Held to coincide with USA Triathlon’s key annual Race Director Symposium, the national governing body got together last week with triathlon industry group, Triathlon Business International (TBI) in Dallas, Texas. Sunday 22 January was effectively an overlap of each organisation’s conferences – the USA Triathlon (USAT) Race Director Symposium (20-22 January) and TBI’s Annual Business Conference (22-24 January).
Starting off at the International Ballroom at the Fairmont Dallas hotel, the theme of the joint USAT-TBI conference day was ‘Sharing Solutions to Shape the Future of Multisport’. A joint luncheon got the day-long joint programming agenda under way on Sunday.
The TBI event was MC’d by Dave Ragsdale of RacePartner, who did an excellent job of keeping the proceedings ticking along over the three days – starting with Sunday’s USAT-TBI day.
Phillip Jones, CEO of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, and also a 17-time IRONMAN competitor, was the keynote speaker to kick-start a packed program. He spoke about his experiences of racing triathlon and how the Dallas CVB valued the sport as a vehicle for boosting hotel stays and economic impact in the city.
“Triathlon is an incredible sport. It’s competitive and it challenges me to go beyond my perceived limits,” said Jones. “My job with Visit Dallas is also competitive, as Dallas battles other cities for events, conferences and other business revenue. Triathlon and other endurance sports have helped me grow stronger and braver in all aspects of my business and professional life.”
A joint welcome to the first collaboration of USAT and TBI then followed – with USA Triathlon CEO Rob Urbach and TBI President Richard Adler outlining their hopes for a continued dialogue and progression of the relationship between the governing body and industry group.
Next up was Melissa Stockwell, the Olympic Paratriathlete Medallist, World Champion and war veteran. Her presentation, entitled ‘From Baghdad to Beijing and Beyond’ was a truly inspiring session that summarised her experiences in life. It showed how triathlon had enabled change and provided an opportunity to overcome diversity. Melissa’s presentation was arguably the best over the three days that the TBI Conference ran. It summed up how triathlon can enable a step-change for the individual, and helped the audience gain a real insight into the enabling power of the sport.
The next speaker was Gary Roethenbaugh [me!] with a presentation of interim data from the TBI Industry Confidence Survey. This gave a summary of the latest data from the survey, as at Sunday 22 February, ahead of the survey closing on Friday 27 January. The interim data pointed to a subdued mood overall in the US. Although, opportunities to build up momentum in participation and market growth were noted – including a diversification into evolving areas such as off-road triathlon, draft legal racing and the up-and-coming sport of swimrun in the US.
After a short break, the conference transitioned to the popular speed networking session – always a noisy and buzzing affair! Finally, the day wrapped up with a welcome reception hosted by ACTIVE Network. This was held a short walk from the hotel and took place in ACTIVE’s impressive headquarters – with a relaxed gathering and further opportunity for networking.
Day two opened with a presentation by TBI President Richard Adler who summarised the range of activities undertaken by TBI and how the organisation was encouraged by its recent collaboration with USAT.
One of the main events of the conference was up next… the Q&A with Lance Armstrong. With questions presented by Dan Empfield of Slowtwitch, this informal interview started off talking about Lance’s podcast, which is being done weekly and originally got under way in early June 2016. Dan noted that the podcast addresses diverse subjects such as political science and popular culture. As Lance summarised, “The change that happened five years ago made the podcast possible.” He noted that he went “From the stars to the ground seemingly overnight. All the platforms I had went away. That was a humbling experience. The podcast is the first platform. It’s my place… an offensive move. The first place that I’ve gone back to, to give a people a place to go.”
When asked about the state of triathlon currently, Lance said, “I’m a lot detached from triathlon at the moment. People are critical of IRONMAN. Yet people are paying money to play.” He expanded, “Look at cycling. The Tour casts a shadow over so many events. The teams and riders are beholden. I wish that there were more players, and that the athletes had a bigger and bolder role.”
