Athletes including Britain’s Alistair Brownlee taking part in this weekend’s Canadian Open, the first event proper on triathlon’s new PTO Tour, will have an extra incentive to perform.
Because as well as earning prize money they are also part-owners of the body running the tour, the Professional Triathletes Organisation (PTO).
It means they stand to share in the profits should they and the tour’s backers realise their ambitious plans over the next few years.
“If you’re an owner you operate differently to if you’re an employee,” PTO chief executive Sam Renouf told City A.M.
“No one cleans their rental car, but if it’s your car you look after it for the long term. That’s the parallel we see.”
Giving key employees equity may be common in Silicon Valley and the world of start-ups but is virtually unheard of in sport.
However, it is just one of the ways that the PTO is reimagining triathlon within the framework of a brand new business model.
It has capped races at 100km, making them less than half the length of Ironman events and a viewer-friendly three-hour spectacle.
Prize money is far higher than at any other triathlon competitions, and shared equally between men and women.
The PTO model also includes more traditional elements, such as a new tour loosely resembling the elite golf and tennis circuits and featuring four big events per year.
Two more races, in Europe and Asia will join Canada and the USA on the calendar in 2023, while there is also an annual Ryder Cup-style team competition, next month’s Collins Cup.
Ownership is not just in the hands of the 600 professional triathletes that form the PTO, though.
The tour is majority owned by Welsh billionaire venture capitalist Sir Michael Moritz, whose shrewd investments have seen him top Forbes’ Midas List.
Moritz agreed to back the PTO’s vision on the condition that the world’s 20 leading triathletes signed up, which they quickly did.
Having led the initial funding round, he has since committed to further investment in Series B, which is close to completion. Both rounds raised eight-figure dollar sums.
The PTO has also recruited some heavy hitters in the boardroom, such as vice-chairman Chris Kermode, the former head of the men’s ATP tennis tour.
“Pro triathletes are truly superhuman in their athletic achievements,” Renouf says. “Moritz is not a triathlete but he recognised the potential in the business plan.”
Triathlon’s transformation hinges on changing the way it makes money and turning it into a 21st century media rights business.
Since its dawn in California and Hawaii in the 1970s it has been participation-led, with entry fees the main source of revenue for organisers of events such as the Ironman series.
The PTO believes there is sufficient interest in the sport to pivot to a new model which will hinge on the sale of broadcast rights and sponsorships.
It is a gamble that will need to pay off in order to cover the prize money, which for each race is at least $1m, around 30 per cent more than the Ironman World Championship.
“It’s going to take time. We’re fortunate that we have investors who recognise that,” adds Renouf. “The [ideal] outcome is that these triathletes become household names and are ultimately compensated as a result.”
Like golf, triathlon is a popular pastime with high-earners, only without such an ageing market, and can therefore target similar brands in financial services and motoring.
The PTO has held talks with prospective title sponsors of the tour and hopes to have one in place for its first full season, 2023.
Last week it announced a major broadcast deal with Warner Bros Discovery which will see all races shown in the UK on Eurosport.
The network will also showcase magazine content building the narratives in the lead-up to each event, while the tour has also launched its own streaming platform, PTO+.
“Our strategy is simple: to create a handful of big budget events and gain the broadcast reach and exposure so that people know and care about the athletes,” says Renouf.
“The outcome of that, we think, is that this could be one of the most valuable sports enterprises out there because you’ve got incredible superhuman athletes and this demographic of very wealthy participants. If you can consolidate the two with a media product it’s very special.”
Triathlon is just the latest sport to undergo disruption in the last few years, as the pandemic has accelerated radical change in the industry.
Rugby union and football are awash with private equity money, English cricket has a new format and tournament in The Hundred, and LIV Golf is exposing the fault lines in the men’s game.
Others have run aground, but if the PTO succeeds with its athlete-owned vision for triathlon it could show the way for other disruptors.
“We hope it becomes a blueprint for the future,” says Renouf.