20 March 2010

The New Sport Of Kings: A Conversation With Jeff Henderson, Pt. I

Back in October, I wrote a post about the prohibitive cost of training for, and racing triathlons. With the average cost of a sprint triathlon—an event usually comprised of an 800 yard swim, 15 mile bike, and a 5K—averaging around $75, to the grandaddy of all endurance race events: The Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 [marathon] run) ranging from $500-$600, it begs the question, how on Earth can athletes afford to compete in this sport? The race is only a fraction of the cost incurred by triathletes throughout the year. Gym membership, running shoes, wetsuit, carbon fiber bikes, race wheels, nutrition, tri specific apparel, am I missing anything? Not to mention, no seasoned triathlete is satisfied just racing one triathlon over the course of a season. We sacrifice our mornings, weekends, and slices of chocolate cake all off season for the opportunity to test our physical and mental preparedness out there on the actual stage. Unfortunately, the accoutrement associated with triathlon, and races can add up to thousands of dollars by the time it is all said and done. Unfortunately, many of my friends are unable to do more than one "big race" a year. Of course, if money were no object, I would probably do a race every weekend. Wait, my wife would never allow that. I take it back. In the midst of planning my race schedule this offseason, and paying for these race entry fees, I thought to myself, "with all this money being generated by race entry fees, corporate sponsors donating course nutrition, and shelling out big bucks to be associated with the race so that they can sport their logos on official race tees, volunteers helping to set up and manage the course on race day,  where is all this money being allocated?"

Surely, someone could provide an answer to this perplexing question, but I knew it would be difficult to find a race director who was willing to "open their books," and speak candidly about where the money for an event is actually spent. 

Fortunately, I did not have to look very far at all. One of the first race directors I ever met was Jeff Henderson, director of the Musselman Half-Ironman, the Portland Triathlon, and the Fly By Night Duathlon at the Watkins Glen Motor Speedway. I first met Jeff in April of 2009 at a race meeting for the Musselman triathlon, where I was part of a creative team pitching an idea to Jeff about holding a 12-hour Arts Triathlon at the Smith Opera House in Geneva, NY to coincide with the race day weekend. This is where I learned just what type of dude Jeff is. Usually when you present an idea like this to an administrator, you get the invariable "sure, that sounds interesting, why don't you write up a proposal and we'll talk about how we can make that work next year, maybe." Not Jeff. He did not even flinch. Instead of citing reasons why we could not do it, he asked, "how can I help in making this successful?"

What I learned throughout our subsequent meetings and conversations is that Jeff is the ├╝ber-Renaissance man: a graduate of Princeton (where he also swam competitively,) a former professional triathlete, and able to command attention at race meetings while sporting shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops. But don't let his laid-back appearance, or his Haight-Ashbury-shine-on-brother demeanor fool you. This guy is as well organized as a Bach fugue—he knows a thing or two about putting together a quality race. The Musselman Triathlon has been included in Triathlete magazine's "The Top 100 Races On Earth" in 2009 and 2010 for holding the unique distinction as one of the Five Most Family Friendly Races.... in the world! I've seen this guy on race day. He isn't sitting back watching things unfold. He is in there, helping out with the volunteers, encouraging athletes at the finish line, and whatever else needs to be done for athletes to ask," When does registration open for next year?" I knew Jeff would be straight with me about race entry fees, even if it were something that I did not want to hear.

Our conversation went something like this:

TDOF: Jeff, triathlons are really expensive. You know, I've sat down and calculated approximately how much dough an event like the Kona Ironman generates. The revenue on race entry fees alone are just short of a million dollars. What the heck man? Where is all this money going?

JH: That's a good question, and currently a really hot topic. There are a couple of reasons for the race fees being the way they are. First, it is simple supply and demand. When I first started Musselman in 2004, there was only one other triathlon in the Finger Lakes region on Cayuga. Now almost every lake has a race: Keuka, Canadaguia, Seneca (Musselman,) and Cayuga. The sport has grown considerably—especially on the east coast. As more people train and race multisport events, the number of events will increase, and the cost will continue to rise until we reach a ceiling. So far, it seems like consumers are willing to pay—evident with the selling out of events consistently—leaving the ceiling yet to be found. When races stop selling out, only then will race directors have to take a hard look at the entry fee costs to determine if something should be done to encourage continued excitement for the sport.

Secondly,  a lot of people do not understand the costs associated with putting on these type of events. If you can break even the first year or two, or at least cut your losses to a minimum, you are doing well. The first year you you put on an event, you will have to purchase, or beg or borrow everything.   Banners, police at intersections (police for a triathlon often have different jurisdictions, so you have to sign contracts with each. This can range from $55 to $75 per man hour,) fencing for transition area, bike racks, coolers, medical supplies, cones, cups, etc. USAT requires one doctor per 200 athletes and one nurse per 100. At the Fly By Night Duathlon, I have to have an ambulance on the premises which runs $100 per hour. They initially asked for two. This would have totaled $800 (4:30-8:30.) Then, of course, there is everything else. Swim caps, bib numbers, t-shirts. Race t-shirts, although not a necessity for athletes (in fact most would opt to not have their 3000th race t-shirt,) serve two important purposes:

1) Sponsors love them. The first thing a sponsor wants to know is if their logo will be on the t-shirt.

