Is Triathlon Recession Proof by Pete Wilson for USAT
Posted Dec 09 2008 9:03pm
This story, published today, was written for USAT Triathlon by Pete Wilson.
In it he asks the question: Is Triathlon Recession Proof?
The answer from USAT: Yes, according to their analysis people will continue spending money on racing and training, but you can read the rest---
"With virtually every aspect of the U.S. economy reeling, it figures
that an expensive participant sport fueled by discretionary income
would feel the pinch.
That’s not the case, at least not yet, according to an informal
survey of race directors across the country. If anything, the boom the
sport has experienced in recent years continues despite the economic
In fact, USA Triathlon, the national governing body for the sport,
saw its list of sanctioned races grow from 2,340 to over 2,500 and its
total annual membership soar from just over 100,000 to 115,000 over the
In September, no less a source than The New York Times hinted that
the sport was recession-proof, calling it “a luxury hobby that does not
seem to lose its luster even in an economic downturn.”
“In tough times, people need a diversion more than ever,” says Jim
Rainey, whose Georgia Multisports Productions stages nine races in the
Peach State. “At $65 or $75, it’s still a cheap day of entertainment.”
Because of the triathlon boom in recent years, athletes in most
parts of the country can find plenty of races within driving distance.
Without hotel and transportation costs, expenses consist of entry fees
and training costs. Those are significant, to be sure, but still
“If an athlete can get in the car and go and not incur hotel fees,
they’re still going to go,” says Jack Weiss, whose Ironhead Race
Productions stages events in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “But if they
have to get on a plane where tickets have doubled in price and then pay
for a hotel, they’re going to think twice.”
In the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, for instance, athletes can find at
least one race virtually every weekend from mid-April through
Halloween. Only the popular St. Anthony’s Triathlon, which serves as a
sort of national kickoff to the season, attracts a significant
percentage of athletes from out of town.
“We continue to sell out fairly quickly,” says Fred Rzymek, whose
RPM Promotions company stages three triathlons and several other
multi-sport events in the Tampa Bay area. “If anything, we’re finding
people are staying home and that has a positive impact on races
Rainey staged a sold-out event in Georgia on Oct. 5 that followed on
the heels of a tropical storm that sent gas prices up to $4.50 a gallon
and yet he still had athletes trying to get in at the last minute. He
figures he could have sold an additional 100 spots to the race, which
he capped at 880.
Jeremey Davis, whose Set-Up Events stages races in the mid-Atlantic
area, held a triathlon recently in the remote town of McCormick, S.C.,
on the border of South Carolina and Georgia, and attracted 115
college-aged athletes in a field of 600.
“You’d think if anyone wouldn’t have money, it would be college
athletes,” Davis said. “It doesn’t seem to be affecting anyone.
Triathletes are a resilient group, I guess.”
If any niche of the industry would be affected by the economy, it
would seem to be Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races. With entry fees that
average $475 for an Ironman and $225 for a 70.3, and located in
destinations where athletes spend multiple days either out of desire or
necessity, an Ironman is an expensive proposition even in robust
Still, even with Ironman there has been no indication that the
economy has had an impact, says Blair LaHaye, spokesperson for World
Triathlon Corp., the parent company of Ironman, which in September was
purchased by Providence Equity Partners.
Just as sports fans continue to pay escalating ticket costs for
major events, Ironman triathletes seem unfazed by the costs, even as
the number of full- distance and 70.3 races has exploded in recent
“In some respects, it’s a recession-proof sport,” says LaHaye, who
attributes Ironman’s increased entry fees to increased fuel costs and
vendor fees. “We have been fortunate not to see a downturn based on the
state of economy.”
It helps that the Ironman competitors have an average income of
$161,000, according to WTC research, and that triathletes in general
have higher incomes on average than the general population. They’re not
immune to shifts in the economy, of course, just perhaps better
equipped to deal with financial adversity.
Tim Yount, senior vice president of marketing and communications for
USA Triathlon, believes the sport should be able to weather the
“We have been fortunate over the past two decades to be able to
survive several economic slumps,” he says. “Our belief is that the
sport is the outlet that many need to escape from the everyday stresses
of life. People may be more selective in the races they do, drive more
and fly less but overall do the same number of races.”
Weiss wondered how the economy would impact the sport late in 2001
after the burst of the technology stock bubble and the terrorist
attacks of Sept. 11. One of his friends dealt with the loss of a
high-paying job by dedicating himself even more to training and racing.
“He figured since he had the equipment and suddenly had more time to
train, he could use the downtime to see just how good he could be,”
Though the up-front cost to entering the sport of triathlon is
significant, with bike and equipment purchases and perhaps one-on-one
swim lessons for those who need it, triathlon is relatively inexpensive
compared to other sports. Unlike golfers, who must pay greens fees for
every practice round, triathletes can go for a training ride or run for
nothing more than the cost of wear and tear on equipment.
While the economy may not be having an effect on the number of
athletes registering for races, the cost of staging events has never
been greater. Fuel charges for everything from police and emergency
vehicles to pizza delivery have increased. Those costs get passed along
to race directors and ultimately to athletes in the form of higher race
Athletes also tend to be more demanding during tougher economic
times, expecting more out of races. High-end “tech” shirts that were
seen as premium items just a few years ago now are all but expected at
triathlons, as are more extensive post-race spreads.
If athletes are not letting the economy dictate their triathlon
participation, it could be because an “investment” in a race fee or
piece of triathlon equipment rarely leads to disappointment like a
foray into the stock or housing markets. At a time when few investments
seem safe, that’s a comforting thought.
“We can give you something you can hold in your hand,” says Weiss.
“Part of the problem with the stock market is you’re selling hype; it’s
air. In our sport, we give you a real shirt and a real event and real
equipment. At times like these, people fee better spending their money
on triathlon. If nothing else, it’s an escape from reality.”