Marketing the Triathlete

This article will explore the triathlon world and address issues that should increase the likelihood of securing product and financial sponsorship for the triathlete. Throw out the textbooks. Forget about product, price, place, promotion for now. The only way you will be successful in marketing an elite triathlete is to have as your client an exceptional triathlete who can win races (or consistently finish in the top three) and give exposure to companies’ products and logos. This is especially true in a bear financial market in which corporate budgets are tight. (There is debate in the triathlon community as to whether to use the world “elite” or “professional” to describe exceptional athletes; triathletes are not generally paid a salary.)

Assuming you do have a truly talented, exceptional triathlete as a client, how do you maximize your client’s sponsorship potential in order to generate the revenue he or she needs to remain in the sport? Unlike other professional athletes, triathletes are not normally part of any team. There are no players’ associations (unions), no collective-bargaining agreements, and no salaries per se in the sport of triathlon. Dollars are generated in two ways: money earned at the races themselves (of which agents usually do not take a percentage) and money generated by sponsorship contracts (that’s where the money is made).

The sports marketer’s goal must be to find sponsors who will reward the triathlete for performance and exposure. Fortunately, triathlon involves swimming, biking, and running (in that order). Such diverse categories allow the sports marketer to seek sponsorship from many companies. Such a wide net of potential sponsors is found in very few sports.

Ironman vs. Olympic Triathlons

The sports marketer must understand that the triathlon world is divided into two major (and very different) categories: the Ironman1 triathlon and the Olympic-distance triathlon. Only a handful (at best) of the world’s triathletes can excel in both categories. Expect that your client will focus on only one of them. Some sponsors are concerned only with efforts in one category or the other.

The Ironman distance triathlon is truly a grueling race: a swim of 2.4 mi, a bike race of 112 mi, and then a marathon run of 26.2 mi. The Ironman distance races are often finished in the 8-to-10-hr range (you are reading that correctly), by the best competitors. Sponsors are likely to think of the Ironman triathlon when first presented with the opportunity to sponsor a triathlete.

Currently, the Ironman Triathlon World Championship—sometimes called simply Ironman Hawaii—is held in Kona, Hawaii. Another 24 Ironman events constitute the Ironman Triathlon series and are held throughout the world2 ; some involve the full race distances, and some are half-Ironman distances. Unless they are among a select few competitors who earn “lottery” slots, triathletes must qualify to compete in the Ironman Triathlon World Championship, based upon their elite or amateur status.

Much of the reason for the Ironman triathlon’s success is that NBC television broadcasts the Ironman Triathlon World Championship every year. Outside this event, virtually no other triathlon is broadcast on a major network, except during the Olympic Games.

The Olympic-distance triathlon differs markedly from the Ironman triathlon. The Olympic version comprises a 1.5-k swim (.9-mi), a 40-k bike ride (24.8-mi), then a 10-k run (6.2-mi). This sport of sprint triathlon made its Olympic debut in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics. Unlike the Ironman distance, this distance is truly a swim, bike, and run sprint. The Olympic distance, also called ITU distance (for International Triathlon Union, the international federation for the sport of triathlon), is often filled with loops on the bike and is designed to be spectator friendly. Such races are often completed in the 2-hr range by the best competitors. Triathletes earn points based upon a formula that weighs the size of the triathlon and the rankings of other participating competitors. World rankings are established under the ITU point system. Networks such as the Outdoor Life Network, ESPN, and ESPN2 broadcast Olympic-distance triathlon events, but often at off-peak hours of the day or night.

Important Triathlon Organizations and Other Resources

USA Triathlon (www.usatriathlon.org) is the national governing body for the sport of triathlon in the United States and is one of many national governing bodies under the purview of the United States Olympic Committee. The International Triathlon Union is another leading triathlon organization and maintains a website (www.triathlon.org). Visiting the two groups’ websites will allow the novice sports marketer to learn which sponsors already participate in the sport. Contacting these sponsors is a good first step. Recognize, however, that the ITU has very clear guidelines about the size and number of logos that may appear on a competitor’s jersey (Ironman triathlons do not have such limitations).

