Opinion: Thoughts on IRONMAN, race events and the PTO in the wake of COVID-19

The landscape ahead of us as individuals, families and communities is uncertain. Bill Gates, who predicted a COVID-19 style event in 2015, reflected in an April 1st, 2020, Washington Post Opinion Editorial that, “Until the case numbers start to go down across America ā€” which could take 10 weeks or more ā€” no one can continue business as usual or relax the shutdown.”

As triathletes, we have been directly impacted by the shutdown of services. Parks and facilities are closed that we use daily to train and prepare for our calendar year of triathlon events. Likewise, we’ve already seen many of our favorite events canceled or postponed due to restrictions in place from local, state and national authorities.

For many of us, this is week two-or-three of life’s “shutdown” and the prospect of another seven-or-eight weeks of shutdown seems daunting. The mental balance of maintaining personal health, supporting day-to-day activities, work responsibilities, atop of training for triathlon seems to crescendo with a mental fatigue that proceeds everything we do. Adding additional stress to an already stressful situation.

As triathletes, we can appreciate that event organizers from large corporations like IRONMAN to smaller local organizers, are hit with tremendous financial impacts due to COVID-19. They are stuck right now with an uncertain future. No clear path to identifying when events can safely resume, and where the cancellation of a single race could potentially require them to shut down operations permanently. For event organizers the sunk cost of date-stamped event medals, operating licenses and many other pre-event expenses are likely not to be recovered and represent a potentially devastating loss.

For companies in the United States, assistance from the federal government is on the way to support businesses with zero-percent interest loans and grants to help them stay afloat, but these funds may arrive too late to make a difference in 2020.

Our family, like many across the world, and likely yours too, have seen everyday life turned upside down. We now exclusively work from home. Our boys’ school is shut down, and appears to be transitioning to online learning-only, likely for the remainder of the school year. A number of our closest friends are now unemployed, with no path to income for the months ahead. Financial investments that assist with annual income have been obliterated with the losses in the financial markets. We are isolated from nearly everyone, doing our part to protect ourselves and the community. Future trips, vacations, and travel, through at least September, have all been canceled.

And the emails have started to come in from IRONMAN and others event organizers, communicating postponements or cancellations.

Our first triathlon of the season, the Oregon State University (OSU) Triathlon Club, Beaver Freezer Sprint Triathlon, is a notable “start of the triathlon season” event that is a favorite by many in Oregon and Washington. The OSU Triathlon Club, who runs this event as a fundraiser to support annual club activities, knew early that they would need to cancel the event. Based on heartwarming feedback from participants they offered either a full-refund, or the ability to donate the registration fee as a contribution to the club.

It was amazing to see a triathlon club of young college students, that would see the loss of an entire year’s worth of funding, offer a full refund to participants. A simple act that has placed this triathlon club and event as a priority for us to support, for as long as we possibly can.

On March 21st, 2020, ESCAPE from Alcatraz Triathlon sent a communication to participants and was quick to offer a free postponement to the 2021 or 2022 event, an action that normally comes with a large fee, but came up short of offering a refund to registered participants. They did indicate that if the event is canceled, participants can receive a full refund (excluding processing & service fees) or postpone to a future year, for free.

Now we come to IRONMAN. You can see how the story builds based on the event organization and size. IRONMAN is handling COVID-19 with the following strategies:

  • Postpone the event to an unknown future date in 2020
  • Free transfer to the same event next year (where possible)
  • Free transfer to a similar event in the region (where possible)

I am currently registered for IRONMAN 70.3 Coeur d’Alene, scheduled for Sunday, June 28th, 2020, which is a date on the edge of a COVID-19 shutdown window. I emailed IRONMAN 70.3 Coeur d’Alene staff on Sunday, March 29th, 2020, asking for a comment on the event status, outlined concerns for postponement, and received only one piece of actionable information:

“Withdrawal requests must be received in writing via email to the race contact email. Without exception, all requests must be received on or before May 14, 2020 to be eligible for a partial refund of $75.00 USD. Deferments are NOT permitted. The Withdrawal Policy also applies to the Foundation and Relay Entries.”

