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Fan Attention, Sponsor Purses, Kona and the Way Forward

Brett Sutton (@trisutto) has contributed, yet again, a meaningful piece (http://trisutto.com/pro-purses-way-forward/) 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 http://www.dailycamera.com 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.

A Brief History of Joyent

I invented the name Joyent one night while on a business trip in Seattle. In the Fall of 2004 I was exploring some ideas for startups and was trying to set up a server for business collaboration (email, calendar, contacts and files) and was struck how hard it was. I thought there might be something to this work and determined to do something useful for the ENTerprise. I had always been a fan of Joy Divison and C.S. Lewis’ idea of being “surprised by Joy”, so stuck “Joy” in front of of “ent” to make “Joyent”. Turns out the word “Joyent” is also found in middle english and means “joint” especially with respect to the intersection of two structural beams. Perfect.

I set out to make the Joy Enterprise server using FreeBSD and jails as the basis for the work. Why? Why not Linux? Easy, the install for FreeBSD was so easy to do I memorized it and could reinstall a non-working system in a matter of minutes. Jails (a type of early container idea) seemed like a logical idea for segmenting the various server components in to discreet configurable parts rather than mashing all the configuration in to one big soup.

I recruited John Gruber (of Daring Fireball) to come work on the user interface of what we now called the Joyent “Connector”. He was employee number 2. Raised some early seed money from Peter Thiel. Brian Brown was instumental in making the connection with Thiel and guiding me through the process of forming the idea of Joyent’s product idea and presentation.

joyent_team

Here’s a very early photo of the Joyent team in the courtyard of an apartment we rented in San Anselmo, CA in Marin County. From left to right is Chris Morris (Chris’ parents provided early seed capital and Chris himself is one of the nicest people you will ever meet in this industry thought we had a running joke that he had a set of voodoo dolls he pinned every time I asked for another feature), John Gruber, me, Andrew (I’m sorry I don’t remember his last name), and the first hipster I ever came in contact with Mr Luke Crawford. I remember recruiting Luke while he was interviewing for a job at Google (I believe). We bonded over talk of laser disks of “Star Wars”. The idea was I would do the systems administration work for the “Connector” and the others would create a web application using a very early framework called “Rails”. For that reason for a long time Joyent made the largest Rails application.

John Gruber convinced the very talented Bryan Bell to join the company and we worked on the “Connector” with a release to the public at the second Web 2.0 Launchpad. Other products introduced at that Launchpad were Socialtext and Zimbra.

joyent_cast

Jill was the “customer” we invented to buy the “Connector”.

The “Connector” was a physical server you bought and installed in your office. It auto-configured itself and, voila, you had a ready server for email, calendar, contacts, files. This was before GMail.

We planned to do a full suite of word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software but saw the light of the Google train coming down the tunnel and knew we needed to quickly pivot. John Gruber introduced me to Jason Hoffman who ran the day-to-day operations of TextDrive. We’d begun to rewrite the Joyent “Connector” to offer it as a hosted solution, TextDrive was a “hosting” company (but I hope no one takes offense if I style it more of a “community” company!) looking for some software solutions to host. When I first got off the plane in San Diego to spend the day with Jason, we were struck by our similar world view and quickly determined to put the two companies together in to a bigger Joyent.

I don’t want to fail to mention Mr Dean Allen. He was the actual founder of TextDrive, a real pioneer of the web, and someone living in the south of France. He flew over to California to sign papers for the deal and I believe that’s when the incredible streak began of nearly every bottle of wine uncorked in both my and Dean’s presence being “spoiled”. I’m told this is the definitive sign of a warlock. Since I am a loyal son of the Church, I will let you the reader make the logical conclusion: Jason had Dean under a diabolical spell, one, to my knowledge, never broken, I’m afraid.

The new Joyent grew leaps and bounds. We worked hard to make “Connector” successful, but ultimately failed. As a poorly capitalized company (we’d only raised money from Peter Thiel!) we tried every trick in the book to economize and so were very early users of something called “containers” (the intellectual progeny of “jails”) on the newly open-sourced Sun Solaris. In fact, customers were more interested in our use of “containers” than they were in our increasingly polished “Connector”. Benr and Shanr (we actually did a systems admin cartoon for a few months…I’m sure people can find examples somewhere) had by this time taken over the system administration work of the “Connector”.

Now things began to accelerate. In fact, we called the product for containers “Accelerators” as customers flocked to the solution including porn sites, both sides of the California Prop 8 debate, and many others. I learned from Jason to ignore most everything that goes on in a support forum. And very soon we dumped the “Connector” but not before showing off the product to Apple and then seeing most of the UI show up in an early version of one of their failed on-line efforts.

We raised some venture capital. The vampires had entered the enchanted forest.

How was Joyent enchanted? We pursued big ideas! Such as Joyent Slingshot. The idea was to do a “headless” browser that allowed developers to write HTML5 applications with full drag and drop support. It ran on Mac OS and Jeff Mancuso from ExpanDrive did much of the work. This was long long before ChromeOS was a thing. Slingshot, however, died.

