What should the world of professional triathlon look like?

Do we have too many pro triathletes? Phil Wrochna thinks so. He weighs in on the current state of play in the professional ranks.

| May 3, 2017 | NEWS

Photo >Frank Wechsel / spomedis

Last year saw the torch lit for this column which has currency in the light of recent racing and off course commentary.

Last season’s 70.3 world title threw up some interesting discussion and serves as a perfect example of what is going wrong. It’s still happening. Pros from the around the world were lamenting the lead bike status, the drafting distance and more as they took to social media to vent their frustration. This is becoming more and more prevalent. When the ire of the pros is raised, they take to social media to allow the rest of the trifosi know what’s up. In short it is not a good look for the pro, or the sport, but then, what other recourse do they have? It is almost a last roll of the dice that they have in order get their point across. The sport at the pro level seems disenfranchised and disorganized. The social media outrage is a digital manifestation of the have nots. These types of outbursts are symptomatic of the current state of the triathlon professional.

To put this in some sort of perspective.

There are 1,696 NFL players sharing in about 7.6 billion (2014) of generated revenue. Triathlon has around 1,200 pros sharing in $150 million revenue, although this figure was taken prior to the acquisition by Dalian Wanda. So, with that thought swirling in your mind, it is easy to understand how small the money pool is and also the disproportionate size of the pro pool vying for it. If triathlon at the pro level is to move forward then the best in show, Ironman, needs to cowboy the sport and make the pro level a lot more organized than it is right now. (One can question if this concept even interests them, but, for now, let’s say that it does.)

Of the 1,200 professionals racing Ironman and 70.3 races, at least 75 percent of them need to go. The top group need to be given exemptions to race all Ironman/70.3 events and are set up as the sport’s top flight. Races featuring professionals need to come down. That number could be as little as 10 Ironman and 15 70.3 races a year that the pros can be involved in to get their way to Kona and the 70.3 world championship. Those pro fields should be limited to 35 men and 35 women for Kona and 50 men and 50 women for the 70.3 worlds. Pros in the category one group have their pro cards assessed after each season determined by a combination of points accumulated from races and prize money. The top group gets exempt and those in the relegation group are relegated. Qualifying races early in the season will allow new pros and those relegated to the cat two list to reclaim or gain their spot in the top category. The devil is in the detail on this, but the outline will give you a little view of how we would set it up.

But there needs to be buy in from Ironman and buy in from the professionals, who are harder to round up than a hat full of monkeys. There is no centralized system for the professionals in triathlon. Various incarnations of unions and other organizations have tried to do this, but failed miserably. This is because there is no clear role for them to play. And so the lines get blurred the goals get skewed.

The ‘Collins Cup’ format announced last season, modeled on golf’s Ryder Cup, is one such example of these skewed goals. This was set up by one of the various triathlon “unions,” a cohort more known for being there as a friend rather than as an agitator. And, while the respect is huge for the Collins family and all they have done for Ironman, this format is simply a miss. The strength of a “union” or “athlete collective” should be in the organization of it’s members, not race organization. This series is built on sand, cart before the horse and more. Make the pro group organized and strong and properly paid race to race, then provide the variation - the big announcement of a golf-like competition. It’s a head shaker. The offering of the “broken spoke” award they talk of to be given as a trophy to the losing region smacks of a drunken triathlon club award, not a legitimate sporting endeavor. The concept itself seems really shaky.

And then you add the Super League cohort, who set up their series with two things in mind (both of which many in the sport don’t care about): pros and television. This race showcased what is possible when a determined and media savvy group get themselves organized and in tune with a group of pros who took a leap of faith to support them. Of course they were all rewarded with real money contracts, but isn’t this what pros need? Super League copped a hiding for not including women and, to a degree, this is correct, but the bigger picture here is what is required. Sure women have a right to want to be included in a sport that has long been an equal opportunist, but in a pilot race that was essentially “a proof of concept,” there wasn’t the budget to stretch to both genders. The point that needed to be taken out of this is that the pros have a new platform. This one paid the winner (Richard Murray) $100k.

The other side of this whole pro set up is that Ironman continue to run their pro set up as normal, which functions to their interests, albeit sloppily. They will continue to expand and fill races, meaning their revenue targets are made. The mass participatory model that Ironman has adopted is profitable and a smart business move. Who wants to worry about fixing something that works? Filling races world wide makes the revenue tick for Ironman. But it should also serve as a warning to the pros that the current infrastructure isn’t likely to change in the foreseeable future.