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Backers Hoping Ironman Turns to Gold

The king of athletic endurance competition boosts marketing efforts, resulting in sharp rise in licensing dollars.

October 15, 1998|GREG JOHNSON

It used to be that only the most durable athletes could wear the Ironman badge--and only if they completed the grueling 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.5-mile run.

But organizers of the gritty contest that celebrates its 20th anniversary this month here making it easier for anyone to look like iron men and women by licensing the tough-sounding name to bike manufacturers, nutrition companies and a sunglass company. These would-be Ironmen can even charge their purchases on an Ironman bank affinity card.

True triathletes carry desirable demographics. They're well-educated, have average incomes that top $40,000 and tend to buy upscale products. But they're an elite crowd--their ranks number just 1,100 professionals worldwide and 250,000 amateurs.

So, in a twist, the contest's marketing partners are aiming their products at weekend warriors and armchair athletes who can only dream of attempting the three events that are run end-to-end each October in Hawaii.

"The Ironman contest has been able to extend its brand to every athlete out there," said Los Angeles-based sports marketing consultant David Carter. "Weekend warriors are going to feel something of a 'bump' when they hear that name, just like a ball player using a Mark McGwire bat."

Rather than emphasizing the contest winner, marketers are instead focusing on the attributes of Ironman contestants. Focus groups use words like quality, endurance and dependability to describe athletes--and those are words that marketers love to use to describe their products.

The strategy is working, said Lew Friedland, president of Tarpon Springs, Fla.-based World Triathlon Corp., which owns the Ironman name and contest. The retail value of licensed Ironman merchandise rose by 10% to $160 million in 1997 and is expected to hit $175 million in 1998.

World Triathlon, which is owned by athlete and entrepreneur Jim Gills, believes that the Ironman brand can continue to grow. Next year, for example, the Ironman name will be attached to a limited-edition sport-utility vehicle from Isuzu, a line of athlete-oriented sunglasses from Foster Grant, a nutrition supplements manufactured by New York-based Twin Laboratories Inc. and treadmill from Hebb Industries.

The Ironman brand could get a boost in 2002, observers say, when the triathlon event makes its debut as a medal sport during the Summer Olympic Games in Australia.

Contest originators probably never dreamed that the Ironman name was tough enough to become a brand, Friedland said. The race was conceived in a bar room 20 years ago when some sailors decided to swim, bike and run Hawaii's three premiere distance races to determine whether swimmers, cyclists or runners were the toughest athletes. Just 15 contestants turned out for the first impromptu event, 14 of whom finished to claim the Ironman title.

The 20,000th contestant crossed the finish line in Hawaii on Oct. 3. The contest is limited to 1,500 athletes who qualify during nearly two dozen preliminary events held around the world.

The contest's organizers first flexed the Ironman's marketing muscles in the late 1980s when Timex introduced a Triathlon model watch. While the timepiece sold well to hard-core athletes, sales boomed a few years later when the first Ironman model was introduced.

Two years ago, race operators expanded the licensing program to include a bike from Dayton, Ohio-based Huffy Bicycle Co. that's sold through mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart. It also added sports gear, athletic socks, a bank affinity card and an Ironman sun block.

Marketers caution that Ironman must be careful not to devalue its name by flooding the marketplace with Ironman logos.

"Like most licensees, we get rightfully nervous when you start to talk about over-saturation," said Bill Smith, Huffy's vice president of marketing. "But in this case, there really isn't a problem because the Ironman only recently embarked on its brand-building exercise."

The other caveat is that World Triathlon must carefully choose marketing partners.

"The key for them is keeping products performance-related," Carter said. "In addition to skewing healthy, educated and higher-income, these consumers are going to see when the quality isn't there."


Pumping the Market

Organizers of the Ironman triathlon are racing to develop the contest into a lifestyle brand. Here's a list of licensed Ironman goods.

Watch: Timex

Bike: Huffy

Sunglasses: Foster Grant

Treadmill: Hebb Industries

Vitamins: Twin Laboratories

Affinity card card: MBNA America Bank

Socks: Wigwam Mills

Sunblock: Sports Pharmaceuticals of America

Sports bag: InGear

Sport-utility vehicle: Isuzu

Energy bar: Sports Nutrition

Source: World Triathalon Corp.

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