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Good, Better, or Worse -- Could Lance Armstrong's Return Hasten the Demise of Triathlon?

Since Lance Armstrong's blazing return to triathlon at the Panama 70.3, there has been much debate about what his return will mean for our sport. I am writing today as an industry professional, from the perspective of my ten years of working full-time as a triathlon coach. I think there is incredible potential for both growth and impact; but managed poorly it could precipitate the decline of multisport as we know it.

Beyond Celebrity Status

Triathlon has long had a history of celebrities participating, ranging from Robin Williams to Jennifer Lopez. And we have our own fair share of celebrities: from Julie Moss known round the world to Chrissie Wellington being regarded as one of the fittest women in the world.  

To understand the Lance Effect we have to recognize that he's both a star and a star athlete. He brings the attention of millions wherever he goes. While his efforts have been predominantly directed to raising funds and awareness for the fight against Cancer, the ripple effect across other industries such as cycling has been palpable. Anyone thinking that Lance was going to play the star card for a Kona slot was proven seriously wrong when he took a very close second place against some of the best 70.3 athletes in the world in early February 2012. Lance is here, and he's clearly all in.

Here are three specific ways I believe the return of Lance Armstrong will impact triathlon.

#1 Increased Reach - The Media Play

The coverage of Panama 70.3 both on the official site and on Twitter immediately showed a significant spike in interest. I am not sure we have any stats, but I am 99.9% sure that was probably Ironman's biggest media day outside of the Ironman World Championships. At the start of the year. At a new event. In the wintertime.

But that's only a hint of Lance's real impact. Case in point, the World Triathlon Corporation recently revealed that they are in talks to have portions -- if not all -- of the 2012 Ironman World Championship event actually broadcast live. For the first time ever. No more month long production turnaround; real live action. This is a huge development; essentially moving triathlon from the one-time pop of the Olympics to the world stage.

What's the Win / Loss Ratio?  
* WIN -- The media outlets. There's huge appeal to seeing this event and it doesn't hurt that Lance, and many other insanely fit people will be front and center. This will trickle down to both online and hardcopy formats.
* WIN -- The brands in the triathlon space, especially the long-time supporters who have insider access built over years and years of support and participation.
* WIN -- And of course, World Triathlon Corporation, who gets to sell access to all both parties above.

#2 Broader Appeal - The Lance Effect

Putting Lance in a skin suit and sending him out to swim bike and run on race day will bring attention to our sport beyond what is normal. But that doesn't take into account the multiple daily updates from Lance on Twitter, transmitted to over 3.3 million followers. This goes beyond the race day effect; it essentially puts the triathlon lifestyle front and center for a brand new audience.

In addition, there are the multiple events that Lance will be racing in that will attract both new and veteran athletes. And let's not forget the events organized and/or sanctioned by the Livestrong Foundation (http://www.livestrong.org/take-action/team-livestrong-events/triathlon) that will benefit from increased participation and reach.

What's the Win / Loss Ratio?  
* WIN -- The sport of triathlon, for adding countless new participants at the shorter distances.
* WIN -- The Livestrong Foundation, who in their 15th year really needed a shot in the arm with new direction.
* LOSS -- Triathletes who were already complaining about crowded events or too many newbies mucking up the race course.
* WIN -- Bike shops and other industry partners that will outfit all of these newbies.
* LOSS -- PRO Triathletes used to the attention and spotlight who will simply have to take a back seat to Lance, whether he wins or not.  

#3 Adapt & Absorb or Fade Away

A giant influx of new participants for triathlon represents a chance to reinvigorate and grow our sport. But it could also hasten its untimely demise. Nothing takes the momentum out of a movement like expensive and confusing equipment, poorly organized races, insular team experiences and confusing training plans. And triathlon has all of those things!

In many ways, the insider culture that has enabled triathlon to grow over the last decade could, in fact, be what ultimately holds it back. Don't get me wrong; I think triathletes are some of the coolest people in the world...but I am already on the inside. It remains to be seen whether or not we can all stand at the entrance and hold the door open for our newfound friends.

Over the last five years, triathlon has seen unparalleled growth and consolidation, with groups like WTC and Competitor Group purchasing and consolidating events using venture capital. This streamlining approach means that there is some consistency across events. But it also ensures that many events have lost the grassroots, backyard appeal that lead so many of us to get hooked on the sport in the first place. Those amazing races are still out there, of course, it's up to us to make sure that they aren't lost in the shuffle when the big boys start tossing advertising dollars around.

A testament to these "missing" old school events can be seen in the recent popularity of multisport challenge events that capture the athleticism of triathlon without the required equipment. Events such as the Tough Mudder (www.toughmudder.com), Muddy Buddy, Spartan Race (www.spartanrace.com) and the Warrior Dash (warriordash.com) capture this fringe element. And there are event more dynamic events such as the Zombie Run (www.runforyourlives.com/) that build in fun, fitness and interaction. In other words, triathlon's competition is here and it's gaining momentum.

What's the Win / Loss Ratio?  
* WIN -- Short course races, especially the ones recently acquired by WTC and/or Competitor.
* LOSS -- Old school, underground races that might be over looked (don't let that happen!)
* WIN -- Fringe sports that will pick up those who "try the tri" but don't end up sticking to the sport, following the fun instead.
* LOSS -- A shrinking pool of races could increase registration prices and demand, making triathlon even more elitist and expensive.

There's No Such Thing As Bad PR?

There's no doubt that the next eight months will bring new challenges and opportunity for the sport of triathlon. Between the 2012 London Olympics and the renewed interest thanks to Lance Armstrong, our sport will see unprecedented coverage and growth. Regardless of what side of the issue you fall on, we can all agree that 2013 will see a very different multisport landscape.

About Patrick McCrann

Patrick McCrann's picture

Biography

Patrick is head coach and founder of Endurance Nation. A 14-time IM finisher (3x Kona) with a 10:01 PR, Patrick lives and trains in Boston, MA.

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