Beyond the websites, the novice sports marketer’s research might start with subscriptions to Triathlete magazine (www.triathlete.com) and Inside Triathlon (www.insidetri.com). Additionally, Katherine Williams’s Triathlon Sourcebook provides the names and e-mail addresses of athletes, coaches, companies, and events. The book is published every other year (1997, 1999, 2001); the next one is due in January 2003. It usually sells for around $30, a worthwhile investment for an agent, and you can contact the author directly at kwilliams@triathloncentral.com. Finally, visiting sponsors’ websites can give you an idea of how serious they are about participating in the sport of triathlon. Fortunately, communicating via e-mail controls up-front costs in terms of promotion of the triathlete.

Company Sponsorship and Contracts

Clearly, a sports marketer’s best first step toward securing sponsorship for an elite triathlete is to find sponsors who are already involved in the sport. Table 1 lists various product areas in which there are manufacturers who have sponsored elite triathletes.

Table 1: Triathlete sponsors and their product categories

Product Category

Examples of Sponsors

Saucony / Speedo / TYR / Adidas / Nike
bikes Javelin / Trek / Elite / Cannondale
aero bars Profile
wheels and components Spinergy / HED / Zipp
tires Continental
shoes and pedals Speedplay / Carnac / Time
helmets Rudy Project / Giro
wetsuits Speedo / Orca
glasses Rudy Project / Oakley
nutrition Twinlab / Met-Rx / Powerbar / Clifbar
hydration Gatorade / Endurox / Push / Fuel Belt
bike case Tri-All Sports
other/out-of-sport products Timex / financial services company

If you are lucky, you will find a few sponsors who are not involved in the sport of triathlon and wish to sponsor a triathlete. However, almost all sponsors expect some sort of return on their advertising investment. In seeking sponsors outside the triathlon sport, expect to receive a lot of “no thank-yous” and letters or e-mails of rejection (unless your triathlete—at either distance—is a world champion or national champion). The most likely time to find an out-of-sport sponsor is just prior to the Olympics and shortly afterward, if the triathlete wins a medal. Once a sponsor is interested, a contract may be written. In general, sports contracts focus on salary and on performance and exposure bonuses. Some companies provide only product; others frown on salary unless the triathlete is an experienced, elite professional. Use caution if you are considering a multi-year contract, especially if your client’s performance (and exposure) is anticipated to increase over time.

Publicizing an Elite Triathlete Client

Vital to your success in serving the elite triathlete client is exploring the designs of competitors’ websites. Typically, sponsors’ logos are posted and offer links to the sponsors’ websites (in turn, expect a sponsor’s site to offer links to the athlete’s site). Visiting www.usatriathlon.org will help you locate elite triathletes’ websites; the ITU website also provides links to some nice websites. Do not reinvent the wheel when working to promote a triathlete via a website; do realize that building a website costs money, and ensure that both you and your client know who will pay costs associated with the site, including the hosting fees and charges for updates and structural changes. (Updating the website in a timely manner is important.)

Attending triathlon events is always a plus for the marketer. Meeting personally with sponsors is vital to business relations and your own exposure. Often, an expo takes place in conjunction with larger triathlon events; it can be a prime time to meet with sponsors maintaining booths for promoting their products and services. Since the agent assists in the coordination of publicity for the triathlete, contacting sponsors ahead of time at an expo is a plus; of course a cell phone is essential.

Conclusion

Remember, the agent is only as good as the triathlete. A client in the news—providing exposure for sponsors—is the client most able to obtain sponsorship. Nevertheless, representing your client responsibly by completing preliminary research and establishing and maintaining contacts increases the likelihood that your client will enjoy considering as many sponsorship opportunities as possible. To really appreciate the sport and those who compete in it, you might even try swimming, biking, and running on your own.

Making a living as a triathlete’s agent may not be possible. However, it is often just as rewarding to hear the cheers of fans at races and to know that you had a small something to do with the success of a triathlete. The satisfaction lasts even when the race is just a memory, and the race-results are only a link on the Internet.

Author Note

Adam Epstein, J.D., M.B.A., chairs the legal studies department at South College in Knoxville, Tennessee. Epstein also serves as an adjunct assistant professor of sport management at the University of Tennessee. He has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in legal studies, paralegal studies, sport management, and business management since 1994.

1Registered trademark of World Triathlon Corporation, Inc.
2See www.ironmanlive.com