Well, that was an inauspicious 48 hours.
While it was a hopeful start for the newly-announced Professional Triathlon Union, or PTU, it left more questions than answers. And I’ve not had my phone light up with calls from athletes, event organizers and even pro athletes from sports outside triathlon with such passion than on this topic.
The genesis of this organization is spearheaded by former British pro triathlete Rich Allen, currently representing Dirk Bockel and NASCAR driver Josh Wise as an agent. But as a former triathlete, he should have remembered that trying to unify triathletes is akin to herding cats. It’s yeoman’s work.
And to be perfectly clear: I’m a big advocate for unification among the pros to help them earn a better living, as they’re grossly underpaid for a hard job. But they also need to determine and deliver value to events and sponsors as well, an area where they’re vastly deficient. I’ve had positive dialogue with several of the board’s members, and hope to have more later with Allen and the board members as this develops. But to use a car analogy (everyone knows how I love cars) this needs to go back into the garage, the hood popped and do a bit of tinkering with the engine.
The goal of a any union is simple: gather up the athletes, vote in a collection of representatives that speak on your behalf, engage with them to come up with agendas to present to events and sponsors, and with the representatives speaking on your behalf, reap the rewards of the collective voice. Pretty simple. And for our gate-drawing pro sports, pretty effective in helping those athletes become multi-millionaires.
But triathlon is a fickle collective. From the early days, pro triathletes have been trying to unionize and threaten strikes to better their conditions, with Dan Empfield of Slowtwitch reporting on it extensively in the late 90s. Since then, pros have been like those unherded cats; divisive, aloof and self-serving. It’s an individual sport, so it’s expected pros will behave as such. The new PTU had hopes of being that good cat herder. But sadly, the group’s decision-making happened a bit too fast that lead to fear that the PTU will end up like every other effort: for naught.
Allen gathered up a collection of top names: Tim O’Donnell, Jodie Swallow, Dirk Bockel, Dylan McNeice, Scott DeFilippis, Mirinda Carfrae, Helle Fredericksen, Rachel Joyce, Pete Jacobs, Sebastian Kienle, Meredith Kessler, Mary Beth Ellis, James Cunnama, Andreas Dreitz and Angela Naeth. Upon formation, all those names were appointed to the union board. There was no vote, no outside interaction.
Many pros were taken aback. So what’s the barrier to entry? Do you have to have run under 3 hours for the marathon? Do you require an Ironman win on your resume or your voice isn’t board-worthy? Heck, do you only deserve to know about the union altogether once it’s been decided and launched?
A group of top-tier triathletes not only isn’t necessarily a compilation of the best minds in triathlon, it’s a bad cross-section of the whole. There is only one journeyman pro on the board that represents the bell curve of mid-to lower-tier pros that would benefit most from a union, and that’s Scott DeFillipis. Beyond that? Just a collection of great champions. But is that representative of the average pro triathlete?
I use my wife, Canadian pro Donna Phelan, as an example. She’s right in the bell curve of distance-racing pros. She’s currently training in the Boulder bubble—where many of these board members are. None of them mentioned the union to her, asked for her input, asked if she even wanted to be part of it. So is her input not as valuable because she hasn’t won an Ironman? Because she’s not a sub-3 marathoner? Is it only good once she pays the fee?
Oh yes, the fee. There is a price to entry: $600 a year (for pros in the sport four or more years) $400 (second- and third-year pros) and $200 (first-year pros). I understand that a figurehead that represents comptroller should be paid. That putting together a website, building an infrastructure takes time and that should be rewarded with pay. But if every pro is made to pay into the union, where is the money going, beyond paying the union head and maybe the board members?
Things got wild a day after the announcement of the union, when Challenge Family announced its endorsement of Pro Union. That in and of itself was inoccuous. It was the following that line that said Challenge would mandates PTU membership for those pros wishing to start at their events.
With that, the social media boards lit up.
I’ve seen unionization attempts among the pros rise up about every four or so years, recalling the first time I talked to Germany’s Olaf Sabatschus about a union he wanted to form about 2002. Then, there was no social media. The top athletes making the most money had nothing to gain, so they walked away, happy with the money they were making. There’s a lot of gusto, then… vapor. Whether it’s poor organization, fear of action or general self-service, the unions spin their wheels for a while before fading away.
From the outside, it’s frustrating to see. It’s great when we now see a lot of top pros leading this charge; I applaud that selflessness, because it’s the Fredericksens and Carfraes and Kienles that don’t stand to benefit much from this union, but rather are invested for the greater good. That’s awesome. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they, by virtue of their athletic status, should be the executive decision-makers.
So what needs to happen for PTU to survive this debacle? I hope for the union’s benefit, they shut down communication of their message; at the moment, there’s no hard answers for the many hard questions they’ve been peppered with. And with many athletes chiming in on social media not doing the initiative any favors, there ought to be a vocal moratorium on the subject until it’s ready to relaunch.
BUILD A DATABASE
Creating the board shouldn’t have been one of the first things to establish.; building a database and pulling in all athletes should have. Those founding board members all know enough athletes to create a database of pretty much every athlete. And if they don’t, I would have been surprised that if WTC or Challenge would have been reticent to share their athlete email list.
