Opinion: Ironman buyout offers chance of quick PR wins for owners

Following yesterday’s news that Ironman has been bought by a Chinese conglomerate, many commentators have predicted further price rises or worse for the iconic triathlon brand. 220 columnist Tim Heming mulls it over.

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I suppose you can still include chasing a Double Gloucester down Cooper’s Hill, snorkelling a few bogs in Llanwrtyd Wells, and maybe even pulling on the oars in the lung-busting Varsity Boat Race, but to find a sport where the Corinthian ideals of amateurism still survive at the highest level is no easy task.

M-dot tattoos are just one example of the brand loyalty Ironman enjoys (image: iStockPhoto) 

Sport is now business. Big business. And in that respect, at least, you could say that Ironman is leading the way. In the USA, triathlon is Ironman, yet Ironman is also a for-profit private company – not a federation – as we are constantly reminded by countless examples of its revenue-optimising decisions.

Even so, selling bathroom scales (‘body composition monitors’) and online coaching accreditation pale against the latest example of capitalist intent, this week’s sale to Chinese corporate behemoth Dalian Wanda Group for £650million plus a mopping up of debts. It marks the bumper return former owners Providence Equity Partners (PEP) were looking for, yet is little more than chump change to the fast-diversifying Wanda Group whose assets totalled $86.6billion last year.

Leading from the front

Already the world’s largest property developer and cinema chain operator, Wanda has shown a penchant for sport in 2015, picking up a stake in Spanish football side, the 2014 Champions League finalists Atlético Madrid, and Swiss sports marketing agency Infront, which holds the broadcast rights to the next two World Cups.

Whether the new boss, 60-year-old Wian Jianlin, will lead from the front and have a go himself as CEO Andrew Messick did remains to be seen, but given Jianlin spent 17 years in the People’s Liberation Army, I cannot imagine an Ironman holding too many fears. Whether it also paves the way for 50 professional women in Kona is perhaps more of a hot topic for discussion, and an anomaly where the new owners could score quick public relations success by rectifying.

Chrissie Wellington racing in Kona

On social forums there has been some agitation at the prospect of Far Eastern governance dragging premier long distance triathlon still further from its spiritual home in Hawaii. But this is a changing world. In our own capital city, foreign investment has stampeded at every opportunity.

Look around you. From Arsenal Football Club’s stadium to The ExCel convention centre in Docklands – home to the biggest triathlon in the world. Wanda itself is already financing a five-star hotel next to the Thames costing $1.1billion and has bought up a UK-based maker of luxury yachts used in Bond movies.

What do these examples have in common? First class service and a few quibbles over the price to the consumer… Pretty much on par with what the PEP version of Ironman delivered, then.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

Ironman has changed hands for money before and the rumour mill was in overdrive with takeover talk, fed by Messick’s constant referencing of global growth as a carrot for suitors every time he stood behind a microphone. In the USA, the triathlon market is flatlining, in Western Europe and Australasia it is mature, but in the Far East, South America, Eastern Europe and even the Middle East – as we know from the stirrings in Bahrain – there is strong appetite. 

As these societies develop and become increasingly cash-rich and diet-poor, the bucket-list goal of Ironman looks a tempting prospect. Without rapid expansion it will take a few years to retrieve the initial investment, so expect more race choice in exotic locations that will see pasty Brits struggle with heat acclimatisation and become neurotic over the local cuisine.

Racing along Tenby harbour at Ironman Wales

For the average UK age-grouper, devoted to the backstreets of Bolton or the extended transitions of Tenby, it’s unlikely much will differ, at least in the short term. Perhaps the new owners will want to put down a marker, but when you have a brand that customers are prepared to tattoo on to their calves, it would be foolish to test that loyalty. Prices will be dictated by demand and even with Ironman’s aggressive business tactics there is no shortage of non-WTC events available to keep soaraway entry fees in check.

If you are of the calibre to line up in Hawaii though, you might find qualifying becoming a little trickier. With further expansion of the 250 or so races the Word Triathlon Corporation runs, it will be increasingly difficult to win a spot on the hallowed Kona pier.

(Main image: Paul Phillips)

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