SBJ/September 24-30, 2012/In Depth

Ironman rolls into Kona without a title sponsor, sees this as a ‘reset year’

The World Triathlon Corp. is without a title sponsor for its Ironman World Championships race in Kona, Hawaii, for the first time in seven years.

Having last renewed its title sponsorship in 2009, automaker Ford did not renew for the 2012 event, which will be held Oct. 13. The Ford deal included title sponsorship at all 12 North American Ironman races. Sources familiar with the deal valued it in the low seven figures annually.

Erik Vervloet, chief marketing officer at Ironman, called 2012 a “reset year,” and said WTC is committed to keeping the Kona inventory part of the larger pan-North American deal. He said the company declined several sponsorship pitches for the Kona rights alone, but did not say which companies were interested.

“It was hard to resist the temptation to take a quick fix — but letting someone cherry-pick Kona is a long-term mistake,” Vervloet said. “We’re looking for a partner who wants to have messaging throughout the year.”

Ford’s deal began in 2005. According to John Duke, WTC’s vice president of global sponsorship sales, Bud Light was the race’s first title sponsor, and the deal ran during the 1980s. He said Gatorade and Timex also occupied the title position before the Ford deal, but that the Ford sponsorship was the first pan-North American title sponsorship for the company.

“People love our space, especially if you can find a CEO or a decision-maker who understands how great our demographic is,” Duke said. “Our challenge is numbers, if we’re going up against traditional ball sports who are in the millions [of viewers].”

In lieu of a title sponsor, Ironman has brought on a presenting sponsor for next month’s Kona race with a Facebook application called myList. The event will serve as the global launch for the application, which was developed by Channel Intelligence, a Florida-based technology and marketing services company.

MyList allows Facebook users to create a series of lists surrounding a common theme, and then share these lists with their social media friends. Marketers can access the data on these lists, and then push out deals and marketing messages to users.

Rob Wight, co-chairman and co-founder of Channel Intelligence, said the Ironman demographic is perfect for the application, because participants rely on expensive gear such as bicycles, wetsuits and running shoes. He gave examples of various lists that Ironman users may compile: favorite race, nutrition products, bicycle components, postrace activity, etc.

“When brands come into social media, they are the outsider talking to athletes,” said Wight, himself an Ironman triathlete. “What we’re doing is creating a way for athletes to talk about brands and then publish it on a list, so they are driving engagement, not the brand.”

Wight said myList will run contests around the Kona race and give away products from race sponsors. He said the deal is for one year and is specific to the Kona race. Financial details were not available.

Duke said the Kona race will see an increase in activation from industry-specific brands, with Specialized Bicycles, Oakley sunglasses, Timex and nutrition company GU all boasting sizable footprints. He said the Got Chocolate Milk campaign also will have a major presence at the event.

Vervloet said Ironman will target financial services, airlines, hotels, health care and other non-endemic categories for the title sponsorship role. He said the search will be aided by NBC’s decision to air the race’s two-hour highlights show on Oct. 27, only two weeks after the event. Previously NBC would air the highlights show in early December. Ironman will broadcast the full race live on its website.

Vervloet said a handful of representatives from potential title sponsors will be at the event, but declined to name companies. He said Ironman allows these executives to interact with the race by handing out water at aid stations and driving alongside the athletes in pace cars, among other activities.

“To me, in order to grasp our brand, you really need to be there and see 1,760 athletes racing,” Vervloet said. “That’s the hook.”

Fred Dreier is a writer in New York City.

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