Friday, September 5, 2014

Consolidation in Triathlon

Frequent commenter D__ shared with me the news that Rev3 and Challenge, numbers 3 and 2 behind Ironman in long-course triathlon promotion, are merging.  Challenge is top-side in this combination.  According to the opening lines of a press release available on the Rev3 site:
4 SEPTEMBER 2014 – Challenge Family and Rev3 today announced a partnership that redefines long distance triathlon in North America.
The two series are merging and, beginning in 2015, Rev3 races will be incorporated into the Challenge Family global triathlon series and branded as Challenge events. This combination will result in a stronger North American race series focused on delivering world-class quality events.
 Reading between the lines, this sounds to me like a rescue as much as a strategic partnership.

I've blogged here before about the triathlon market generally. (And hereAnd hereAnd hereAnd, most comprehensively, if a little dated, here.)

The merging parties

Rev3 never established a serious presence as a competitor to Ironman in the US.  Partly its network of races was small and partly its locations were less desirable.  Compare, for example, Rev3 Cedar Point (Ohio), its flagship event, with Ironman Lake Placid or -- much more -- Kona.  Partly that seemed to be their respective emphases:  Ironman has always been run for the professionals while Rev3 touted its "inclusive environment" focussed on "friends and family."  (Quoting the press release.)

Challenge, by contrast, went toe to toe with Ironman in non-US markets.  Anecdotally and based on questionable memory, it was a near-monthly occurrence that a particular race would change hands or there would be a bidding war for a particular venue.  One of the most colorful was the transition of the well-loved Pendicton triathlon, formerly Ironman Canada, to the Challenge banner.

The 800-lb. gorilla

For its part, Ironman has moved from a sleepy backwater of sports promotion to a massive marketing machine.  World Triathlon Corporation is a privately owned for-profit corporation that owns and markets the Ironman brand.  Ironman has been big business for decades.  Wikipedia reports that the Ironman brand was first sold in 1990 for $3 million.  It then changed hands in 2008 when Providence Equity Securities bought Ironman.  As of a few years ago Andrew Messick took over as CEO.  Messick is an Ironman triathlete and a serious entertainment executive, having been president of Anschutz Entertainment Group and vice-president of "NBA International" (according to this source).

Since going seriously corporate, changes have been occurring at a quick pace.  Ironman has bought up several races, taking over for competitors like Challenge; has sold off races that for one reason or another had become burdensome.  Famously, Ironman Canada, one of the most-loved destinations, left the Ironman fold to join Challenge.  Ironman has also opened new races and closed them down.  This is an enterprise being run like a rational actor in the way that reflects serious business chops on the guy at the helm.  Watching Ironman expand, one assumes some business school grad drew management marginal revenue and marginal cost curves and pointed out a huge area of foregone revenue.

In addition, Ironman has turned to aggressive marketing, including an e-mail campaign that is inches from causing me to unsubscribe from future communications.  One example: frequent racer status for triathletes!  This year WTC (Ironman) unveiled the "All World Athlete" designation.  The top 1% of athletes in each age group earn All World Athlete "gold" status; the top 5% earn AWA "silver" status, and the top 10% earn "bronze." Success is based on both speed and number of finishes.

Competing for what, exactly?

The pro races are not themselves remunerative.  In the US, at least, you cannot sell opportunities to watch even the world's best triathletes (whom I would argue may be the world's best athletes) compete.  If I want to see [pick a name], I can show up course-side one of a zillion times a year and be close enough to touch him or her.  With a fancy camera I can take home photos that rival the best of sports photography.  And if that isn't good enough, for $250 (1/2 IM) to $700 (IM), I can race against him or her.

Triathlon is one of the large class of participant-funded sports.  Like running, cycling, skiing, and rowing, and surely many others beyond my own experience, triathlon makes money because people want to compete in it, not because people want to watch it.  TV revenues must be minimal.  But gear marketing is a huge business -- a casual triathlete might easily budget $1500 yearly on upgrades (figure $3000 every three years for a new bike and another $1500 on wetsuits, lycra, shoes, helmets, and training equipment.  Entry fees are large.  Travel expenditures are large.

