Decision to Drop Ironman a Business One

Ironman Penticton | BCBusiness
A previous Ironman Canada in Penticton.

The Ironman Canada is said to be worth over $10 million to the city that hosts it, so why, after 30 years, did Penticton dump the iconic race?

Sport tourism is big business. A Statistics Canada study for the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance indicated that industry-related spending grew to $3.6 billion nationally in 2010, an increase of 8.8 per cent over 2008.

Last summer, however, the City of Penticton announced that, after three decades, it had severed ties with the world-famous Ironman brand, which, since local fitness guru Ron Zalko brought the concept to Penticton in 1983, had grown to a sold-out field of 2,500 and became a key part of the Okanagan’s summer calendar.

Instead, Penticton now holds the first North American license for the much less widely recognized Challenge Family series of triathlons. Today, three months from race day, Challenge Penticton is at 1,300 competitors.

Estimate of spending in the community, per athlete, during the Ironman Canada in Penticton:
$1,250 – accommodation
$100 (up to $2,000) – travel
$600 – food
$250 – equipment
$200 – apparel/merchandise
$200 – entertainment
$200 – miscellaneous

Economics, explains acting mayor Gary Litke, were key to Penticton’s new direction. “We had 4,000 volunteers who faithfully showed up year after year for Ironman and there seemed to be a disconnect. The plum jobs were coming from outside, our local businesses were not permitted to participate as they had in the past and the volunteers were wondering why they were working so hard for someone else’s corporate profit.”

With Challenge Penticton, more money will stay in the community, says Litke, and the event has greater opportunity for growth.

Penticton is modeling its long-term vision after the Challenge race in Roth, Germany. That city made the changeover from Ironman in 2001 and has now grown to 5,000 competitors and 150,000 spectators per year.

“A typical athlete spends about $2,800 [in the community],” says Penticton city manager Annette Antoniak, who sits on the board of Challenge Penticton. “If we grow our race to the same level as Roth, in the athlete spend alone we’d hit $14 million. That doesn’t factor in family or supporter spending.”

Signups for Challenge Penticton are still coming in—particularly for the new relay option. Antoniak says they’re satisfied with the numbers they have for now, as North American athletes and sponsors need to be educated about the European-focused Challenge brand. “They’re all very interested and are coming to the race to see it. I think next year you’ll see way more signups.”  

As mayor Litke puts it, referring to the first Canadian Ultra Distance Triathlon in Penticton in 1983, which was re-branded Ironman Canada in 1987: “Our first [Ironman Canada] race had only 23 athletes. We’re patient and looking forward to incremental growth.”

Whistler Picks Up the Pieces

Penticton’s decision meant Ironman Canada needed a new home, and there was no shortage of those looking to host it. Kamloops made a pitch for the triathlon, citing revenues of up to $15 million if they won the bid. Kelowna and Huntsville, Ontario, were also among the contenders.

In October last year, Whistler announced it had bidded successfully to host the Ironman Canada for the next five years. By November 6, 2012, all 2,500 athlete spaces for the race had sold out.

Louise Walker, vice-president of marketing strategy for Tourism Whistler, says competitors typically arrive with groups of three or more additional people, stay for up to five days and will also visit the region in the months leading up to the race for training purposes. Total economic impact for the province is estimated in the $10-$20 million revenue range.

The Ironman Canada has a $75,000 U.S. prize purse available, plus 100 age group slots for the 2013 Ironman World Championships in Hawaii—where the triathlon made up of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run—was born. The Ironman Hawaii is on October 12, 2013.