Tag Archives: Ironman

Ironman Spins Off Lava Magazine

By Pete Williams

Lava’s June issue

World Triathlon Corp. continues to focus on its core business. The Tampa-based parent company of Ironman today announced that it has sold its two-year-old Lava Magazine to “a group of private investors with a long-term tie to the triathlon community.”

The new group will be known as LAVA Media, LLC and retain its current staff with Heather Gordon as publisher. WTC CEO Andrew Messick said in a statement that “Ironman is in the business of creating extraordinary races and event experiences, not publishing.”

The sale is the latest move by Messick to focus Ironman on its primary business of long-distance triathlons. Messick was installed as CEO last May by the Providence Equity Partners’ Group that purchased WTC from the Gills family in September of 2008.

Since taking over, Messick has scrapped Ironman’s plans to launch an obstacle mud race series called Primal Challenge, sold off a timing business, scaled back WTC’s one-year-old 5150 Olympic-distance triathlon series, and reevaluated every aspect of the company beyond the signature Ironman-distance races and the 70.3 (half Ironman) events.

In an interview with EnduranceSportsFlorida last month, Messick said: “I think that we may have lost sight a little bit of what we do and what we’re uniquely good at. We’re uniquely good at long distance triathlon, creating these very hard, very important, life-changing events for our athletes and I worry that by focusing on other stuff, we run the risk of not being as good as we need to at our bread and butter, the core of our business. We don’t have as many 5150s this year. We don’t have Primal Challenge. We don’t have our own timing business anymore. There’s a whole series of things we were getting into that in my mind took our eye off achieving real excellence at the things we need to be excellent at and that’s creating these extraordinary athlete experiences.”

Lava, a reference to Ironman’s world championship in Hawaii, seemed like an attempt by WTC to take on Competitor Group, which publishes endurance books and magazines in addition to organizing the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon series, Muddy Buddy races, and shorter triathlons.

Lava is produced in California, far from WTC’s headquarters in Tampa, and comes across as a more upscale version of Triathlete magazine, which though owned by Competitor also tends to focus on Ironman events and professional triathletes.

LAVA Media, LLC, will own and operate the magazine’s print, online and digital properties. Ironman and Lava will continue a partnership, with Lava designated as the official magazine of Ironman.

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One-on-One with Ironman Chief Andrew Messick

By Pete Williams

WTC CEO Andrew Messick

TAMPA – When Andrew Messick spoke to the Triathlon America trade organization last month, the CEO of the World Triathlon Corp., parent company of Ironman, prefaced his address with “I come in peace.”

It was a reference to Ironman’s historically stormy relationship with the sport’s governing bodies, race directors, sponsors, media, and even the athletes themselves. Under the company’s former leadership of eye surgeon owners James and Pit Gills, and former CEO Ben Fertic, the company developed a reputation of being secretive at best, arrogant and tone-deaf at worst.

Messick, installed as CEO last May by the Providence Equity Partners’ Group that purchased WTC from the Gills family in September of 2008 just days before the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy triggered the recession, has spent his first year mending fences and boosting a brand that for all of its financial success remains under the radar in the sports world.

A two-time Ironman finisher, the 48-year-old Messick came to WTC after four years as president of AEG Sports, where he oversaw such iconic endurance events as the Amgen Tour of California cycling race and the Bay to Breakers running event. That followed a seven-year stint working for the NBA.

We never had any luck getting an audience with the previous WTC regime, even when writing stories on the growth of triathlon and Ironman in 2007 for The New Year Times and SportsBusiness Journal. So we were pleasantly surprised when Messick accepted our offer to have an hour-long conversation about all things Ironman at the WTC offices in Tampa on Tuesday.

EnduranceSportsFlorida: Were you surprised at how disliked WTC was among triathletes?

Andrew Messick:No, because in my former life I was a lousy age grouper (from 2004-2006) when I was racing a lot. I had a clear point of view of how WTC was perceived even then. I did Ironman Canada and Ironman Lake Placid and those were great races, races that had soul and great community and people who were happy you were there. Even then people didn’t like WTC and it wasn’t clear to me exactly why, but that perception existed and there was the usual things you would see on message boards. “WTC didn’t care about athletes,” the usual stuff. It’s been there a long time and I knew it would be one of those things that would require effort, energy, and attention. It’s frustrating to a lot of people in this organization. People don’t acknowledge how much work and effort goes into the athlete experience. It’s easy for people to just assume that all the stuff that happens at a race – registration working, volunteers are there, having swim/bike/run courses that are safe – that all of that miraculously happens. It’s WTC people who do all that. I don’t think WTC as a company ever spent very much time focused on talking to athletes. The folks that used to run the place didn’t feel like they had any obligation to communicate to their customers, which I don’t agree with. I would much rather communicate and have disagreements now and then than never say anything, which is kind of what used to happen. There was a culture around here of you do what you think is right, you announce it, but you don’t explain why and eventually people will get over it. That’s not the way I was taught to do things.

