To turn Pro or to not turn Pro: The Professional versus Elite Age Group Triathlete Conundrum
Here is the scenario; the Elite Age Group (AG) Triathlete begins to have breakthrough races and considers life as a Professional Triathlete. These athletes may have always intended to move into the pro ranks via the age group community or simply had a performance that placed them in the mix in the middle of the Professional field. We see it all the time, don’t we? At almost every non-drafting race, there is always one or two exceptional AG performances that have all of us mere mortals lauding this performance over our post-race debrief. Does the phrase “They should turn Pro” sound familiar? The conundrum is WHY TURN PRO?
To give some background, over the last 25 years, I have managed, mentored and advised every level of Pro and AG athlete. They include multiple KONA winners, Olympic Medalists, 70.3 World Champions, the back-of-field professionals and everything in between. I have relentlessly urged athletes to turn pro and, on the flip side, delicately worked with them to refocus towards a non-sporting career path. I honestly can say I have seen it all and have shared the highest of highs with the superstars and the lowest of lows with athletes that lose money every time they turn up to a race start. If you follow the sport of triathlon, you will know that very few make what you would call an ‘Executive Salary’; in fact, 90% would be living below the minimum wage in most counties. Here are the real-world considerations of the income that is on offer from the business of triathlon.
Multi-Sports Sponsorship Market - the market has significantly pivoted away from Professional athlete retainers, performance bonuses and product supply. The day of retainers, performance bonuses and endless budget relief supplies has dried up. Sadly a few of the top end professionals, rather than backing themselves into keeping their value proposition high, took the easy road and begun accepting product-only deals e.g. Top 3 KONA athletes accepting product only Bike deals with no retainer attached. In doing so, this set a new benchmark of poor deals for everyone else.
Prize Money - the Professional Triathletes Organisation (PTO) are doing their part in helping the top 100 but it is still so far removed from a weekly salary. It is an educated guess that you barely make a living unless you are in the Top 10 of the PTO ranking. Of course, there are athletes that sit outside the top 10 that have previously been highly successful in a time when sponsors were far more generous with their funds and in-kind support.
Let’s explore the top end AG athletes. Firstly, most of these athletes have jobs and, in most cases, are high achievers in everything they do which often has them in well-paid positions and strong career paths. Although they don’t keep pro hours, they can maintain training weeks between 12-18 hours and up to 25 hours when leading into big weeks. Their employers often embrace their training and will make time available for camps, simulation days and race travel. It still takes a lot of time management to balance, but the top-end AG athletes seem to manage it. Indeed, the athletes we work with at M5 Academies have got their balance right. There is also something very authentic and relatable about the best of the AG athletes as the triathlon community sees them as REAL, ‘just like us, only faster”. I can assure you there is more coffee conversation over the first AG athlete crossing the finishing line than any of the pros that finish outside of the top 3. This is a fact, and the sponsors certainly know. I created M5 Academies for precisely this reason; our sponsors enjoy a relationship that the collective influence of our 20 Elite AG athletes can seamlessly deliver to their respective triathlon communities in a highly effective manner. It is challenging for a Pro Triathlete to offer this kind of penetration at any level.
Suppose we look at Matt Kerr who over the last 18 months became the most dominant AG athlete in the world. Matt is a rockstar and often receives more exposure than the top end Professionals. I don’t know Matt personally, but I imagine he has a healthy portfolio of partners that help him under-right the day-to-day cost of equipment and other expenditures. I’m not sure Matt would enjoy this same support if he were consistently finishing towards the back end of the pro field. The big question that an athlete like Matt faces is, “Am I good enough to make it to the very top of the sport as a Professional, or should I stay as a superstar AG athlete that sponsors see real ROI. Over the last two weeks, I have consulted with two athletes that are right now considering securing their Pro License. Both athletes are competent and certainly have the results to make the jump. BUT my strong advice is only to make this jump if, for three years, they are prepared to underwrite the cost of this venture. This cost could be up to $50,000, which is a big chunk towards a deposit on a home or paying off HECS debt. In some cases, these athletes are simply looking to experience life as a Pro triathlete and be able to race the best in the business. The methodology of this thinking is sound, as is the reality that triathlon as a sport belongs to the AG community. The challenge to the Ironman, Challenge Family, PTO, NSO and other profitable stakeholders is to find a way that incentives our emerging Pro athletes to make the jump and not immediately put themselves below the poverty line.