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Date: March 24, 2015

Author: Mark Cathcart

Professional Triathlete - Local Hero?
By Mark Cathcart
https://about.me/markcathcart 

There continues to be a massive interest and debate around the need and role of professional triathletes, just this week I've seen two more blogs, and back in the September TBINTELLIGENCER blog Reg Holden asked us to think of triathlon as an "ecosystem." In response, in the November 2014 of Triathlete Retail and Industry News aka TRAIN, TBI President Jack Caress asked "Do We Need Pro Triathletes?" 

In Jack's TRAIN article, he came out strongly in favor of professional triathletes but "makes a distinction between individual and team sports's athletes ..." He went on to discuss the "incredible salaries" and that not just the "top 100 all earn more than $10-million per year," but that team sport athletes are organized and get a share of a stream of revenue from broadcast, online subscriptions, licenses, etc.  As Caress points out, "individual athletes live under a different model."

Let's face it, all sport needs local heroes. Teams don't exist just on TV. They are in schools, and colleges, they are the local after work and weekend games, the amateur teams, and the development leagues. What all those teams have in common is they are local. Professional triathletes are both aspirational and inspirational. Until we learn the local lesson, triathlon will never be a big sport, never be a media draw.

IRONMAN has dealt a massive blow to local heroes by eliminating prize money and the professional classification in many of its races. Triathlon to some degree has failed over the last 30-years because its stars have largely been nomadic. While the achievements of Chris McCormack and his peers are massive, would a member of the public in Chicago, or London, or Germany really care about Chris? No.

Something team sports also have are managers; many have coaches, medical staff, physio's and for many, they have accountants, travel planners, marketing and finance professionals who chase after local business to get sponsorship. That's where I see the difference, not in media coverage, not in the teams of athletes in franchise leagues making millions, but in those smaller teams, with a professional support infrastructure.

Professional triathletes find coaches, they find endemic sponsors, and some even convince Mom and Dad to help out with some of the admin side. Increasingly, it's incredibly hard for them to make money. Local bike shops are finding it hard and harder to compete, few can afford to really support teams, or more than just a few athletes anymore. Other sport-specific companies won't do it. Why should they, effectively they are a cartel. None pay more than they have to, and athletes can't live by blogging and tweeting for free stuff.

What is needed is business management, a team infrastructure to develop the local pipeline. Developing athletes as business people isn't that hard, they need solid advice on how to travel effectively and to pay for it; how to manage their financial "business;" how to make best use of the tax system; and most important, guidance and help looking outside the sport for sponsors. Sponsorship is NEVER about what the sponsor can do for the athlete, it's always about what the athlete can do for the sponsor. Seems obvious, right?

Athletes need to develop themselves as ambassadors for their personal benefit, for their sponsors and for the sport. They need to look for opportunities to engage with the sponsor, the sponsor's employees, the sponsor's target audience and customers ... not just the existing triathlon community. 

There will always be pros, and the industry has long depended on the fact that when one pro fails, another will come along. That's why  so few superstars have developed. Few were ever local heroes first. Few had a community behind them, and few had a team with them. Depending on the once-per-year TV celebrity heroes is not a winning formula.

We need to find a way to develop programs and materials to help athletes help themselves. Help the local heroes develop a "brand" through which the athletes are recognized in their communities. We need to stop chasing the triathlon Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, and flying in top-30 athletes who win everything. Local TV doesn't care, local media doesn't care, and until they care you don't have a competition that national and international media will recognize, no matter how much prize money is on the line. Those athletes need to be local, they need to be business savvy, and they need to have opportunities to make money so they are not tempted to cheat, they need to be clean.

If you have a comment or response to Mark's blog, please email feedback@triathlonbusinessintl.com. We will post it with the blog and Mark will respond.

Mark Cathcart

Founder and Owner of ATXD Multisports, 2003 British Triathlon volunteer of the Year. By daytime, Mark is an Executive Director at Dell Computers, where he currently works in the office of the Software Group CTO. He was one of the first TBI Individual members, and has attended all their annual conferences, and asked questions! https://about.me/markcathcart

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