Messick at Ironman Melbourne last month (Photo courtesy http://www.FinisherPix.com).

 

ESF: How much progress have you made on that front?

AM: We’re getting there. Whenever you’re running anything, you’re faced with lots of decisions and you have to choose.  Either we’re going to keep the way we do Kona qualification the same or we’re not and that’s a decision. Keeping it the way it is perpetuates the things that don’t work and it also perpetuates the things that do work. Changing it introduces new ideas and thinking but also upsets the status quo. No matter what you do there’s a choice involved. We’ve got super-smart, super-motivated athletes who do our races and there’s a super high level of engagement. If you explain what you’re trying to do and why you made the choices you did, by and large people understand. Not everyone will agree with you, but at least people understand why you did it and they don’t think you made a decision in a vacuum or made a decision without consulting any of the other shareholders and stakeholders. Understanding why you did something is very important and I don’t think we did a very good job historically of doing that. We’d say, here’s the new procedure and that’s it.

ESF: You’ve talked about expanding the Ironman customer base from 66,000 athletes annually to 150,000, and also bringing more races into the mix. Are you suggesting getting involved in races of shorter distances?

AM: We’re really good as an organization at producing – not necessarily destination races – but sort of the key races on athletes’ calendars. That’s what we’re good at. I was in Galveston (Texas for the Ironman 70.3) this past weekend and Melbourne (Australia) the weekend before. Those are great events, expensive, highly produced events that are the key races for our athletes that year. And we have a cost structure that is really designed to be able to deliver those kinds of events. I don’t think we have a cost structure that’s designed to deliver the Olympic distance. You can charge a premium for fulls, for 70.3s. It’s harder to charge a premium for Olympic distance events. Athletes want an event that’s at a certain price point and the Olympic distance race that’s more than $100 – there’s a lot of resistance to that. One of the things the 5150 experience taught us last year is that if you’re going to charge a lot more than $100, what is the additional value added? And if you can’t provide that, it’s a hard sell. So we’re in the process of trying to figure out if we can deliver the level of service of a 70.3 and an Ironman at an Olympic distance race at a price point that works for our consumers.

ESF: So this is the year to figure that out?

AM: Yeah. We’re a premium brand. BMWs struggle to hit Volkswagen price points. There’s nothing wrong with Volkswagens. I love ‘em; I’ve driven them my whole life. But you have to have a Volkswagen business system to make Volkswagens. We have a BMW business system to make BMWs.

Ironman athletes haven't always been at peace with WTC.

ESF: You have Iron Girl and IronKids. Are they in the same category as 5150 or is that a different conversation?

AM: That’s a different conversation. Iron Girl and IronKids are very different animals. With Iron Kids, we have a good partnership with HyVee, and HyVee supports our Midwestern Iron Kids series. We have a strong skew to the midwest. Most of our non-Hyvee Iron Kids races are attached to existing events. We leverage the fact that we’ve got a 70.3 in Boulder and we have a staff, team and infrastructure so there’s a ton of things we don’t have to replicate. Without a partner like HyVee, it would be pretty hard for us to have separate standalone IronKids events because it’s a low price point. With Iron Girl, we’ve got 16 North American events this year and we have a separate operational marketing and management team and they live the Iron Girl brand and that’s different from beginning to end in terms of what we deliver and how.

ESF: There seemed to be a point last year where Ironman was chasing every popular endurance trend such as half marathons and mud runs with Primal Challenge, which you canceled before it started. Was there a concern that you were getting away from your core business?

AM: I think that we may have lost sight a little bit of what we do and what we’re uniquely good at. We’re uniquely good at long distance triathlon, creating these very hard, very important, life-changing events for our athletes and I worry that by focusing on other stuff, we run the risk of not being as good as we need to at our bread and butter, the core of our business. We don’t have as many 5150s this year. We don’t have Primal Challenge. We don’t have our own timing business anymore. There’s a whole series of things we were getting into that in my mind took our eye off achieving real excellence at the things we need to be excellent at and that’s creating these extraordinary athlete experiences. Ironman Canada and Ironman Lake Placid changed my life. As an age grouper, training for those events, being part of the Ironman community, and crossing that finish line – it indelibly marked me like it does for a lot of our athletes. This organization is fiercely protective of that experience for our athletes and we need to make sure we stay laser focused on creating great races and treating our athletes the way they need to be treated and making sure the journey of our athletes is as good as it can be. To be that focused you have to be pretty systematic about getting rid of distractions. We had a lot of distractions and still have a lot of distractions. But we have fewer than we had nine months ago and we’ll have fewer a year from now.

