is very much ‘invented’. (The same could be said of sports like cricket and baseball, which can be boring to watch, unless you know the back-stories.)

The promotion of the professionals by the tournament/media/PGA not only brings connectivity to the sport by associating the sport with an individual but it also grows the notoriety of other professionals. Because 1 million people tune in to watch Phil Mickelson, in turn, they will see and get to know the names of other professionals. The talent is noticed, the respect is gained, and the sport is ultimately grown.

The popularity of professional golf, then, comes from a somewhat artificial sense of rivalry. (While professional golf remains popular, the number of those who golf as a pastime is declining.)

Golf has succeeded in making its stars famous and creating rivalries that simply wouldn’t exist without a healthy dose of imagination. (Professional wrestling is another somewhat individual sport that is shameless about this. To some people, it is little more than soap opera with occasional bouts—excuse the pun—of fighting.)

People can grok team sports. They’ve been around for a long time. The rivalries are well enough established to really seem ‘real’. What adds to them is that they exist between the teams, not necessarily the players. If you’re an Arsenal fan, you have to hate Tottenham and Chelsea. If you’re from south Chicago, it’s heresy to even think about following the Cubs. The tribal nature makes them appealing from a social perspective. (Just Google: “the sports team from my area”.)

We also understand the individual achievement of something like a marathon runner, or a world-class high jumper or hurdler.

Triathlon is something of an oddball. At its core, it’s an individual challenge. The fascination for spectators may be wondering if they could do it. The great performances in triathlon are awe-inspiring feats of physical and mental endurance. But they don’t inspire passion and enthusiasm from spectators in the same way as team sports.

Because triathlon is more about participation and personal achievement, than hero-worship and drama, age-groupers race in fields with pros without knowing it. Lubinski suggests that this even happens to the pros. He says that promoters send out emails to pros simply asking them to come to their races. Race organisers might be better served to inform all the participants to a race of who they will be sharing the water and the road with. Lubinski suggests race organisers should phrase their emails more like this:

“Come race WITH Craig Alexander, Chris McCormack, 2014 Ironman Champion Sebastian Kienle and a field of over 50 other Ironman Professionals as they battle for the $50,000 Grand Prize at Ironman France!”

In this model, Shoemaker argues, “the role of a professional triathlete needs to be one who can inspire, who amateur athletes look up to for advice, motivation, training tips and product advice.”

As a reasonably competent triathlete, someone who takes it more seriously than most, in talking to non-triathletes about the sport, they tend to react in one of two ways. They’ll tell you which parts they could or couldn’t do: “I could definitely do the swim and the bike, but I can’t run any more”. Or, they’ll look at you like you just fell out of a tree: “You do all that without changing?”

And, like other multi-sport events (pentathlon, decathlon, etc.), there is something peculiar about doing three completely different sports back-to-back.

It’s hard for non-triathletes to get their heads around why we would want to do something like that.

The running boom of the late 1970s was sparked by an elite athlete. Frank Shorter’s performances in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, winning gold and silver respectively, led to a spike in the number of people taking up running as an activity—which can only be a good thing.

A similar event in the triathlon world might encourage more people to take up multi-sport.

This is where the pros come in. The success of people like Gwen Jorgensen and Chrissie Wellington gives great visibility to triathlon, and sport in general.

If professional triathletes could establish a long-lived union (about which more later), it could help grow the sport, and allow professional athletes to be part of shaping the future of the sport. As Danish pro Helle Frederiksen said of the latest attempt: “I feel as a collective group, professional triathletes can aid the global development of the sport.”

As it is, triathlon remains a pretty isolating sport. Individual triathletes work hard, and do great work, in growing the sport and bringing it to more people. In Britain, the Brownlee brothers’ initiative is bringing young people into the sport.

Jim Gourlay suggests that a larger professional field is unlikely to increase “the number of people signing up for races or the amount of money they’re willing to pay for entrance fees.” Rather, “professional competition is a marketing tool, and it’s very difficult to use a tool without knowing why you have it in the first place.”

Professional triathletes do provide value to the sport by increasing participation. But in terms of the more established team sports, which can draw on local and historical rivalries, the drama must be more ‘manufactured’. As the examples of golf and professional wrestling show, this can be achieved to great success for all involved. But it’s hard to say whether professional triathletes, as individuals, or the sport as a whole, are capable of ‘producing’ the same drama.

So if the value of professional triathletes is difficult to pin down, what about the value of professional status to the athletes? Does the sport need more? Could it support more? Where would that support come from?

In most sports, the choice of whether or not to turn professional is a no-brainer. The money and access to coaches, trainers, and medical staff make it a relatively simple choice. For triathletes, the decision to turn pro can be a tough one.

Even the best of the best in triathlon don’t make anywhere near as much money as other professional athletes. (And it looks like pickings are going to get thinner in the near future.)

