#69: What the data says
But what does your heart say?
issue #69: Jan. 10, 2024
All-sporters, I’m currently in Boston visiting my sister after Endurance Exchange this past weekend—which I wrote up some fun takeaways from for our paying subscribers. (More on the conference in a second.) And I swear the start of this year has been just a little more 🤯 than I would like.
I’ve also been finishing up reading our Book Club book for this quarter, Out of Thin Air, which is all about the world of Ethiopian distance running. We’ll have a Q&A with the author for paying subscribers on Jan. 16.
A reminder: In order to do the audio version of this newsletter for paying subscribers (just for their convenience), there’s a break/paywall at the bottom now. If you want to listen to me talk—possibly soon with background music—then subscribe.
And, if you were at Endurance Exchange and I didn’t give you one of my little ‘all sports, no balls’ bottle opener magnets, find me at the next event and I’ll be sure to get you one!
Every trend has an end—good and bad
Last month, this historic fancy gym/club that my husband used to belong to in Sacramento closed for good. It seemed a little odd at first: They survived the worst of the pandemic, people are mostly back at gyms (certainly not at peak numbers but back enough), and it’s fitness’s big time of year anyway. But the reality is: The gym got too deep in the hole the last few years, they were banking on people coming back more than they did, and then the place was the victim of things that aren’t ever going to come back (more remote workers in an office-focused gym location).
This is both a metaphor and an actual practical lesson. It’s basically what happened to TriBike Transport, too.
I was thinking about this during Endurance Exchange. (Not because anyone’s going out of business! Chill out.) But because the reality is: A number of the big players (Ironman, USA Triathlon) are still struggling with budget holes from the last three years, triathlon is coming back (maybe it’s even back back), but some things are never going to be as they once were. So it’s time now to adapt or go under.
Endurance Exchange is an odd mix of people. It’s mostly coaches and race directors, and then the brands trying to sell to them. But I go for the trends, both what’s coming in training (continuous lactate monitors) and what’s coming for all of us (pickleball).
To that end, the annual State of the Sport survey was presented on Sunday—and it has useful marketing and pricing info for race directors and coaches. It’s primarily a consumer trend report—what triathletes spend ($5,467/year on ave.), how many triathlons they plan to do this year (4.0), what percentage of them have coaches (22%) and how much they spend on a coach ($203/monthly on ave.)—with details by segmentation. Of course, there’s an argument to be made that median pricing would be more useful than average price and that you need to really break it down geographically for race directors. But, as a consumer trend index (which is what it is in essence) it does what it does. [BTW, if you came to Endurance Exchange, you can get that full report sent to you, which should help you with pricing and marketing and business modeling, etc]
My issue, in terms of extrapolation about where the sports is, is one of selection bias. While email surveys are generally acceptable practice now in polling, it’s all a question of who gets the emails and who responds. Think of it this way: There was a time when political polling oversampled for phone land lines, and who has a land line tended to skew older and more conservative, and so that sample was not representative of the general electorate. By extension, in our trend report here, the question has to be: Are there distinct unifying characteristics of those who chose not to respond out of the universe of USAT members and lapsed members? Is there something obvious we’re missing about people who could be triathletes but are not captured here?
I’d speculate that the people who didn’t respond are probably slightly less optimistic and less engaged than those who did.
It’s that missing piece that prompted another presentation at the conference: On the actual data in terms of finishers, finishes, finishers/event, number of events. If you take that data what you find is the number of total triathlon finishes in the U.S. peaked around 2012 with just over 650,000, and the actual number of finishers (ie. people) peaked around 2014 with just about 176,000. It’s been on a steady decline since then: Down to 112,000 finishers pre-COVID. And yes, that dropped off a cliff during the pandemic (15,000 finishers in 2020!), but it’s mostly back now to 2015/16 levels: 161,000 finishers in 2023.
However, looking now at my notes from the presentation: Finishers v. finishes. It was only about 250,000 finishes in 2023. That would mean the number of events each individual triathlete did was fewer this past year. It would also mean that, if you’re counting an event weekend that has a bunch of different races as one event, then some of those “finishes” are coming from a duathlon/aquabike/relay/kids race where there used to just be a triathlon.
That’s a lot of numbers, but it basically looks like this:
There’s a lot of detail in the weeds: Full distances are far more volatile and dropped more during the pandemic, non-IM branded halves may be coming back now, sprints are small but can be feeder races for your bigger events, the demographic data doesn’t necessarily support the idea that the problem is young people left (they were never here!), and the average number of athletes per event has stayed moderately consistent around 350-400.
Mostly though, the data supported one overwhelming fact: When there are races, it creates new triathletes. When races go away, so do the new triathletes. Which makes sense.
I don’t know what this means yet in terms of THE FUTURE OF THE SPORT. Other than that the numbers say the fancy gym my husband went to should be on its way to OK, yet the gym still closed. And more gyms will also close if they don’t rethink how they’re positioned and who they market to and who they’re not marketing to and what consumer behavior is now that’s not going back and why.