ESF: What if you purchased a race registration site? Would that be a distraction or would that fit with your business model?

AM: That’s a big question for us. Active has been a great partner of ours for a long time. But at the same time there’s lots of other registration solutions out there and it’s clear we need to have more versatility in terms of what happens when athletes sign up and the ease of athlete sign-up and how we manage these incredible spikes in demand. It’s a complex set of choices we’re trying to figure out right now in terms of the whole race registration process. We need to have a better solution for our athletes and figure out what we’re going to do to handle demand. Melbourne sold out in less than five minutes a week ago. We’ve always had this situation for our races. Ironman Florida sold out in 11 minutes, Arizona in six or seven minutes. Our full Ironman races are selling out really quickly. Somewhere in the next year is a real serious conversation about what’s the fairest thing for our athletes. Is it at noon Eastern Time, Active registration opens and the fastest guys on the mouse get it? That’s fair if you live in the U.S. maybe but if you live in Australia and it’s three in the morning, I’m not sure that’s fair. I’m not sure it’s fair for people who are at work. There’s a whole question of how you handle demand and our registration partner is an important part of that. Is it a sign-up, a lottery, first in, best-dressed, which is how we do it today? Should there be an advantage to those who did it last year, to those who do more races with us? There’s a whole bunch of ways you can go and so we need to be pretty thoughtful in the next year about how that whole thing comes together.

ESF: Could you go the route of buying a system like Competitor did?

AM: The RaceIt system that Competitor has is a really good one. It’s designed for race registration and a lot of the problems we have. The system isn’t fully built out yet and it hasn’t been fully beta tested for all this stuff, for the unique things we have. To the best of my knowledge there aren’t any other systems, with the exception of concert systems, that have the kind of super high immediate demand. Trying to register thousands of athletes in three or four minutes creates a unique set of challenges.

The always dramatic Ironman swim start. Ready for increased television exposure?

ESF: What was your own Ironman experience like?

AM: I did Ironman Canada in 2005 (time of 12:34) and Lake Placid in 2006 (11:07). I did Canada with a broken arm, which is not recommended and completely blew up on the run. I did the Boston Marathon in 3:09 in 2006 and I don’t think I did a single mile at Canada in less than 11 minutes. I started cramping coming off Yellow Lake  (bike course) and my Ironman Canada run was 5:24. I’d walk 100 yards, jog 100 yards, just five and a half hours of severe pain. I had crashed my bike five days before in Central Park on my last tune-up ride. Someone stepped out in front of me, I went over the handlebars and had a radial head fracture in my elbow. The doctor said there was no risk of it getting worse unless I crashed again. So it was just a pain management exercise. I had played rugby and wore a rugby mouthpiece during the swim, which was very painful. What I hadn’t planed for was that I usually reach for bottles with my right arm (on the bike), and couldn’t do so because it was broke. I could only reach with my left, which screwed up my nutrition and I started cramping. That was my first Ironman experience. Lake Placid was the makeup race.

What impact will the biggest name in endurance sports have on triathlon? (Photo courtesy of http://www.FinisherPix.com)

ESF: You spent seven years (2000-2007) working for the NBA, which perhaps more than any other league leveraged its brand around superstars. How important is it to build bigger names in triathlon?

AM: Triathlon is unique in that its beating heart isn’t pro athletes; it’s age groupers. That makes it different than most other sports. When you go to an NBA game, you’re going to see Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or back in the day Michael, Magic, Larry, or Dr. J. People sign up for Ironman Lake Placid to do Ironman Lake Placid; it’s their journey. That said, there’s a huge opportunity for us to use pro athletes to talk more broadly about our sport, to increase awareness of our sport, to talk about the benefits, the things that triathlon uniquely delivers in terms of quality of life, setting goals. All of those are broader messages and benefits that our lifestyle promotes. Our pros are super smart, articulate, and motivated and by and large there hasn’t been the kind of connection between the company and professional athletes that you’d like. One of the big insights for me was seeing how disconnected pro athletes are from the rest of the business compared to cycling, running, or the NBA. It’s a huge untapped opportunity and I think we can do much better with our pros to build better relationships, to have them be stronger, more powerful advocates for our races and the sport and for us in return, to give them a better platform to make a living and attract sponsors. There’s an integration that hasn’t occurred, but we’re making progress and it will take some time. That was one of my bigger surprises, how much professional athletes weren’t integrated into what we do.

ESF: So how do you integrate them more into the company?

