Posted by: Joe English | December 9, 2008

Sports: Are endurance sports recession proof?

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

In a new article by Pete Wilson, published by USA Triathlon this week, the governing body of triathlon considers whether the sport of triathlon is “recession proof.”

Yes, is the short answer to their analysis. People will continue spending money on racing and training for a variety of reasons — one of them being that they may dive in to the their training to escape the bad economic times we’re all facing.

It’s an interesting topic to consider. As discretionary income gets pinched, trade-offs needs to be made. Where our sports fall in those trade-offs is a personal decision that everyone has to make based on their own situation. If it comes down to a choice between food and a new bike, the choice might be easy. But if money is just getting tight, a choice to keep a membership at a gym or to travel to an out-of-town race becomes one to debate.

I know personally I’ve cut my out of town travel to races this coming year, choosing to race locally instead. I will probably avoid buying much new equipment as well, but running and racing are a big part of my life, so I don’t plan to give those up — unless my circumstances change and I have to.

I wonder what you readers are thinking about the recession and how it will impact your plans. Feel free to comment on this page.

The article from USA Triathlon is below. It’s an interesting read, although perhaps a bit rosey. You tell me.

Is Triathlon Recession Proof?
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 downturn.

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 past year.

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 relatively modest.

“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 locally.”

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 economic times.

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 years.

“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 economic storm.

“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,” Weiss said.

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 fees.

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.”

— Article above by Pete Williams (Special to USA Triathlon)
Running Advice and News



  1. I’m choosing local club races over destinations. Between increasing entry fees, hotel charges, restaurant meals, etc., it’s hard to justify under the best of times. I think race promoters are putting their heads in the sand if they think it will be business as usual.

    When a marathon costs (often well) over $100 and an Ironman is approaching $500 just to get a bib number, something has to give. Who knows, though – I see stuff like this and have to hold my gag reflex. There’s definitely an audience out there that I JUST. DO. NOT. GET.

    On the positive side, running itself is the ultimate recession-proof sport. All you need are a pair of shoes to stay lean, happy and healthy.

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