[My take on] The Current State of Pro Racing

With all of the recent changes and chatter going on about WTC and the current state of racing as a professional triathlete, I figured I’d voice my thoughts on it. I try to avoid engaging in too much social media exchange, as it seems on the whole fairly unproductive (though it can be a catalyst for change); that said, I have raced long enough to realize I have pretty firm beliefs and wanted to put them out there.

Most recently WTC decided to decrease the number of races with professionals, while increasing some of the prize purses at these events; which will in turn increase the quality of these fields, and pay better (and deeper) money to those who show up and perform. My opinion? This is a great move. Why? The recent trend has been far too many races; some weekends, there are as many as 6 events between Ironman and 70.3 (not to mention Rev 3, Challenge, 5150, Lifetime, etc.). While of course this is great for us pros to be able to pick and choose, it has diluted the fields and in turn weakened the legitimacy of some races. This is not to say pros winning smaller fields are ‘lesser pros’; not at all; it simply means that wins have gotten easier to come by and therefore receive much less attention than they may have a few years back. Sure we all love when we can get an ‘easier’ paycheck, but I didn’t get into this sport because it was easy, and the only way I’ve seen improvement over the 12 years in the sport is by racing people far better than me, and getting my ass handed to me, time and time again. Top 10’s slowly became consistent Top 5’s, eventually working my way to the highly coveted wins. Creeping up the totem pole, slowly but surely. Even with this new system in place, anyone with a pro card can toe the line at these events; pay will go 10 deep, not just 5 or 8 as it has the past years. This is a good thing for everyone. It may take a few more attempts at these races to get in the money, but it will create a stronger playing field all around; which will in turn make us all better athletes.

Another talking point has been that this may squeeze out newer pros who have just recently started racing, since the fields will be tougher. I can’t say I fully agree with this. Here’s the deal. Unless you are one of the few who jumped into triathlon, within a year had a pro card and within another year were winning money at the races consistently, it takes time to excel in this sport. I guarantee you most pros who have gotten to the point of eventually of truly making a LIVING at the sport (prize money, sponsors, etc.) did not start off that way. They likely got the pro license but had a steady income via a full-time job, or even maintained a part-time job while racing; even some very successful pros still work part-time (if not more). Therefore, if someone desires to become truly great in this sport, and you want to race the best… get the pro card, find a life balance that works for you, and begin to implement patience and consistency. Don’t be afraid to throw your hat in the ring and get beat a few times. The opportunity to be a successful pro triathlete exists for those who desire to seek it out; but you may want to think about your approach and have reasonable expectations from the start. Accept that you may not get a paycheck at every race. Accept that money may be tight for a few years. Don’t go off complaining about it; it accomplishes nothing…if you are that miserable, quit; nobody forced you into this.

On the heels of this is the idea that “there’s no money in triathlon”. I beg to differ. Triathlon isn’t golf, football, or baseball and it never will be. If you want to take the leap to race as a pro triathlete, be prepared to do your homework before planning your season. There is quite a variety of races out there with prize money. The 2014 USAT Prize Money Calendar is 5 pages long and lists approximately 140 events that pay out money. While some may not pay much, you have to start somewhere; a paycheck from racing is a paycheck. It baffled me to no end that people complained about this the past 3-5 years, when organizations like Rev 3 (and many smaller local organizations) were paying out good money to any pros who came to take part, yet many of those trying to make money were not showing up. Even if you are new to it, view it as a business. Look at cost of flight, hotel, rental car; look at prize purse… where do you have to finish to break even? Can you afford to potentially be out that money? I feel that while triathlon is definitely gaining momentum and has appeared in mainstream media in recent years, it is still fairly small and we have to acknowledge this. If you are truly frustrated there is no money in the sport, go seek out a more lucrative sport, or go work on Wall Street… you see my point. Find a job that gives  you a steady, secure income if that is what you’re seeking.

I don’t say any of this to be offensive or harsh. But having been in the sport for quite a while, I have seen how much it can truly give back when potential is realized. I feel it is important to give some perspective to it all. I believe that in many ways, triathlon is still ‘figuring itself out’. I think on the whole, the changes are moving in the right direction. If you want to race as a professional, be sure you know why you’re doing it. I know I did it because I simply wanted to compete against the best in the world, see what I was capable of, and get the most out of myself. And some 12 years later after getting the pro card, my goals are still fairly similar as they were from the start. I never would have guessed in 2002 I would still be racing, but I’m pretty grateful for the opportunity. If you want to get the license despite barely qualifying and maintaining a full time job along with various other life commitments but you desire to toe the line with the pro field, more power to you; I say go for it. I don’t discourage people from getting that professional license and working your way up; if it weren’t for numerous ups and downs, I’d not be where I am today in the sport.  Just do a gut check every so often and be sure that you’re in it for the right reasons; for you, and those around you.

6 replies on “[My take on] The Current State of Pro Racing”

part of collating the talent and the prize money was also the depth of payout. 10 is _not_ deep.

Get rid of more races than they’ve gotten rid of, develop a 20 ish race series similar to ITU with 3 tiers each with every increasing amount of gross cash but with ever deepening payout (25/20/15). With the current structure paying at max 10 deep you just effectively eliminated your minor/develpoment league. If you are top 5, you’ve got bonuses that are also in play…. the guys/gals getting 15th and getting a paycheck…. that paycheck is all they are getting.

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I have really enjoyed reading the different viewpoints of the professionals over the last two days. These are definitely times of growth and change for out sport and I really respect individuals like you who seem to roll with the punches!

Pros who usually post a top three performance in most races and whose sponsors pay bonuses for a podium finish and/or some type of fixed salary with bonuses are well-positioned to earn a living wage after deductions for travel expenses, pool fees, gym fees, coaching fees, massage, higher-than-average food cost, medical insurance, out-of-pocket medical bills, etc etc. Obviously in a “bad year” where the pro is injured or suffers some other type of set-back and cannot compete, even the top-level pro will struggle financially. Developing Pros who may have bonus-only compensation structure (or product-only sponsorships) and are likely to post, at best, one or two top-three finishes in the early years of their “career” need to have stronger pay-outs for their 4th, 5th, 6th through 10th finishes that will at LEAST make it possible for them to pay race-related costs (airfare plus bike fees plus lodging and food) and, in the ideal world, put a little bit of money in their pockets to fund coaching fees, medical insurance, etc. I agree that fewer races with greater depth of -pay-out makes sense on many levels. But allocating extraordinarily disproportionate amounts of race prize money to the top finisher (who is likely to have lucrative sponsorships in place and can earn many times the race prize via sponsorship bonuses with a strong series of performances) means that the tenth place finisher is unlikely to meet the standards I outlined above for even the barest level of cost-reimbursement—not even taxable income. Look at the current race times. The bar has been raised. For most, it takes years of practice and focused effort to achieve current standards. Even the seasoned top-level athlete cannot show up at a race these days with absolute confidence that he or she will finish in even the top three, much less win the event. The sport needs to support developing athletes through reasonable prize money for the lower-level finishes that will serve as a pre-cursor to improved performances over time.

I agree with Brenda. Not only will it be harder to make enough money to cover expenses now, in some cases expenses have gone up. For me, many of the races I am able to drive to are the ones with pro categroy eliminated.

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