AM: When we go and pitch a sponsorship to Company X, we don’t do anything with our professionals. We don’t introduce our pro athletes to companies; we should. When we’re pitching an automotive company, we don’t say we have four pro athletes you should put under contract, and we’ll guarantee that you have six days a year for athletes A, B, or C. They can go to the regional dealer meeting in Tucson and talk to a group of your dealers about setting goals, working toward objectives, and telling their stories. Those types of things are really powerful and yet we’ve never viewed professional athletes as an asset. By doing that, you can introduce your athletes to important companies and they become ambassadors for you. So there’s really low hanging fruit there that we’re only now becoming organized enough to capture.

ESF: Do you need a dominant performer like Mark Allen or Dave Scott to emerge?

AM: Stars help in every sport and having people who have the ability and the charisma to take a sport off the sports page – or in our case to take the sport out of the endemic media – and get broader distribution is helpful. If you look at what Tiger Woods did for golf or what Magic, Michael and those guys did for basketball, those are transformative personalities. Look at Lance Armstrong and cycling in terms of television ratings, interest in the sport, and bikes sold. No question it’s helpful.

Armstrong considers the run his weakest leg of triathlon. (Photo courtesy www.FinisherPix.com)

ESF: Speaking of Lance Armstrong, if he’s only a top 10 finisher and not a contender in Ironman races, does that lessen the impact he has in triathlon?

AM: If you’d told anybody two months ago that Lance Armstrong at the age of 40 will go pro, finish top 10 in his first two (70.3) races and go under 3:55 in both of them, people would have said you’re out of your mind. Or if you flip-flopped Panama and Galveston and he went seventh in his first race and second in his second, we’re talking about an entirely different story. He came off the bike first in Galveston, was fourth until mile 12 (of the run) and like a lot of people who race, he had a bad last mile. It happens. It’s going to be exciting to see what happens, in Haines City (Fla.) and Nice and later in the year. It’s a great opportunity to get people focused on the sport of triathlon, people who wouldn’t ordinary be interested.

ESF: People love the NBC Kona package and watch Ironman races online. Obviously there are logistical challenges to broadcasting triathlon on television. But in 2012 shouldn’t there be live coverage of Ironman events somewhere on TV?

AM: We won’t have live television in 2012. We’re live online everywhere in the world. Our production and product is getting better. We’re seeing increases in traffic and viewership. We had more than 250,000 watching (Galveston 70.3) on Sunday and there are a lot of TV shows that don’t get that many watching. Whether it will be on TV or not, that’s hard. From a production/logistical perspective, it’s super challenging and we need a pretty compelling reason to do it. The races are long. You need big windows and you need to be on a network that has broad distribution and that’s not easy.

ESF: Is there anything in your NBC contract that precludes it?

AM: No. Between Universal Sports and NBC, contractually we’ve got the right to do all kinds of stuff. Whether NBC is going to create a multi-hour television window for us, I know the answer to that.

ESF: What about any of its sister networks?

AM: It’s a conversation but not one for 2012. For 2012, we’ll continue to have a strong relationship. Universal Sports will broadcast recaps of our races. Kona will be on NBC and we will have a live package that will get better over time that will largely be focused on our site (Ironman.com), not UniversalSports.com.

ESF: How important is it for Ironman to get more mainstream media coverage?

AM: I think it’s really important and what we have to do is find stories that mainstream media finds compelling enough to cover and without stars it’s really hard. There’s a lot of competition for writers’ time and column inches and you need to have a compelling story to tell and we’re trying every day to do that.

ESF: Can you answer the off-asked trademark question regarding Ironman and Iron Man? Is it simply that WTC owns the trademark as it applies to triathlon and Marvel owns everything else?

AM: It’s more complex than that. We’ve got areas where we can play and they can play. There are things we can and can’t do and things they can and can’t do. It works and has been heavily negotiated over many years.

Tough Mudder: Competitor or Complementary?

ESF: Obstacle races such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race are drawing huge numbers of people looking for a life-changing accomplishment. Do you view them as competition?

AM: I don’t think so. I haven’t been presented with any evidence that suggests someone wakes up and says, “I’m going to do Tough Mudder or an Ironman 70.3.” If anything I think it’s good for us. Ultimately, the more people who are out racing and competing in events – and I feel the same way about the Rock ‘N Roll marathon series – the more people eventually will move into our wheelhouse. The real base of the pyramid is signing up for events, whether it’s a local 5K or Tough Mudder. Getting people into the process of signing up and preparing for an event, doing a race and finishing, puts people on the way. The broader the base of participants, the broader the base who find their way to our events. We’re at the very top of the pyramid in that, if you’re a marathoner, someone doing Gran Fondos, or a competitive swimmer, at some point, Ironman is in the back of your head. If you’ve had a transformational life experience – you’ve had a heart attack and recovered or lost 50 pounds and you attribute it to achieving your goal – even if it’s only a 5K, you start thinking of your next goal and we’re part of that.

