Is what’s good for WTC, good for triathlon?

Paraphrasing the often misquoted Charles Wilson, a past president of GM, “What’s good for WTC is good for triathlon.”  That seems to be what the WTC believes and it is certainly the attitude of many people who see Ironman and Triathlons as synonyms.

But is what is good for WTC good for the sport of triathlon?  The New York Times, tells us that the sport has grown 51% since 2007.  I believe that, and I also believe that much of that growth has been driven by the Ironman frenzy.  I know it drew me in.  I had long had thoughts of competing in triathlons (having experience in all three sports) but didn’t decide to actively train for triathlons till I happened through Lake Placid a few days before the IM event there.  I was hooked.

So while there are other variables that are also feeding the growth of the sport, I tip my hat to the WTC, or more specifically, to the draw of the Ironman brand, for contributing to the massive growth of Triathlon.

But that’s where the good feelings end.  In recent years, the WTC has clearly been more concerned with its bottom line than it has been with the sport of triathlon.  I don’t have a problem with that conceptually: WTC has as much a responsibility as, say, Phillip Morris, Walmart, or any other business to maximize the wealth of its shareholders.  We don’t have to support them in that endeavor, however, if their behavior is bad for the sport.

So is the WTC and its recent behavior good for the sport of triathlon?  In the sort-term, maybe; in the long-term no.  Here’s why:

  1. Blackout dates: as reported by slowtitch.com here and here, WTC likes to ensure that it is the only game in town.  This appears to me to be monopolistic behavior.  By squeezing out local races, the diversity, availability, and affordability of races is diminished.  In the long run, such anti-competitive behavior is not good for the sport.
  2. Squeezing out other non-WTC long course events: No independent iron-distance event see anywhere near the participation that Ironman events see.  The Great Floridian had little over 200 people start this year; Sliverman averages less than 200; B2B does a better with just under 400 people participating in 2009.  Can these events thrive in a world where people just want to earn their IM tatoo?  Can other new iron-distance events find a place?  It seems unlikely, given that IM events sell 2500 slots within hours of opening, but non-IM events rarely crack 500 participants.
  3. Constantly expanding participant lists:  A common complaint from race participants is that the bike course is so congested that they can’t help but draft.  With almost 3000 people registered for some IM events, I can see why.  That, combined with an apparent unwillingness to enforce drafting rules, makes the competition less pure.  It also makes it increasingly dangerous.  At some point, somebody at the front of a peloton is going to go down, taking lots of others down too.  This is likely to result in lawsuits, with someone claiming that the WTC was negligent by not enforcing its own rules.  I wouldn’t say whether such a lawsuit would be successful or not, but the simple filing of a suit would cast a chill over the sport as insurers look to cover the potential costs of increased risks.  This increased cost would then be passed on to the participants.
  4. Ballooning prices:  you will pay over $600 just to register for an IronMan event.  (I’ll do the math for you, that’s approximately $1.7 million per event in just registration fees.)  Sure, there seems to be no limit to the number of people willing to pay this amount for an IronMan event…for now at least.  Eventually, one of two things will happen: either a competitor will look at the excessive profit margins reaped by the WTC, come into the market, and in so doing put some downward pressure to the prices; or prices will get to the point where many participants are disgusted by the high registration fees (just as they were disgusted by the IronMan Access fees) and turn their backs on WTC events.  I think the former is unlikely, given the high barriers to entry, including anti-competitive behavior by the WTC.  The second is more likely, and not a good thing for Triathlon in general.  Many people equate IronMan with triathlon and if they turn their backs on IronMan, they are likely to turn their backs on the entire sport.  The high prices also squeeze out younger participants who haven’t yet acquired the wealth to blow hundreds of dollars just for race registration.  They’ll find a less expensive sport.
  5. Buying up non-WTC events, and jacking up the registration fees in the process: The newly re-branded IronMan 70.3 Muncie is a good example of this.  When local races get purchased by the WTC, they loose their local feel, become much more expensive, and become just another cog in the WTC machine.

Clearly, the WTC’s goal is to inflate their bottom line as quickly as possible so they can sell their company at a premium.  Fine, they have that right.  Unfortunately, it is us triathletes who will suffer when the WTC is sold and the new buyers realize they’ve been sold an overinflated balloon that will slowly deflate, if they are lucky, or explode if they are unlucky.

Here’s what you can do about it.

  1. Boycott WTC events.  Just don’t race in them and certainly don’t volunteer for them.  Instead, find local races to do.  I know this is hard if you’re looking for a iron-distance event, but if you’re looking for a half-iron or olympic distance event, there are still plenty off great choices out there.
  2. Support independent and local races by racing in them and volunteering for them.
  3. Promote independent, non-WTC events wherever possible.  If you have a blog or website, list the non-WTC events on your site.  Feel free to copy or link to my list.  (I’ll continue to build it out as I have time.) If you’ve raced in one, write up a review, post it in your blog or in a forum like the Slowtwitch or BeginnerTriathlon forums.  Let others know that there are alternatives to the IronMan/WTC events.
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