Sunday, December 3, 2006

The Triathlon Popularity Paradox

Now is the time of year that everyone is starting to make plans for next season. There are a lot of blogs and e-mails going around that remind us that we must sign up quickly for certain events because they sell out so quickly. It is frustrating to me to have to sign up now - or miss getting left out - for expensive events that won’t occur until late in the 2007 season. Any serious triathelete has dealt with injury issues. They seem to be part and parcel of being a serious athlete, and can seriously disrupt a pre-planned racing schedule. I know that I’ve walked away from several hundred dollars worth of race entry fees because an injury kept me from participating in an event that I had put into my annual plan.

So far, the regional events by the race promoter Pirahna Sports (the Greater Atlantic Multi-Sport Series) that I sometimes participate in do not usually sell out. If they do, it is not usually until just a few weeks ahead of time. This fact gives me some flexibility in planning my schedule and in dealing with injuries. Neil Semmel and the folks at Piranha do a great job with their races, so I know that this situation will change in the not-too-distant future. There are other great regional races that always sell out well in advance, so I know I have to commit early to get into them. And we all know that the WTC Ironman events sell out in hours, if even that long.

The sport of triathlon is growing at a phenomenal rate, as witnessed by the membership growth statistics of the USAT. I worry that the ability to get into races before they close will get much worse in the future as there is more and more demand from new triatheletes. Persons inclined to believe in the efficacy of unfettered free-markets will respond that more races will be created to move the supply/demand situation back into equilibrium. I sure hope they’re right. The reason that I’m not so sure is that the single most difficult thing for race promoters (at least based upon what I’ve heard and read) is finding municipalities that are willing to allow and tolerate the road closures that are necessary during the bike leg of our sport.

When the running boom occurred back in the 1970s, marathons and road races of various lengths sprung up all around the world. These races also require road closures, but the ability of a running race to expand to hold more runners is virtually unlimited up to a very high threshold (20,000 to 40,000 runners), so the ratio of races relative to competitors is much lower than what is required in triathlon. Many triathlons are capped at 1,000 participants although a few allow more than that. The logistics of staging a triathlon are daunting compared to those of a marathon, so it’s simply not possible to accommodate such large numbers.

Triathlon is such a great sport that I wish everyone could participate in. I am not sure, however, that there is unlimited capacity for the “physical infrastructure” required to support our sport to continue apace with the increasing demand. I hope that we don’t face a future of only being able to participate in a few races each year because we’re simply not able to get into those we want to race.


ironjenny said...

I just register anyway - I've only had to miss out on a couple races dut to scheduling conflicts. "Always having something on the calendar" keeps me grounded and I never get the "post race blues" that some bloggers talk about.
Races do fill up now so fast - IM FL'07 filled in 46 minutes I heard - but there are also so many NEW races on being coordinated, too...

Georgia Dave said...

As I get more involved in the sport, I aspire to participate in Ironman events. But a recent event that involved buckled concrete and landing on my head really illustrated the risk involved when you register for such an event. Out for six weeks with a separated shoulder, I was glad I was not able to register for one of the races this year.
With the WILD popularity of the sport these days, there should be some option to transfer race, date or participant, so that the tremendous fees required are not in such jeopardy!

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