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?

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