By Bill Plock
Recently social media giant, Triathlon Taren interviewed the CEO of the Professional Triathlon Organisation (PTO), Sam Renouf. This podcast left me quite impressed with the direction of the PTO, Triathlon Taren and made me hopeful for the sport of triathlon.
In a public perception sort of way, we seem to want a good vs. bad, a black vs. white, a villain vs a hero story. In the triathlon space, last year PTO took a shot at buying IRONMAN only to be denied. Then PTO decided to introduce a golf influenced triathlon extravaganza, the Collins Cup to showcase the sport of triathlon and attempt to make it a made for TV event. But Covid killed that for 2020 and its slated for August of 2021.
They then partnered with IRONMAN competitor, the Challenge Family and made CHALLENGE Daytona their pro triathlon championship complete with a 1.2 million dollar prize purse. The PTO also awarded other non-Ironman races with prize purses during 2020 eventually rewarding pros with a few million dollars. Meanwhile IRONMAN had a few races in 2020, but all in all, PTO was responsible for a majority of the cash awarded to pro triathletes and frankly kept them going in 2020.
So now, in the eyes of the public, there seems to be a bit of a triathlon “war” between Ironman and the PTO. According to PTO, their mission is to grow the sport overall and they believe the way to do that is with a healthy pro field and events that appeal to sponsors who want to reach an audience not just racing, but watching on television or in the venue itself—like the home of the Daytona 500.
Furthermore the PTO believes that salaries and prizes for pros should not be funded primarily by age group entry fees, but rather by sponsor fees. In IRONMAN races, the age group entry fees are the foundation for the revenues and thus the vehicle to fund prizes. The PTO believes that sponsors, TV advertisers and event marketers should pay for the bulk of the prizes and the age groupers shouldn’t be funding the pros. PTO believes IRONMAN races are too expensive for age groupers and that the experience can be made better and less expensive and also that pro’s should be compensated much better.
Ok, so now what? PTO has deep pockets and has spelled out in this interview how they plan to eventually have a model like golf and tennis. There will be four or five triathlons the PTO manages that are the equivalent of the “majors” and will feed a championship. Along the way, local and regional triathlons will act as qualifying events for the majors.
Not every event will be the same or on a track like Daytona. In this podcast they discuss for example how Challenge Roth could be a possible major and how covering it for TV won’t be as easy as a Daytona, but necessary. They discuss how they want a mix of race types so different athletes with different strengths can emerge champions. Again, think tennis or golf. There are clay court specialists, long course type of golfers, and so forth. Yes, they all need to be able to be good in all conditions, but not all triathletes compete well in say a Kona type environment, or even at a full distance Ironman. A full distance IRONMAN is pretty much about attrition and stamina. There is strategy, and speed and making the most of one’s skills of course, but very few athletes have a chance to win. It’s not a compelling race. It’s a compelling event because what these pros (and age groupers) do is absolutely incredible and inspirational.
But, it’s not made for TV and a tough sell to non-endemic sponsors. The PTO, in Daytona had to prove they could pull off a made for TV event that was competitive and combined the need for skill and speed coupled with stamina and endurance—and they did it.
In Daytona, half a million people watched the race with an average watch time of 29 minutes according to Sam Renouf. That’s unheard of. The PTO definitely succeeded in orchestrating a watchable event. This isn’t to say that the steaming of Kona doesn’t have a large audience, but, according to this podcast the time watched is merely seconds versus 29 minutes. And, that makes sense. There is very little drama in Kona. In Daytona the lead changed practically every few minutes. People probably check in on Kona to see who is still in the lead and come back later. That’s what I do when I’m there. Once in a while there is some drama in Kona, but with the lap format in Daytona, each lap showcased someone moving up or down the leaderboard.
The bottom line, to me, is IRONMAN and the PTO can co-exist, quite nicely in fact.
IRONMAN has one huge advantage over Challenge or any other triathlon—they have a brand. They own triathlon.
To the average person on the street, if you say “triathlon,” they think “Ironman”. They will say, “oh that race in Hawaii.” Like Kleenex is to tissue paper. Do you see any tattoos of Challenge or USAT or any other form of triathlon on people? Nope. That says it all.
So as long as IRONMAN continues to put on quality events, and they do, and people aspire be “Ironmans” they will succeed. And as long as Kona or wherever the 70.3 championships are held, are tough to qualify for and have a worldwide appeal, they will be remain relevant.
To the pro’s, at the end of the day, they will, and need to go where the money is. But there may always be a desire to race Kona even if it’s not the top money gathering race. There may always be a desire to figuratively race against the legends of the sport on the same historic course; the Mark Allens, Dave Scotts, Paula Newby-Frasers, Chrissie Wellingtons, Miranda Carfraes etc. And the same goes for age groupers. As someone who nearly qualified, I know its a pretty exclusive club to race there, and that appeal is strong.
If I had my druthers, I would love to see IRONMAN and the PTO kiss and make up and throw IRONMAN races into the mix as qualifiers for the pros. Maybe Kona is the long course championship, maybe the Collins Cup is the place for national pride to take over (its America, vs Europe vs Internationals—like golfs Ryder cup) and maybe Daytona is a mix where triathletes of all disciplines get to race against each other and the fastest one wins. And maybe great regional races like a Lake to Lake, or Harvest Moon here in Colorado become qualifiers for a PTO Major maybe held in a place like Des Moines—think the old Hy Vee race.
Who knows, but a fun, healthy made for TV sport will only help provide more opportunities for both age groupers and pros to excel, make a living and have fun.
The sport needs heroes and characters. Locally we have someone like Sam Long who isn’t afraid to mix it up and call people out and behind his “yo yo yo’s” I believe Sam is having a ton of fun and trying to make the sport more dynamic and earn a living doing so. He, I believe wants nothing more than great competition like all triathletes I have ever met.
The sport needs a healthy variety of races and distances and a sense of pride for competing in everything from a local sprint to Kona. Every triathlon and triathlete should be judged on their willingness to try every single day at every single event.
Go PTO, raise the bar. Go IRONMAN, keep the dream alive and lets hope someday you both dance on the same dance floor together.