ESF: You’re a Southern California guy. Triathlon has strong ties to that region. There’s no longer anything tying Ironman to the Tampa Bay area. Do you plan to stay here long term?

AM: We’re about to expand to the other side of this floor and will have the whole floor. There’s a lot of other things to be focusing on right now. We’ve been in Tampa a long time; the staff is from Tampa and I have no plans to leave Tampa. I sold the house in Los Angeles. It’s been a really busy eight months and it will be a really busy next year. When I think of all the things we have to do and priorities and all the stuff that needs to happen, there’s a ton of mission critical stuff we have to tackle. That’s not mission critical. We’re fine here and have no plans to move.

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Ironman CEO’s Candid Keynote

By Pete Williams

When Andrew Messick took over last year as CEO of the Tampa-based World Triathlon Corp., parent company of Ironman, he admits he was stunned by how triathletes loved Ironman races but hated WTC.

Those were among Messick’s candid comments during a keynote address at the recent Triathlon America gathering in California. “Candid comments” and “Ironman” traditionally haven’t been used in the same sentence, but Messick was frank in talking about the company’s notorious “bunker” mentality and, of course, Lance Armstrong.

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The Inevitable Ironman/Lance Armstrong Marriage

By Pete Williams

Ironman 70.3 Florida competitors can wave to Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong and the World Triathlon Corporation announced a long-rumored partnership this morning that will include the seven-time Tour de France winner competing as a professional triathlete in several Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races, including Ironman 70.3 in Haines City, Fla., on May 20.

The deal, one of the endurance sports industry’s biggest rumors for years, came six days after federal prosecutors dropped a two-year investigation into whether the world’s most famous cyclist and his teammates engaged in a doping program during his greatest years. Armstrong has denied doping charges raised for years by journalists and prominent cyclists.

That the most polarizing figure in endurance sports would partner with the most polarizing organization in the industry seemed inevitable from the time Armstrong announced his most recent retirement from cycling a year ago. The 40-year-old Armstrong, who began his endurance sports career as a teenage triathlete, was looking for a new high-profile platform to further his Livestrong Foundation.

WTC, for all of its success selling out its high-profile Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events, has struggled to extend its brand and generate mainstream media coverage. Its 5150 series, which debuted last year, met with mixed results. WTC scrapped a proposed obstacle mud runs series last year and was a late entry into the booming world of half marathon races. Its signature event, the Ironman Kona race, remains under the radar as a tape-delay highlight broadcast. None of the current professionals are known outside the triathlon world.

Armstrong will bring a built-in audience to Ironman, which in turn should put him back in the limelight. His foray into marathon running from 2006-2008 drew little attention and he returned to cycling late in 2008. It was during his marathon training that talk of a WTC/Livestrong partnership began.

James Gills, the Tarpon Springs opthamologist who owned WTC for nearly three decades, sold WTC and the Ironman brand to Providence Equity Partners for a reported $75 million in September 2008, a week before the Lehman Brothers collapse triggered a national financial crisis. Providence moved WTC from Tarpon Springs to Tampa and in May hired new CEO Andrew Messick, who during a four-year stint as president of AEG Sports oversaw the Amgen Tour of California.

Though triathlon has boomed in the last five years, WTC and Ironman have not emerged into the sports mainstream. Under Gills, the company was fiercely private, operating out of a small suite of offices at his medical practice. Many triathletes have a love-hate relationship with Ironman. Though completing an Ironman is perhaps the most sought-after accomplishment in endurance sports, athletes must deal with steep entry fees ($625 average for Ironman events) and ever-changing registration rules.

Armstrong will have a huge advantage in the bike portion of triathlons, which accounts for 56 miles in a 70.3 (half-Ironman) triathlon and 112 miles of the full distance event. As age-group triathletes are quick to point out on popular triathlon industry message boards such as SlowTwitch.com, bike drafting is illegal in triathlon – and there is random drug testing of the pros at Ironman events.

Armstrong will bring a much-needed spotlight to triathlon, which receives little media attention outside of trade publications. ESPN and other sports networks, which rarely feature triathlon, likely will show highlights from his races. Rank-and-file age group trithletes will clamor for a chance to race against Armstrong, even if he will race as a pro in the first wave of every event he enters.

Those will include Ironman 70.3 Panama on Feb. 12 and the Memorial Hermann Ironman 70.3 in Texas on April 1. Armstrong also will compete in Ironman 70.3 in Florida, moved from Lake Buena Vista to Haines City for this year’s May 20 event, and a 70.3 event in Hawaii June 2.

Armstrong will return to France to compete in Ironman France on June 24. If he competes in Ironman’s world championship in Kona on Oct. 13, it won’t be via a celebrity exemption.

