Is The Sport of Triathlon Dead?
25th Aug 2020
The future of your local triathlon may be in jeopardy. With declining numbers since 2015, Covid may just be the final nail in the coffin for some races. I recall one of our local race directors stating that his "break even" on a triathlon event was about 500 participants, and since then his races have been declining from that number with many half of what they were at their apogee. I expect that many other local races across the country may be suffering a similar fate. Compared to running or even a cycling event, triathlons are more expensive to put on, and are harder to find suitable venues. The problem with triathlon in general is it's failure to attract young and new participants over the last 5 years. Races are relatively expensive and require costly equipment, mainly a suitable bicycle, which is prohibitive to many cash strapped millennials.
Ironman branded triathlons are still proliferating worldwide but these events are small, capping out at a few thousand in most cases. The logistics do not allow for large fields. In comparison a running event can attract over ten thousand and in some cases as much as 50. To put that in perspective all of the Ironman races in the US combined do not have as many participants as a large 10k. Ironman events are also extremely expensive, which is why they attract a more financially secure middle aged/upper middle class crowd. It is not unusual for an athlete to spend over $8,000 for race entry, travel and coaching for a single race; not including equipment. While these races are an attractive niche sport there is a big gap in affordability between a local triathlon and an Ironman event. This is something racers have been lamenting for years, yet they continue to pony up their dollars for an Ironman branded event. But the local races are the first step towards becoming an Ironman and they are it's lifeblood. Very few athletes start out with an Ironman; they begin with a sprint, then an Olympic distance, half, and then perhaps full Ironman.
The swim is the achilles heal of most triathletes. Unless an athlete comes from a swim background they will be in most cases permanently hindered by the swim leg. It simply takes countless hours in the pool and high quality coaching, not to mention a natural physical aptitude, to become a good swimmer. For most triathletes surviving the open water swim, a source of a great anxiety for many, is simply the leg you get through, a warm up for the bike and run. But this can be frustrating when competing against competitors that are proficient swimmers and always have a big lead out of the water. The swim leg requires the cost of a gym membership in most cases, as well as getting out of bed at the crack of dawn to get in a cold pool to realize little progress for the effort. For these reasons the swim is the cause for many triathletes to fade out of the sport.
Triathlon can also be a "one and done" or "box checking" sport for many, which is why one day USA triathlon memberships are available. Many athletes do not want to purchase an annual membership for a sport they may only participate in one time, and are just fine saying that they "did" a triathlon. Fitness in general is faddish and cyclical. Athletes generally don't stay with triathlon for more than a few years because of the logistics involved, and then they move on to Crossfit, or adventure type races, or simply back to the ease of being a runner. This is the same for many endurance sports but they do not have the same barriers to entry as triathlon, or the barriers to sustainability. A common source of friction is time away from the family as the triathlete works out for hours and often twice a day if training for an Ironman. Ultra distance triathlon also has a very high risk of overuse injury as the hours of swimming, biking, and running pile up on those middle aged bodies.
With all these challenges facing triathlon before Covid I ponder what it will look like coming out of it. Most triathletes will not give up on fitness, but they may give up on triathlon and move on. They have let their pool memberships expire and drifted in another direction. And "virtual races" are not something that can financially sustain the sport or generate much enthusiasm. There are of course an older hard core group of triathletes that have been supporting the sport for a decade or more, but their die hard support may not be enough overcome the cost of putting on a local race. When you realized that the top 3 overall finishers in a triathlon are over the age of 35, and some over 50, it is not a good omen for the sport in general. The podium should be dominated by fitter, faster, twenty somethings or even teenagers if it is going to have longevity.
USA Triathlon has failed to maintain their membership base. Perhaps this is because triathlon was more of a fitness fad than an entrenched sport at it's peak. They have failed to get triathlon recognized as a collegiate sport which would have injected the the young blood it so desperately needs. And they have failed to generate much enthusiasm among new and younger adult members under 25. Race directors to their credit have tried to generate more participation by creating concurrent, more accessible events such as aquabike, duathlon, road races and a variety of other happenings focused on fun and more universal participation. The only challenge with this model is that it creates more of a festival type atmosphere with less focus on triathlon being a sport, and may even dilute participation. Triathlon is by no means dead, but I believe that post Covid it is going to require a big push just to get it back to the level of it's previously declining numbers, especially on the local level. It will require re-engaging former triathletes that may have moved on to a new challenge after the lost season of 2020, and it will need a new crop of young triathletes to keep the sport alive.