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“There’s going to be a strong trend towards localisation” | Andrew Messick, Ironman

  • Over 140 Ironman events postponed or cancelled because of Covid-19
  • Staff have tried to match competitors to rescheduled races based on travel restrictions
  • Mass participation events now allowed in New Zealand

Though few sports are immune to the impact of Covid-19, it’s hard to think of an industry segment more acutely vulnerable than the mass participation business.

While top-tier football and the US major leagues can schedule closed-door action to shore up television revenues and mitigate losses, there is no such recourse for a sector that depends to such a large extent on race fees and bringing large congregations of people together.

Andrew Messick, chief executive of the Ironman Group, the world’s largest mass participation business, concedes that his company has “largely been out of business” since the middle of March, having had to either cancel or postpone over 140 events globally. Throw in Wanda Sports Group’s, not entirely unrelated, sale of the company to Advanced Publications and Orkila Capital just a few weeks into the pandemic, and you could say he has faced a fair amount of upheaval recently.

Messick speaks to SportBusiness in what he describes as the ‘waxing and waning’ period between the signing and closing of the deal, as Wanda dials down its involvement and Advanced begins to acquaint itself with the business. Subject to regulatory approval, the $730m (€642m) sale is expected to conclude toward the end of June.

The transition will be helped by the fact that Messick already knows Orkila Capital founder Jesse Du Bey from the time he led Providence Equity Partners’ investment in Ironman, prior to Wanda’s involvement. Du Bey personally recruited Messick for the role and the pair followed similar routes into the business, competing in Ironman events before taking up executive positions.

“My relationship with Jesse is a decade old. He’s someone we have a great relationship with and have an enormous amount of respect for, and he understands our business,” says Messick. “The Advanced team are scrambling up the learning curve, and we’re helping them. So far we have found them to be very insightful and thoughtful partners – particularly as we find ourselves coping with the impact of a global pandemic.”

Andrew Messick crosses the finish line in an Ironman event in Lake Placid, New York, in 2018. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images for Ironman)

Travel restrictions

Like many businesses that operate globalised models, and which depend heavily on international travel, one imagines the new owners will be helping Messick to wrestle with some fundamental questions.

“I think it is fair to say that in the immediate term at least, there’s going to be a strong trend toward localisation and we’re going to see fewer athletes have an appetite to get on airplanes to go to events,” he says. “We’re looking at our portfolio of events and how we market that to our athletes and how we marry supply and demand on a global basis. How do we rebalance that, somewhat?”

Ironman’s response has followed three distinct phases. In the first, the company’s 600-plus employees in 26 offices around the world have worked with host cities to push events back to September, October or November. They have then taken advantage of the company’s global scale to match supply with demand, as Messick suggests, by encouraging competitors to move from one event to another, according to the prevailing travel restrictions.

“We’re encouraging athletes, and athletes are reaching out to us saying: ‘I still want to race but maybe I don’t want to get on an airplane and fly from Denmark to Brazil. What I’d like to do is drive from Copenhagen to Hamburg and race there’.

“We’re being as accommodating as we can to help athletes who still want to race, who still want to participate in events, but who may want to take on a different profile in terms of travel.”

Five principles

The next phase has been to conceive of a plan for how races might safely resume before a vaccine is found for the virus.

In late May, Ironman released a set of five guidelines for the resumption of events based on World Health Organisation standards. The measures include plans to increase spacing between competitors, enhance hygiene at events and encourage athletes to carry their own hydration and nutrition to minimize interactions with staff and volunteers.

The group estimates that the principles could help eliminate up to 90 per cent of interactions during a typical race. But Messick stresses that events will continue to be led by health guidance in different race jurisdictions and the company’s own principles will not override any government regulations.

Professional triathlete Sarah Piampiano wears a face mask on a training ride (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images).

“We think that’s the only real way that organisers can move forward because every set of circumstances in every country – and within the United States, every state – is approaching the trade-off between public health and economic openness differently,” he says.

“We do not have a point of view on whether one approach is better than the others. We’re trusting our partners, and our partners are the communities, and we want to give confidence to our athletes that we’re working closely with those public health authorities to craft race experiences that make sense.”

