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  • Gary Roethenbaugh

How to bring back the good times? Widening participation in triathlon

Triathlon has traded on the phrase ‘the fastest growing sport in the world’ for a number of years. Yet for many in the industry – certainly in the more established markets internationally – the days of stellar growth are more of a distant memory.

As events across the world face uncertainty in the face of COVID-19 Coronavirus, there are other underlying challenges in the marketplace that have been bubbling up for some time.

Triathlon participation has levelled out in many countries, not least in the United States – the world’s largest triathlon market. In recent years, the US has been in a period of stagnation. From 2013-14, triathlon participation in the US began to plateau and subsequent years have witnessed a static to declining position in event numbers due to a build-up of event oversaturation in the US market.

In tandem with a drop-off in events in the US, according to USA Triathlon triathlete numbers in the US have dropped to around 400,000 active tri racers.

At this year’s Endurance Exchange industry conference in Tempe, Arizona, industry association Triathlon Business International (TBI) and national governing body USA Triathlon (USAT) brought hundreds of stakeholders together. The collective gathering of over 500 delegates was an encouraging step for an industry facing headwinds.

Among the topics covered at the conference was the area of diversity, equity and inclusion. This is arguably a primary challenge and an area in need of most attention for all stakeholders in the sport of triathlon.

The ‘typical’ US triathlete has been ageing steadily and is now in their mid-40s+, continues to have a higher income than the average American; and while the percentage of females has been growing it is still not at a 50:50 gender split. Triathlon is also a predominantly ‘white sport’ in its northern hemisphere main markets, with low levels of ethnic diversity. As a result, triathlon does not feel accessible, which can only be a concern for future growth and longevity.

At our sister site, we have spoken to a number of race directors and industry players to seek their views on how the industry can try to bring back the good times...

Michael O'Neil, owner/race director of the Boston Triathlon and Lobsterman Triathlon, said "We think of diversity as part of our business ethos and we think of it in five categories that are often interconnected: age, financial, ability, gender, ethnicity.

“Each area has to be addressed with different initiatives to make the sport more approachable – from discount pricing for younger athletes and first-timers, race clinics coached by women, to promoting relay teams, to simply having more relatable website photos celebrating all types of athletes. We provide a race day experience where ‘everyone is welcome'; this is what can foster growth within our sport.”

Many events have been evolving from not only providing the typical swim/bike/run race but also offering multiple race formats and distances along with it – such as aqua-bike, swim-run, duathlon, ‘mini’ triathlons, relays, kids races, 5K/10K running races, etc. Thus, many events are becoming weekend long endurance festivals.

Yet other triathlon events have chosen to stick with one main race type/distance as their core. There is no right or wrong answer here. Each event should respond to athlete requirements.

Brennan Lindner, Race Director for the Herbalife24 Triathlon LA, Pasadena Triathlon and multiple other triathlons and running races said "10 years ago it was more hard-core triathletes doing the sport, which led to a plateau and then a decline in participation rates.

“Now we are seeing a resurgence in the sport with a focus on casual athletes that are more in it for the ‘fun’ experience.”

Brennan continued, "Adding a recreational wave, a mini-triathlon, and relay have all been beneficial options for attracting new participants."

The pipeline for the future participants of triathlon can be seen to broadly come from four key segments:

  1. Competitive / retained triathletes

  2. Youth / young adults

  3. Athletes coming from other endurance sport backgrounds

  4. The non-endurance casual participant

Competitive retained triathletes have always been a key focus area. It should, after all, be a priority to keep the customers that have been acquired through various pipelines. With this in mind, race directors, coaches, brand owners and other stakeholders may pose questions, such as:

  • Is my retained athlete base growing or shrinking? Too much churn in customer numbers is the first warning sign for any business. Stakeholders should aim for less than 10-20% churn, as an equivalent proportion of customer acquisition will of course be required just to stand still.

  • What is required to turn a first timer into a retained athlete? This needs a qualitative approach. Continually ask existing athletes what aspects of their experience encouraged them to come back for more.

Janet Clark, President of the XTERRA World Tour, said "We are morphing from being a race-focused company into a being a full-fledged lifestyle brand. This means more focus on quality versus quantity. We are trying to reverse the trend of the 'one-and-done' phenomenon – by providing coaching and training tools to help give athletes the confidence they need to become 'everyday warriors'.

