Friday, December 03, 2010

What's your Opinion? The meaning of Ironman vs. the Ironman brand

Good Morning!

So I have missed some workouts this week, and I am sure I will miss a few more between now and next Thursday.  Reason?  I have two finals next week, Tuesday and Thursday, and I had some quizzes and a paper due last night as well.  Starting next Friday (for me) is winter break, and that lasts until January 4th.  I should be able to really ramp it up during those three and a half weeks.  Always trying to be the glass is half full type of guy :)  Not much else to talk about in my life (tri life as well), so let's move onto the topic I really wanted to talk about!

On Wednesday this week, Bloomberg's "Taking Stock" show hosted the CEO of the World Triathlon Corporation, Ben Fertic.  Ben was on to not only talk about the sport of triathlon and its strong long term growth, but the World Triathlon Corporation's brands.  These include Ironman, Ironman 70.3, and the 5150 triathlon series.  In short summary, this interview was really great and informative, and Ben was also to give us a backdrop about how triathlon formed (for those of us who don't know) and also how the Ironman really got ramped up from 15 crazy guys racing to the hallowed world championship event that it is today.

The part of the interview that really hit me was the branding of these events.  We all talk about Ironman, whether you have done one, you are going to do one, or just throw it around in casual conversation with your tri (or non tri) buddies.  I guess what is really obvious, Ironman as a brand, is also really elusive.  Although Ironman is not technically a monopoly in the Ironman market (Beach 2 Battleship, Rev3 Long Course, Silverman, etc), the long (or ultra long) triathlon distance is akin to monopolistic competition.  I guess the best analogy is Microsoft.  Sure there are other OS software systems (Apple's Mac OS, Unix, Linux, etc), but Microsoft dominates the market by a very large margin, hence monopolistic competition. 

Another way to look at this issue.  What do you call a short sleeved 2 or 3 button cotton shirt with a collar? (No I am not gonna hit enter 500 times and make you forward this to 10 friends to find out the answer).  Polo shirt.  While everyone makes this type of shirt, the phrase "Polo Shirt" has successfully been in our vernacular for years.  Another one.... Tissue that you blow your nose with?  Kleenex!  You don't ask for a tissue, OK I guess a few people do, but most people I know ask for a Kleenex.

So bringing this back to triathlon.  I have been thinking of getting a new tattoo.  My first tattoo is my fraternity letters and my badge number from the chapter I was initiated at.    This is located on my right shoulder blade, and was crudely done on purpose because I wanted to make it look natural and like it was hand done, not with some fancy font template.  My fraternity is really important to me, and I am still really involved over ten and a half years after I was initiated. 

On a side note, for those of you who say you "were" in a Greek organization, you signed up and took an oath to be a member for like, so quit saying when you "were" in a fraternity/sorority.  And go back and say hey to the new guys/girls that are there now, or whichever university is closest to you, they will appreciate it.

Back on Track.... Triathlon has been really important in my life as well.  I have finished my 6th full season (since 2005) and I don't plan on stopping.  I also completed my first Ironman in 2009.  At that point I felt that was important point in my life (re: triathlon) and wanted to mark it with something memorable.  I thought I would get a "m-dot" tattoo on my left shoulder blade to mark the completion with my Ironman.  Just like my first tattoo, I have sat on the issue for a really long time to make sure it was I really wanted.  Yes I know there is technology to remove tattoos now, but for all intensive purposes it is permanent. 

After listening to this interview, I now don't think I want to get one.  It would be similar to getting a Delta tattoo because I love to fly delta, or a Zaxby's tattoo because I really love their chicken finger plate.  Instead I think I would get a tattoo similar to one of those car stickers that just says "140.6" or 70.3" (half iron distance).  I want to mark and commemorate the event that was completing a triathlon of that distance, however I don't want that necessarily to be related to a brand.

The problem is that Ironman has become synonymous with long distance triathlon.  If one is trying to describe a ultra long or long distance course to a newbie triathlete or someone who does not know what triathlon is then you will almost always reference "iron distance" or "half iron distance" race.  Or if you are having trouble explaining the race, you might throw up your hands and say it is an "Ironman" or "Half Ironman."

On the other hand, the Ironman brand is a great brand.  Expensive as it may be, I have never had a complaint regarding a race when I have completed an Ironman or Ironman 70.3 3event.  Ok I did just think of one... And WTC I hope you are taking notes :)  There was nowhere in the race info packet about having reflective material on your running gear, and then on Friday evening (race was on Sunday) they say this in the meeting.  Thank goodness there was a Sports Authority nearby.  I grabbed the next to the last pack of reflective stickers and the cashier made a point of saying that happened to be a popular item that day. I cannot say the same thing for other races that I have completed.  The Peachtree City Tri Club puts on a world class show just south of Atlanta, but MANY of the other race companies leave MUCH to be desired. 

That being said, I think that the WTC needs to be careful.  Like Microsoft, straying away from what the public really wants, at the price they want it at, can create great unrest and fierce competition.  Hence events such as Beach2Battleship, Rev3 Long Course, Silverman, Great Floridian, etc...  I think though there is going to have to be someone with a vision like the WTC to create a competitive brand that can compete with the WTC.  Also I think this will drive better quality races out of the WTC and the competing firms, as well as keep the prices down. 

Other than inflation increases, I don't think that WTC can raise its prices too much higher or it will have a great amount of falloff from the general age group athletes.  Many of these Iron-Distance events can be at least $100-200 cheaper than the Ironman Branded races.  I have heard that Silverman is a top notch event, it is close to my parents in Nevada, and it is $200 cheaper if I pay early.  With my service fee through, I paid $603.75 for Ironman Florida 2011, $575 of which was the actual entry fee.  When I think about what I receive over the 4 day weekend when I am there, I can directly attribute about $200 of that to what I can see and experience, and the other $375 I don't really see or I am not aware of (obviously some of this portion is for staff salaries, website maintenance, building rent for HQ, renting police for the bike course, etc...). 

However, with all of the volunteers that participate, I wonder how much they could drive their costs down if they better managed the volunteer process.  I volunteered at Ironman Florida '10, and while I had a great time and WILL volunteer again, I was less than impressed with the management of the Volunteer process.  Volunteers not knowing what to do, where to go, too many volunteers in some areas and not enough in other areas.  I think if they spent a small amount of human investment in better training and organization of the volunteers, then they would yield much better results on pre race/race/post race events.  That and they could afford to allocate resources to more important areas thus saving both human and investment capital.  They could then pass this as savings back to the age groupers that sign up in long lines to compete in their events.  If you look at the competitors to Ironman, there is a $200 or more price discrepancy.  Maybe then again, Ironman is the Louis Vuitton of ultra long triathlons, and events such as Silverman are the Target of ultra long triathlons (not a knock on Silverman, I love Target and I love Silverman).

This is also not a knock on the WTC or the Ironman brand, just my thoughts on the topic.  I will say though, as a free market economist, if someone comes up with as good as or better brand than the WTC for cheaper, then I will be the first in line.  However, I am still waiting... and so is the tattoo.

Have a great weekend!  Train hard, train smart,