An aside: There’s also clearly a business need to help people do this. As in, coaches know how to coach but they don’t necessarily know how to make money from coaching. Repeat ad nauseam for almost all endurance businesses. Feisty put on a business accelerator the day before the conference for 40 women—and there’s very much a need for this.
The season has started! (Sorta)
Pucon 70.3: It’s always hard for me to think of this as the “start” of the season, but here we are. Something started for someone somewhere. Good for Sam Long with the win (even though his watch broke! how do you possibly go on!) and congrats to Marta Sanchez for her first Ironman brand win.
Enter the Precision Fuel & Hydration contest to be one of their next case studies—which will give you the chance to work one-on-one with their sports scientist on what works and what doesn’t for you (and some other prizes). I’d recommend working through their planner yourself, too, but the case study treatment will help you if you’re really trying to figure things out. And get 15% off your first order here.
Things from our sports you should know about this week.
For no reason at all, we’re going to lead with Haley Chura’s Disney Dopey Challenge. Four days with four races: a 5K, 10K, half-marathon (which got shortened for weather), and a full. She won the first three and then ran a 2:55 marathon! (Instagram)
The Ironman World Champs doc is now officially on Youtube, so everyone can watch it even if you don’t have Outside Watch. For Youtube they broke it up into five episodes instead of one two-hour & 40-minute show—which was probably a much better call. (Youtube)
One of the ads in the show, which has also been getting a lot of ad play on Facebook *and* I got an athlete email about it, announces “new and improved athlete swag for 2024.” FYI. (Facebook)
Reminder: WADA’s new prohibited list went into effect on Jan. 1. The major changes are listed here, which include a ban on tramadol and that you can now donate plasma at a registered donation site (ie. like for donation to a hospital for medical use). (WADA)
WADA is also fighting with the Spanish anti-doping agency, and releasing statements that it did not ignore any positives. (Reuters)
Macca is the latest interview on the Super League podcast. (Apple Podcasts)
Apparently, Daniel Baekkegard also has an on-and-off podcast called DB Talks. (Youtube)
And I can not be the only one who didn’t realize Jonny Brownlee got engaged last year! Congratulations! (Instagram)
Speaking of podcasts, there is now a Norwegian Method Podcast. Much anticipated I’m sure. Though I am increasingly appreciating the “Norwegian method” jokes. Except, I guess, I’m not sure this one is a joke entirely. (Spotify/Instagram)
I’ve also been thinking more and more about the “Ethiopian method” as I’ve been reading this quarter’s Book Club book. (Triathlonish)
It sounds like the selected athletes have PTO Tour contracts in hand for this year, but the PTO just haven’t announced the slate of races publicly yet. Soon!
Relatedly, Taylor Knibb said at Endurance Exchange she won’t be doing Nice, but will be focusing on PTO Tour races and defending her 70.3 world titles. And, while no one else has confirmed plans yet, it sounds like Lucy Charles-Barclay is also leaning towards PTO Tour right now.
If this deep dive on how to fix tennis sounds familiar it’s because you can just substitute “triathlon” for “tennis.” (The Athletic)
Memphis for May triathlon is for sale. (Endurance Sportswire)
Daniela Ryf added some fancy Breitling watches to her big fundraiser. (VIPrize)
On the 2024 sponsor watch: Gwen Jorgensen signed with Canyon for this year. (Youtube)
Lots of sponsor shake-ups in running. But maybe the biggest is Courtney Frerichs left Bowerman (a deep cut IG parody here) and Emma Bates is out for the Olympic Marathon Trials. (Fast Women/Instagram)
The list of U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials athletes is up. The selection criteria has also been updated, though, and it's more than possible we won't actually know who's fully qualified on the men’s side for months. (Orlando2024/Twitter)
It was 200 days out from the Paris Olympics this week, and did you know it’s not even totally clear to me if Russian athletes are going to be allowed. Technically, individual athletes are allowed under a neutral flag and if they haven’t expressed support for the war (how will that be determined?). It’s also, apparently, still not clear (not just to me, but to everyone) who actually won the last team ice skating gold medal because of the Russian doping mess. (Wall Street Journal/USA Today)
In better news: Here are the current triathletes officially qualified. (220 Triathlon)
You can check out the Strava trends report to see what changed in activities and uploads last year. Key ones: Trail running up, gravel riding up a lot; climate change causing increasing problems for workouts; women more likely than men to not workout because of concerns about safety and men cited “household responsibilities” more frequently—which raises a lot of questions, like maybe women don’t even consider working out as an option over household responsibilities? (Strava)
More runners are doing ultramarathons into their 70s and 80s. (The Guardian)
Cambridge mandated separate bike lanes and it worked—but only once they started paying attention to the connections too. Nothing’s worse than a bike lane dumping you out into high-speed traffic. (Velo)
UC Berkeley swim coach, Teri McKeever (who was also the first woman to serve as head coach for the U.S. swim team at the Olympics), was suspended for three months by SafeSport following an investigation into emotional abuse. (San Francisco Chronicle)
And this is just weird: Maybe everyone knew this, but I didn’t—apparently tiny religious schools get paid decent money by bigger schools to basically be an easy early season game (and win). (Wall Street Journal)