Staci Brode, President of PLAYTRI, said "Triathlon is becoming more accessible to a larger audience and evolving into a more mainstream sport. However, the industry is seeing an increase in the 'one-and-done' athletes; this can be good from a retail standpoint, but not necessarily for the longevity in the sport.

“The half (70.3) distance triathlon in particular has become very popular, including many first-timers (‘half’ of something sounds achievable); however many of these athletes are so focused on training for their big race that they aren't racing as much in shorter races."

The percentage of returning athletes varies depending on the race, venue, distance, etc. Feedback received was that typically 30-50% of participants are first timers. While some race brands are trying to get away from the ‘one and done’ mentality and want to foster longevity with athletes, other brands thrive on driving new participants to each race.

Some repeated themes on how to attract participants include:

  • Need to be ‘approachable and less-intimidating’ – participants don’t have to be super fit or need the best expensive equipment to be successful and complete their race

  • Provide education and clinics – ‘confidence comes from competence’

  • Generate awareness and fostering an attitude of ‘I can do that’

  • Focus on the social aspect – aligning with clubs, providing a fun vibrant race-day experience

  • Nurture and celebrate all types of participants – ‘everyone is welcome’

Youth and young adults are an integral component in growing the sport and feeding the future. Many race companies are hosting youth triathlons with reported success. In addition, USA Triathlon provides support for youth initiatives including offering development teams, performance camps and national race series.

One example of a key initiative is the NCAA women’s program in the US. In 2014, the NCAA named triathlon an Emerging Sport for Women, a designation that gives USA Triathlon a 10-year window to demonstrate the sport’s sustainability at the NCAA level by recruiting at least 40 varsity programs.

The national governing body is now more than three-quarters of the way to its goal of 40 programs. Momentum is on its side, and collegiate racing provides a solid foundation and exposure for women’s triathlon in the United States. This gives some ground for optimism – and a much hoped for way of adjusting the demographics of triathlon, starting with youth.

In general, one of the challenges to overcome is that kids can tend to get ‘sport specific’ at a very young age and focus on this sport throughout school. Thus, any efforts to help promote the ‘multi-sport’ mindset, through clinics, youth teams, high school programs, and college programs are to be applauded.

Richard Izzo, Owner and Race Director of TOUGHMAN Triathlons said "If you want to stay in the triathlon race business, you have to have a great plan, a great team and a sustainable business model with high quality and safe events. You have to be passionate, love what you do, and be part of the community. Alongside our half distance triathlons, our youth events are an important part of our race portfolio and we want to try to keep the kids coming back as they get older.”

Inevitably, younger people will have less disposable income. So, affordability becomes a strong undercurrent for the industry to be mindful of.

Two race directors we talked to both offer a 50% discount for anyone below a certain age, e.g. 23, to promote more young people getting into the sport. Both of these race brands are seeing younger average participant ages overall, around 33-34 versus the mid-40s typical average in US.

Athletes coming from other endurance sport backgrounds represent the ‘lower hanging fruit’ of customer acquisition. This group generally comprises a major proportion of first-time triathletes. Many come from a running background, some come from a cycling or swimming background. These athletes may feel burnt out from a solo sport focus or are simply looking for a change of pace or direction.

These individuals already have an athlete/racing mindset. Once they have embraced multisport they are also more likely to remain on a medium to longer term triathlon journey, rather than be ‘one and done’ racers. So, how can they be enticed to try triathlon?

Industry stakeholders we spoke with indicated that education was paramount. It’s all about building the desire and confidence of the non-triathlete to take the leap. Educate them; partner with running clubs, swim clubs and bike clubs & shops; have running races as part of tri festivals to expose the uninitiated to triathlon, encourage relays where they can do their one sport and which allow them to ‘dip their toes in’ to multisport.

Shannon Schmidt, Marketing Director for Challenge Daytona, from S Consulting, said "Triathlon clubs are a front-line conduit to help drive growth for the sport; particularly with younger athletes and females; vibrant clubs make participating in triathlon a social experience."

Shannon added, "There are a lot of 'tri-curious' people out there that come from a running or cycling background, so providing them the knowledge and experience of a less intimidating race experience is key - they don't have to have all the latest and greatest expensive gear to race in a triathlon."

The non-endurance casual participant is a large population with a high potential – yet with high barriers to entry and the toughest route to customer acquisition. The large non-endurance population spans all socio-demographic groups.

