Why I "Pro"

My wife sent me a link to a blog post written by Kendra Goffredo. It’s the follow-up to a discussion that she had with Andrew Messick, CEO of WTC (Ironman). At the end of their conversation, Andrew asked Kendra why she raced as a pro, and – as she was pondering her answer – suggested, “it’s for the ‘free’ entry, right?” In my opinion, that was a joke. Humor is often lost in translation into writing, and I wasn’t there, so it’s entirely possible I’m wrong here. I don’t really think it matters. What does matter is that I know that Andrew is genuinely interested in the answer to this question. Kendra goes on to say that the answer to the question was too long and too hard to describe simply, so she just gave a simple answer (paraphrasing), “it allows me greater impact in raising awareness for the charity I support, the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.”
There’s a history to Kendra’s answer that she felt was hard to explain simply, which is why she wrote the post she did. What I think is interesting is that there is a history to Andrew’s question, which is why I decided to write this post. Andrew was roundly lambasted – unfairly, in my opinion – for a topic he broached in an interview on changes to the pro qualifying structure and prize money. The interview is on Slowtwitch and can be found here
The particular question/answer was:

ST: If you cut down the number of your races offering a pro purse, fewer people can contend for that pot. Do you anticipate that this will shrink the number of pros because they will have a harder time making a living?

Andrew: You would think so but I don’t know. We don’t know why people choose to be professional triathletes. To be a professional triathlete within our system you have to be designated by a national governing body. You need to be a professional licensed by us. Those are the two process steps that place you as a pro athlete. According to sources, there are 1,100 pro triathletes. And every one of them is doing it for their own reasons. I don’t know why Rachel Joyce is a professional triathlete as opposed to practicing law. She is lawyer. I am not sure why Amanda Stevens is a professional triathlete as opposed to practicing medicine because she is a doctor. I am not sure why Meredith Kessler left working in finance. But I trust that all of them had a good reason for it. And that they chose being a professional triathlete because that is how they wanted to live their life. Hopefully, that choice provides them a combination of benefits and money, [and advantages based] around flexibility and chasing a dream that made it worth it. 

Many people interpreted Andrew as saying, roughly, “I have no idea why anyone would want to be a pro.” But that’s not at all what he was saying. He elaborated on this recently at an AWA meeting in The Woodlands prior to IMTX where Heather Wurtele and I spoke. What he said elaborated on what he said earlier, and that was to say that almost every pro, especially in long course triathlon, has his  or her own very different reason for wanting to be a pro. Contrast this with football or baseball or basketball or golf or most any other “mainstream” sport, where the answer is some combination of “I love the sport” and (overwhelmingly) “I get paid a lot.” For most professional athletes in mainstream sports, being a professional athlete is probably the highest paying job they can get. For some athletes in triathlon, that is also true. But for a large group (maybe even a majority), being a pro is perhaps the lowest – or at least a lower – paying job they could get. This isn’t to say being a pro cannot allow for a good living. I feel incredibly fortunate to support my wife and three kids doing something I love. But I do recognize that in that regard, I am probably more the exception than the rule. But still, I am biased to believe that I could likely earn as much or more doing something else. So why am I am pro? 
The title of this blog post is a play on the Ironman social media hashtag “#whyitri” which asked people why they do triathlon. The reasons are legion. But the reasons as to why the roughly 1000 pros who are ranked on the KPR race as a pro are also legion. And, certainly, there are a fair number for whom it purely is, as Andrew suggested, an economic calculus: it’s cheaper to pay $800ish dollars for unlimited race entries and the ability to enter sold-out (to age-group athletes) races than it would be to race as an age-grouper. That’s reality. It may not be Kendra’s reality, but it is a reality nonetheless. 
And this legion of answers to the question #whyipro is a topic of real concern to Andrew and to WTC. Because this variety makes it really challenging to develop any sort of comprehensive approach to how pro athletes should be treated. It’s a classic tenet of economics that, “People respond to incentives.” Looking at the negotiations, for example, between the MLBPA and the league, there’s a relatively narrow set of interests. Same with other major league sports. This makes negotiations “easier.” There’s obviously still a lot of head-butting within the players’ association. But there’s enough common ground that the association can still function. History has, so far, argued that there is not enough common ground for an association (a union) to function within triathlon. Kendra Goffredo, based on her own accounting of why she races as a pro, has very little in common, at least by traditional professional athlete standards, with Sebastian Kienle. Now, certainly, I think they do have common ground – it offers both of them a richer life experience, but I also think that has very disparate meanings to each of them.
This profound difference in what  has a very real impact on the direction of the sport. Kendra wondered whether or not Andrew would read her blog post. I would say he likely did (or will), based on what I know about him. But the bigger question is, really, “what does he do with that information?” Imagine if every pro wrote such a post. Would there be any logical takeaway from that collective? Or would it simply reveal just how fractured the pro side of the sport is? 
In my own reading on Kendra’s post, I saw very clearly why she chose to become a pro. What I didn’t see is how that decision offers any insight into the question about the future of professional triathlon as a whole. How can we take what Kendra wrote and say, “okay, based on why you are a pro, how do we make professional triathlon better for pros as a group?” And “How do we make it better for you?” And, then, “Are those things compatible?”
These are questions Andrew is trying to answer. These are questions I am trying to answer. This is a big part of the role I play as an Ironman Pro Ambassador. At times, it seems like what’s best for the future is incompatible with what’s best for the present. There also, at times, an incompatibility between what is best “for the sport” and what I think is best for me. These are challenges that need to be reconciled, both weighing where professional triathlon should go and how to balance that with where we are right now. And then, of course, there is the tough balance of pros accepting things that are not in their own best interests but are in the best interest of the sport going forward. These are not easy balances to find. And there seems to be very little agreement currently, just as there has been very little agreement throughout the history of the sport. Dan Empfield wrote about the failed history of professional unions on Slowtwitch more than 15 years. And it’s just as accurate today.
This is backdrop against which Andrew’s question needs to be set. Perhaps he should taken the time to explain all of this to Kendra. But maybe he asked the question briefly for the same reason that Kendra replied only briefly – the backstory is a long one. But professional athletes need to understand that getting WTC to understand their own motivations is important. Likewise, they need to understand that understanding Andrew and WTC’s motivations is essential to moving triathlon forward for professionals. 
Kendra wrote:

