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Date: March 15, 2017
Author: Mike Plant
Raising the Women’s Game
At the recent USAT/TBI conference, there was a bit of angst over the recent decline in the growth of participation in triathlon in the U.S., and there seemed to be little confidence in a post-Olympic boost -- not even on the women’s side, despite a gold medal performance on live television by a likable, charismatic Gwen Jorgenson.
Isn’t that the kind of thing that drove U.S. women’s gymnastics through the roof 30 years ago?
But if a tidal wave of lycra-clad teenage girls climbing onto tri bikes is not in the immediate offing, I’m tempted to think a genuine opportunity in that general direction exists - one that could answer the prayers for a new growth spurt by USAT, while injecting new life into the commerce of multisport.
Women may well be the answer.
Currently, women comprise a mere 38 percent of all triathletes, as measured by membership in USAT. That’s not much more than the percentage we were using in press materials back in the mid-1980s, and it means one of two things: either triathlon is a mostly-male sport and will be forever; or the sport is not sufficiently engaged with women.
If we’re placing bets, I’d choose the latter.
Take running, for instance, where the participant base is roughly flipped what it is in tri: 63 percent women, 37 percent men, according to a 2016 survey of runners conducted by Running USA. The most popular distance by far is the half marathon (40 percent), with women being the primary drivers at that distance.
So should we somehow try to make triathlons more like half-marathons? That’s probably a stretch. But it’s worth looking at why women run half marathons, because I think that’s where the opportunity for triathlon truly exists.
According to most accounts, the increase in half-marathon participation by women was fueled, at least in part, by a massive increase in participation in event-related charitable fundraising. Half marathons became the challenge distance of choice in part because it was targeted by organizations like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (Team in Training), the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation (Team Challenge) and others. Anyone can run/walk a 5K or 10K, but a half marathon takes training, and groups like Team in Training and Team Challenge capitalized on that by building programs that combined fund-raising, coaching, and camaraderie designed to nurture non-runners, or very casual runners, to the finish line of a two to four-hour effort.
Even when a formal program or charity is not involved, female recreational runners seem to approach running differently than men. They see even walking 13 miles with a couple of close friends as something worth training for, something to be proud of. If there’s fitness and a good cause involved, all the better. The T-shirts, the finisher medals, the companionship, the almost complete lack of concern for time, and the heightened importance of “fun” and “experience” - these factors are motivational and empowering to women who might not otherwise consider themselves athletes of any kind, let alone long-distance runners.
I don’t know what triathlon distance is the right fit for this audience, but I do know that growth in participation in running events, including the half marathon, has begun to decline slightly. Could it be time for a shift toward a challenge of a different kind?
The trick for triathlon is to get on the front of a might-be trend and remove the significant barriers to entry for women who are out for fun and a sense of solidarity, not a spot in the USAT Hall of Fame. There would need to be an aggressive public information campaign to actively welcome newcomers, including newcomers with garage-sale equipment. An inexpensive, easy-to-ride, non-aero-bar entry-level bike would not be a bad idea. Elitism in any form is intimidating. It’s certainly not a path toward growth.
It’s not as if entry-level triathlons are not being staged around the country, but it’s time for concerted effort, with USAT and TBI working together to raise awareness and attract the attention of major non-endemic sponsors by companies that speak primarily to women. There’s certainly precedent: the Danskin Triathlon Series, launched in 1990, was extremely successful for more than 20 years. It should be revived and emulated.
There’s something else, too - and I think it’s significant. Regardless of where you stand on the issues, you have to admit that women in the United States are newly conscious of, and passionately willing to organize against, social and political agendas that threaten their independence. The street protests by women the day after the Trump Inauguration were full of portent. Consider Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s words when he forced Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to leave the podium during the debate over the Jeff Sessions nomination: “She was warned. She was given an explanation,” he said. “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
“She was warned. She persisted.” If that isn’t a motivational triathlon tag line, I’ve never heard one.
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