Catching Up With: Rob Urbach, CEO of USA Triathlon

USA Triathlon CEO Rob Urbach
As CEO of USA Triathlon, Rob Urbach oversees a sport that has seen meteoric growth in participation numbers over the last decade. This year the national governing body saw 450,000 participants sign up for one or more triathlons. But on the media and sponsorship level, triathlon is still maturing. The World Triathlon Corp.’s Ironman telecast is broadcast months after the event. Only a handful of shorter Olympic-distance races receive airtime. Sponsors are beginning to take notice, however, and in the last year, USA Triathlon signed sponsorship with Avis/Budget, Hilton, Subway and Capital One.

SportsBusiness Journal correspondent Fred Dreier caught up with Urbach, who was previously an executive at Octagon and Cortview Capital Markets, to talk about growing the sport’s sponsorship.

How do you position triathlon in the sponsorship market?
URBACH: I think triathlon is the new golf in the boardroom. It’s a club that may be hard to get into given that training is hard. But our demo looks like no other demo. Triathlon is expensive. These guys want $10,000 bikes, so we clearly have a high-end customer. Triathletes are also early technology adopters, and they want the new, latest and greatest supplements and carbon fiber gear, so we’re great for those brands. On a per-capital basis, triathletes are consuming more of these products than other athletes. We’re all about performance products. The sport itself is exciting, and we haven’t been widely tainted by performance-enhancing drug use.
What are the challenges in selling triathlon to corporate sponsors?
Along with running the sport in America, Urbach also competes in triathlons.
We’re viewed as a participatory sport, we don’t have a natural spectator following. There also aren’t real teams to follow. I think we’re doing some good things with webcasting races and making them more spectator-friendly. We just put on a race in San Diego with 20,000 or so spectators. We have new venue and racing format designs for the future. Picture a big stadium where you’re swimming in a portable pool, running laps around a track and cycling in a short criterium course, so it allows you the good sight lines. Think about when Michigan State played North Carolina on the aircraft carrier, that’s what we’re trying to do with different racing formats. Vegas at night under the lights, that sort of stuff.
What do you think it’s going to take to get triathlon on live television?
URBACH: Well, our Olympic racing, we already broadcast it live. Our [International Triathlon Union event] in San Diego was broadcast in 120 countries. In Europe, it’s a pretty big television product. We had to run our San Diego race at 2 p.m. because they wanted it in prime time in Europe. So in other parts of the world, triathlon is already pretty good TV. If you’ve ever seen an ITU Olympic-distance race, it is pretty compelling television. There are race tactics, the transitions are chaotic, there are sprint finishes. With Ironman, I love the broadcast, although it’s not as compelling on television to watch them slog out an entire marathon, so they put in the drama and personal interest stories.
How do you teach new partners about the sponsorship opportunities with triathlon?
URBACH: I tell them we have over 400,000 members and 4,200 races. Triathletes come to our sport with a strong identity to the sport. Training takes some form of dedication. There are almost 1,000 clubs and they do very well to draw folks into the sport. Somebody goes to a club meeting with a friend and the next thing they know they are at a race. I think sponsors are starting to get it. We are one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. I don’t have any empirical evidence, but anecdotally I don’t know of any sport that can challenge us with growth. We historically are very successful in the endemic space, but we’re starting to gain traction in the non-endemic space. We’re in sponsorship growth of 20 percent.
How do you grow activation opportunities?
URBACH: We have event activation and experiential opportunities at the events, but we’re trying to expand. Let’s say consumer products want to do a national promotion and bring in a retailer and drive awareness at point of sale. We can now structure that out of our national office and activate that regionally. For example, Gatorade, we do promotions at a couple of hundred races with them across the country. Race directors come to us for their certification, so we’re ideally situated. Another example, at the point of registration, when you are signing up for the race, we’re trying to bundle that in with our partners to sell at the point of registration, like racing wheels or wetsuits.

Fred Dreier is a writer based in New York.

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