2) Volunteers love them-and you can't run a race without volunteers.

Timing is a big expense as well. Races need results. results require times, and times require timers. A common way for timing companies to charge for this service is by the athlete an the number of splits the race desires for each athlete. Their are additional charges for setup fee, rental of finish line arch, and travel expenses. In a 110 athlete field at the Fly By Night Duathlon, I shelled out nearly $1000 in timing alone.

TDOF: Surely, the race director and his staff has to make some dough as well?

JH: Yeah, it's a funny thing. This is often the biggest criticism directed towards race directors. Athletes and spectators think that directing an event should be a voluntary thing done in our "spare time," like stamp-collecting or whittling. Entry fees should be enough to cover the event with anything extra donated to charity. What often fails to garner any support is the race director's time in putting together the event. This is a year round commitment for me and others. You want someone who is committed in putting together  a well-organized and safe event. I draw a modest salary from putting together these races. That is my livelihood and how I support my family. There is always something on the burner. I will have several permits to take care of during the course of the year, and they all take serious time in filling out and filing with the appropriate agencies.

TDOF: That makes sense. I am not sure how I would react if performing groups suddenly decided I ought to volunteer my skills as a composer and only write pieces for free. How about the USAT? Where does all that money that we spend on our memberships, or one day waiver go to? Surely that could be used to help minimize the cost of triathlons?

JH: It does. This is probably the single greatest unrecognized benefit of the the governing body—USA Triathlon. No race director would ever be able to afford feel-good titles like "excess medical, Accidental Death and Dismemberment, and something called weekly indemnity on their own" For $250, you can purchase a million dollars in coverage. $925 gets you two million.

TDOF:  How about course nutrition and food? Are those donated?

JH: Generally, yes. And you better have a good spread after a race. The last thing you want is to send the message "thanks for coming, find the door." But this, like everything else, can be a logistical nightmare. The first year of FBN Du, I totally miscalculated the cost of post-race eats. I budgeted the post race barbecue for $5 a person-before actually gauging my ability to provide it. The intent was to hand off the entire production to a local civic or charitable organization, pay them my budgeted amount, and allow them to keep any profits. Curiously, there were few civic groups interested in doing my cooking for $5 a per head. Lesson learned—research first, advertise second.

TDOF: So, how well did you end up doing your first year putting together the FBN Duathlon?

JH: Fly By Nighted ended up netting me a cool $190 in its first year.

TDOF: Hardly worth all the hours.

JH: True, but I knew that most of the initial costs were out of the way, and that year two had the prospect of providing greater revenue.

TDOF: You obviously love doing this and are committed (or should be committed.)

JH: Yes, that is why, in my humble and obviously biased opinion, race directors and their team need to make dough for putting these events together. Very few people can invest the time without making money.

Postlude: Okay, as I was not sitting with a tape recorder (do people own those anymore?) I did not record every single bit of our conversation verbatim. And Jeff, feel free to swing the hammer hard if you think I have in any way misrepresented any part of our conversations, or share anything you think I missed, or could elaborate on further for us. In part two, I will have a few "fun" questions for Jeff about the past and future of multisport events, and a really awesome give away. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.


Kelly said...

Great interview, Mark. Jeff does a great job, that's for sure!!

Aimee (I Tri To Be Me) said...

I've often wondered where all that money goes too, so thanks for the great interview!

Kathleen said...

Great information!

Caratunk Girl said...

Great interview, really good info. Definitely answered a lot of questions I had about this stuff.


If I ever get my book published (it is done) I talk about that (gear costs). The two extremes were my training partner Arnie who has $7500 worth of gear and me at $2000. His $5500 bought him around 30 minutes.. Also yearly fixed costs tally up to around $1500 for the two of us and one race per year (driving distance) $1500 once we buy the Mdot stuff.

Good post

Big Daddy Diesel said...

Great interview, nice insight on how our races are set up, thanks

Jeff - DangleTheCarrot said...

That was very interesting Mark .. thanks for posting!

The Phenomenal Woman said...

Hi Mark! Thaks for sharing the info!

I would just like to get your thoughts on my daughter's swim/run training. Her swimming coach has the kids running for 30 minutes (with no targeted distance) and then jump straight into the pool right after. I am weekend runner and I always "rest" my feet for a few minutes after a run before I take a bath.

I am a bit concerned about how this is going to affect her in the long run.