#15: Look into my crystal ball
All the answers for 2023. Or, at least some of the questions.
issue 15: Dec. 28, 2022
We’re still on semi-hiatus this week. I know everyone else is all gearing up and pushing year-end sales and goals and targets and whatever else people do on the social medias, but my brain needed a break. So Sid & I will have one last podcast with a special guest out on Friday. And this is a slightly shorter (kinda) version of your Wednesday morning newsletter. Then we have some more fun things planned in January.
What comes next
Because it’s my expertise, people ask me a lot about the trends in our sports. Especially in the last few years: What’s going on with triathlon? What’s going to happen post-pandemic? Is it growing or about to bust, is there money to be made, how is it changing, what’s the prediction?
Sometimes I’d make up some stuff, I’d theorize and wave my hands around, I’d have an idea or a sense, I’d look at the numbers and talk to lots of the industry, but really if I’m being honest: Anyone who tells you right now that they know what’s going to happen is lying. The last three years have been too turbulent, too many swings and changes. We don’t even really know what’s survived yet, much less what the sport, any of the sports, will look like going forward.
We don’t know the answers for 2023. But we do know what the questions will be.
Question #1: Will races and participation finally rebound?
One of the theories we had in 2021 was that there’d be a coming triathlon boom. Pre-pandemic participation was starting to rise again. And all those people who picked up running and bought bikes during early COVID, surely they’d get curious about tri. And, man, we tried to prepare content and educational funnels to bring them in. We really thought it might happen. But it didn’t.
There are reasons, but one of the problems was that races were still struggling. There weren’t a ton of local events to push people to, because so so very many smaller race directors hadn’t survived. Without races to do, the foundation of our sport had nothing to build on. This is still very much an issue. Race registrations are still down about 20-30% (depending on the size, type of race, audience); athletes are still nervous about signing up too far in advance or putting too much money on the line (travel, hotels, no); and supply chain and costs are still going to be a factor as everyone tries to decide if there’s going to actually be a recession or not.
With races fully returning in mid-2022, I suspect it’ll be this upcoming year that we finally truly have a sense of who made it out and who didn’t. When you start to build a list of your favorite independent races, you’ll be surprised how many are gone.
But. I do think it’s coming back now. Tris (and running races and gravel and all the random things we do) finally started to feel like themselves again towards the second half of this year. Now, races—especially local small races—are where governing bodies, organizations, and we all need to focus and rebuild a foundation.
Question #2: Will any of the big money’d pro efforts become long-term sustainable?
This past week, the Pro Triathletes Organization announced it had secured $30M in a Series B round, led by a Luxembourg private equity fund Divergent, Warner Bros., and the original investor Welsh billionaire Michael Moritz. (This was, apparently, on top of money earlier this year from a health investment firm and also from Moritz. Presumably, now that the investment deals have been signed off, we can expect the actual announcements of the new races for 2023.)
A lot of people are making a lot of the fact that Warner Bros. wants in on live sports, because everyone wants in on live sports, it’s typically high-ROI programming (ie. cheap-ish to produce with the potential to get a lot of eyeballs) and there’s a proven niche long tail audience for extreme adventure-y sports stuff. But, I would remind everyone Celebrity Jeopardy is also airing hour-long shows (with reruns) for a multi-week tournament because that’s even cheaper for an even higher ROI, so.
The PTO has been an absolute lifeline for the sport the last few years. They’ve funded entire athletes’ budgets and they could ultimately move the sport from moderately mass participation to actual spectator. But. It’s time for the org to move into a sustainable model now. Marquee events. Higher quality broadcasts for a larger audience. Athletes’ voices for an athlete org and less middle management overhead. Financial plans that get out of the red. A model that can ultimately support itself. It’s not there yet, but it’ll need to be on track to there by the end of 2023. Fingers crossed.
When it comes to a financially sustainable model, Super League has actually been proving itself and is building a very clear, specific product on multiple revenue streams: broadcasting & advertising, hosting fees, and VIP & corporate experiences.
When it comes to a broadcast product, CLASH has actually been carving out the best product and a spot for itself with a very clear domestic festival contained model.
So which survives?
I know it sounds weird to care in the wake of point #1 (we have to build a grassroots racing foundation). But it matters because, at the same time you need to have small local youth races at the pool and low-key events with camping, you also need to have big money, top-end, real professional sports. You need pick-up basketball games and the NBA in order to build a robust ecosystem.
Question #3: Will the new generation of pros (and equipment and rules and events) change the sport for the better?
Photo: Patrick McDermott / Getty Images for IRONMAN
Pick a race this year and it was clear a new generation is here. Kona records fell. Youngsters dominated across distances, without traditional limitations. Athletes tried new schedules and equipment.
Ultimately, the rules on that equipment will have to be firmed up and formalized. There will have to be standardization across all those big pro money races. We can’t be a real fancy big sport while we’re making things up as we go. The issue will be forced in the coming year or two.
But, when it comes to the new ideas, the new training models, the new types of athletes, there’s no going back now. There was something the Ironman CEO said when we talked with him the evening of the split World Championship announcement: As far as he was concerned, when it came to a dedicated women’s race and equal spots for the growing demographic, that ship has sailed, that argument is over.
