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....