Dan noted that “Fair play is a big thing in triathlon. If there’s a fair play issue, the [tri] community has an issue.” In response Lance summarised that there are issues around “Traditional doping, course cutting, anti-ageing clinics and mechanical doping. That will never change. Just chilling is not an option. But I don’t have a lot of credibility on this issue!”
He continued, “I haven’t been asked to be a spokesperson [on the issue of doping]. For me the issue of doping in sport in 2017 compared to cycling in the late 1990s is so different. I’m so far removed. I don’t know what’s going on.” Reflecting on the past he said, “The way the story unfolded. People ran away so fast. So, I’m not the right guy to ask. I think people don’t give a shit what I think!”
Dan pointed out that the reviews of Lance’s podcast are typically a score of 1 or 5. In other words, people either love or hate – and there’s less of a medium score of 3 for anything associated with Lance Armstrong!
Lance acknowledged this, “The way he did it. That’s what bugs people. The way I treated others. People are either firmly against or firmly support. Some are in a state of flux. I was an asshole for a very long time. I understand [the ‘1 or 5 view’]. Some people are perhaps coming back. It’s just me walking my walk. I get it. It’s what we call polarising.”
Following the Lance Armstrong Q&A was the first panel on the ‘Future of Triathlon: Technology, Growth Areas, Globalization’. Moderated by Julia Polloreno, the panel featured Erin Beresini, Editor-in-Chief at Triathlete; Chuck Menke, Chief Marketing Officer at USA Triathlon and Gary Roethenbaugh of MultiSport Research [me again, sorry!].
Julia put forward several interesting questions for the panel to address, including:
- What are the biggest trends you’re seeing in terms of how the sport is evolving into the future? Here panellists spoke about opportunities in tech, and how triathletes are early adopters and thus influencers of innovation.
- What are some of the greatest challenges — and greatest opportunities — for growing the sport? Here, diversification was seen as an opportunity.
- What is the most effective way of converting the ‘tri curious’? It was noted that ‘fun’ is key. Races are selling an experience, and having the backing of a city in particular gives an opportunity to put on a spectacle and ‘inspire people to tri’.
- Can you speak to the globalization of the sport—where are we seeing the most growth, and how can domestic businesses began to leverage? On the international stage, it was noted that triathlon has generally flourished in warm weather environments. So, growth in parts of Latin America, Asia and southern Europe is perhaps not surprising. Coupled with this, some Middle East countries have got behind the sport. The UAE and Bahrain are certainly targeting the more wealthy travelling triathlete. With this in mind, US businesses can get involved with trade groups where they exist, for networking. Media still also has a influencing role. Many countries have their own triathlon magazines, or tri websites that may be run by triathlon zealots who have their finger on the pulse. Across the international community, building these relationships can leverage growth in the US and beyond.
The next session was moderated by TBI President Richard Adler. It was entitled ‘Developing Partnerships Between Rights Holders and Sponsors: Building a Platform to Promote a Brand and Engage with a Community’. Taking the Columbia Threadneedle Boston Triathlon as a key case study for sponsor engagement, the discussion was between Ben Cummings, Head of Sponsorships at Columbia Threadneedle Investments; and Mike O’Neil, President at ethos – owner of the Columbia Threadneedle Boston Triathlon.
A number of observations were made during the session. Mike O’Neil at ethos and the Columbia Threadneedle Boston Triathlon, said “You can’t have a great event unless you’re integrated into the fabric of the community. You need a give-back to make it all OK, and to preserve the longevity of the event.”
Ben Cummings at Columbia Threadneedle Investments noted that “Boston is the company’s global HQ with around 500 employees. The local element is a key success factor for us as a business. Coupled with this, one take-out for the triathlon industry is the opportunity to look outside the endemic community. Consider corporate triathlon. Start with a relay focus. It can work very well.”