Can you win the Olympics and Ironman in the same year? Can you win Kona as a long-distance “rookie?” Can you do things that we used to think weren’t possible? That ship has sailed, that argument is over.
Question #4: Will triathlon figure out what it wants to be?
Look, this is a bit more existential but. One of the things that became clear the last three years was that our sport is not (or can not be) defined solely by finish lines. To take the basketball analogy, you can shoot hoops, play HORSE, or mess around on a court without being a part of a formal league. To make the analogy simpler: you can be a runner without races.
Yet, when triathlon goes too far in the other direction, too undefined by finish lines, it becomes simply synonymous with fitness. This is also wrong. We are very fit (in a mass generalized sense), but we are not fitness. I do not want to read Women’s Fitness.
I think, as a super big broad question, triathlon is still grappling with this, with whether it is a sport defined by its competition, a training regime defined by its workouts and participation, or a multisport adventure defined by its lifestyle. My theory has long been that multisport means multiple sports, that this future generation we talk about wants to do lots of different things and also triathlon things, that it’s hard to define “our sports” but we know them when we see them. I know my friends do running races and ultras, a Swimrun or two, some gravel and fondo rides, Crossfit here or there, cross-country skiing or backcountry or whatever it’s called when you hike up and ski down. They climb and hike and race when it’s time to race.
I think this is the future of triathlon, if we want triathlon to look like the future. I think the sport is very much at a crossroads right now right here, in many ways, and it could become huge and well-funded and a giant umbrella. Or it could not.
Anyone who says they know which will happen is lying to you.
Mark your calendar
We’ll return with races and results in the new year, but in the meantime...
The CLASH Daytona show will air on NBC on Dec. 31 at 4 p.m. ET.
Photo: Eric Bakke/CLASH Endurance
The rest of the news that makes up the “ish” in triathlonish. Things I think you want to know about, and also things I just think are interesting this week.
About five years ago when I wrote that climate change was going to be a growing problem for race directors and athletes because it would cancel races and limit training days, people were…skeptical. Well. It’s true. And last week, I talked to an event insurance provider who was unequivocal about the growing challenge of race cancellation coverage. Now, the New York Triathlon is moving to October for just that reason. Are summer races going to become a thing of the past? (Triathlete/New York Times)
At first I was confused by the email announcing Ironman’s new North American challenges, but it appears to be a fancy name for you can get an extra medal (or prize?) if you do a 70.3 and full under one of their challenge themes—ie. both Texas races, etc. (Ironman)
Lucy Charles-Barclay also announced her own team/community, which appears to be a training program and club using the Kollektiv app—an app founded (and fundraised) by Helle Frederiksen. Of note, in the FAQs: “Due to their focus and how busy their training and life schedule is, you should not expect Lucy and Reece to be answering the support questions you might have. The performance team of experts will answer at the earliest opportunity.” (Kollektiv/SportTechie)
I hear some big announcements of race date and locations you’ve been asking about are coming the first week of January.
Speaking of events, The Tempo has an interesting idea about World Tri owning its own events. I think they probably shouldn’t get fully into the event operation business—they’re a governing body first and foremost—but I do think there’s an argument to have half the races (the non-rotating ones) be established marquee repeating races. (The Tempo)
The 2024 Olympic track and field standards were released last week. They are quite hard. The goal is to qualify half the athletes via the standards and half via the world rankings, and in case you were wondering, no, no one understands the world rankings—but we do all understand that there could very much be a complicated situation where qualifying athletes at the U.S. Olympic Trials don’t actually qualify for the Olympics. (Instagram/Olympics)
Triathlete looks at the recent rash of pro retirements. Fun fact: I actually wanted to do a whole series about the pandemic retirements called The Lost Years. (Triathlete)
And they have the list of their most popular stories of the year. (Triathlete)
Does running have a drinking problem? See also: triathlon. At this point, we actually know the health consequences of alcohol—even limited alcohol—fairly clearly. The question is simply if we care. (Runner’s World/Triathlete)
Your weekly reminder that U.S. cars are statistically bigger and more dangerous than they used to be: passing space has shrunk. (Bicycling)
Having your heart broken by our sports is a privilege. Will you care enough to try that hard, or will you give yourself an out? (She also wrote one of my all-time favorite things anyone has ever written about trying and losing on the biggest stage.) (Youtube/Wall Street Journal)
What is the toughest sport? (Outside)
One last thing
If you have to commute to work anyway, why not triathlon to work.
Regarding the “challenges,” is this really new or just new to North America? Back when IM Switzerland was in Zürich, before moving to Thun, you’d get a special third participant award if you also did the Rapperswil 70.3 (basically at the opposite end of Lake Zürich). I wasn’t aware or didn’t recall this benefit/feature before being asked if I did Rapperswil at IM, wherein they gave me another sticker to flag that I was to get the additional medal at the end.
Um ... Question #4 ... what are you actually saying here?
The future of tri should look like .... swimrun x skimo?