Finisher numbers in U.S. long-course triathlons are on a dramatic decline.
The graphic below illustrates the change in number of finishers at Ironman 70.3 races year-over-year (YoY) from 2016 to 2017 . The map includes Canada and Mexico to show that finisher numbers in U.S. neighboring countries are actually growing (e.g. Monterrey, Cozumel, and Canada). Meanwhile, U.S. Ironman 70.3 participation dropping with only a few exceptions (e.g. Santa Rosa, Boulder).
Across the board for Ironman 70.3 races, participation is down 9% in the U.S.
Why is this happening? WTC is a huge corporation that takes years to change course (on the other hand, grassroots triathlon races are relatively small operations that can adapt quickly). Here are two areas where Ironman can be beat:
- COST. The average Ironman household income is $247,000 / year. Triathlon can be an expensive sport, but Ironman charges a premium to register for its branded races. Race registration cost is an area where grassroots races can undercut Ironman and still be successful if they find ways to provide a high-quality race experience and bolster registrant numbers.
- ACCESSIBILITY. Long-course racing is a demanding endeavor. Ironman is spread too thin to offer comprehensive coaching that leads to successful completion of its races. Grassroots races, on the other hand, are uniquely poised to partner with volunteer organizations. Those volunteers provide high-quality coaching that leads directly to successful completion of the target race, leaving athletes happy and coming back year after year.
There’s more to the story though. Read on to find out what’s happening with grassroots triathlon, how Ironman is responding to the drop in triathlon participation, and why Ironman’s response is a big deal for the future of the sport.
Are Grassroots Triathlon Races In Decline Too?
Grassroots 70.3 races have also been hit by the decline in triathlete finisher numbers. Luckily these are smaller organizations, capable of adapting quickly to the changing market.
We have compiled data from U.S. non-Ironman branded 70.3 distance races YoY from 2016 and 2017. Among larger grassroots races with 200 – 700 finishers, numbers are down with only a few exceptions (e.g. REV3 Niagara Falls and Williamsburg, Door County Triathlon). Smaller grassroots 70.3 races with 1 – 200 finishers are also experiencing an overall decline, though there is considerable variability in the changes.
Across all grassroots 70.3 races, finisher numbers are down 14%.
Are All the 70.3 Athletes Graduating to the 140.6 Distance?
No. Ironman 140.6 races are not immune to the decline in participation. Of all North America Ironman 140.6 races to date in 2017, only Ironman Chattanooga has experienced robust growth, while five others have declined by 7 – 46%.
What Are the Consequences For The Future of Triathlon?
The bigger story here is that WTC is trying to compensate for the decrease in U.S. triathletes by adding races to their calendar. WTC Ironman has added 5 North America races in each of the last two years. By adding races, Ironman 70.3 participation has grown by over 6,000 finishers – despite the 9% average drop in YoY participation within existing races. That generates extra revenue for WTC, but extra problems for WTC and for triathlon as a sport.
- WTC can’t keep up with expansion. They are spreading resources thin to cover the growing number of races, so race quality suffers. This unfortunately has real world consequences like decreased course safety and inadequate aid stations.
- When new Ironman races come to town, they cut into the business that local grassroots races depend on. That’s what happened in Wisconsin when Ironman 70.3 Racine and Wisconsin were scheduled for June and July to take out Door County Triathlon’s business.
Those grassroots races and their directors are the ones that build a triathlon community. They’re the businesses that put on local sprint and olympic races throughout the year – those races where new athletes learn to love the sport. Without them, how will new triathletes learn the ropes of racing? That’s where our sport grows: from the ground up.
Without realizing it, Ironman is going to push itself out of business and take the sport of down triathlon with it. With any foresight, WTC would pump resources into growing grassroots triathlon businesses that put on sprint and olympic races. Those races are the training grounds for future Ironman athletes.
What Can You Do To Fight The Decline?
These dramatic declines in athlete finisher numbers are daunting, but grassroots triathlon races and athletes are capable of overcoming this challenge. California Triathlon suggests that grassroots race directors and athletes:
- Network with each other to share ideas that have resulted in healthy finisher numbers.
- Commit to making their races affordable, while maintaining race quality.
- Contribute to making triathlon accessible by partnering to provide high-quality coaching and mentoring.
- Promote grassroots races. When’s the last time USAT featured a grassroots race in a news article or press release? You’ve got to find other media outlets for your race.
- Choose to race affordable and accessible long-course triathlons.
Notes: This data is updated from a previous article and accurate through 10/16/17. We use median, rather than average, for U.S. and North America statistics to avoid issues with outliers. For example, IM70.3 Canada is an outlier with 171% growth, skewing the average by about 10%. We use finisher numbers for both Ironman and grassroots races as they are more reliable than registration numbers, which are often inaccurate or unavailable.