Fan Attention, Sponsor Purses, Kona and the Way Forward

Brett Sutton (@trisutto) has contributed, yet again, a meaningful piece ( to the issue of making sense of an Ironman (tm!) distance professional sport/tour/season. His insights, to paraphrase:

  1. equal representation of professional men and woman at the World Championships in Kona;
  2. better prize money to attract a deep field of professional athletes to races;
  3. a tiered system of professional athletes so that comparatively similar professionals, when judged by “winning”, are racing each other;
  4. and that it is the responsibility of Ironman to make all this happen since they are “valued at close to $1 billion dollars, [but a good professional tour would only cost] $10 million a year on a prize pool for the pro ranks….”

He finishes:

So let’s stick to the main problem now. The current pros do not need a boot. They need a hand and a sustainable pathway so that they can become great athletes over a period of time — without relying on their parent’s gold card.

This is all well and good, but it is backwards. The only two parties in the post mentioned are “pros” and “Ironman”, when, in fact, the most important parties for us to even consider a professional season are “fans” and “sponsors”. Fans and sponsors care about Ironman distance racing less and less, consequently sponsors can’t sell anything to fans using the agency of professionals and professional races.

We can solve Brett Sutton’s four points when we create a product that entertains fans (professional sports are an entertainment product, not an academic product) and involves their time and attention so that they buy the products endorsed by professional triathletes. Otherwise, it is a simple non-starter and we continue to search for ways to better compensate and support professionals who’s paychecks, ultimately, are written by un-interested sponsors. Professionals are not deserving of a handout from Ironman beyond the data-backed, demonstrative economic value they bring to the shared client: the sponsors. Sponsors care about selling product to fans. Period. If we ignore this, we can’t get off the blocks to a meaningful professional season and we really can’t move “forward”.

So let’s solve it!

  1. The only professionals at Kona should be those who win an Ironman race leading up to Kona. There should be an equal number of races for men and women, so, by deifnition, there will be an equal number of male and female professional racers at Kona. This immediately solves equal representation and the problem of professional triathletes of differing talents racing against each other. Frodeno will win his race early, then do what he wants to to prepare for Kona. But he’d have to win a race. The rest can be done for prize money. Everyone needs to win a race to go to Kona, however. No exceptions. No automatic qualifications.
  2. It would be even more interesting if more drama could be built in to the season to make fans care. The current KPR system is archane and requires an expert, literally (!), to tell us who is in our out. Like sheeple, the professional ranks and their unions (?) bought in to the system which has further alienated fans from any sort of engagement except for Kona itself. We need more drama. I think one way to solve this is to dramatically reduce the number of professional races at the Ironman distance down to, hmmm, fifteen per year. “Enter through the narrow gate”, to quote someone with authority! That will up the prize purses per race, increase the stakes. No more than 2 professional ironman races per month from March through August. September off. Then the World Championships.
  3. There should be a “players union” and they should gather all the top professionals so that there is consistency, responsiblity, efficacy in all communications from professionals to the public. While I have no doubt the professional preparation for the races themselves is indeed world-class, the professionals have very spotty track records when it comes to fan engagement. That’s not helpful to sponsors.
  4. Ultimately the professionals are responsible for their own product, not Ironman. Yes, they must pitch Ironman and get Ironman’s buy-in, but they can’t sit on their compression-booted legs waiting for someone else to solve these problems for them. Responsible professionals and their coaches and representatives should design a season that is exciting, vitally engages fans, brings in sponsors dollars (and so, in time, media and broadcast dollars as well) and bring that to the WTC as a big win-win for both professionals and the WTC. Why is this not clear as day?

Fixing Professional Ironman

Ironman Boulder

Rachel Joyce celebrates as the women’s winner during the Ironman Boulder race on Sunday in Boulder. For more photos of the race go to Jeremy Papasso/ Staff Photographer/ June 9, 2017

I have a thesis that any professional sport exists, in the end, to sell products for Sponsors. If the Fans of that sport are not interested in the progress of the sport, Sponsors sell fewer products and the consequent economics of the sport are less interesting for Sponsors. Said in another way, professional athletes are “entertainers” who’s sole purpose in sport is to entertain Fans through performance, engagement, and leadership.

When the “e” word (“entertainer”) is used, it isn’t uncommon for professionals in the sport of triathlon to become offended that their craft is being denigrated. Being called an “entertainer” seems like a cheap shot. On the contrary. If a professional sport can compete for the scarce entertainment dollars of Fans, then the sport truly has value for Sponsors because it has demonstrated engagement with the people, the Fans, who will buy the sponsorship goods. That’s a good thing.

There are bullies in the professional sport of triathlon who like to tell me, and others, that we should sit down, shut up, and stop offering professional Ironman triathletes any advice or commentary about what makes the sport valuable to Sponsors. I call these people the “missionaries”. They think of the professional sport as a kind of academia where special folks go to achieve an evangelistic mission of “true sport” in a walled-garden of hellenic purity. Bullshit. And not that economically interesting.

Without Fans, and deep fan engagement with and by professional triathletes, Sponsors will and do care less and less about the professionals. And, if fact, Sponsors will begin to turn to Age Groupers as the real economic driver of the sport and the best way to sell products. That may be inevitable, anyways, given the existential realities of the Ironman sport. But, let’s see…

No attempt is being made to “prove” this thesis in this short essay. I simply want to ask if there is a way to “fix” professional Ironman triathlon in a way that engages Fans (throughout the year) and so greatly enhances the attraction of professional Ironman triathlon for Sponsors.

The first fix must be the season. The Kona Points system for qualifying for the World Championship in October each year is archane, impossible to understand (for both professionals and fans), and doesn’t engage active participation of Fans throughout the season. The fix is to throw out the Kona Points system and replace it with a simple, understandable system whereby professionals qualify simply by winning an Ironman race. Simple: win a race, go to Kona. Don’t win a race prior to Kona, don’t go to Kona. Second place doesn’t go to Kona. Prior year podium winners at Kona don’t go to Kona. If you want to go to Kona, win an Ironman race. Kona is the world championships for winners. All the national and regional championships are fine and can be differentiated for the sake of prize money. But to get to Kona, you must win an Ironman. Very simple. And supremely engaging for Fans.

Second fix. I’d urge World Triathlon to embrace-and-extend the larger “long course” community and include a meaningful set of non-World Triathlon “long course” races in the roster of races in which a professional can compete, win, and consequently qualify for Kona. That means, for example, the professional winners of Challenge Roth should be at Kona. The professional winners at Norseman should be at Kona. You get the idea. Own the season and make it fan-friendly for the race towards Kona. Including non-World Triathlon races won’t diminish the Kona brand in the least, is good business, and is positive for professionals and Fans. Sponsors will appreciate the investment in the viability of their own investment in professionals.

Third fix. This simple proposal of “win a race, go to Kona” solves the vexing issue of equal representation of male and female professional athletes at Kona because it assumes an equal number of race opportunities for male and female athletes to qualify throughout the season.

This system of “win a race, go to Kona” does have potential draw backs. There is the potential for collusion so that top athletes aren’t colliding at races in the season competing for qualifying slots. It might not be a bad thing for the drama of the season and enhancement of the qualification process to have fewer professional races. But that bridge doesn’t have to be crossed initially.

Fans want to see professionals race honestly throughout the season. They want to see professionals give it their all whenever they come to the start line, not managing a point system that is impossible to understand. Fans want to be entertained and engaged. Sponsors want the same. It’s how products are sold.