Based around the half iron distance, the TOUGHMAN event series has gone from strength to strength in recent years. 2016 was very much a step-up year for the TOUGHMAN brand, as an array of new races were announced. Originally a North American event series, TOUGHMAN has added a number of events in Latin America – with further new events and a broader international expansion in the pipeline.
We caught up with Rich Izzo, the man behind TOUGHMAN, to talk through the ambitions for the series, his thoughts on the state of triathlon today and how growth can be achieved in an ever crowded marketplace…
triathlonbusiness.com (TriBiz): Perhaps you can kick-off with a background to you and the TOUGHMAN brand. How and when did it all come about?
Rich Izzo (RI): We started the first TOUGHMAN half in New York in 2008 and it just took off based upon the fact that to race a half distance back then you needed to travel 6 hrs north or south of NY. I had been the Chairman of the Westchester Triathlon from 1998-2002 and saw the rebirth of the race; so I knew if we did a new type of race close to NYC it would be successful.
TriBiz: What was it like in the early days?
RI: The team logistics team for TOUGHMAN NY was just really four of us; and over the first two years of each race weekend we just did not sleep! That meant doing every job with the emphasis always being on safety. Now we have over 30 members on the team and a travel team as well. Our strength is that all of our team have raced for years and most have known each other for 20+ years. Our marketing plan back then was to simply do a great race and have the reputation grow, which it has. But today we have evolved to marketing for 24 races under our TOUGHMAN and TOUGHkids name – so it is much more complex, more comprehensive and includes multiple levels of thought.
TriBiz: Who were your first sponsors?
RI: Our first sponsors were Jarden, Polar Electronics and Morgan Stanley. Jarden, owned by Martin Franklin, supported TOUGHMAN by helping us with his Zoot Sports and Marmot brands. Polar has always supplied the overall and age group awards. This is why we can give away age group awards valued at over US$30,000 every year. Morgan Stanley was a great support and still is.
TriBiz: Are these original sponsors still on board?
RI: Yes. Jarden, Polar and Morgan Stanley are still part of the TOUGHMAN family. Plus we have added many more based upon category and geographic location. For 2016 we had Orca, Clif Bar, Poland Spring, Westchester Road Runner and Polar Electronics as series sponsors.
TriBiz: What makes an athlete want to do a TOUGHMAN event?
RI: Our brand is about the age grouper and because we also have a TOUGHKids race on the race weekend we can have the entire family come and race. Our goal is to make each and every TOUGHMAN race standardized so that the athlete gets a safe, great race experience; but one that is very much grass roots – meaning a beer tent, BBQ, music, personalized racks, multiple race pickup locations. Alongside this, athletes are able to qualify for our TOUGHMAN NY World Championship. It is always nice to receive a personalized invitation to the championship where age groupers can compete against pros for a cash purse.
TriBiz: How do you find athlete retention? Do many come back for more?
RI: Our athlete retention is good; but not knowing an industry standard it is hard to determine what is normal. Since our brand is growing I assume that the athletes are returning and telling their friends!
TriBiz: What about competition; how are you faring in an increasingly challenging marketplace?
RI: We do not see other brands as competition as we feel we are in a different niche of athletes. Our grass roots races are focused on what we do best and that is to give the athletes a safe, standardized race experience in keeping with the grass roots nature of the sport. This is how the sport started, as a lifestyle, so our athletes are not about doing a race as a bucket list item and then moving on.
TriBiz: Do you see many challenges in terms of event pricing, or pricing opportunities for TOUGHMAN?
RI: We only see opportunities going forward. Our ability to buy in bulk, get series sponsors and think collectively allows us to overcome any changes that are occurring in the sport.
TriBiz: If the event organising industry has evolved over the past few decades, do you think anything has really changed in terms of the appeal of triathlon?
RI: I do not think things have changed much in the last 11 years as far as the interest in the sport, in fact it has increased substantially. The only difference is that the cost of the races and the amount of choice has grown. This means the consumer makes choices based upon their estimate of the value.
TriBiz: Turning to the wider triathlon industry, any thoughts on the current commercial landscape?
RI: We do see that there are challenges out there. But, there is always an expansion and contraction in every industry. The companies that have the best strategy will be able to not only survive but grow no matter what.
TriBiz: As a race organiser, how do feel that stakeholders in the world of triathlon can increase participation?
RI: Hard to say. My view is that if you are offering a good product then over time your brand has value and as such athletes see that.
TriBiz: How do you feel triathlon sits alongside other endurance sports?
RI: We are a niche of the endurance world but a very important niche.
TriBiz: What next for Rich Izzo and TOUGHMAN!?
RI: I am just headed to TOUGHMAN Argentina for the inaugural half iron race in Rosario [on 5 February 2017] so I am very excited. After that I travel to Veracruz in April for TOUGHMAN Mexico, then TOUGHMAN Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Brazil in October. So, in 2017 we will be seeing a lot of South American and international locations.
Plus, we will be doing a lot with our new media partner Lava Magazine: pre and post race interviews and a TOUGHMAN Live steam of the NY Championship is in the works that will be broadcast through all of our partners, mainly lavamagazine.com.
Going forwards, we have international expansion on the horizon and we feel good about the growth of our brand. Ultimately we see that triathlon is about a lifestyle not a one-off event experience. As long as we keep delivering great experiences the athletes will keep coming back for more!