Nine Ironman races and eleven 70.3 races will no longer feature a pro prize purse; money being redirected to pay ten deep with larger prize purses at select races. WTC also officially announces separate Kona start for age-group women for this year’s Ironman world championship.
On the eve of the inaugural Ironman Boulder, World Triathlon Corporation CEO Andrew Messick announced major changes to the start schedule at this year’s Ironman world championship in Kailua-Kona, and outlined a redistribution of pro prize money for 2015.
“The growth of our business and the number of races in the past six to nine months has caused us to take a fairly fundamental relook at a couple of aspects of our business,” said Messick. More than 200,000 registered athletes from 88 countries will have raced a WTC event 2014. Between Ironman and 70.3, there are now 110 events spanning six continents and 27 countries.
“As we’ve put new races around the world and started to tap into a new pool of athletes, the combination of growth in existing events, and the addition of new events and territories has caused a fairly substantial increase in the overall quality of athletes at the Ironman world championship,” explained Messick.
This concentration of highly talented triathletes in Kona creates a density issue in the swim that has repercussions on the bike. Messick offered these statistics to show the scale of the “extraordinary” density issue: “At our peak exit into Transition 1 in 2013, we had 1,170 athletes get out of the water in a 15-minute period, including just under 500 athletes getting out of the water in one 5-minute period.”
If you put 500 athletes onto a bike course in five minutes, there’s no way you can maintain a 12-meter gap between them, he explained.
“The other manifestation of this particular [athlete density] issue is it has profoundly influenced the female age-group race in that strong female swimmers are able to link into very strong packs, be able to get strong drafts on the swim, be able to exit out of the water and get onto the bike course with large groups of men,” he said.
In an effort to spread out the front of the race to create a fairer dynamic for the female age-group competition, there will be a separate age-group women’s start at this year’s world championship on October 11. Pro men will start at 6:25am, then pro women will go at 6:30, then age-group men at 6:50, and age-group women will start at 7.
“We believe that by separating the age groups we will decrease the density, spread out the bike course and give women an opportunity to have the cleanest race that we can provide them within the constraints that we have,” said Messick. “The constraints that we have are when it gets light enough to start the race, a midnight finish, and a 17-hour race. We’re committed to those three constraints.”
The next announcement related to changes to the pro prize structure for Ironman’s 1,100 professional athletes in 2015.
Messick said that what has been very clear as they have introduced new races is that they have been disproportionately in September and October. (He sited Ironman Lake Tahoe, Barcelona, Malaysia, Chattanooga and Mallorca.)
“What we are increasingly coming to believe is that we are over-fragmenting our prize purses and putting too much of our prize money into periods of time when we don’t have Kona qualifying athletes competing,” said Messick. “In 2015 we will have nine North American Ironman races that will not have prize purses and will not have pro points and will not be races in which professionals can validate for Kona.”
Those Ironman races with no pro prize money are Boulder, Louisville, Wisconsin, Maryland, Lake Tahoe, Florida, Muskoka, Los Cabos and Lake Placid.
In addition, 11 70.3 races will be purely age-group only races, with no prize purse or points, and no validation for 70.3 worlds. Those races are Steelhead, Lake Stevens, Muskoka, Lake Tahoe, Augusta, Haines City, Honu, Boise, Victoria and Syracuse.
All prize money that is being removed from those races is being redirected into larger prize purses at the races where there will be pro prize purses. “This is a redistribution, and we are committed to the overall levels of professional prize purses,” said Messick. In 2015, Ironman will award 5.1 million of total pro prize purse money, up 3.7 percent from 2014.
Messick said that this money redistribution will allow Ironman to shift prize money to earlier races in the season (May, June and July).
“What we believe this will do—and this is not a byproduct, this is by intent—we believe this will concentrate more of the $5.1 million in prize money into the hands of the most successful, most competitive athletes,” said Messick. “We think that on a philosophical basis, the people who are winning and competing at the highest level and performing well at important races are the ones who should secure a larger share of the pro prize money. We feel that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction recently partly because we kept adding races and every time we added a race we put a prize purse behind it.