He plans to qualify like anyone else.

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Top 10 Endurance Sports Florida Stories of 2011

By Pete Williams

Tough Mudder's infamous "Chernobyl Jacuzzi"

When we launched Endurance Sports Florida in January, we had a pretty good idea that running and triathlon would be a significant part of our coverage. We could not have anticipated the impact sports such as obstacle mud runs and stand-up paddleboarding would have in the Florida endurance world.

So as we look back at the Year in Florida Endurance Sports, it’s perhaps no surprise that the top 10 stories reflect the growth and diversity of an industry in a state that arguably has more endurance sports options than any in the country.

#10 – Introduction of the Tultex T-shirt

Fashion trend of 2011?

We’re not sure who first introduced (or resurrected) the idea of the soft, fitted, blended T-shirt this year, but we’re all for it. Two new obstacle mud runs – Highlander and Savage Race – gave them out, as did the Autumn Fest 5K in Safety Harbor. We even printed Tultex for the second-annual Caliente Bare Dare 5K in October. At a time when athletes are bored with cotton and tech, Tultex is a welcome addition. Anyone who thinks T-shirt related news does not belong in a stories-of-the-year list does not know endurance athletes.

#9 – Participation Up, Spectating Down

Spending more time at the beach

Maybe it’s because Florida’s professional and college football teams are all in the tank at the moment, but the continuing boom in endurance sports seems to coincide with a decline in interest in and attendance at big-time spectator sports. We have a theory on this, and it’s one that some college sports management class should investigate. When the economy went south in 2008, Floridians looked at their suddenly depleted finances and realized, “I’m paying how much for sports tickets? I need to take charge of my health and finances and if I’m going to pay $75 for a couple hours of entertainment, I want to have a sense of accomplishment about it. I want to come out of it feeling great physically, not like I just inhaled nasty processed food and expensive beer.”

Even the Tampa Bay Rays, who generally have played well since the economy crashed, have struggled to draw in this bad economy. But all areas of endurance sports have experienced spectacular growth. Is there a connection? Sure seems like it.

#8 Pasco County – Endurance Sports Mecca

Pasco County is known for many things: sprawling growth during the real estate boom, hot-air ballooning, sky-diving, nudist clubs, Jim Courier, Saddlebrook Resort. It’s had a foothold in the endurance sports world for years between the Longleaf Triathlon, Rattlesnake Run, and Dances with Dirt. Central Florida cyclists flock to San Antonio since it’s one of the few places in the area with hills and the Caliente Bare Dare 5K in Land O’Lakes is now two years old. But Pasco put itself on the endurance sports map in 2011 by landing Tough Mudder, which with nearly 20,000 athletes during a December weekend became the biggest endurance event ever in the greater Tampa Bay area. Don’t be surprised to see Pasco host more larger endurance events, especially with the proliferation of mud runs and a realization by the part of race directors that greater Tampa has more athletes than Orlando.

Eric Stratman of TNL Tampa leads a mud run training program

#7 – CrossFit: Meet Endurance

A year ago, you’d rarely see “CrossFit” and “endurance” in the same sentence. CrossFit athletes were viewed as bodybuilders with a bit of a gymnastics bent and the endurance crowd a bunch of spindly folks who never picked up a weight. But fueled in no small part by the obstacle mud run phenomenon, the two groups have met in the middle, recognizing that an integrated program of interval running and mix-it-up strength work might be the best formula for building a high-performance body, to say nothing of an attractive one. Obstacle mud runs such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race have shrewdly aligned themselves with CrossFit programs, many of which like TNL Tampa now offer mud run-specific training programs. Runners and triathletes have embraced such training and the existing CrossFit demographic has discovered the benefits of interval running.

#6 Triathlon Dropoff?

Race directors around the state reported a 10 percent dropoff in entries this year. We’re not sure if that’s a reflection on the economy (unlikely if it didn’t happen in 2009-10), oversaturation of events (probably), or the popularity of newer endurance pastimes like obstacle mud runs and stand-up paddleboarding (possibly). Whatever the reason, the unbridled growth of triathlon in the last five years seems to be leveling off.

Triathlon: Still on the rise?

Triathlon is a sport with a high churn rate, dependent on a constant influx of newcomers. Mud runs, which don’t require bicycles or swim ability, are more accessible. And though endurance sports have been mostly recession proof in a state hit harder than most by the economy, there’s no question Florida’s slow economy is playing an impact.

We’re still bullish on triathlon, but as with any endurance sports category, competition in triathlon is fierce. The most ambitious newcomer is HITS, a group of equestrian promoters who will stage a national series – including events in Naples and Ocala – featuring triathlons of four distances (including iron) in the same weekend.