He expanded on the attraction of the Boston Triathlon for Columbia Threadneedle, “Boston is packed with financial services companies. Triathlon was chosen as a little nugget, as our competitors were not doing much with it. Since getting involved, it’s been a little gem that we’ve been very happy with.”
Ben continued, “The term sponsor is kind of out-dated. Both parties need to think of it as a partnership. The value we get back is as much to do with intangible benefits, like engagement with the city and our employees. These are difficult to measure. But they are really important. As triathlon moves up the agenda within the business, you can bring in more resources and influence within the company. The values of determination, achievement are important. Relays and team work are likewise very important. Last year 72 staff out of 500 did Boston. This year that figure will be dwarfed.”
The next panel, ‘Expanding Diversity in Triathlon’ was moderated by Sara Gross, PhD, and a 2x IRONMAN Champion. The panel included María Teresa Guerrero, ‘la flaca guerrero’, a passionate triathlete, TV personality and model; Tony Brown representing the Black Triathletes Association; and Sika Henry, an athlete whose goal is to become the first pro female African American triathlete.
Tony gave a summary of the Black Triathletes Association (BTA) – and noted that it now has around 1,000 members across the US. It was originally formed as a community for black triathletes and has steadily built influence. Sika Henry started as an age group triathlete – and was often the only black person at an event. ‘Flaca’ Guerrero explained that she started triathlon after being hit by a car. For her, triathlon provided an opportunity to ‘live life’. She has since quit her job and promotes triathlon through her extensive social media following.
Discussion turned to the challenges and opportunities in expanding diversity within the sport of tri. Sika said “You can’t do something that you don’t know anything about. Other African Americans don’t know about the sport. The main issue why there is no female black pro triathlete is awareness.”
Tony added, “There are barriers. Triathlon is a technical sport and there has to be more awareness and education about what the sport involves. Our communities are conditioned to go with the norm, in other words what the most popular sports are. BTA’s mission is to promote the sport in the black community. There’s a vast opportunity out there.”
Flaca observed, “In South America, triathlon is growing a lot. We have seen IRONMAN expand in Ecuador, my home country. For me, triathlon is about a healthy life. This is important [to the Hispanic community] and I’m pleased to use social media to promote the sport.”
After lunch, Rob Urbach CEO of USA Triathlon gave a ‘State of the Union’ address. Rob’s presentation gave a rousing overview of the sport and the emotion it triggers in its participants. He noted that the sport has been about “relevance, convenience and professionalism”, and going forwards “about driving value after previous years of high growth”.
Rob said, “Gwen Jorgensen’s finish in Rio was spine-tingling. It was a game changer, a watershed Olympic gold moment for the sport. Likewise, Melissa Stockwell securing bronze gave a 1, 2, 3 USA athlete podium at the Rio Paralympics.”
Rob noted that, in the US, triathlon has been “Negative in terms of race participation in last few years. Yet, triathlon still generates the highest revenue per event for any endurance sport.” He added, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. People buy emotions and feelings. We’re in the emotion business. Sure, USAT is in the business of making Olympians. But bigger than that, it’s in the business of making everybody else feel like an Olympian.”
Following Rob’s uplifting State of the Nation presentation, the afternoon turned to a series of break-out sessions. One of these was ‘The Changing Dynamics of Manufacturer, Wholesaler & Retailer Relationships’. Moderated by Seton Claggett of TriSports.com, this was a lively discussion. Panellists included: Ahmed Zaher at PlayTri; Peter Hurley, CEO of American Bicycle Group; Mark Miller of Precision Bikes; and John Duquette at blueseventy.
Ahmed Zaher reiterated that PlayTri is taking a holistic approach, offering a full range of services – not just selling product. He added that PlayTri is targeting the 99% who don’t know triathlon. A relationship is built with the consumer through initiative such as lending a bike when the consumer registers at a PlayTri event. He said, “Initially, it doesn’t make money. But, over time that guy becomes loyal. [In contrast] Amazon is just making money off people who are not loyal.”
