I am a first-year pro. My season this year did not go very well due to a variety of factors, so I don't have the pull of a stellar palmares, BUT that also puts me in a totally free position.
Even on a local level, it is very difficult to find sponsors or even generate interest in organizations/people who could support athletes. Long course triathlon has an advantage in that the athletes are free-agents – not tied by the bureaucracy of national federations – but that is also a pitfall, as there is no common ground for athletes to meet. ITU short course athletes have a great, proven set up that is used by many other sports, so the support system is there.
Talking with some fellow new pros, a common theme is the desire to work hard and create some value for potential sponsors. No one just wants free swag; we are all looking to build a partnership. But we are all essentially "freelancers", and it's a matter of shooting blindly when trying to build up support. There is no platform for the athletes. This is something that has to change. I know that in the early days, there were a couple attempts at rallying the pros, but it didn't reach very far as a consensus could not be reached. That is really too bad.
It's interesting to note that the race that should actually be the true world championship gets very little attention and a small field: ITU Long Course. ITU is a non profit organization. It handles Olympic qualification and athletes enter the races through their national federation, representing their country. This makes sense. Yet the field at the world's race, year after year, is not very stacked, and the media does not give it the same kind of attention.
Since I am starting out and have nothing to lose, I will be leading an Ironman boycott. I will be racing Challenge/Rev3 and targeting the real World Championships.
The current top professionals are in a tough spot. They can't simply switch; their contracts, sponsors and fans are tied up in Ironman. It's up to the new pros to make changes.
As for value of professional athletes to the sport...that is a very difficult question to answer. I have thought a lot about it this year. What do pros in other sports have to offer? This is the issue with triathlon: other sports are pro only. Triathlon is amateurs + pros on the same day. When you watch a football game, you are watching only the pros. There are local, amateur games/matches/races, but the marketed, televised and otherwise promoted events are pro. Pro triathletes don't have that same pull. I was talking to a local sponsor (with international reach), and he said to me that, "you [pros] don't do much for us; you provide a great story and excitement, but sales and business growth don't come from you." Luckily, I have other, non-sport related, marketable skills that allow me to offer something beyond athleticism, but it is still proving difficult to leverage that and use it to my advantage.
This definitely requires a lot more thought before a good solution can be found. It's frustrating to see other sports pull in millions upon millions, while triathlon is just scraping by.
Group Eleven â€“ Websites for Athletes / staernathan.com / @mstaer