I am not sure why he asked or what he’ll do with the information or if he’ll remember our conversation at all, but I stopped there. There were so many more reasons, but this wasn’t the venue for a conversation of such magnitude. 

Mr. Messick would have had to come with me the following week on my bike trip through rural Vietnam to understand why I race as a pro.

I disagree. It’s part of our job as pros to be able to convey why we do what we do in casual conversation. It’s a story we need to be prepared to tell. And if a face-to-face conversation with the man who has the most power to change the direction of our sport isn’t the right place to share that story, I don’t know what is. I will say that this was exactly the right venue for a conversation of such magnitude. Because the flipside of this story is, That time I couldn’t explain to the IRONMAN CEO why I race pro.

As triathlon continues to evolve as a sport, having a compelling argument for the pro side of the sport is essential. As pros, we need to be able to explain not only why we race as a pro, but also why that is important to the present and future of the sport. Kendra said, “I am not sure … what he’ll do with the information.” And I think this mirrors Andrews own statement, “We don’t know why people chose to be professional athletes.” It’s the same dilemma, posed from the other side of the table. But I think there’s a logical question that emerges from that, and it’s one that we all need to answer individually and, hopefully, collectively – “What do we want to achieve by explaining why we want to be pros? What do we want IRONMAN to do with this information?” I know #whyipro. But what’s really important is whether or not that actually matters and, critically, why it does (or doesn’t).

Post script: some people have pointed out that I didn’t answer the specific question of why I, personally, “pro.” In fairness, my goal here was more to talk about the importance of the why of the why. In other words, why it matters why you pro. But, since I was asked, here is my why.
Fundamentally, it is because I am terrified of a desk job. The other reasons have changed over time. I wanted to win an Ironman. And then I did. I wanted to win a world championship. Then I did. Now I feel like it’s largely about self mastery, which I touched on in my prior post “Crooked Timber.” This last concept is the one I feel is the most relevant and valuable, because I think it echoes the reasons that a lot of age group athletes race, which means (ideally) that I can share a larger part of their experience with them. And for a participatory sport like triathlon, that is – in my opinion – the way that pros deliver value: by enhancing the experience of the age group athlete.