This means there will be a lesser requirement for screening and staff training in New Zealand, for example, which at the time of writing, had delivered on its ambition to be completely free of Covid-19. Consequently, the country has just lifted its restrictions on mass participation events while the Ironman office there is the only one in the world where staff are no longer required to work remotely. Some of the events in the company’s portfolio in the region also lend themselves more readily to a localized model and will allow the company to take advantage of the country’s clean bill of health.

“If you look at the Auckland Marathon, which was the first big marathon that we bought, it’s overwhelmingly Kiwi, and it’s overwhelmingly North Island Kiwi,” says Messick. “The other side of the spectrum is the Ironman World Championships, where very few athletes come from the Big Island of Hawaii [host of the event since 1978].”

The Ironman Group’s safety guidelines have proven more helpful in reassuring public authorities in Lubbock, Texas, that an Ironman 70.3 race scheduled for the area in late June can go ahead. Local leaders have indicated that measures to increase spacing between competitors have reassured them that the risks to the public can be kept within acceptable tolerances.

Virtual racing

The third and final plank of the company’s strategy, while it waits for other events around the world to follow suit, has been to launch a virtual racing series. Messick says the events, which allow athletes to compete against one another online using wearable technology and fitness tracker apps, have provided a physical outlet for housebound athletes and additional exposure for sponsors to compensate them for the lack of live races.

The venture won’t have gone unnoticed by the company’s new owners, who want to use the latest generation of connected fitness applications like Zwift, Strava and Rouvy to deepen engagement with Ironman participants and integrate the Ironman brand even more into their daily lives.

Some high-profile female triathletes competing in one of Ironman’s virtual events for professionals.

“We have more than 100,000 people on the Ironman platform and we have north of 50,000 people on the Rock ‘n’ Roll [marathon] platform if you are racing with us virtually every weekend,” says Messick.

“The creation of virtual racing, the administration of virtual racing, the integration with our partners, the creation of live content with our professional athletes, all of that we have largely created from scratch in in the last few months.”

To date, the company has taken the decision not to charge competitors to take part in the virtual events, although Messick says they have helped to generate increased merchandise sales. The company has developed a range of finisher medals and virtual reality headsets branded with Ironman and Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon logos to coincide with the new venture. Virtual racing equipment suppliers Technogym and Rouvy have also signed as sponsors of the new series, although the firm wouldn’t divulge if these are paid or value-in-kind deals.

“I think that more broadly, we have a bigger, broader digital vision for the business,” says Messick. “And that is really becoming more engaged in the journey of our athletes and in using a lot of the tools and techniques that we’ve pioneered here within virtual racing to be able to support athletes as they train and prepare for ‘real’ Ironman events – outdoor racing – again.”

Messick believes the take-up of the virtual product proves how passionate and engaged the Ironman community is. The crisis also appears to provide further proof that triathlon is becoming one of the preferred sports of c-suite executives and is taking on some of golf’s reputation for being the sport of business networking. He says some well-placed triathletes have helped the company in its attempts to source temperature screening technology and other devices to prevent the spread of the disease at races.

“There are lots of passionate Ironman athletes in in all parts of the economy. And many of them have reached out to us to help secure various things in this situation that will enable us to return to racing perhaps a little bit quicker.”

Centralised model

Messick has previously joked about his obsessive attention to detail and his desire to control every aspect of events – even including the types of buoys used in the swimming legs – and there is no sign of this abating under the new owners.

The last time he worked with Du Bey during Providence’s stewardship of the business, they sought to own and control more Ironman events centrally, moving the company away from a business model of licensing its intellectual property to local organisers. When asked if he regrets not being able to devolve some of his current problems to licensees, Messick says the crisis has only given him more confidence in the centralised approach.

“Fundamentally, we don’t think anything has changed in the way we manage the Ironman brand. And our belief in being able to control the experience is one that, if anything, is more important now.

“We’ve always had a true north around athlete experience and safety and for these next months and potentially years, that’s going to be even more important.”

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