A Modest Proposal for Professional Long Course Triathlon
We’re sorry to say we will not be renewing our sponsorship agreement with you in 2016. We gave this a lot of thought. Despite the incredible personal attraction you as an athlete would seem to have for any sponsor, we just haven’t been able to capitalize on the offered opportunity in the past couple years.
As a long-course triathlete myself, I hope I’m capable of making an honest self-assessment of whether our company made an adequate effort. Talking with my partners at the company, many of them also very experience long-course athletes, we just don’t see how sponsoring an individual athlete will be beneficial to our business at ANY point. There just isn’t the surface area, the exposure on the individual athlete level, WHOEVER the athlete is, to justify the investment.
You love our sport! I love our sport! I admire everything you have done for the sport and the countless ways you give back. That’s why I’m publishing this letter so that others can learn and we can move the sport of professional triathlon forward.
The problem is we don’t have a professional sport called triathlon in any way that other successful professional sports exist. Any professional sport is built on the backs of sponsor/advertiser money. Without adequate advertiser opportunity, setting aside the ego-plates of triathlete CEOs, it makes little sense to sponsor a race or an individual athlete. The numbers just don’t justify the spend.
When assessing opportunity, an advertiser must assess the customer pipeline. For every 1 million views from potential future customers, we hope to get 3% (which would be phenomenal!) to read/click/touch/assess our message. That’s 30,000 people. Of those, we hope 1% will purchase product. 300 purchases for 1 million views. This is how it works with online sales which has shown to be the most efficient way to reach customers. Other methods of communicating a message to potential future customers are even less efficient. When assessing things like event sponsorship the initial 1 million views better be vastly higher because it is inherently more difficult to place a message in front of a potential customer when the communications method is a banner in a finisher’s’ chute, for example.
But that’s how the pipeline works. We can argue the percentages. We can talk about why “this time” and “with this opportunity” we’re going to get more than 3% clicking on the message because our product is so relevant, or why those that click move straight to buying because of some special offer. That would all be self-delusion. The time-tested fact is for every X number of “viewers” no more than 3% will click, and of those, no more than 1% will buy. Beat those numbers and you have a goose that lays golden eggs. We’re not about writing a fairy tale. We’re trying to assess sponsor opportunity here. There is no panic-training in building a customer pipeline.
If a sponsor has a $100 product to sell, and they make a profit of $30 (aggressive..but let’s roll with it) for every widget they sell, then, in the model we have, they would stand to make $9000 at every event with 1 million viewers. The athlete would need to funnel/shovel 10 million views or potential future customers to the sponsor message to achieve $90,000 in profits.
Over the course of 2015 I bought search rights for the top 30 men and women in the Kona Points Ranking system on Google to try to assess general interest of general population triathletes for specific professional triathletes. Would someone click on, for example, “Craig Alexander” when the name is in an ad for a specific triathlon product (camps, wheels, sports clothing, etc.) The results were dismal for every professional triathlete tested. Every. One. We saw click rates to view the message at about 0.75% (we’d like to see 3%, remember) for recent Kona champions, and they fell off to zero for just about everyone else.
Isn’t there a difference between the ocean of views illustrated above and “very high quality views” such as when an athlete highlights a given product over and over on an Instagram feed or blog post? No. At best it is a matter of degree. The math is still at play. For 100,000 views of an instagram endorsement (“My race was amazing, I really killed it. #sponsor #sponsor #sponsor) maybe we get 10% (!!!) click through on the random hashtag, and of those 10% buy some product (who knows what the product is they buy and we hope they get to the right page because it was, after all, just a #hashtag, but we’re blue-skying here, not writing a PhD thesis). If we’re still selling our $100 product with the $30 profit, then this amazing Instagram post with 100,000 views got us 10,000 clicks and 1,000 purchases. We’re rich!
The problem is there are counter-evidences currently existing and in full view of the sponsor public. Individual athletes, no matter how stellar they are, no matter how “famous”, just don’t have the numbers, the juice, to create meaningful pipelines for sponsors.
In the example here, we don’t generate nearly enough “likes” for ONE full click to the milk message let alone one purchase of our product. We will need Miranda to post milk pictures 285 times a year at this rate and at our 10% and 10% (inflated) pipeline. That won’t work. By the way, I’m not trying to pick on Miranda Carfrae or any particular athlete, rather, these examples are just facts from the top of the professional heap.
Or consider another approach. Personal athlete branding…
At least this one has some skin. And we’re getting some good like rates. Only but we still need about 50X this rate in order to achieve a modicum of success. I know, it’s tough, but think of “likes” as the power meter of social media. There’s no sense convincing ourselves our Like to Sell ratio isn’t anemic.
Maybe this guy would do better…
Nope. Not enough followers. Facebook?
A fraction of what we need. What about a “big” name?
Disappointing. We need 100,000 to view (consistently) so that 10% (optimistic) can have interest and click and a further 10% (optimistic) of those can buy so we can get rich. We won’t get there with these numbers. Ever. The problem is no, NO, individual professional triathlete has the numbers to move significant product in any sustainable way. And we’re assuming no one has bought “likes” or inflated the numbers in any way.
Conclusion: we’d be better served withdrawing sponsorships from the “professionals” and handing free product to top “age groupers” who can actually represent sponsors at the aggregate numbers as influencers in the sport. But this isn’t a book about sports marketing. I’m just trying to explain why we can’t sponsor you in 2016.
Fixing Professional Long-Course Triathlon
Professional long-course triathlon just doesn’t have the numbers to justify sponsor interest.
What professional long-course triathletes need are sponsors. What sponsors need are numbers to build an advertising pipeline. For the professional sport to thrive, both sponsors and professional triathletes need vastly more numbers of viewers to make the economic model sustainable.
