by Kelly O’Mara
If you pay attention to triathlon statistics and particularly enjoy bar graphs, then you’ve likely seen the charts going around about how the end of triathlon is nigh. The 2015 USA Triathlon (USAT) Membership Report finally corroborated what many have known for a while: triathlon is, at best, leveling off in the U.S. and is, at worse, on a larger decline. What has people wringing their hands the most is that within our lack of growth is the hard demographic fact that fewer young people are becoming triathletes — making it possible to worry about triathlon literally dying off. But, I tend to think reports of our demise are greatly exaggerated.
It’s not unrealistic to think triathlon will reach some sort of natural limit too, whether in this expansion cycle or some future cycle.
First, and most importantly, it needs to be said: growth isn’t automatically good or necessary. Yes, triathlon participation in the U.S. is on the decline or, in the big picture, still higher than it used to be. But that’s partially because triathlon had been growing for years at a rate that was never sustainable long-term. Just because that’s ending doesn’t mean our sport is in crisis.
A high of 510,859 people purchased annual or one-day triathlon licenses in 2012. Ten years ago, that number was just 181,042. Since the late 1990s, triathlon has seen unprecedented growth in the U.S. That’s been declining for the last four years with just 432,447 people purchasing a license last year. In part though it was unreasonable to expect wild growth to continue indefinitely. And I’m not sure it has to. You know what else isn’t growing anymore in either participation or popularity in America? Football. Yet, football manages to do just fine—though it has plenty of other issues to deal with; lots of other issues.
It’s not unrealistic to think triathlon will reach some sort of natural limit too, whether in this expansion cycle or some future cycle. To think that the sport should have continued to see 20% annual growth forever was absurd — and yet it was under those expectations that many now feel duped.
It’s hard to know whether the numbers suggesting fewer young people want to do triathlon are simply life cycle factors
Triathlon is undeniably at an inflection point, post-growth, post-Ironman expansion, and post-industry-wide investment. As races consolidate and companies fold—some of which maybe never should have existed in the first place but that managed to survive while the margins were easy—it’s easy to see the drop in the number of events heralding worse things to come. Although this isn’t a harbinger of triathlon’s death so much as a byproduct of how we got to this point.
During our period of heavy growth, the only way to meet demand was with quick scale— and scale demands homogenization. Money poured in and now we’re left with The Money looking around wondering why its cookie-cutter events aren’t selling out like they used to. Gee, must be because the sport is dying!
It’s hard to know whether the numbers suggesting fewer young people want to do triathlon are simply life cycle factors; how many 20-year-olds ever have the money for an Ironman or indications of larger shifts. There’s been a lot of talk about “millennials” not being interested in this ‘40-year-old man’s sport’ anymore, at least not in how it currently exists. But those same millennials helped spur obstacle course racing and mud races and the running boom before that. And the number of youth swimmer and runners is higher than it’s ever been. The potential is there for our sport to attract these athletes. It attracts wild numbers in Australia and Germany—and that those countries also have some of the top professional triathletes and the most rapid fan bases is hard to ignore in a chicken-egg question. But we have to give them a reason to do a triathlon in the first place — and right now there isn’t really one.
I’m not particularly looking forward to the messy rebirth triathlon has to go through. I’m not in love with where we’ve gotten; as we lose iconic events to casualties in this reshuffling. I’m worried I won’t like where we end up even more. I do think, though, this is forcing for us to tackle important questions about where we go from here. Triathlon isn’t dying; it’s finding it’s next incarnation.