Seton picked up on the challenges facing retailers with the direct-to-consumer model. Peter Hurley explained that American Bicycle Group has two key bike brands: Quintana Roo and Lightspeed, which take a different approach. He noted that, for the most part, Quintana Roo goes through dealers. “For Lightspeed, we geo-target direct to consumers to sell bikes. That’s a completely different program. We’ve learnt over the years to support the consumer. The consumer chooses how to take the bike, [either via a dealer, direct, etc.]”
John Duquette stated that blueseventy is up against “Two very strong consumer-direct brands [XTERRA Wetsuits and ROKA] that are very aggressive and target tri clubs.” He continued, “Against this, blueseventy has tried to protect the retailer. Around two thirds of sales go through retail. One third through online. Direct to consumer sales have increased rapidly [through this online-direct model]. All we did was change the site and make it a bit easier to buy. We would prefer to sell just to retailers, but the pressure is out there to go direct.”
The debate then picked up with an open discussion from the audience. One delegated noted that retailers such as Mark Miller of Precision Bikes and Ahmed at PlayTri are “taking the right approach.” He added, “They’re offering an all-inclusive shop. They can narrow their [product] line and build the family of people that support them.”
A wetsuit competitor to blueseventy expanded on the direct-to-consumer model. He noted, “The gorilla out there is Amazon, Wiggle and Alibaba. The retailer better be prepared, because they will be shipping from China at a whole different level. They are coming after all retailers.”
The session expanded into an interesting group discussion with lots of points raised by the panel and the audience. As some follow-on action items Seton summarised that “You need to really get involved with your consumers, become involved with ambassadors, support your community, and bring people in (particularly the 99% who don’t know about triathlon).”
A further breakout panel session followed the view on retail. This was entitled, ‘Triathlon Teams and The Increasing Role They Play in Our Sport & Business’. The session was moderated by Peter Hurley of American Bicycle Group. Panellists included Jesse Kropelnicki, Owner of the QT2 Systems and Outrival Racing coaching groups; Chris MacDonald, pro triathlete & President of Big Sexy Racing; and Matt Miller from specialist nutrition firm Base Performance.
All panellists agreed that ‘change is the price of survival’. It was noted that there have been… ‘massive shifts in what works from a communication point of view. For example, the e-mail that worked last year, doesn’t necessarily work today. Adaptation is key.’
Two other breakouts were going on simultaneously. In ‘Understanding Millennials’, Dr Amy Thayer gave extensive insights into the diverse Millennials consumer group; and in ‘Working with Municipalities’, led by Staci Brode, President of PlayTri, there was a discussion about the challenges and opportunities that surround the need to build relationships with city authorities.
The next day began with a really interesting session from Sam Renouf, GM, Sports at ACTIVE Network. His presentation was entitled ‘Delivering Experiences Throughout the Event Lifecycle That Can Transcend the Sport’. In his presentation, Sam highlighted a number of themes. These included a “decline in obstacle racing in the US, following phenomenal growth over last few years… Triathlon has stood up OK, and didn’t decline as much as other categories. Coupled with this, the average registration revenue per event [for triathlon] is higher.”
Sam expanded further and noted that it’s much harder to grab attention these days. “We’ve almost become used to phenomenal achievements. It’s not like we’re not achieving more. The athletes are getting quicker. Consider Daniela Ryf’s phenomenal achievement in Kona. Yet, it didn’t capture the public interest in the way that the Iron War did previously.”
He noted that there is increasingly competition for attention. “There is so much media out there. How do we cut through? Triathlon is getting lost in the noise.”
One suggestion to expand the impact of triathlon was linked to technology. Sam showed how US Open tennis viewership increased following the introduction of Hawkeye technology. Likewise, there was an increase in viewership of the Superbowl following introduction of Fantasy Football. So, embracing technology can boost interest.
