Monday, October 11, 2010

Here I go again, thinking too much.

I've been sent two emails since Chris "Macca" McCormack won the Ironman World Championships on Saturday from a PR firm representing Wheaties breakfast cereal.  Saturday night, they sent me a press release saying that Macca will be the first Ironman World Champion to be featured on a Wheaties box.  This morning, they sent it to me again suggesting that I should mention it on my blog.  So I am.  Here is a link to the full press release.

Macca is going to be part of a pretty cool club.  I found this list of athletes that have been featured on the Wheaties box.  Lance Armstrong has been on the there.  So has Red Auerbach.  Chris Everett, Jim Thorpe, Darrell Waltrip and Kristi Yamaguchi have been on there too.  I wonder if there is collector's market for the boxes?

I'm excited for Macca.  He's now part of a long standing tradition, and I'm sure he takes home a bit of cash for the effort.  After all, I'm certainly for triathletes moving up the professional athlete pay-scale.

I have to hand it to General Mills as well.  Eric Heiden and Shawn White are two more that have been on the box. In fact, I was surprised at the number of non baseball/football/basketball athletes that have been featured over the years.  This certainly suggests that progressive thinking has always been the norm in the Wheaties marketing department.

Where I'm not feeling the love is for the World Triathlon Corporation.  In May, they announced a licensing deal with Powerbar for the creation of the Ironman Perform sports drink.  Powerbar is owned by Nestle, and is thus part of the global food machine.  As you know, I am not a big fan of any "global machine".  But more importantly, I don't know too many people who actually use Powerbar products.  Triathletes are a smart and healthy bunch.  We've all done our research.  And my guess is that your research has led you to the same conclusions that mine has - that there are better products available made by smaller companies.

Ditto on Wheaties.  Does anyone who is reading this actually eat Wheaties?  If you do, cool.  I actually like them quite a bit.  But I've done my research and made what I think are smarter choices.

Maybe I'm way off.  But if I'm right and triathletes are generally looking to smaller companies that produce a higher quality product, then this could be the start of a crack of disconnection between triathletes and the holy grail of triathlon - Ironman.

The WTC is a for profit company.  I've got no problem with that.  But I would hate to see the WTC fall into the same trap that many other industries have by making short term financial gains at the expense of alienating their customers.  It happened in the recording industry.  MP3's exploded on the scene in a huge and unstoppable way, but what did the record labels do?  They redoubled their efforts to shove compact discs down the consumer's throat.  Forget the legal arguments about file sharing, the bigger issue was that the gross margins on the sale of a plastic disc is much better than the gross margin on a computer file.  The labels wanted their margins, but the consumers wanted MP3's.  Guess what?  The consumers won, and the recording industry (as we know it) is dead.

Full disclosure, I've never looked at the business model of a for profit triathlon production and marketing company.  But if Ironman events work more or less like events that I am familiar with (concerts, movie theaters), then the races work something like this - Participant race fees cover the cost of event production and profit is made from residual income streams like merchandising and commercial tie-ins.  But the question is, do you take sponsorship money from the company who will write the biggest check regardless of what your customers actually feel about that company's products or do you identify the right emerging companies (just like your customers are doing) and develop a long term relationship with them?

I get the title sponsorships.  Without Ford, Rohto or Foster Grant there would be no Ironman.  But I think it would serve the WTC well to be more discerning when it comes to sport specific product endorsements.  Especially nutrition - because nutrition is on every triathlete's top 5 list of priorities, is potentially a very polarizing subject and gets a lot of day-in day-out attention.

The WTC is also going to catch a lot of heat for the 5150 Olympic distance race series, and this will be a slippery slope for them.  Though the 5150 website is not "co-branded" with an Ironman logo, the word "Ironman" is used a bunch of times in the press release.  Is the WTC is throwing "Ironman" around to attract sponsors (e.g. cash) or athletes?  Well, I doubt you need to say "Ironman" to attract athletes.  I don't think anyone doubts the quality of a WTC produced event and these races will fill up.

The truth is that the WTC and "Ironman" are inseparable at this point.  Long course triathletes who have completed an Ironman event obviously feel a huge connection to the Ironman brand.  The word "Ironman" and the M-Dot logo are badges of honor to them, and I don't blame them for feeling that way.  So I'm not at all surprised to see some resistance to the Olympic races from Ironman long course finishers.  There is a huge difference between 51.5 kilometers and 140.6 miles.  And it's only going to take one Ironman Olympic distance finisher to think they qualify for the M-Dot tattoo and diminish the brand.  Am I being a little snobby?  Perhaps I am by proxy, because I've never done a 140.6.  But snobby or not, it's true.

How do I wrap this post up?  I guess by saying my criticism is coming from a good place because I am still a fan of Ironman.  I want to see the sport continue to thrive and prosper.  And Ironman is obviously a huge part of the success equation.  But the idealist in me would like to see things stay as innocent as possible for as long as possible.  Peace, love and leave it all out on the road....


Big Daddy Diesel said...

Hunter Kemper was another triathlete already on Wheaties Fuel box. I think there is many other professional triathletes that are more of a "role model" then Macca that Wheaties could have used. I just dont like Macca attitude towards the sport. I think he is a great athlete though.

Every triathlete knows the M dot tattoo is reserved for the 140.6 race. I can only fore see newbies attempting to get a tattoo for a 5150 race, but the ridicule they will face from veterans will be enough that they will cover it. 5150, I think is to make Rev3 go away, we will wait and see if that happens.

These are just my opinions.

Tri-James said...

I am a Macca fan.