Just another sign that the triathlon pie, whether shrinking or not, will be carved into more pieces in 2012.

Florida SUP races draw pros like Annabel Anderson

#5 Stand-up Paddleboard Racing

A year ago, there were only a handful of “SUP” races in Florida. Now it’s possible to find one most every weekend from April through October. Until Brody Welte moved his StandUp Fitness operation from St. Pete to San Diego, we also had the YOLO Board Winter Race Series. Florida already leads the nation in putting on the most triathlons, marathons, and obstacle mud runs. Now it can claim the lead in SUP events. SUP racing still is a work in progress, however, remaining mostly under the radar. In September, Exclusive Sports Marketing drew just 65 athletes to South Beach for a race it billed as the “U.S. Open of SUP,” with a whopping $35,000 in prize money. Welte built some traction in two years with his Gulf Coast StandUp Paddleboard Championship in Madeira Beach and it will be interesting how he handles the event from the West Coast – of the country. Still, we’re bullish on SUP racing with its modest entry fees, occasional prize money, nice awards and solid post-race food.

#4 Ironman Gets Rusty?

Mixed year for Ironman

Sure, the World Triathlon Corp. still sells out its signature events, including Ironman Florida, in a matter of minutes. But does it seem like the Tampa-based WTC is wandering in the wilderness? Actually, WTC moved out of Disney’s Wilderness for the Ironman 70.3 event in 2012, relocating to Haines City. That’s just one of several head-scratching moves WTC made in 2011. We love Haines City (RIP Boardwalk and Baseball), but that doesn’t seem like the destination event like Disney. Then again, WTC couldn’t draw many athletes to Clearwater for its much-touted, season-ending, inaugural 5150 series event. WTC canceled the would-be Nov. 18 race in October when it couldn’t reach its modest expectations of 800 athletes, the latest sign that the 5150 concept is a misfire. WTC also seems to be chasing every endurance trend, including half-marathons and an aborted mud run series called Primal Challenge. Here in Florida, the St. Anthony’s Triathlon, now officially a WTC-affiliated 5150 event after a long history of sharing personnel, was marred by weather for the third straight year. If WTC was a stock – and don’t think that idea hasn’t been brought up by the private equity group no doubt wondering if they overpaid the Gills family in 2008 just weeks before the economy crashed – it would be Microsoft, still paying handsome dividends but viewed as stodgy and unable to come up with a new hit. Andrew Messick was hired in May as CEO, but thus far it’s business as usual with the M-dot.

#3 Half Marathons Gone Wild

It wasn’t that long ago that race directors had a tough time convincing the City of St. Petersburg that the market could support a half marathon. These days, it’s difficult to find a weekend between late October and mid-March in the Tampa Bay area without such a race. St. Pete, which added Competitor Group’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Half to the calendar for Feb. 12, now has four half marathons. The rest of the state, especially South Florida, also has capitalized on the half marathon phenomenon. We’re not big fans of half marathons, which seem to provide the least in terms of food, cool shirts, swag, and race experience for the money when compared to triathlons, mud runs, trail runs, and stand-up paddleboard races. But there’s no question the half marathon is the sweet spot of the current running boom.

#2 Obstacle Mud Runs

Conquering the Savage Race in August

As recently as 2009, the Muddy Buddy race at Disney’s Wide World of Sports over Mother’s Day weekend was pretty much the only obstacle mud run in Florida. This year, there were more than 40 and the schedule became so packed that Muddy Buddy scrapped its proposed year-end championship in Punta Gorda once Tough Mudder announced plans for its Dade City race the same December weekend. (Muddy Buddy fans still had a late-November race in Miami for the second straight year.)

We’ll see if “OMRs” have staying power or end up being just a fad. For now, they’re drawing runners bored with pounding the pavement, would-be triathletes who don’t want to buy a bike or learn to swim properly, and trail runners, along with the CrossFit and bootcamp crowds. Like running or triathlon, athletes can pick from easy races (Muddy Buddy, Warrior Dash) and difficult ones (Spartan Race, Tough Mudder). The lure of OMRs is challenging both your strength and endurance while acting ridiculous and rolling around like pigs. No wonder so many race directors are jumping into the mud pit.

#1 Tough Mudder

Conquering mud and barbwire at Little Everglades Ranch

As with Oscar-contending films released in December, there might be a tendency to overplay the impact of Tough Mudder’s Florida debut earlier this month. Then again, when nearly 20,000 athletes converged on Little Everglades Ranch in Pasco County, it was confirmation that 2011 was the Year of the Obstacle Mud Run.

