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"Is Ironman Dying?"

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By Dan Conway

I watched the 2019 Ironman World Championship Review broadcasted on NBC Sports Network the day after the event was held. While it was great to see the 8-hour barrier broken on the men’s side and American Tim O’Donnell place 2nd Finish, there a couple of other things that made me wonder if the Ironman Triathlon in Kona is long for this world. First was the lack of a major, big name sponsor like Ford Motor Company and Timex. Second was the noticeable lack of spectators at the finish line along the infamous Alii Drive. Also, I did not see anything regarding the amateur athletes, since the program was solely focused on the professionals. These gave pause to wonder “Is the Ironman Triathlon dying?

Before I sign the death certificate, it might be worth looking at the brief history of how this event grew to prominence. It basically starts with Navy officer John Collins and a few of his fellow sailors wondering which athlete was in the best shape, a swimmer, a biker or a runner. John had been stationed in San Diego where he and his wife participated in triathlons in the mid-1970’s. The idea for the Ironman came after the completion of the 1977 Oahu Perimeter Relay, which involved 5-person teams running and swimming around the island of...

Oahu. John proposed adding a bike ride around Oahu, starting with a swim and ending with a marathon on the Honolulu Marathon course. On February 18, 1978, 15 athletes jumped in the water to the first Ironman event. Most of the participants were Navy sailors stationed at nearby Pearl Harbor. Collins proclaimed, “Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Iron Man” The first finisher as Navy Communications Officer, Gordon Haller. Finishing is 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 56 seconds.

By 1979 the Ironman attracted 50 athletes by simple word of mouth marketing. Lyn Lemaire, a cyclist from Boston, finished 6th overall and first “Iron Woman”. Collins decided he no longer wanted to run the event and approached owners of Nautilus Fitness Centers, Hank Grundman and Valarie Silk to take over the event. After the couple’s divorce in 1981, Valarie Silk was awarded the rights to the Hawaii Ironman name and moved the event to the less urbanized Big Island of Hawaii with the start/finish in the town of Kona. The event gained global attention in 1982 with the infamous ‘Crawl to Fame’ by Julie Moss struggling on her hands and knees to the finish line. The next year the event maxed out at 1,000 participants. Other Ironman events began to appear. Most notably, Ironman Canada and Ironman Florida, which were being operated by North America Sports and its founder Graham Frazer.

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Dr. James Gills of Tarpon Springs, FL purchased the rights to the Hawaii Triathlon Corporation and rights to the Ironman brand from Valarie Silk for $3 million and formed the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) in 1990. Under direction of Dr. Gills’ VP of Information Systems, Ben Fertic, WTC became an event production company adding new Ironman events, buying North American Sports from Graham Frazer and gaining big sponsors like Ford and Timex. In 2008, WTC was sold to an investment firm, Providence Equity for $85 million. Not a bad return on investment for Dr. Gills. WTC continued to expand events worldwide and added the Ironman 70.3 series. Selling the WTC to a Chinese investment firm, Wanda, in 2015 for $650 million and assuming all of WTC’s outstanding debt. That’s a lot of cash.
So why is the history of Ironman history important. It’s called branding and every brand has a lifecycle. After the Emmy awarding winning telecasts from NBC (how many times have you attended an Ironman viewing party in November?), completing an Ironman was a badge of honor to add to your resume/bio, boast to your friends and relatives has being part of this elite group of endurance athletes. In 2000, there was 11 Ironman events worldwide. Each having anywhere from 1500 to 2000 participants.

Completing an Ironman then meant you were 1 in roughly 16,500 to 22,000 in the world that could claim “I’m an Ironman”. Currently, there are 44 Ironman events worldwide and participants have risen to 2,000 to 2,500 participants per event. So, completing an Ironman means you are 1 in 88,000 to 110,000 in world that became an Ironman that year. Of course, many do more than 1 Ironman. “I did an Ironman”, “Cool, so did my grandmother”. I don’t mean to downplay the significance or effort to finish an Ironman. But it seems like everyone I talk to has done an Ironman. It’s no longer an elite group.

Secondly, since the takeover of WTC by Wanda, entry fees have increased significantly. I did my last Ironman in 2010, the entry was $250. I understand next year’s IMWI entry fee will by $750. Why the increase? Well the WTC investors want a return of investment, like any other investors. That comes from either entry fees or sponsorships. If big name sponsors like Ford and Timex leave and aren’t replaced by consumer driven brands, they’ll need to look to participants and merchandise. Ok, Gatorade and Foster Grants are still title sponsors. But Vega? And selling Ironman merchandise only goes so far. I have a closet full of Ironman branded stuff including Ironman branded trash bags I bought at Wal-Mart.

bikelead.pngAre my observations and concerns about Ironman and WTC after watching the NBCSN broadcast an early warning sign of Ironman’s demise? Can WTC substantial growth of sponsors and participants in the future? Investors are investors, if they don’t see a decent rate of return, they’ll sell or liquidate. My ten years of directing triathlons taught me one thing, events are only successful with adequate with participants, sponsors, and volunteers. It’s a 3-legged stool. If participation drops due to increases in entry fees or the lost of prestige, it will directly impact sponsors and eventually volunteers. Without sponsorships you can’t have an event, it costs too much to run a quality event to ask participants to pick up the check. Without volunteers, race costs rise, quality drops, and participants go elsewhere.
So, is Ironman dying? Maybe not dying, but I see transformation of the horizon. Why? Too many people are looking at alternatives like off-road cycling (gravel, x-cross, mountain) which is seeing a marked increase in participation. The cost in doing an Ironman is increasing. Between entry fees, equipment cost, travel, and just the sure time need to adequately train beyond average Joe’s/Jane’s means. And if you hope to qualify for Kona, you must finish first in your age group. Unlike 10 years ago, where a podium finish got you a ticket to Kona.

What do I think the transformation will look like? Maybe, fewer events of premier quality like IMWI, IMAZ, IMUSA. Maybe different formats, like Xterra, with off-road biking or shorter distance like Ironman
70.3. Maybe, and this is heresy, moving the World Championship to different venues. Why not? Golf, Super Bowl, and Olympics do. Even the Ironman 70.3 World Championship venue changes every few years. But the answer is up to the current WTC owners or potential future WTC owners. After all, money is money.


Dan Conway
Completed 6 Ironman Triathlons, former USAT Cat-1 Official, and former race director for the Turtleman and TurtleKids Triathlons. Currently resides in Lakewood Ranch, FL and summers in NW Minnesota. In real life, Dan was a product marketing manger for a global software company. Now retired.

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