In an earlier post I suggested (as have others) to reduce the number of races that qualify for Kona. Among other things, this will have an impact on those races that are no longer relevant for Pro Kona qualifying. A reduction in the number of qualifying races has to include a discussion of what happens to the „non-Kona races“.
One possible scenario is that these races do not have a Pro race at all. (I don’t think that’s a good idea, but I’ll go into that later on.) The conventional wisdom seems to be that these races can’t survive in the long run. I disagree: The majority of age group racers are certainly in the sport because of the lure of Kona and Kona’s Pro races and stories. But I don’t think that the choice of a race is much influenced by the actual pro field that’s racing. At least for me, considerations such as the location or date of the race play a much bigger factor – and the quality of the race experience that can be expected. I’d say that as long as WTC offers a great race experience, they have a strong „sales proposition” – even without offering a great Pro race. I’m optimistic that the IM Maryland data will strengthen my position, and I’m sure that some races will drop their Pro category.
But I think it would be a bad decision to drop the Pro field from all non-Kona races. The Pro field has grown much deeper than can be handled by ten or fifteen WTC races. Where would they race? I’m sure that Challenge and others would be happy to pick up these racers – WTC would just be strengthening the profile of their own competition.
So the non-Kona races should at least offer a Pro category. If prize money gets redistributed from smaller races to the Kona races (and no additional money gets earmarked for pro purses), it will be next to impossible to offer even the smallest IM prize purse we have today (25.000$ total for men and women, paying six deep down to 750$). Still, there should be some prize money for the top finishers (after all, racing for money is the definition of a professional athlete).
In addition to prize money, there have to be some other advantages to racing in the Pro category of non-Kona races. Brandon Marsh suggests that you collect points that help decide who gets a slot in the bigger, qualifying races. You could further formalize that, and the non-Kona races could form a „feeder series“ with a separate points system, maybe also an extra prize money pool that gets awarded at the end of the season and a better paying „season finale race”.
Another argument that I frequently hear is that sponsor bonuses for winning an IM (or placing on the podium) are an important part of the money athletes make from sponsor contracts. I find it hard to believe that a sponsor that is willing to put money into Ironman athletes isn’t aware of the difference between say a Regional Championship and a new IM with a small field. Still, there is no harm in calling races „Ironman“ regardless of whether they qualify Pros for Kona or not and therefore at least give the athletes the ability to collect a bonus for winning an IM, even if that particular IM is a 4th tier non-Kona race.
I also think these smaller races could offer additional chances for participating Pros to increase their stature. Pro panels, meet the Pros, little talks etc. could help Pros show that they are excellent ambassadors for themselves and the companies that sponsor them. Other than to provide a location for these things and some announcements, this shouldn’t be too much work for the race organizers, and not cost any money, while providing good value for the Pros.
My assessment: Most non-Kona races will continue to offer a Pro category, but they will have to work with Pro athletes to provide benefits in addition to shrinking prize purses.
Thanks Thorsten for this series! These are some very important thoughts you are making. I am just wondering whether WTC is truthfully interested in any form of open debate. After all, they are a company selling racing to athletes in a market that is far from free or ideal in the sense of economic theory and in which they have the absolute monopoly. Thus, they neither co-operate with the official unions or institutions of the sport (ITU, ETU etc.), who should actually be regulating things like (world) championships of the sport, nor do they care too much for establishing a sustainable supportive environment for pro athletes. Of course, from their standpoint as a profit-making business this is perfectly legal and the way to go.