Catherine
IRONMAN Athlete Services Coordinator

I am not in favor of a postponement to a future date in 2020. There is just too much uncertainty, in addition to the fact that we plan for these events often a year (or years) in advance to plan for a specific event date, to arrange vacation/travel, not to mention training.

Deferment might be a nice option, but they are “NOT permitted,” likely due to the fact IRONMAN is changing their event strategy. Coeur d’Alene, for example, will host a 70.3 event in 2020 and a full distance 140.6 event in 2021. Thus, deferment is not permitted because: they can’t. It would be great to see IRONMAN offer deferment to a different 70.3 race, in the region, for 2021.

I can appreciate that all event organizers, especially those who scale larger, like IRONMAN, are going to be reluctant to give back money to participants. They are likely to see significant losses due to sunk costs they cannot recover.

The communities that host these events will also see a loss of tourism revenue. Hotels, restaurants and other services that plan staffing and revenue around these major events will be impacted. Many are already shuttering doors in the wake of COVID-19, having no cash reserves to pay leases and maintain staff during multiple months of closure.

Event organizers in the United States that are established as corporations, from LLCs to C Corps, can apply for federal assistance including zero-percent interest loans and grants. For United States-based athletes, those that qualify for the one-time federal assistance approved by Congress will greatly appreciate the injection of cash, but it will be quickly used up with past-due bills, food, and rent, with no guarantee when work will resume.

It’s difficult in situations like this to draw the line between fair and unfair.

As triathletes, most everyone has incomes that are impacted, many are now jobless, have uncertain futures, and could use our registration fees returned today to help pay for day-to-day expenses.

Some event organizers, like the OSU Triathlon Club, are responding with immediate support. Others, like ESCAPE from Alcatraz Triathlon, are offering options to support decisions today. While others, like IRONMAN, are holding out on making that critical decision, a delay that is creating serious tension in the athlete/event organizer relationship.

The total impact of COVID-19 on the business of triathlon, over the next few years, will be an interesting case study on a number of vectors as we learn the full impact to athletes, industries and organizations. I believe that global indicators, in addition to personal behavior changes, will contribute to a significant reduction in event participation, and a sharp decrease to new athletes entering the sport.

I think we’ll see a re-prioritization by a percentage of triathletes, whom for once in years, or a decade, are forced to pause for a moment because of COVID-19 and ask, “Is this sport truly serving the best interest of me, and my family? Is triathlon the best return-on-investment for my time and money?”

One final topic I’d like to highlight, that is particularly disturbing to me, is the public behavior of the newly formed Professional Triathletes Organization (PTO). On March 18th, 2020, PTO issued a press release indicating they would be paying out $2.5 million (US Dollars) to professional triathletes to supplement the loss in racing revenue, due to COVID-19 impacted events.

I’m slightly upset with myself that I’m so emotional in my response to this, but I am dumbfounded. At a time when age group triathletes are being laid off, and have no income on the horizon, that the PTO would announce this payout. An announcement that seems extremely insensitive to the triathlon community, event organizers, host cities that lost major revenue, all who aren’t being paid. My heart goes out to all age group athletes, especially those who are now unemployed.

The revenue that fuels the triathlon industry does not come from professional athletes or wealthy investors. This entire industry exists only because of age group athlete participation. If existing age group athletes can’t afford to train, can’t afford to pay race entries, then the PTO will have to keep paying the professionals for the disappearance of the race revenue that provide them a portion of their personal income.

COVID-19 has caused us all to pause. Not just as triathletes, but as humans. We are likely to emerge a far softer, kinder society, who isn’t ready to race each other to the finish line, but lift each other up from this once-in-a-lifetime experience. With a foreboding reminder that one of the simplest lifeforms in the universe, a virus, brought humanity to a stop, and based on infectious disease experts, will do so again very soon.

Between now, and then, we will exit this experience remembering the careless pro triathletes who share that epic outside ride on Strava and Instagram during a “shelter in place order.” The companies that said, “We’re keeping the money, and telling you when you can race.” The organizations that said, “We run events. You need groceries. Here’s your money back.”

I will certainly remember those individuals, companies and organizations that support age group triathletes and humans, first.

What are your thoughts regarding this post? Share your comments below, or join the discussion on Instagram and Twitter.

*Other names and brands may be claimed as the property of others.
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