Post post script: Kendra chimed in on Facebook with a good comment in reply to what I wrote. She said,

Hi Jordan, Thank you for sharing! You make some interesting points. Now, i’m just having trouble moving those points forward into action. Can you provide some examples of changes WTC could (or should?) make if they knew what motivated their body of pros? For example, what suggestions would you make to WTC if it was discovered the majority of pros race pro for the reason you cited, fear of a desk job? I’m having trouble envisioning what actionable step WTC could make with that information. Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts! 

I tried to give a thoughtful reply that gives some concrete examples of the relevance of what I wrote, and I thought that was a worthwhile addition to the piece as whole.

Let me start with a concrete example of a change that was made. At most races (at least in North America), there are now two dedicated toilets in transition for pros. This wasn’t a significant cost, but it still represents a cost. But this was a huge positive for *all* pros. I think virtually every pro would have voted “yes, I would rather have two extra toilets than an extra $200 in the prize purse.” So that was a no brainer. That was an easy decision for WTC to make.  

At the other end of the spectrum are questions like, “how deep should prize money go? And how should it be distributed?” That’s a hugely divisive issue. One particularly divisive topic is travel support. Now we are starting to talk about bigger dollar figures. There’s a huge discrepancy in what pros want when the discussion becomes, “would you rather see another $10,000 in the prize purse or would you rather see $500 in travel support for 20 athletes?” The typical answer is “we want BOTH!” And that is typical of how many – most – of these conversations go. There’s very little sense of trade offs, compromise, etc. 

So to circle back to your question, one of the biggest opportunities for moving the sport forward comes with things that WTC can do that do NOT cost them money. In your case, let’s take the MMRF. In my case, it’s World Bicycle Relief. The work I do with WBR is hugely important to me. Through the Ironman Foundation, I’m able to dramatically increase the reach I have in my fundraising efforts. That’s great for WBR. But, selfishly, it’s also good for me and “my brand.” It doesn’t really cost WTC anything – or, rather, the incremental cost is pretty minimal – if they can support you and your charity efforts as opposed to any other charity. So, there’s a real example of how your motivations could make a real difference in how WTC works with pros. Because if a lot of pros have charity work that is important to them, that means that the IMF suddenly has a whole new group of potential ambassadors to work with. Everybody should win. 

In another example, one of the things we’ve (meaning folks at WTC and I) talked about is trying to leverage what WTC has a lot of – and that is business expertise. Everyone rails on the fact that WTC is owned by a private equity group. But that’s an opportunity as well. A lot of – basically all – pros could use mentorship on the business side. And providing that has a cost to WTC, but it also has a very real ROI – more professional pros. But how to tailor that mentorship? That’s where the motivation of pros becomes relevant.
Hope that helps give some insight. 

2 thoughts on “Why I "Pro"

  1. Jordan:

    Not exactly on point but somewhat related issue. What i dont understand is why WTC and Challenge dont do more press on each race (like our major professional sports do). I get that triathlon doesnt have the following of football, but an article or two leading up to each race about what to expect, predictions, “Jordan Rapp has been training strong, he is hitting main sets at #ftp…”, so and so has a nagging hip issue, profile an age group battle that might take place, etc. would go a long way to getting interest up–triathletes like that, they like thinking Rapp only pushes “X” watts, i push “Y”, i am almost there (even if we are not close)). i also think that post race there should be more of a recap on ironman.com, challenge, slowtwitch, etc. as to what went down. most race recaps i see could be written by just looking at the standings–they could probably make it a volunteer position to write an article about the race or cover the 40-44 age group men on a blog during the race, etc. also they could have a volunteer take pictures and post those, etc. all of this would generate more interests, presumably more revenue and ultimately bigger $$ for the race owners and the pros–seems simple at little to no cost–why not try the model (to some degree) of the major sports and hype it up.

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  2. @RF

    I agree with some of what you wrote and disagree with others. I disagree on the “pre-race coverage” aspect. I just don't think people are really all that interested. Plus, without a real infrastructure of reporters, you end up relying on the athletes, and I promise you will we all lie about how things have been going. LeBron or Steph Curry can't really lie because someone is watching almost their every move. We don't have that. Nor do I want it.

    You are starting to get some of it with the Quarq module used for live tracking at the championships which relays pace/power/HR/position, but I'm not sure that is really all that interesting after the fact. It's interesting DURING.

    But the post-race recaps could indeed be more detailed for one simple reason – what AG athletes can learn from how pros race and how that can impact their own racing. That's what people care about. How do *I* get faster. And information that helps people do that is what's valuable.

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