We feel that people that are successful, who win regional championships, who perform well in Kona are the people who deserve it. [Those who have] have the potential to be leveraged from a sponsorship perspective and from a media perspective, have the potential to be maximally relevant to our host communities, to our age-group athletes are the people who are competing at a high level at elite races. We want their earning opportunity to be as strong as we can possibly make it.”
When asked if the removal of prize purse money at certain events is likely affect registration at those races (due to the appeal of racing with pros), Messick said he feels the extraordinary age-group demand at these late-season races will sustain registration numbers. “There’s great resonance among age-group athletes to be able to do their Ironman in late September, October and even November because it gives them the summer to be able to train. We see over-demand from the age-group perspective late in the season and [that] is the time when the charismatic, high performing athlete is not going to race—[those athletes] are not going to those races. Prize purses at those [late-season] races is not going to go to the top 55 men and top 35 women going to Kona. We think it is better for the sport to support the livings of the people who are going to be competing. The money is getting shifted forward in the calendar year.”
Ironman regional championship races (4,000 point races) will offer a $150,000 prize purse and will pay ten deep. The North American championship will shift in 2015 from Ironman Mont-Tremblant to Ironman Texas (August to May). Ironman will add a yet-to-be-announced continental championship race in 2015 and that will be early in the season, in addition to Ironman Melbourne in March, Texas in May, Brazil (Florianopolis)will become a championship race, and the last championship race will be in Frankfurt in July.
All Ironman 70.3 races with a prize purse of $75,000-$100,000 will pay ten deep.
“This is a conscious decision to get the best athletes in the biggest races and to provide an incentive to more of those guys to show up, because even if you have a bad day you can still get a paycheck,” said Messick.
There will still be late-season races that offer a payday for pros (Ironman Chattanooga and Malaysia). 70.3 Barcelona and Mallorca will still have a pro prize purse, as will 70.3 Mont-Tremblant.
All winners of regional championships (Melbourne, Brazil, Frankfurt, Texas, plus the one other race to be named later) automatically qualify for Kona. Those spots don’t count against the 35 and 50 existing pro Kona slots for women and men, respectively.
Earlier this week, Messick and other Ironman reps met with a group of female triathletes in Boulder, and the issue of gender disparity with pro Kona slots was a topic of discussion. “The women we talked to were not at all focused on the number [of Kona slots], they just wanted it to be the same,” said Messick. “They didn’t particularly care if it was 55 and 55 or 40 and 40 or 30 and 30. They just thought that as a matter of fundamental fairness that the number should be the same. So we’re going to look at that for 2015. But that might result in fewer men. We will start that particular process not with an absolute ingoing assumption that we need to raise the [number of women's slots to match the men's] but rather [asking] what is the right number of professional athletes that should be starting at the world championship.”
Messick said that they don’t entirely understand how the redistribution of KPR points/prize purse money will affect the pro field for Kona next year, “because all of a sudden you’re shrinking the number of races that have points—by a lot—and you’re concentrating the number of athletes that will be racing against one another, so how that manifests itself within the KPR system—it’s something we just don’t know at this point. It may result in the same people qualifying for Kona or not. We really don’t know at this point.”
With other race organizers like Life Time and Challenge offering increasingly lucrative prize purses, Messick acknowledges that “if you put on a race with an enormous prize purse, you’re going to get a spectacular field,” also citing the recent pro fields at Hy-vee. “We expect that [Challenge Bahrain, with its half-million prize purse] will have a fantastic pro field. The trick is not to do it, the trick is to keep on doing it. We’re relatively conservative about what we feel in the long term is sustainable for a business. Building a triathlon business requires vibrant age-group racing. Spending a lot of money on professional triathletes—for that being able to work in the long term—you’ve gotta be able to connect the pro race with vibrant age-group racing and that has not been consistently achieved over the years.”
Ultimately, Messick thinks that significantly bigger prize purses will help elevate the stature of the sport: “I believe that our top tier professional triathletes should be more famous than they are, should make more money that they do and they should have a higher profile among the media, among host cities and age-group athletes. They should be more relevant. How we do that is something that collectively we’ve yet to figure out. But we would like it to happen.”