Thus, while the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS and NCAA compete with other entertainment options (movies, Nascar, WWE, reality TV) for eyeballs, triathlon competes with other sports for expenditures that facilitate participation.  The customer base is the amateur triathlete or, almost as good, the wanna-be.  I owned my first Ironman merchandise -- several pairs of ankle socks -- years before I ran my first Ironman.

Ironman has a leg-up in that competition because it owns the grand-daddy of them all:  Ironman Kona.  Ironman's success is all driven by the mystique of Kona.  If you are in the triathlon fold you know about "the Ironman" -- very distinct from "an Ironman" -- that is run each October on Hawaii's Big Island.  Kona is where the legends compete:  even pro triathletes may or may not ever qualify to race there.  Excellent age groupers must commit to years of training finally to get their Kona bid.

Lacking a Kona alternative, Rev3 and Challenge make a slightly different pitch to appeal to athletes happy enough to succeed in an individual race without needing to build to a championship event.  Each of them (and the merged entity) can boast serious pro fields and substantially the same -- and by many reports, better -- experiences for amateur athletes.  Their brand is not nearly as well known.  An office water-cooler brag "I ran a Challenge triathlon" will not bring the same back-slaps as saying "I ran an Ironman."  But with a bigger network of races and a bigger US presence, that may change. 

[I've got one marketing innovation yet to be exploited, and I will give it away here for free.  We amateurs fly thousands of miles and pay thousands of dollars to feel like big-shot athletes.  Few things are a bigger let-down than returning home to a community that has no idea and frankly does not care.  Stepping off the plane with your finisher's medal around your neck makes you a tool, not a hero.  What to do more?  A paid placement in major news outlets with local finisher names and a write up of how awesome the event was.  If the Post ran a hidden sports-page write-up of Ironman X and the local athletes who competed, I'd probably sign up, I'm embarrassed to say.]

If the merged entity can achieve the same appeal to amateurs that Ironman has, it will make a worthy competitor.  The historical approach to accomplishing this is to draw a great pro field and offer an exclusive pot-of-gold for people to talk about in hushed tones.  Challenge has a start on such a project with its "league standings" dating back 12 years.  It also has Roth, a huge -- and hugely popular -- European race where the incomparable Chrissie Wellington once went an astounding 8:18 and world records are perennially in jeopardy. 

In contrast, a promoter's billing its races as a "family and friend" events in an overt appeal to the pecuniary masses -- Rev3's strategy -- seems less likely to work.  It promises to relegate the brand to permanent second-class status, something of a JV league.

What lessons from this?

Another question:  what does consolidation mean for the sport of triathlon?  Speaking very generally and anecdotally, consolidation is the economy's response to an industry's reaching maturity, when competition takes place on cost and quality and no longer on innovation.  Hard to figure out how to innovate in air travel, so airlines merge.  Nobody is improving on the internal combustion engine, so auto makers merge.  Supply chains have achieved maximal innovation, so grocers merge.  We've also reached the point in triathlon where races are largely commodified. 

In the "destination triathlon" market (distinct from the local/regional-race market populated by club races and promoters like Sommer Sports), every race offers the same features for the amateur athlete: 
  1. a cool location with scenic backdrops; 
  2. a developed and polished brand; 
  3. established distances;
  4. fair uniformity in difficulty (with rare and usually accidental exceptions, flat-water swims, bike legs boasting between 20 and 50 feet-per-mile of climbing, and flattish runs with lots of spectating opportunities);
  5. similar swag;
  6. finishes medals.
Remaining competition is on brand names, with Ironman far in front; Challenge's having a good presence in Europe; and Rev3's having a modest presence in the US.  Part of the brand-name competition is the championship competition:  as it stands, Ironman Kona is the amateur triathlon event of the year, bar none, making Ironman the leading brand.  A competing championship, created with huge investment and attracting a strong professional field, might draw away some of Ironman's customer base.  Roth is the most promising option for the Challenge combination, but it would be a revenue sacrifice to make such a huge event exclusive.

It might even lead to a "Iron-distance triathlon world championships" where the top finishers at Kona and whatever exclusive event Challenge creates meet for a end-of-season shoot out in some exotic locale.  Such a result has precedent in pro sports leagues, where previously divided leagues joined for a "World Series" or a "Super Bowl."  If that happened, I would get excited again.

No comments:

Post a Comment