As we count down to the 2015 Ironman World Championships we see the triathlon world in its Kona bubble with the usual pre-race hype and fluff. Endless predictions on ‘who will win’ based on gossip accompanied by selfies, sponsor promotion and pro spotting in place of any serious analysis or commentary.
I’m yet to read a preview of this year’s women’s ‘World Championships’ that takes into account the unfair nature of the race for female pros or how this will affect race dynamics. The very real possibility that the lead women will find themselves with drafting penalties (again) for catching the slower pro men (again) not getting a mention.
Of course no-one likes to play the Grinch at Christmas, but it would be nice if the occasion could be used to confront rather than hide from the issues affecting the sport.
One being how Ironman’s acquisition by a Chinese conglomerate (Dalian Wanda Group) for close to $1 billion is going to impact the sport for its participants and professional athletes at next year’s race.
My Kona prediction? No matter the outcome this Saturday the best performance has already come from Ironman CEO Andrew Messick.
Brought in to sharpen the WTC corporate face – he has lifted revenues and cash flow to leverage a buyout of the sport without any risk to his parent company’s balance sheet while delivering a profit.
In short. He has taken a frog and sold it as a prince.
Is it the best thing for the athletes or long term interests of the sport? Time will tell. But business-wise the job he has done in selling the company for such an overvalued amount is nothing short of genius. It was his brief and I congratulate him on achieving it.
However, as the pro athletes man the sponsor booths this week (unpaid of course) they may want to consider how the sport’s professional arm had zero voice in the negotiations and were totally oblivious to any of the machinations as Ironman was sold without any consultation on their behalf. With it, they lost any chance of gaining a greater voice in bargaining for positive and fair improvements for themselves in a new future deal.
Or to put it another way: The race is over and Messick won. Performing a super job for his (past) owners while thwarting every feeble attempt by the pros to gain a voice in the interim as a new deal and structure was put together behind the scenes.
What are China’s plans for the future and how do they expect to deal in future with the pro arm of the business?
I don’t know, but there is some reason for optimism. As the new company is so huge WTC revenues will now not even make close to 1% difference in the parent company’s balance sheet. So we may conclude that they didn’t buy triathlon for a revenue stream, but to acquire an iconic American sport’s business.
Thus they may be persuaded to justify their purchase by demonstrating to the previous owners how to run and grow a professional sport. One that actually pays its professional competitors fairly.
The Chinese do long term strategy very well.
So I’m hoping that Andrew, if asked to stay on as CEO, will be given a different brief by his new masters other than the ‘stake it, screw it, squeeze every dollar out of it, then flip it’ mentality we’ve seen executed on behalf of his private equity partners so effectively over the past few years.
For our part we hope to help convince whoever is the new CEO in 2016 that Wanda have now acquired a jewel that has been masquerading as a piece of coal. One that with wise stewardship can take a seat at the big boys table of professional sport and be identified in the same global terms as their beloved ping pong or even snooker, and as such be developed as the new tennis or golf of endurance sports.
I can tell you every pro should also be praying that the new owners, who do know something about running professional sport’s organisations (the portfolio includes football teams including a stake in Atletico Madrid), take it in their minds that with this purchase they can make our amateur sport into a global sports giant. This can be their value from a new deal.
But pray hard people, as the alternative is going to be very harsh indeed.