We doubled-down on all things Sun. Containers, Dtrace, ZFS even in the face of Sun’s own disbelief. Enchantment. I remember being grilled by very senior Sun executives during acquisition talks about the heresy of actually having confidence to build a business on topic of Sun technologies. We were the first to deploy something called a “Thumper” in production even though it required plying whole buildings of Sun with expensive bottles of scotch despite having written notes of command from Jonathan Schwatrz that we were to be given hardware for our prescient storage service. We could see things the WHOLE industry just couldn’t see as it wallowed in Linuxland.

A talented fellow Adrian Ludwig joined the team and renamed everything from “Accelerator” to “Smart”. “SmartOS”, “Smart Machines”, we seemed very smart.

More venture capital.

Jason and I were able to recruit the also talented engineer Bryan Cantrill from Oracle (nee Sun) to Joyent. Bryan always hewed to the heresy of believing in Sun even when Sun didn’t believe in Sun and did monumental work. But he wasn’t always a fan of Joyent or maybe me. One story comes to mind. Speaking for myself, as the pressures of Joyent grew and grew, I liked to cut the tension with boozy dinners with friends in the industry. Jason would often come along and his gift for gab was a key solvent in getting sales and deals done. One night we’d invited the DTrace guys out for steaks at Ruth Chris on Van Ness, a favorite meat-stop before Jason and I discovered Alfred’s pool-sized martinis. Over the third or fourth bottle of a good petit syrah, I told Bryan Cantrill “someday you will work for me because only Joyent believes in Sun”. Bryan lept across the table with steak knife in hand looking to segment my storage from CPU. He was soon at Joyent.

That’s also the Ruth Chris where Jason and I allegedly tried to kill Om Malik with three pounds of melted butter, fried potatoes, and a few rounds of cheesecake washed down by generous amounts of the same signature petit syrah and cognac.

More venture capital.

I will say this. I regret to say that while Jason and I made all the right decisions with respect to technology choices, and were lucky to have customers such as a very early Twitter (I remember sitting across from Jack Dorsey and being lectured about how he’d been “systems programming” since age 3), the amazing Facebook platform (we had a “Players’ Club” that tried to give away free infrastructure in exhcange for Facebook user data…), early LinkedIn, unfortunately my own addictions began to buckle under stress.

More venture capital.

Perhaps the most perceptive decision of my time at Joyent was the decision to “buy” Node.js very early in its development life. I give the credit for the idea entirely to Mark Mayo, now at Mozilla. Mark spent some time as CTO of Joyent and recognized the profound impact node.js would have on the industry.

There’s a whole discussion about open source to be had at some point. Especially for technology companies selling technology solutions. I think I’ve gone from being a believer to a sceptic. You can blame me for Joyent’s reluctance to do the foundation thing for node.js.

I will never forget trying to convince a senior executive of an Indian telecom company to install Joyent’s software stack to offer products and services while just outside the conference room window in the parking lot I could see a group of men slaughtering a goat.

Or having lunch with Michael Dell who served up a spread of limp wheat bread, loaf-style turkey and french’s mustard.

One of my last decisions was to agree to build Manta, even though I quarreled with some of the engineers about what it meant for our product stack. No matter, I was checking out.

I was fired by the board of Joyent in May of 2012. My own alcoholism had gotten the better of me and while I tried to manage the best I could, I sort of drifted around the world selling customers on Joyent’s unique view of the cloud waiting anxiously to get back to the hotel room so that I could drink myself to sleep and relieve the pain of startup up life. I want to thank the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo for exemplary service in this regard and the Mandarin Oriental chain worldwide for always remembering my preferences in vodka brands. I’m sorry to my fellow Joyeurs for any dereliction of duty. I do not, however, apologize for installing trophy heads in Joyent’s offices or the models of sunken ships both to represent each $1 million in sales we accomplished as a company. I am happy to say there was a veritable zoo of heads and fleet of sunken ships in the office.

In 2009 at our annual Joyent company get-together, after one Joyeur talked about the intricacies of putting on a hockey uniform, I spoke to the company about an idea called the internet of things and why our technology stack was uniquely suited to address this massive opportunity. In scale we learned that getting “big” wasn’t so much the hard thing as much as the ability to get “very small” (containers), to know what was truly happening with the system (Dtrace), and to ensure it happened predictably (ZFS). These were all things the Joyent stack did exceptionally well, but that insight was swallowed up in the drive to sell product to customers stuck in Linuxland. Unfortunate, but true. I was gratified to learn one insight Samsung had in their rationale for purchasing Joyent was just the applicability of the Joyent stack to their needs to address the internet of things and I wish them the best success.

I wish all Joyeurs everywhere the best. Congratulations to each and every one of them. You have provided me with many happy and painful memories, all of them I cherish. David Pottruck was a mentor for a time I didn’t heed, to my regret. I even want to thank a couple of the vampires. Rob from Intel who is a friend of entrepreneurs. Dean from Dell. Dana not from Dana Point. And Khaled who, I hope won’t mind me saying, always reminded me of the shark in “Finding Nemo”. Terrifying but friendly.

Now I’m working on a dairy company called Honeymoon Brands, because, as I see it, getting great dairy is just too hard. And I no longer drink petit syrah.