With that, a large majority of athletes could have been made aware. And it’s like any of the embargos I receive from manufacturers; all they have to say is “we are creating a union and would like your input in its creation and structure, but from the outset, we have a code of conduct you must sign off on. That would then allow for the build of, by definition, a democratic electorate capable of representing all constituents.
Instead they decided to self-appoint. And guess who doesn’t like that? It’s constituency that they suddenly want to ask $600 from.
VOTE IN A BOARD
“Well, we gotta start somewhereâ€ has been the response by those who simply want to see it take flight. I can appreciate that. But self-appointing a board that’s so top-heavy is not going to work; it’s not a fair representation of the people.
So let the constituents vote. Bring in the athletes that want to have a say, have a big stake in the game: the blue-collar pros. And bring in the athletes that have historically had a voice. The one glaring omission here is a name like Jordan Rapp, who has been on the WTC athlete advisory board the last few years and has been a vocal, level-headed, practical and approachable pro advocate and liaise between the WTC and the pro athletes. He’s the first person I would have thought to bring in were I a founding union figure, and I don’t think he was even contacted by PTU of its existence, let alone asked an opinion or for a place on the board. That’s a glaring omission in my book. So bring in the people who can truly talk on topics, athletes with business background, with personal experiences and big stake in the game.
RESCIND OR AMEND THE CHALLENGE PARTNERSHIP
Challenge’s release purported to the fact that it was recognizing PTU as an organization they are willing to work with. And why not? It’s free postive PR for Challenge, no investment necessary on their part. It gives Challenge the illusion that they are listening to the voices of the athletes.
But the biggest red flag followed the endorsement: a mandate that any pro competing at any Challenge event must have a PTU membership. If ever there was a move that would create true division, this was it; you either buy in, or don’t race. And that smarts of a business partnership between Challenge and PTU. As such, any level of union balance between the two apex event companies—Challenge and WTC—goes out the window.
“Well, that’s the same thing Ironman does with it’s pro membership, forcing its athletes to buy in,â€ you say? Not really. WTC’s pro membership has funds that go toward drug testing and its anti-doping program; membership literally pays for that testing. And that’s not inexpensive. Challenge, conversely doesn’t drug test at its events, instead allowing national federations to come in if they choose and do their own testing. So Challenge gets the positive PR of working with the athletes, without really making the investment in a true value—fair play—that Ironman has. And it gets commitment to its races in a similar way that many feel the WTC does with its pro membership.
And even that investment is disingenuous at best; consider the case of Panamanian age-group triathlete Lotty Harari, who accepted a two-year ban from WTC beginning Oct. 9, 2013 after testing positive for DHEA, a banned substance per WADA code, a sanction that expires Oct. 9 this year.
Yet a look at results found she finished ninth overall at Challenge Salou. Challenge, who has easy access to the list of banned athletes posted to the Ironman anti-doping page didn’t think enough to say “sorry, we respect WTC’s sanction, come back in a year when your suspension is up.â€
So where does that money go? To date, PTU doesn’t have a clear plan on funding expenditure, other than to going “back into supporting pro triathlon,â€ the PTU Twitter account says. There needs to be a bit more of a concrete, transparent and specific relay to the pro athletes internally. Certainly, some need to be paid for their time, Allen first and foremost. How much? Who else is paid? Who culls a database? How much is a website build? There are costs, but there needs to be a bit of transparency, so the mid-tier pro who is simply trying to pay pool fees and for the evening’s dinner feels good about the big bullet they’re biting by sending off a $600 check. The breakdown doesn’t need to be made public, it just needs to be made internal for the pro members. (Ironman needs to do this for its membership and testing as well, but that’s a story for another day.)
RESCIND A PTU WORLD GRAND SLAM
In an odd decision, PTU decided to create a Grand Slam series, with a prize purse, sponsors pending. Now, this falls completely outside a union’s scope of focus; that’s an event’s job. Sure, a union should promote an event to create a Grand Slam as a way to create and improve opportunity with existing entities. Simply creating another purse for those top pros to draw from is at the very least a distraction. At worst, it’s another item of divisiveness. PTU needs to not worry about getting a sponsor to pay for a series; it needs to work on both investigating ways to deliver greater value to events and sponsors, fighting for gender equity at events like Kona, and in making purses bigger and deeper for the fat part of the bell curve. That should be the focus.
I absolutely want to see a union happen; I love that the top athletes are making a decent living in a sport that asks so much more of them physically or mentally than a golfer making millions swinging a stick at a small ball and walking after it. They deserve it. But for every one of them, there are 20 scraping by in a homestay, surfing a couch, eating turkey sandwiches daily, asking mom and dad for a bit of a loan for an air ticket to a race, praying that United Airlines buys their “it’s a massage tableâ€ line when checking in their bike. And bumming out when their fourth place finish gets them nothing more than a finishers medal. I know, because I’ve seen it; pro triathlon for the rank and file is a gritty, unglamourous hand-to-mouth existence for the rank and file. They deserve much better purses at races that are thriving businesses, and better sponsorship. But they also need to determine what that value put forth to sponsors and event is… and deliver it in spades. And that’s why a union is needed.
Just launch it when it’s truly ready for prime time. My hope is PTU will put it back in the garage, work on it, then let it resurface a month or two later with a few basic tenets in place—and a lot more input.