Many ‘professional’ triathletes do not make enough money from the sport itself to support themselves. Instead they rely on the kindness of family and friends. This challenge is no better demonstrated that in this bitter-sweet tweet from 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Erin Densham’s husband:

Several triathlete friends of mine (and myself) yearn for the day that someone will pay us a living wage just to train. Within other professional sports, as we’ll see in a moment, there are ways for athletes to get paid on a consistent basis. There is no such mechanism in place for triathletes. So the appeal of becoming a ‘professional’ triathlete is not as strong as other sports. Long hours of training without (reliable) compensation makes the moniker ‘professional triathlete’ somewhat less appealing.

The low earnings-potential for top triathletes has a potential knock-on effect: It may stop kids from looking at the sport as viable option, alongside other sports like football (either flavour) or baseball.

Other sports have unions that work on behalf of athletes to ensure that they are compensated for the money they bring to the institutions they represent. A rookie in the NFL this year must be paid at least $435,000 (with a guaranteed minimum increase of $15,000 per year). In 2012, a Collective Bargaining Agreement set Major League Baseball players’ minimum salaries at $480,000 per year, up from $15,000 in 1973. An NHL player’s minimum salary is $525,000. Those guys skate a hard bargain! In the US, soccer is less well-compensated. But the minimum MLS salary for 2015 is still $50,000. Average MLS salaries (hugely skewed by a few massive salaries at the top) for 2013 were around $150,000. (The numbers for golfers are similarly ‘sturdy’. They’ll make their appearance proper in a few paragraphs.)

These athletes are paid regardless of their own performance, or the performance of the team. Triathletes’ pay (such as it is) is much less reliable. Kelly O’Mara paints a vivid picture of a professional triathletes’ diverse income streams. Alongside racing, most professional triathletes make their living through “coaching and putting on clinics and shilling for sponsors and media appearances and writing and providing analysis.” Racing simply does not pay well enough to support the (somewhat costly) life of a triathlete. So, even good performances are not necessarily sufficient to provide sustainable income.

Brian Maiorano carried out extensive research into professional triathletes’ winnings for the 2014–2015 season. His analysis suggests that without dramatic increases in available prize money, it will be difficult to attract young talent to the sport because triathlon lacks the “income potential” of other sports.

Within triathlon, there is a huge income disparity between the best and the rest. (That’s a tricky one. The meritocratic part of my brain says this is fair enough. The part of my brain that wants equality of opportunity wonders if there might not be a better way.) Maiorano’s data shows that 95% of athletes won less than $20,000. As rookie pro Cody Beals’ analysis of his 2014 season shows, without significant help from one sponsor for flight costs, the kindness of strangers, homestays, and borrowing his parents’ car, his modest $1546 profit from his first year as a pro would likely have been a loss.

Triathletes have no union working to establish a minimum wage. But it’s not for want of trying. Some triathletes have tried to encourage others of their number to unionise since the beginning.

Professional status might not be as much of a boon to triathletes as to other sports professionals. And we’ve seen that triathlon is a lot more about the personal challenge than about the hero worship of other sports. However, hero worship does have a role to play in the triathlon. During the conversation on Twitter, we started talking about inspiration. We decided that the most inspirational stories in triathlon come not from the professional ranks, but from amateur successes.

Chrissie Wellington, one of the sport’s most accomplished professionals, had arguably her most inspirational performance at the Ironman World Championships in her first season as a pro, having been in the sport for only a few months (though not without a background of years of—often unstructured—physical and mental endurance training).

But many of the most inspiring names from the history of triathlon are not those of professional racers.

The first example that often comes up is Team Hoyt, a father and son team, consisting of Dick and Rick Hoyt. Rick has cerebral palsy. In 1989, they beat the swim cutoff at the IronMan World Championships in Kona in their second attempt. Outside of Ironman racing, the pair have completed over 1,000 running races and triathlons.

Or Julie Moss, the graduate student who went to Kona in 1982 as part of a research project and ended up coming second, after a dramatic finish which saw her collapse a few hundred meters short of the finish line, and crawl her way across.

The 1997 women’s race in Kona featured the dramatic finish between pros Wendy Ingraham and Sian Welch—a joint crawl across the finish line, that matches Moss’ agony.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit to a rush of school-boy excitement when I saw Eric Lagerstrom sitting on the ground, right there, before the elite super sprints at #USATAGNC2015. That was pretty cool.

But I can’t imagine there would ever be anything like this within triathlon fans. (I’d be happy to be proved wrong on this one.):

Stories like Wellington’s are important avenues for introducing fans to triathlon. More recently, stories of ‘lives turned around’, like those of professional Ironman athletes Sarah Piampiano and Lionel Sanders, provide some inspiration, when you hear about them.

Based on Brian Maiorano’s data, 841 ‘professional’ triathletes won prize money in the 2014 season. Regardless of how you split up the prize money, that’s just a lot of people to keep track of. And when the sport is dominated by a few big names (as triathlon is), it’s hard to see scope for new cohorts.

This is something that is recognised at the highest levels of triathlon. WTC CEO Andrew Messick told SlowTwitch that increasing exposure of the best professional triathletes “is something that collectively we have yet to figure out. But we would like it to happen.” The USAT website points out that “triathlon’s first appearance at [the Olympic Games in 2000] elevated the publicity of the sport on the national level.”

