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.

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