Thursday, October 14, 2010

WTC: Biting off more than they can chew?

For the folks who read to hear about what I'm doing, this is going to be one of those times that you might not be that interested in what I have to say today. In that case, just jump to the "notes" section at the bottom of the post. But for those of you who are really into triathlon like I am, there's something I've been thinking about that I need to get off my chest. It regards the 400 pound gorilla in the triathlon room and how they might be doing more harm than good for triathletes.

I'm speaking of course about World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), the folks most known as the owner of the Ironman brand, and specifically for putting on the Ford Ironman World Championships in Hawaii (Kona), and the related Ironman and Ironman 70.3 race series. There's been a lot of buzz regarding WTC lately, between the recent acquisitions of multiple half-iron distance races, launching a magazine, and more specifically the creation of a new series of Olympic-distance races, purchasing the rights to 13 established triathlons in the US and an as-of-yet unknown number of international distance races.

Now, I'm no communist, and in the broad sense of things, I'm all for the right of a company to expand as it sees fit. WTC has deep pockets from all the IM branded products and 140.6 and 70.3 races that regularly sell out the day they open for registration. It's their money, and they can certainly spend it how the choose.

But what about the effect this has on the participants in their events? How does all of this recent growth change the landscape of triathlon? I've got a few key areas where I think this is a cause for concern.

  • Dilution of the Ironman brand. There's a reason why Mercedes-Benz doesn't offer a $10,000 car or Apple doesn't offer $20 iPods. Part of the demand for something is the exclusiveness of the club. Ironman's brand has become iconic, which adds to the mystique of it's iron-distance races. There are even some folks who still believe you're not an Ironman if your 140.6 came at something other than a WTC race. For those folks, WTC reaching out into a bunch of different retail forays will surely see the brand as diluted, and therefore not as enticing to spend the extra money on a WTC race vs. some other company (Rev 3, independant races, etc.). Meaning eventually, while striving to reach out to new customers they may disenfranchise themselves from some of their most reliable consumers/participants. Especially in a market where repeat business is the #1 priority, this could be very troubling.
The logo for the new Olympic distance series
  • Confusion over what it means to be an "Ironman". Triathlon is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States. As most athletes don't start their immersion into the sport with a half or full Iron distance, the creation of the 5150 olympic-distance series makes sense as a way to rope in a potential customer base. And while the new series doesn't have the name Ironman in it, the logo (pictured above) is a pretty obvious tie in. Between that and a bunch of Ironman branded products likely being hawked at the race venue, my guess is that it won't be long before we'll have folks who have finished one of these races bragging that they did an "Ironman" race. Personally, I don't care that much, but as I said, I know triathletes that would, and would go out of their way to correct them. Maybe once I've done a 140 mile race, then I'll care if someone else calls themselves an Ironman who hasn't done an Iron-distance race.
  • Regularly racing with the pros may soon become a thing of the past. Unlike in baseball, basketball, or hell even bowling, when you participate in a triathlon, you're not just coming out to compete with and against folks of your own ilk. In every triathlon I've been a part of, there has been at least a few world-class elite athletes who has represented their country in a world championship or is a professional triathlete. It's one of the things that makes the sport special. While I'm probably never going to be good enough to give them a run for first place on the course, I get to say i raced with and against names like Lieto and Wellington when we did Timberman. But as a way to get the professionals to attend the races that WTC wants to further develop, they've instituted a points system that professionals must follow to qualify to participate in the Ford Ironman World Championship (AKA Kona). Each race is categorized as being in a certain points category, and professionals wanting to qualify will likely need to focus on the continental championship races, reducing the likelihood of them participating in the lessor valued races. This means that smaller races will likely see smaller pro fields as the big points will be elsewhere and pros will look for races where they have a higher chance of getting the points they need to qualify for Kona.
  • WTC adding blackout dates into race contracts. In an alarming anti-competitive practice, the WTC is adding "blackout dates" into their race contracts with their race locations. Essentially, these clauses say that an area (for example, Muncie, Indiana) cannot host any other triathlons in the 30 days prior to or directly following the WTC event. I recognize the company wants to maximize it's profits and prevent scheduling mishaps, but this means that smaller races that may serve as important fundraisers for local charities may have to be rescheduled (which can be costly) or cancelled entirely. No matter what else, I'm for competition, because it forces race directors to continually improve their race experience, or see it fall by the wayside. That's one of the reasons I was happy to see the Rev3 Triathlon Series come into the picture at the Iron-distance race level, in order to prevent WTC's de-facto monopoly from becoming a true monopoly.
  • Negative changes in the actual race experience. If you've been reading the blog since Timberman, the fact that I STILL haven't gotten my finishers medal is a bit of a sore spot for me. It's the starting point for this whole topic. Plus, when I called in to talk to the WTC athlete services to check on this (Who I must say are as helpful as possible), I head a recorded message that they weren't even taking calls about Ironman Lake Placid due to the volume of concerns. Sure, it's natural that there will be glitches at a given race, and that problems do occur in an event that relies equally on weather and volunteers. But when the volume of complaints overtakes the customer service department, it's time to consider growing your staff to match your offerings. Of course, that cuts in to profit margins, and companies are often loathe to do that. Cuts in profit margins could lead to less benefits included with race entry fees, or perhaps moving to less costly (read: inferior) venues. Between these issues and the possible disappearance of professionals from most races, it could mean a real degradation of the race day experience.
In the end, it may be that WTC adjusts to all of these changes in a way that improves the overall feeling of participating in their events. But right now, it sure looks like a field of potential marketing and operational landmines that could really impact not just the WTC but the general experience of triathlon participation in the US and perhaps the world over. 


- Last night was day 1 of the fifth week of my couch to 5k. The workout actually calls for one less minute of running overall, but lumps the running together in 3 five-minute segments with a three minute walk between each. The challenge is to sustain a somewhat steady speed throughout the third running segment. I always feel stronger in the second running segment of these workouts, as it usually takes most of the first segment to adjust to the running. Last night was no different, as I felt strong in the second segment, but had to fight to finish the 3rd segment strong.

- It's gorgeous here today, but we're expecting a strong storm tonight, so I'm going to do my best to get in a mountain bike ride before the storm hits.

- Things are looking good for tomorrows weigh in. I'm not going to post on fridays until after noon, so I can include how it went.

1 comment:

  1. I have heard that WTC is causing similar issues here in Aus - for example, rescheduling an event such that it clashes with a long running alternative event. Basically sending a big "screw you" to any competition.