Pro Triathletes: Some Lessons and Learnings from TBI

Pro triathletes, let me tell you something that isn’t much of a secret: your value proposition is under attack from the triathlon industry.

Take, for instance, John Cobb. Here’s a guy who’s been all over the place in the industry, now one of the more successful saddle manufacturers in the game. His words with regards to professional triathletes: “I can take my budget that I’d set aside for pros, and use it on age-groupers instead, and get more sales out of it AND be more likely to have someone stop by our booth at an expo and at least say hi and thank you, which most of my pros never did.”


Greg Bennett, meanwhile, a guy who’s been towards the top of the sport for a long-time, had this to say about the current class of ‘elite’ athletes: “There are maybe 10 to 12 ‘elite’ athletes that I would consider to be ‘professionals’ right now.”

Ouch. This is a guy that should be on your side.

Look, budgets are getting tighter these days. We’ve been flat in USAT membership for the past few years, and the dollars gain most people are talking about for the industry tends to be coming from price increases as compared to actual new dollars and members entering the sport. This means now, more than ever, you need to be proving yourself worthy of sponsorship and prize money.

This isn’t tied directly to performance, either. Look at the proliferation of age-group teams. We’ve seen an explosion of these groups (and yes, in the interest of disclosure, TRS Racing is theoretically one of them). Why are these groups growing so much as compared to sponsoring professional athletes?

In part, there’s some simple stuff that gets done. Greg Bennett: “Stick around for the awards ceremony. Track down the race director post-race. Say thank you. Thank staff. Be polite, and show that you’re just as invested in the success of the event as the people putting it on.” This isn’t rocket science, folks. And from my experience working at Rev3, I can tell you: some of you are very good at this: Trevor and Heather Wurtele. Richie Cunningham.

And then there’s Andrew Starykowicz. A story from Rev3 Florida 2013: it’s the Saturday before the race. It’s hot and humid as hell in Venice. The pro panel had wrapped up, and people are starting to mingle and get ready for the next day. Where’s Starky? Walking around the expo, saying hi to the staff, and then taking the kids of the head timer over to the Kids Zone to play in the bouncy house for a half hour. He made a lot of fans that day, not just of the staff, but of the general public as well. Mix in his prickly social media personality and his race performances, and you have somebody who warrants some dollars.

There are, in Bennett’s opinion, three questions you should ask yourself as a professional athlete with any aspect of your career, whether it is in your performance on course or in the outreach and marketing you do for your sponsors:

  • Did I entertain?
  • Did I educate?
  • Did I inspire?

You need to find your voice when talking with brands and races about this. Show what your entertainment, education, or inspirational value is. It’s not enough to just perform on the course. There’s 520+ elite card holders in the US alone. You need to be memorable for at least one of those three questions.

Additionally, another source of consternation came from Dan Empfield and a few other race directors: namely, “I’ll know what professional athletes are at my race when I get down to the beach race morning and see who’s on the starting line 10 seconds before the gun goes off.” There are a few of you that will put yourself on 3-4 start lists per weekend. That’s simply not acceptable for any member of the industry. It hurts your own individual brand because you’ve broken your word that you’ll race at these people’s races. It hurts your sponsors, because they look bad by sponsoring someone who doesn’t honor their commitments. And it hurts the press, and sites like this, when we’re trying to figure out race coverage and start lists for Fantasy Triathlon.

Look, I get it: you sign up for races earlier in the year, and then decide where you’re going to go. But take the extra effort to ensure that you’re deleting yourself off of start lists. And if a race director isn’t taking you off their list? Be sure to call them out for it. This professionalism aspect runs both ways.

A Word About the Professional Triathlon Union

A major source of frustration across the entire weekend was the lack of presence by the Professional Triathlon Union. Rich Allen had been invited to speak on the legal issues panel, but declined; he was replaced by Mr. Bennett. 

This is the largest collection of industry members outside of Interbike. You have Andrew Messick appearing, who wound up having a long conversation with Tri-Equal President Sara Gross. (Aside: as it turns out, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is very pro-50 Women to Kona and has advised as much. Who knew?) You have the head of Challenge. You have the former producer of the Life Time series. You have the heads of major sponsors. And yet you decide, “nah, I’m not going to go.” This was THE opportunity to wind up starting to have conversations about what you seek to accomplish, and it was discarded.

Meanwhile, at the conference, Bennett revealed that he had been asked to be a member of the Board, but when given the name of the group, he decided against joining: “I’m not a socialist.” This is a name issue that has been echoed by Jan Frodeno, among other athletes.

First and foremost: it’s not a labor union. It can’t be, because professional triathletes are independent contractors and labor unions are for employer/employee relationships. (And trust me, you don’t want to be an employee in this scenario.) We’ve established that if anything, PTU is a trade organization. That being said, a name change needs to happen here. Calling it a “union” when by definition you can’t be one creates a host of confusion among members and potential members. Calling it, say, APT (Association of Professional Triathletes) would eliminate confusion as to what the organization is and can be, which then allows you to start managing expectations of what you can accomplish and what you can’t.

The biggest question seems to be: what kind of bargaining power might PTU have? When it doesn’t show up to the table, it obviously has none. But even if it had: what can it do? If a race director doesn’t follow an ask from PTU, will it advise members to boycott? Will PTU enforce that boycott?

So What Should You Do?

I’d advise first to stay the hell away from the PTU until they figure out that they need a name change and come to the final realization of what they can be. That and once they figure out their conflict of interest issue with regard to Rich Allen being an agent and head of PTU. 

Secondly: start thinking in terms of Bennett’s three keys–how can you inspire, educate, or entertain? Some of you do well with social media. Some of you do well in-person with events. Figure out the best mix for you, and then start selling that into your sponsors and race directors.

Third: be polite. Talk with race directors. Let them know that you care about how well the entire event went off. Stay through final finisher every once in a while. Remember the community aspect of this sport that likely got you into it in the first place. 

About the Author

Ryan Heisler
Ryan Heisler is a digital marketing specialist with a specific focus on search engine, social media, and content marketing. He is also a veteran of the specialty running and triathlon industry, having spent a decade managing stores in New England and the mid-Atlantic. He is also a former sports talk radio host at WERS-FM in Boston and holds a law degree from the University of Maine School of Law.