Is Triathlon Recession Proof?

We’ve been in the midst of this great American recession for going on five years now, and yet multisport events are seemingly on a growth curve resembling Apple’s sales figures following the release of a new iPhone.

It seems as if new races and race series are popping up everywhere.

WTC has expanded like two horny rabbits in the last three or four years.  Rev3 Tri has gone from one race to nine.  HITS is coming into the marketplace in 2012.  The Challenge series has grown.  WTC created the 5150 series (well…”created” is a term used lightly as this series was wrought from acquisition and partnership activity).  Countless local races have sprouted all over the country.

Let’s face it, our sport offers a pretty unique value stream.  Revenues are seemingly high.  Attendance is generally trending up.  Membership in USAT is on a growth track.  Triathlon couldn’t be subjected to the perils of a downtrodden economy.

Or could it?

While lead news items typically include only announcements of new and exciting races and venues, what gets lost – and perhaps buried – is the fact that race cancellations are not unheard of.  Certainly, WTC’s cancellation of the season-ending 5150 race in Clearwater, FL ranks as the biggest cancellation of the year, it’s just the veritable tip of the iceberg.

Many races get canceled.  Often they are canceled for weather or permitting issues, but just as frequently they are canceled due to low turnout – as was the Clearwater 5150 race.  Just this fall, races such as the Cunningham Falls Sprint in Maryland, the Minnesota State Mankato Tri, and the Battle at Midway (Utah) were canceled – at least in part due to low registration numbers.

The cancellations beg the question – what’s the driving force of low registrations?  If triathlon is the holy grail of endurance sports, why would we ever have the need to cancel races?  Given the growth we’ve seen in this sport over the past decade, have we finally reached market saturation?  Could the relative shortness of our racing calendar (at least in some states) be a contributing factor?  To what extent have high registration fees played a role? 

I don’t personally think that our sport is at a precipice.  That said, I do think that the industry of triathlon – specifically the industry of putting on triathlon races – is due for a paradigm shift.  And, unfortunately for a lot of folks, I think the shift will be one that some folks won’t be happy with.  I firmly believe that we’ll see several large race series begin to separate themselves from the pack.  Companies such as Rev3 and Challenge – and regional companies such as SetUp Inc., will continue to grow.  Organic growth will reign for some companies; others will adopt an acquisition model similar to what WTC has done for the better part of this decade. 

The challenge for race organizers will be to provide the highest value for the consumer’s dollar.  The best race experience, good locations, challenging courses, activities for families and spectators, and reasonably priced entry fees will be among the key differentiators between success and failure of a race, and ultimately whether a race goes on as planned or is subject to cancellation.

So is our sport recession proof?  Perhaps as an industry the answer to that question is yes.  I suspect, however, that on the ones, the answer is less clear.  Just ask any athlete who had signed up to race in Clearwater.  Or at Cunningham Falls.  Or the Battle at Midway.

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4 thoughts on “Is Triathlon Recession Proof?

  1. Remember when Tiger Woods took the PGA Tour by fire? Everyone started to play golf and course, both public and private, were popping up everywhere and they were all doing well and tee times were hard to get!

    Well, that all ended as all these courses over saturated the market. Many of them failed/went bankrupt and the number of golf courses is dramatically down since mid-2000’s.

    Triathlon is extremely popular right now but it too will one day reach it’s saturation point, just as golf courses did. The really good organizations like Rev3 will be left standing and the other will eventually fade. We just aren’t sure if we reached that saturation point yet and probably will not know for a few years until after it happens?

  2. First, endurance sports is the new mid life crisis thing to do

    Second, the ecomony still has something to say about these races, OK, I know that WTC IM events sell out usually in a 24 hour span, thats the exception. But people sign up for these races based on race fees. I am spoiled in Ohio with sprints costing $50, Oly $65-75 and HIMS $100, why would I spend $200 on a olypmic race fee for ONE race when I can race 3-4 times else where. I think the longer the distance, the more likely people are willing to shell out a couple extra $$$ to race.

    Plus, in my opinion, in the near future, WTC will sell the 5150 races

  3. I’d be curious to see what the Tri-related sales figures are on new equipment. I may be racing, but I’m not in the market for anything new. Although I wish…

  4. I think Jeff is right. Currently, triathlon is the “in” thing to do.. It isn’t going away, but I think some races eventually will once the market is saturated.

    I also read somewhere that in tough economic times, people turn to sport (see the late 70’s/early 80’s running boom).

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