The next panel session was entitled ‘Alternative Event Formats that Engage New Participants and Extend Business Opportunities for Event Producers’. This was moderated by triathlon icon, Bob Babbitt, the USAT and IRONMAN Triathlon Hall of Fame Inductee and the founder of Babbittville Radio. The panellists were Jimmy Archer, publisher of DirtTri magazine; Scott ‘Hootie’ Hutmacher, Brand Manager at Life Time Tri; John Cofano, President/CEO of Goodwell Fitness Network; and Bill Burke, President/CEO at Premier Event Management (PEM).
Scott ‘Hootie’ Hutmacher summarised that there are 130 big box LifeTime health clubs and that most clubs have around 10,000 members. 25% of athletes have some long course tri experience. 50% have partaken in Sprint/Olympic distance racing. The remaining 25% are newbies – and LifeTime is focusing its attention here. As a result, LifeTime helped introduce 7,200 new triathletes to the sport in 2016 – a figure that was warmly welcomed by the audience. Hootie added, “25,000 race a LifeTime triathlon year on year. Yet, only 2% travel out of their current area. We need more of that. Get people coast to coast.”
Bill Burke at Premier Event Management gave an overview of the new inaugural Escape Triathlon Series, a qualifying series for the 2018 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. He said that “Alcatraz is truly one of the world’s most iconic events. That was the hook. We were working on deal for an Escape series with IMG for around 13 months. It will be a big shot in the arm for short course racing. The industry needs a re-set, and short course racing is one of those re-set opportunities.”
John Cofano summarized how he is working with corporations, tri clubs and events in California. He noted that the resulting “Tri Club Championship helps local independent events to grow. It is a way to engage more tri club athletes, with a scoring system where everyone’s points matters and US$30,000 in prizes.” John summarized the strong revenue growth achieved by events participating in the series, with “55% growth on average for the 16 participant events in 2016. Last year also saw ‘the most improved athlete competition’ between the first half and second half of the season.” He added that this also helped to build engagement, with an average of 1.22 events per athlete in 2015, increasing to 1.44 in 2016.
The panel also explored the best way for race organisers to work with corporates. It was suggested that targeting corporates shouldn’t necessarily tap into HR. It could be better to get in front of senior vice presidents in marketing, for example… ‘They understand their team. They know what benefits employees, and they can accelerate decision making.’
Jimmy Archer noted that he started Dirt Tri as a third-party voice for the off-road triathlon community. He said, “Off-road never really had an advocate. There are real opportunities out there for those looking to put on an off-road triathlon series.” He added, “[ITU President] Marisol Casado has said that off-road is a future opportunity. I also feel that a cross or gravel bike triathlon could work. Plus, from a race organiser perspective, you don’t have to close any roads.
“One thing that people continue to come back to us with is that ‘there are not enough races’ in the off-road space. There is a real opportunity for race directors here. The beauty of off-road is that the overheads are a lot less and there’s value to be had for all stakeholders.”
The final general session was the fourth panel of the conference. This was entitled ‘Creative Marketing on Limited Dollars (Events, Retail & Product)’. It featured Will Bowman, a Digital Marketing Consultant at ACTIVE Network and Kristie Holt, owner of the Local Hub Bicycle Company. This gave lots of insight into how to leverage social media, build website content and generally think efficiently and effectively when liaising with athlete consumers online.
In the aforementioned discussion around alternative event formats, Jimmy Archer’s comments nicely summarised a key theme that ran through the entire conference. While some may have joked that ‘flat [tri participation] is the new growth’, the sport of triathlon clearly has a number of opportunities for an upside. Whether that’s in diversifying the base of participants from a socio-demographic point of view, or diversifying the types of races on offer, the sport of triathlon has a core virtue in that it provides great experiences for participants; and, as consumers, we shall continue to seek out those ‘euphoric experiences that make us feel alive’.