By Pete Williams
It’s not easy being a pro triathlete. There are long hours of training, little exposure, and few sponsor dollars to be had. After all, sponsors would rather have the best cyclist, the top swimmer, and the fastest runner than someone who is great but not world-class in any of the three.
It doesn’t help that triathlon’s premier event, the Ironman World Championship in Kona, is not broadcast live, as if this is still 1983 and television is incapable of providing live coverage for spread-out events. It doesn’t help that the organization that runs most of the premier events pros compete in (the Tampa-based World Triathlon Corp., owner of Ironman) operates in a shroud of secrecy. For all of Ironman’s success attracting amateurs to pay steep entry fees, WTC often comes across as tone deaf to marketing, PR, and media relations, let alone building personalities that drive sports like the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball.
It doesn’t help that pros compete in three different distances – Ironman, 70.3, and Olympic – and it’s tough to dominate just one, let alone two or three. And it definitely doesn’t help that many of the top pros are not Americans, which U.S. sponsors prefer.
It would help if WTC took a more aggressive approach to marketing to the mainstream or partnered with someone to broadcast the Ironman championship live on television, but WTC is more likely to reduce Ironman entry fees to $100 than to make either of those obvious changes.
So it’s up to the individual athletes, which really is no different than any other sport. For all the talk of the NFL or NBA marketing its stars, it’s actually done by athletes and their agents, building brands via sponsors.
There’s much talk about how triathlon is under the radar, not a spectator sport, and unattractive to sponsors. This isn’t necessarily the case. In many respects, triathlon is like pro beach volleyball. That sport’s largest pro organization, the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) lasted more than 25 years in various incarnations before folding up shop last year. There was a long history of mismanagement – the players themselves ran the asylum for a few years – but there was always a parade of sponsors willing to throw money at a sport played on the beach by lean, attractive, highly-competitive people wearing little clothing like, say, triathletes.
AVP events were very much like big-time triathlons with their beach settings, caffeinated announcers, sponsor inflatables, and non-stop pulsing music. Like triathletes, pro volleyball players struggled with landing sponsors and making a comfortable living. Other than Karch Kiraly, the greatest player of all time, and perhaps Misty May and Kerri Walsh in recent years, no player became a mainstream sports figure.
Gabrielle Reece was the exception. The 6-foot-3 beauty was a standout player in high school in St. Petersburg and in college at Florida State, but famous for her modeling experience, which along with volleyball she parlayed into endorsement deals with Nike and others. In the early-mid 1990s, she created buzz by writing for Elle Magazine, appearing in Pert shampoo commercials, and hosting various cable TV programs. She later married Laird Hamilton, a god in the world of big-wave surfing.
Though dominant at the net, Reece’s size made her ill suited for the two-person format, which requires an all-around game. No matter. Volleyball realized her value as a marketing vehicle and installed her as the focal point of its four-on-four women’s tour, a perfect format for her skills. For a time in the mid-to-late ’90s, she was the most famous player in the sport.
More importantly, she had an uncanny knack for promoting and raising the visibility of the sport – and herself along the way. She turned down no media interviews, signed every last autograph, and built her brand largely in the pre-Internet era with the help of a savvy agent named Jane Kachmer. (At 41 and perhaps now better known as Mrs. Laird Hamilton, Reece has reinvented herself as an expert on fitness and healthy living.)
Triathlon can find a Gabby Reece. Perhaps she’s the next Olympic swimming sweetheart, a perky Natalie Coughlin type who could bring her celebrity and sponsors to triathlon with her. Maybe she’s a prominent college swimmer. Maybe she’s Mandy McLane (left), an Orlando native and former Clemson track star who dominated triathlon as an elite amateur last year and has turned pro for 2011.
Heck, maybe she’s Reece herself. She once tried to join the LPGA tour, after all, and becoming a pro triathlete might be easier, especially with a waterman husband.
Whoever she is – and like pro volleyball, it will be a female – she’ll need to be savvy with the media and relentless in her use of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogging. She might want to moonlight as a fitness guru of sorts, building a mainstream media platform around training and conditioning that can take her onto morning talk shows and into sponsor meetings faster than Ironman victories can.
Maybe the ubiquitous Jillian Michaels is sufficient for The Biggest Loser set, but wouldn’t most women (and men) be more inspired by an Ironman champion?
This visible triathlon spokeswoman must realize, as Reece did, that part of her job is being a babe. She need not pose for Playboy as Reece did, though a similar pictorial that celebrates the athleticism and power of her physique wouldn’t be a bad idea. At the very least, she should volunteer to pose for ESPN the Magazine’s annual “Body” issue as triathlete Sarah Reinertsen did in 2009.
Sex sells – this just in – which is why there’s rarely an Olympic sport broadcast in prime time other than swimming, beach volleyball, track and field, and gymnastics, all of which feature lean women (and men) wearing little. Triathlon has connections to swimming and track and a similar heritage to beach volleyball. If the sport is waiting for a Peyton Manning or Derek Jeter equivalent to raise its profile, it’s not going to happen.
But somewhere out there is a Gabrielle Reece.