How do we get more viewers? We get viewers the simple way that any professional sport gets viewers. We need to tell a story compelling enough to draw frequent and repeated interest. Here’s Tony Pedregon saying as much commenting recently on the growth of NHRA:
“The new partnership with FOX Sports is something we have all been hoping would happen for a long time. We have a great high-energy product with interesting personalities and stories, and like anything else, the only thing the sport has lacked is the ability to share the experience, particularly with new audiences.” (Tony Pedregon, Fox Sports Q&A, December 29, 2015)
I’m not trying to be comprehensive, but the comparison between long-course professional triathlon and professional top-fuel drag racing is apt. The secret is the drag racers are disciplined and have joined together, not for a union, but to tell a compelling, interesting story. This our template for professional long-course triathlon!
We need a high-energy product. I take this to mean a season that is compact, understandable, consumable, non-negotiable. We don’t have that in professional triathlon. We have a single-race season and that is Kona. Everything else is preparation for that single-race season. It is pre-season. Even Ironman Europe. Even the 70.3 World Championships. Who cares? The only thing that matters to viewers, as many as there are, is Kona. Professional triathletes can navigate in a multitude of ways to Kona on a befuddling Kona Points System too obscure for any fan to penetrate. Our task is to expand viewership exponentially.
We need a season that starts in March, ends in October, has a very set number of races (two Ironmans? four half Ironmans?) at which ALL the professionals will compete and will culminate in the championship at Kona. We want to see Daniela race Miranda over and over. We want to see Jan and Sebastian battle constantly not navigate to a single race day on the big island of Hawaii.
There are important questions to answer. Who is a professional? As a sponsor I don’t want many. I maybe want 60 professional long-course athletes in the world men and women. Period. Not 300. I don’t want dilution or confusion. I want head-to-head conflict. If we have 30 men and 30 women, sponsor numbers can be found that would fly the circus (a term used purposefully) around from race to race. We’re talking seven conflicts/races a year. Maybe in July and August (at a couple continental championships) we’d cull the 30 athletes down to the top 10 so that Kona is a true slug fest that can be adequately covered and followed by viewers and fans. I want 10s of million viewers watching in October when Miranda and Daniela toe the line. That is, if, if those are the athletes and stories that made it through a difficult bruising exciting season!
We need interesting personalities and stories. We need viewers to care about the season. We need ways to open up about everything specific to our 60 (30 men and 30 women) professional men and women. Social media needs to be taken out of the hands of the athletes (even though I love Jordan Rapp’s barns, the Wurtele cats) and placed in to the Pro League’s hands so that we tell a compelling story about the season. What was the latest workout of athlete X? Are the Strava files posted consistently. Is there League commentary on it all? Who is doing what and when.
Professional triathletes are entertainers. They aren’t monks. They aren’t disciples of some higher calling. No, they are competing for the entertainment attention of viewers who have a myriad of other offerings in front of them. If you don’t want to entertain, both with your actions, your words, your performance, your drama, then you aren’t cut out to be a professional. You are a gifted, a very gifted athlete, but we just can’t tell the compelling story required to draw viewer attention.
We need ways to share the experience, particularly with new audiences. A common trope I hear is long-course triathlon is too long to capture the interest and attention of viewers. Is this the fatal flaw of the sport? Are we passionate because we are insiders but we are never going to get Joe Six Pack to pay attention to our sport because it takes too much time? There is some truth to this and may be why broadcasts of the sport often ignore the professional race mostly, or give it the shortest gloss possible so that human interest stories can be highlighted. We need to solve this.
I think long-course triathlon can and must be made riveting by finding ways to share the drama of the sport in the training, the taper, the progress through the race itself, and the finish in the same way cricket is followed by millions worldwide even though matches can take hours and days to complete. The way to begin is to build on a very compact season and produce high quality content for viewers. Professional triathletes must be judged, inevitably, on both their athletic achievements and their ability and willingness to draw crowds in so that sponsors can make returns on their investments.
We need a new sports network. Now that we have a compact, compelling season, and we have packaged the professional athelete stories and conflicts and ambitions, and we have formatted the racing to suit the viewer, we are ready to use media to build audience. It doesn’t have to be FOX sports. Just someone, like FOX, who is innovative and willing to cover the events well. The means of distribution are endless today. Maybe that means someone needs to take being the media voice of professional long-course triathlon seriously and as a business rather than an after-thought.
Bootstrapping the beast can take many forms. One way to form would be to use teams. Have seven teams. Each team would have six professionals. Three men and three women. Every year the bottom two teams would be dropped from the league. Teams could hang on to low-achieving athletes but risk being dropped from the League in a down year. Sponsors would get access to a given professional team and the professional season. The league would pay professionals a minimum salary of, back of the envelop, $75,000, with bonuses layered on top for team performance and individual performance.
But the season has to be understandable by the viewer so that she can understand, cheer for, and follow Daniela or Heather or Jan or whomever as they navigate the difficult path to the championship.
Why the WTC Should Support This
Without a thriving professional league for long-course triathlon, there is very little switching costs for athletes as they move from long-course to long-course race (despite the efforts of the All World Athlete program) or move on from our sport of long-course triathlon to throwing mud and fire at a Spartan-type event. A vibrant professional league backed by the WTC enhances the entire race system and provides a viable farm system for the professional teams.
Sponsors, if professional long-course triathlon doesn’t get its act together, I suggest aggressively backing age-group athletes. Smart selection means access to individuals with more social media followers, it’s true, better influencer rankings, and less feeling like you’ve placed all your chips on difficult-to-return-investment professional athletes.
I look forward to hearing what you think.