But the question is, do you take sponsorship money from the company who will write the biggest check regardless of what your customers actually feel about that company's products?

The answer is YES – if you are a private equity firm who’s only interested in the brand for the next 3 – 5 years. I mean, there is an ironman mattress and ironman cologne (that sounds disgusting).

I do, however, believe that they have grown the sport and the brand more effectively than any other company – and in a very short amount of time. I’m not a hater – but I can see it coming.

The Wheaties boxes with Hunter could not be found here - just the Manning and some other guy ...

KovasP said...

I'm not a big fan of either Macca or WTC, but not because they are doing something wrong, just not my style. WTC is the commercial side of multisport, loud and obnoxious, much in the same way Macca is. Their goal is prestige and cash and nothing wrong with that. There are many other athletes you can follow, just as there are many other long course triathlons you can race. There is room enough for all in the multisport world.

Unknown said...

Dude it's like you crawled into my brain and stole my thoughts! I just didn't have the words to describe the feeling. You hit the nail on the head. I think WTC is taking Ironman to the edge of jumping the shark and over-commercializing it. I know I'm looking more at the Rev3 series and Redman in OK rather than IM events.

Lindsay said...

What about iron-distance tris that aren't run by the ironman corporation? (IE: Great Floridian for one) is that not considered an ironman? Just curious....

Emz said...

Stop thinking.
get your Robin suit on.

Run AZ!

Lucas R. Tucker said...

First, great post- I enjoyed your opinions. Second, I do plan to buy and eat a box of the wheaties just out of support to the sport. Third, I dream of the day that I can complete an Ironman event, but right now I am learning via sprints and looking ahead to Olympic distances. I found a sprint series to compete in next year so that I can not only compare myself to other athletes at one race, but the whole series. I would prefer to find a series of olympic races however there is not oen around. THAT is (and here is my point) why I think the 5150 is neat sicne it is fromt he WTC who SHOULD know how to roganize races. However, I would never me this guy....... "And it's only going to take one Ironman Olympic distance finisher to think they qualify for the M-Dot tattoo ". I think that those of in touch with reality, or who are serious about wanting be do a full course one day, respect that and would never equate olympic sistance and 140.6. I'm sure there is that guy out there who wants to be cool and would do his first and only ever triathlon at a WTC 5150 because he thinks that would give himt he right for the tattoo. I am hoping that somewhere in his training for his only ever race, the life guards would remove him from the gene pool.

Unknown said...

I think that it's super cool that Macca will be on the Wheaties box... I didn't know anyone actually ate Wheaties though... just liked seeing who was on the box.

I've done three Ironman branded 140.6 and while two of them were top notch and one fell VERY short, I'm starting to get a bad taste in my mouth about the brand. They see dollar signs which I get, but I feel like this is taking away from the athletes experience - from the uber expensive clothing at the expos, to the change of drink offered on the course, it's just not as fun. By them adding the 5150 series, I think it just opens the door for people to have the conversation that I dread. - "You've done an Ironman? Me too... mine was an olympic". Naw... that's not right...

Unknown said...

I share your concern about WTC and the 5150 races but for an entirely different reason. I don't worry that these athletes will consider themselves having done an "ironman" race, because for those outside of the "one and done" group, they'll be quickly educated by other racers that while 5150 is WTC run, and has the M-Dot logo involved, it's no an ironman.

What I am concerned about primarily is that WTC is just biting off WAY more than it can chew, and growing beyond what it can support with its current staff. Some examples; they're buying up every 70.3 race in sight and at the same time adding 5150. They've moved the 70.3 championship for next year to Las Vegas to be in direct competition with the sports governing body. My guess, is they think of themselves as the defacto governing body.

How does this hurt athletes? Well, if everything goes well at your race, it doesn't. But what about the 200+ Timberman 70.3 athletes who didn't get medals on race day because they someone at the company ordered fewer medals assuming folks wouldn't finish. Or the fact that now, 7 weeks after the race, only 1/2 of those 200 folks have gotten their medals. Or take IM LP, that had so many problems that WTC is not even taking calls on the subject, directing issues to the race director instead.

For profit companies often make decisions that directly go against the best interest of their customers, based mostly on the bottom line. And usually those companies eventually begin to see the negative effects of those decisions (Take the Big 3 automakers as an example). In the end the 5150 races make sense as a cash grab; new triathletes will shoot for olympic races long before they'll do a 70.3 or beyond. But from a prestige and supportability factor, they'll damage the brand in the long run.

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Christi said...

Great post! But can I just say one thing about the Wheaties box. There was more than one Ironman World Champion that day. Why is Mirinda not getting a box?

Unknown said...

Tried to post a comment about capitalism v consumerism and blah, blah, blah .. but blogger shit the bed and the comment is gone. Not enough energy to write it again. But you would have enjoyed it Patrick.

valen said...

on one side you have the sporting quest that kona represents.
on the other, the fact that someone needs to run the event and make some money out of it.
on the ethical side, It would be great that WTC embraces the good values of fair trade, no slave work and certainly not child work. unfortunately it won't happen and many of the 2000 people doing the race were probably not thinking on making them accountable for it. Which is fine, they are there to do a race.
thanks for the trigger, it will distract me enough from my work for the rest ofthe day.

Quinton J said...

I know of a lot of cases where the big companies focus on marketing first and then deal with a product line.
Sometimes when the big company get’s their foot in the door by establishing a connection with the demographic they’re aiming for, they either buy out some of the small companies who are doing it right in terms of products that people trust and love. That or they create a new duplicate product line, flex their money/distribution muscle, offer the same products cheaper and push those small guys out. These big companies can me slimy.


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