To start with, these participants will be in it for the social aspect and ‘fun’ experience, and/or focused on increasing general health & wellbeing, not necessarily the competitive aspect. They may or may not have any athletic background. They might feel overwhelmed, but may yet still have a desire to try multisport.

We are seeing this cohort support the growth of other endurance sports, with running being the primary example. Initiatives such as ‘Couch to 5K’ and ‘This Girl Can’ are about the empowerment that sporting challenges can give the individual.

At the other end of the distance spectrum, marathon running race times have been increasing – illustrating that running is no longer just about the competitive athlete, but about recreational participants that are in it for their health, a sense of accomplishment and a social aspect.

Diversity is key Within each of the pipelines discussed above, the levels of opportunity for diversity vary. Yet, diversity is an underlying component across the board that needs addressing. There are many specific groups and programs dedicated to promoting diversity within our sport. A few of these experts shared their insights....

Sara Gross and Lisa Ingarfield, co-founders of the Outspoken: Women in Triathlon Summit, said "While we continue to see an increase in female participation in shorter distance races, growth has been stagnant in the longer distances. That is in part because women, on average, do not have the same time and disposable income as our male counterparts and also because we still need to work towards creating a more inclusive culture at longer events.

“There are a many great initiatives to promote women's participation – Women for Tri and the NCAA women's collegiate program are good examples. We also feel there is an opportunity to have more parity of leadership in industry and coaching levels to help increase retention and create upward mobility for more women in the sport."

Mel Berry, co-founder of Her Spirit, a personalized coaching platform based in the UK, said “We know that joining a club or established group can seem very daunting when you are relatively new to an activity or looking to progress with an activity you have been doing for a while.”

She continued, “The market is fragmented and not driven by insight or based on what the customer wants. Too many brands and event companies build what they want and hope that customers will come. That’s not a way to build a community.

“Confidence is at the heart of so many reasons why women don’t sign up for an event. So, we look at behaviours and have worked with over 500 women to test and learn, and truly understand this.”

Dr Tekemia Dorsey, CEO of the International Association of Black Triathletes (IABT) and a USAT Board Member, said "I feel there has been a real breakthrough in our grassroots efforts with minorities – youth and adults. While the growth in numbers has not been substantial (USAT’s 2020 minority estimate is around 1.2%), there has been success related to education and 'planting the seed' in urban areas.

“We feel there are also some gaps that need to be addressed around the need for more coaching opportunities for minorities."

Money talks While event owners continue to reach out to multiple pipeline opportunities and promote growth with various populations, another key factor in the equation is pricing.

While pricing strategies vary depending on the brand, region, event distance – race directors agree that the overall costs to put on an event in the US have been rising. Some events pass that cost increase along to the athletes with higher prices, some have been keeping pricing flat the past few years (and thus lower profit margins), while other events have gone for a lower price option to attract higher participation rates.

Thom Richmond, Founder of California Triathlon & Cal Tri Events, said "Any sport with a mean income of US$126,000, double that of the average US household income, is missing a large portion of the addressable market. The combination of safe and affordable race pricing greatly increases participation.

“We had to rethink everything – from offering family of four prices starting at US$180, 50% youth pricing, eliminating unfriendly insurance add-ons as well as adding event options without a bike.”

He added, “A level playing field is one where athletes compete based on the size of their heart and not on the size of their wallet."

When athletes do choose a race, there are some must-haves for the event to be successful: a safe course, secure transition area, clear signage, medal/t-shirt/swag, on-course support, etc. There are also other factors that set certain races apart from others when it comes to athlete satisfaction.

Some may be set apart by a major post-race celebration; some focus on ensuring that family/friends have just as an amazing experience as the athletes themselves, and one race director said he personally calls each participant when they register to make them feel welcome and answer any questions they may have.

In essence, the best route to success is to ensure race day is an experience they will never forget.

At the recent Endurance Exchange conference in Tempe, Arizona, Lisa Ingarfield, co-founder of the Outspoken: Women in Triathlon Summit addressed the question of diversity head-on. She noted that race directors and other industry stakeholders might be asking themselves ‘why spend time and money to acquire customers who may find triathlon difficult to pay for, or who may face barriers to participation?’

After all, it seems easier to stay with an affluent athlete base who embrace spending big on their sport. Lisa countered that, “Staying with what’s easy isn’t a long-term solution, and we should embrace diversity, and widening participation, because it’s simply the right thing to do.”



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