Tough Mudder, the biggest OMR, has become the aspirational event for endurance athletes, who post their photos and finisher’s badges on Facebook and wear their campy orange headbands proudly. It’s become cooler to survive Tough Mudder’s Chernobyl Jacuzzi and Electroshock Therapy than complete a triathlon of any distance. And to think, Harvard Business School professors scoffed at Will Dean when he submitted Tough Mudder as a class project during his MBA program. Nobody, they said, would pay an average of $100 to get their butt kicked for two or three hours. Dean launched Tough Mudder in March of 2010, staged 14 races this year and has plans for 44 in 2012. He could clear $100 million in gross revenue, including sponsorship from the likes of Under Armour.

So how has your company fared the last two years?

We actually found Spartan Race more challenging with its 30-Burpee penalties, but there’s no question Tough Mudder is the leader in the category and is taking chunks of the running and triathlon pies. Tough Mudder already has announced a return to the Tampa area Dec. 1-2 and also has plans for 2012 events in Miami and Jacksonville, dates and locations TBA.

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Matt Fitzgerald’s “Iron War”

By Pete Williams

Matt Fitzgerald is perhaps the most prolific endurance sports writer in the business. Usually he’s providing terrific instructional advice on training and nutrition, but in his new book IRON WAR he tackles the narrative form, providing a richly-detailed account of the 1989 Ironman championship.

That year, Mark Allen finally overcame longtime rival Dave Scott to win triathlon’s coveted title in an epic showdown in Kona. Fitzgerald examines what drove the two most decorated triathletes in the sport to greatness. The result is a gripping page-turner, even though the reader knows who will win.

Fitzgerald recently joined us to talk about IRON WAR on The Fitness Buff Show. You can listen to that broadcast HERE.

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Recession or Flooded Market?

By Pete Williams

Endurance sports shakeout?

The decision by the World Triathlon Corporation on Tuesday to pull the plug on its season-finale 5150 triathlon series event in Clearwater is the latest move that indicates the world of Florida endurance sports might not be recession proof after all.

The Champions Mud Bash canceled its Nov. 5 event in Tampa. Like the 5150, low registration was the reason. Muddy Buddy opted not to have a year-end championship in Punta Gorda. Several other events have been quietly canceled or indefinitely postponed. WTC, the parent company of Ironman and creator of the 5150 series, pulled the plug on Primal Challenge, which was to have been a new obstacle mud run series with a November event in Lake Wales.

Many other events have experienced declining numbers after years of unbridled growth.

We’ve marveled at how recession proof Florida has been when it comes to endurance sports. After all, the Sunshine State has suffered more than most of the country in terms of the real estate crash and unemployment, a figure that probably does not fully reflect the job troubles in a state where many people are independent contractors and/or self-employed and thus not counted on the unemployment rolls.

Since the economy crashed in the Fall of 2008, Florida endurance sports actually have taken off. The state already lead the nation in the number of triathlon and running events and now can claim top status in obstacle mud runs and stand-up paddleboard events.

The theory is that people will cut back on their discretionary spending when it comes to entertainment, eating out, and home improvement, but will be less likely to slash on participatory events that give them a feeling of accomplishment, which is perhaps more important during stressful economic times. Not only that, many people have more time to train.

We’re of the belief that it’s not the recession but a flooded market for races. Two years ago, Muddy Buddy had a virtual monopoly on obstacle mud runs in Florida. This year, there will be at least 30 such races. Dozens of triathlons and running events of all distances have been added to the calendar since 2009, many with entry fees of $100 or more.

So it figures that there will be a shakeout and, perhaps not surprisingly, many of the initial casualties have been newcomers that have not gained sufficient traction.

Philip LaHaye, WTC’s director of operations, said Tuesday that Clearwater probably cannot sustain a year-end event at $150-a-head like the proposed 5150 finale. LaHaye, the longtime race director for the St. Anthony’s Triathlon, has seen that event’s numbers plunge in recent years, no doubt fueled by increased competition by other races at the Olympic-distance level and the rapid increase in St. Anthony’s entry fees.

It’s not just triathlon. We’ve wondered how long athletes will continue to commit to obstacle mud runs where they must pay $75 entry fees, $10 parking, and receive little more than a bottle of water and perhaps one free beer at the finish line for events that take less than an hour to finish.

And at what point will runners balk at paying up to $100 for a half-marathon? Unlike triathlon or obstacle mud runs, it’s easy to go out and run a half-marathon without entering a race.

Then there’s our pet peeve: lousy T-shirts. Athletes, especially women, do not want to wear something with sponsor logos on the back, especially when they’ve paid $75 or more to enter. If race directors believe they must include logos on the back to provide sufficient value to sponsors, well, they’re probably not providing sufficient value to sponsors.

Like any other product, the winners in 2012 and beyond in endurance sports organizers will be the ones who provide the best value for the entry fee.

For Florida endurance athletes, that’s a positive development.

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