There has been a bit of talk lately about the state of professional long course triathlon and the level of prize money available. Thanks to @therealstarky's recent 7th place campaign at IM Lake Placid, there has been a bit of dialogue about what direction our sport should take with regards to professional athletes who are not in the ITU/Olympic pipeline and supported (somewhat) by their national federations. I've been asked by quite a few people of my opinion on the matter and thought I'd put down a few of my views here.
1. "Professional Triathlete" is a very loose term. I've had my elite card since 2007 and have only made a living wage from racing in the past two years. Up until recently, I've had to supplement my income with coaching and other jobs. The simple fact is that I was not good enough to earn what money was available between 2007 and 2012. There was money to be had and a few athletes did very well, I just wasn't one of them. I earned my 'pro' license, but that didn't entitle me to make a living from the sport. I'm doing what I love and I knew what I got into when I chose to pursue racing full time. Even now that I have gained some success in the sport, I know that the money is not a guarantee.
2. I race as a profession, not a hobby. When I enter a race and plan a season, it is a business decision. Last year, I chose to race Rev3 exclusively because they had a more favorable pay structure. The decision paid off with the series win and close to $40k between individual races and series bonuses. If I had 'chased the dream' of Kona, I'd probably have 1/4 of the money and a $10k bill for trying travel to Hawaii. Many professionals who bemoan the lack of prize money didn't enter one Rev3 race and now that prize money is gone... A similar example is my choice to race Challenge New Albany this weekend. I won $5.5k for first place for under 4 hours of work while the winner at IM Lake Placid put himself through hell for over 8 hours to make only $5k. Winning an IM race is a great accomplishment, but perhaps not good for business.
3. There is prize money available. In just over 2 weeks, I'll be in Canada racing for a part of a $125k prize purse. If I win the race, I'll come away with $25k which is 5x more than Lake Placid. This money breakdown has been known to every IM athlete since the beginning of the season. Aside from the Kona Points, why would someone choose not to go after the big money? The hard truth is if your product/performance is not good enough to compete in the market, you eventually go out of business. Again, the money is not guaranteed, but it's hard to complain about not getting paid enough if you don't take advantage of the opportunities presented. You can choose to sell umbrellas in the Sahara and complain or sell umbrellas in Seattle and make a living...
4. It is difficult to quantify what a professional triathlete is worth. I represent a few fine companies and am compensated for being a representative. Do I get rich from them? No, but I'm not making them rich either. I work to cultivate a positive relationship where both sides win, but it is hard to quantify. Professional triathletes provide examples of peak fitness and speed that inspire age group triathletes and provide benchmarks for the sport. We promote products that work for us and help the companies we represent to grow their influence in the sport. I grew up inspired by Olympic swimmers who made me work hard and dedicate my life to sport. Their excellence and example should be rewarded and applauded. My goal is to provide this same service to the up and coming athletes who are the future of the sport. This is difficult to put a dollar figure on and even more difficult to determine who foots the bill!
5. I don't have an answer as to the best way to improve the prize money situation in long course triathlon. With a limit of only a few good races per season and a terrible risk/reward curve, I do feel that many times the prize money is not adequate. We as professional athletes do provide value to the sport despite the difficulty in quantifying our value. I would love to be able to know that my bills are paid month after month as I bury myself in training for my next event. I'm willing to race and plan for what is my best chance to make money in the sport and hope that I am successful. I'm constantly looking for financial backers/sponsors/races that will help me achieve my goal. If anyone has ideas on how to improve the current money environment of our sport, I'm more than willing to listen and do what I can to help.