In the words of Dylan McNiece, one of the founder members of the PTU:

Long distance triathlon has been a professional sport for over 30 years and while the amateur side has grown exponentially, it could be said that the professional arena hasn’t changed at all and if anything, has lost its footing and its aura. Imagine where the sport could be, not just the professional side of things, but the sport in its entirety, if a Professional Triathlon Union had been up and running for the last 30 years!

Growth in amateur triathlon has continued regardless, it seems, of growth in the professional side of the sport. However, it’s clear that some pros see their role as inspiring others to take up the sport, or to keep working through inevitable frustrations.

During the coverage of the 2015 Ironman World Championships, the website broadcast included a commercial for Canyon bikes, featuring the race’s eventual winner Jan Frodeno (who has now won everything!). In that, Frodeno said:

The unique thing about triathlon is that the professional athlete is so connected to the amateur. The goal of an amateur athlete may be very closely connected to what I do, to what my fellow professional athletes do. It’s just to get the most out of yourself. To push yourself as hard as you can for as long as you can whether it’s an eight hour day, whether it’s a 12 hour day, or maybe only a 3 day in an Olympic distance race. It’s really individual, but I think it’s something that everybody who does the sport can relate to, and that’s what’s unique about it.

Jan Frodeno – Canyon Bikes commercial aired during IM World Championships.

And that’s the thing about triathlon. It’s a truly individual sport. And the majority of the people I speak to at the local races I’ve done are doing it as a personal challenge.

Undoubtedly, people like Dave Scott, Mark Allen, Leanda Cave, and Lionel Sanders inspire people like me and Kim. And they were, and are, vital to the initial, and ongoing, growth of the sport. But for the average person, doing their local race, they are much more motivated by personal reasons: maybe raising money for a charity; maybe competing in memory, or support, of a loved one; maybe, as we hear from quite a few pros, as a bet.


So, perhaps triathlon doesn’t need more pros, yet. Perhaps what the triathlon ecosystem needs is better leverage of the pros it already has. That way, we can grow the sport, develop young athletes, and continue to grow the sport at a grass-roots level.

As with every story, there are at least seven different sides to this. I’ll just cover a few here.

There’s the athlete development side: with a more robust professional infrastructure, it might be possible to push this sport (which, let’s face it, began specifically as a test of who was fittest) to create the ‘finest specimens’ of human athletic performance. But, as Kelly O’Mara wrote in reply to a comment on her blog post, “Once you qualify and get the license, the process is very self-directed. There isn’t really anyone who oversees it or tells you what to do.”

There’s the ‘financial’ side: Danny Ferreira writes that “The main difference between triathlon and other professional sports is that you don’t pay to see a pro triathlete compete, you pay to compete yourself and you get the added benefit of seeing some of the guys on the cover of LAVA magazine.”

Some people remain convinced that the only way for triathlon to continue to exist and to grow is for the sport’s governing bodies to step up and promote mid-level pros.

Kelly O’Mara suggests that more people (specifically, more women) should take their pro licenses when they qualify. By taking themselves out of the running for amateur podiums, this new cohort of female pros would be making space for other athletes. This would encourage more women in to the sport. O’Mara suggests, in the men’s field, the larger number of pros “fosters the development of up-and-comers.”

It would also help the pros. At present, the best age-group and amateur athletes have the option to take their elite licenses when they qualify for them. Enforced categorisation (like cycling), would mean more women in the professional ranks. This would help resolve (part of) the issue around the 50 Women to Kona controversy (again, the elephant). O’Mara points out the irony here: “if all the women who have qualified upgraded together then Andrew Messick would have far less of a misguided argument about proportionality to lean on.”

Kelly Burns Gallagher argues that “USAT isn’t interested in long-course athletes and WTC has announced that they are only going to promote Kona-level pros. Someone or something needs to step into that void to ensure that there are new stars ready for the spotlight in 3, 5 or 10 years.”

Jarrod Shoemaker has made some suggestions for how to make triathlon more interesting to watch:

The ITU provides a broadcast of the races, but it is like watching paint dry. Why are there not interviews with athletes split screen during slower parts of the race? Why are there not tips from the pros on how to corner, wetsuit removal, transitions, power meters? So much more can be done.

I would go further and argue that the coverage itself needs to be improved. (Commentators could take some cues from cycling and cricket.)

I’m fighting the urge to get too esoteric, but it seems, that professional athletes are only ever ‘necessary’ insofar as their ability to entertain or inspire others. And, as someone who quite likes the idea of being able to call himself a professional triathlete, it seems somewhat mean, and more than a little hypocritical, of me to be down on ‘professional’ triathletes.

I think there is definitely scope for creating a cohort of salaried professional triathletes who race one another on a ‘closed’ circuit (i.e., they race against the same field in every race). This would mirror what happens in golf or tennis, (if I understand either of those universes at all, which is highly unlikely). It would probably harden the lines between long-course racing and international distance racing.

What it boils down to is the sport must continue to prove itself valuable to a broad enough audience to sustain itself.

In the end, it might come back to the very first response to Kim’s question, from Chris H:

“Need? Maybe not. But think of how many thousands of people were inspired by Julie Moss, for example. Sports need heroes.”


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