Thursday, December 13, 2012

Diluting its own brand

One of my theories of the cycle of industrial progress is that a brand is an asset that in the normal course is created and then destroyed. At some point the profits that can be earned by ceasing to invest in brand preservation become overwhelming and the owner rides the brand into the ground. Microsoft reached that tipping point when computing went mobile. I have a theory that Apple is at that point, investing more in efforts at enforcing its patents than in developing new ones. There may be exceptions to this cycle, like Coca Cola, although note that apart from its primary brand Coke does lots of business in subsidiary brands that come and go. This is so obvious a point that somebody must have written about it somewhere.

USA Triathlon may be on the down cycle. World Triathlon Corp. (Ironman), Challenge, Rev3, and others dominate the triathlon scene. All USA Triathlon offers is the "Team USA" brand, which -- given the lack of serious competitiveness of US triathletes -- isn't all that exciting to begin with.

Today I received an e-mail congratulating me on my qualification for the USA Triathlon mid-course national championships, next August in Milwaukee. How did I qualify? I finished in the top 33% age group at the Nation's Triathlon in DC this past September. The usual rule for qualification is top 10% a.g. at any USAT sanctioned race of international distance or longer, but USAT has a few "super-qualifier" events like the Nation's Triathlon.

What's silly about the super-qualifier designation is that massive city races aren't somehow more competitive than smaller events. That makes sense intuitively: there is a finite number of really fast people (top-enders); a much larger but still finite number of the middle-of-the-packers like us here at runningprofs; and a functionally infinite number of what you might call bucket-listers. If you throw a massive race, the number of top and even middling athletes doesn't change much vis-a-vis a smaller race, but the field is filled up with the bucket-listers. Another bit of intuition: a bucket-lister will pay big-city-race entry fees, partly because this is a one-time thing (which includes the recognition of the reality of complementary goods and services and the fact that a bucket-lister didn't blow her last three paychecks on a new Trek or a year's worth of coaching services), and partly because she wants people around the water cooler to have heard of her race. If a triathlete is racing several times a year and investing in complementary products and services, the $200 that Nation's Triathlon charges for the pleasure of swimming in the rather disgusting Potomac River is prohibitive, weeding out members of the already small group of top-enders.

Thus, I compete much better at the Marine Corps Marathon (same rule holds true for running) and Nation's Triathlon than at the California International Marathon or Columbia Triathlon. By way of specific example, at the Rock Hall International triathlon in June, I ran my fastest race by a full 3', but I did not crack the top 10% needed to qualify for nationals. (A similar effort, though not time, at the phenomenal Columbia Triathlon had me well out of the running.) At Nation's Triathlon, I was 6' off of my new PR and placed well into that top 10% -- although of course it turns out top 33% would have been good enough. Remarkably, some 150 or more finishers in my age group alone received the same e-mail that I did.

How can USAT justify this super-qualifier status? There must be large licensing fees involved in promising Nation's and some other races this status. Nation's can pass those fees on to somebody like me looking to buy his way into the Age Group National Championships, which partly explains the ridiculous entry fee. But when one shows up in Milwaukee, and the competition at Nationals is less impressive than the competition at a local race like the Columbia Triathlon, the excitement of racing against the top end of your age group will decrease rapidly. Already the Ironman championship events are far more prestigious than USAT championships, and World Triathlon Corp.'s 5150 Championships is at least on a par. I doubt there are very many years that USA Triathlon can ride its brand into the ground the way that it does.

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