Freitag, 31. Mai 2013

Interview with IRONMAN’s Andrew Messick: “In its 35-year history, IRONMAN has never had a World Championship event outside of the United States. Need I say more?”

Andrew Messick, World Triathlon Corporation's CEO since June 2011 recently claimed, that IRONMAN should be aware for its tradition, but should be open for change and innovation, as the sport of triathlon evolves rather quickly. During the first two years of his leadership, Messick and his team established an even quicker pace, building new race venues, initiatives and products. had the opportunity to chat with this IRONMAN finisher from Tampa, Florida.
Andrew Messick is WTC's CEO since 2011. He gave a few insights on actual developments and topics. Photo: Andrew, thank you very much for the time talking with us. We would like to get some insights on latest development within World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) and the sport of triathlon in general. Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What would be a typically Andrew Messick work day or work week look like?

Andrew Messick: It is very hard to describe a typical day or week. We are a fast-growing global company so every day is different. During race season, I am at events most weekends. In the office, I spend most of my time with our team focused on growth and ensuring that we continue to create and operate superb events.

DNF: You finished several of your own races. Do you have a memorable story you would like to share, that is typically for the IRONMAN lifestyle?

Andrew Messick: I am a three-time IRONMAN finisher. Canada in 2005, Lake Placid in 2006 and Mont Tremblant in 2012. I have done numerous IRONMAN 70.3 races over the years. Like most of us who embrace the multisport lifestyle, I hope to continue racing for many years to come.
I have the usual horror stories related to all types of racing disasters. Decorum prohibits me from explaining further….

DNF: What's your favorite discipline? We assume it might be cycling...
Andrew Messick: I enjoy cycling the most but generally I am a better runner than cyclist. 

DNF: You've got a decent background in cycling industry. Can you compare both, triathlon and cycling from your experiences with AEG Sports and WTC? What have these two in common, what are the main differences on a competitive or business level and in terms of their respective peer groups and athletes?

Andrew Messick: Both cycling and triathlon are operationally intensive sports that rely on public roads and infrastructure. It is difficult for people who are not in the business to understand the complexity of organizing such events. They are far harder to organize than laymen realize.

DNF: You were in charge for Tour of California for four years. Is there a “biggest learning”, comparing IRONMAN with a multi-stage cycling event?

Andrew Messick: The business of professional cycling is about the teams & riders, media and sponsorship. The business of triathlon is about age-group athletes. Both cycling and triathlon use similar public and private infrastructure but are very different in terms of focus, customer touch points and the overall athlete experience.

At IRONMAN our goal is to provide our athletes with a life-changing race experience. We put enormous time and energy into ensuring that the athlete experience is top-notch. We measure everything and listen to our athletes obsessively. We change and modify what we do and how we do it based on a robust dialog with our athletes.

DNF: What five words could be describing a current age group triathlete the best? 

Andrew Messick: Dedicated, disciplined, passionate, courageous, tough.

DNF: Looking back on the last two years. What were your teams’ biggest achievements, challenges and in what areas do you think you struggled a bit?

Andrew Messick: In recent years, we have made great strides in improving the athlete experience. We have introduced the Legacy Program, which allows serious, long-time IRONMAN athletes an opportunity to race Kona. We have introduced an age-group ranking system and a triathlon club program, which we expect, is going to create a lot of excitement in the coming years.

We also have a global age-group ranking program that allows athletes from around the world to be able to compare performances. I think it will be a great way to strengthen our global community of athletes.

DNF: WTC or its parent company World Endurance Holding (WEH) recently bought back races from its franchisees. At what stage is this process? Any white land marks, you would like to develop more in general?

Andrew Messick: Controlling the athlete experience is one of the reasons that we generally own our events instead of licensing them. Our races in North America, Europe and Australia/NZ are almost all owned and operated by our team. This gives us more control over the athlete experience and provides us with the freedom to make upgrades and changes to our events to ensure that the level of quality that we deliver is unsurpassed. There really is no substitute for having races delivered by your core team.

It was our focus on an unsurpassed athlete experience that caused us to walk away from a number of races in Asia – they simply were not good enough to be called IRONMAN events. 

We continue to have a number of very good licensed events in certain parts of the world and we work closely with our licensees to make these events extraordinary and worthy of the IRONMAN name.

DNF: Triathlons core sports are swimming, cycling and running. Any thoughts on producing single sports events like Gran Fondo or Velothons and big mass participation runs from 10k up to marathon distance?
Andrew Messick: In the past two years, we have really focused our efforts in making sure that we are able to keep the fundamental promise to our athletes: safe, fair races with a life-changing athlete experience. We have gotten better in this area and we will continue to get better. 
I am intrigued at looking into other participation sports areas but I feel that long-distance triathlon will continue to be our focus in the coming months and years.

DNF: Erik Vervloet, WTC's former Chief Marketing Officer told media, that WTC was very aware, that a start of disgraced cycle icon Lance Armstrong would be a risky move for IRONMAN Kona, Hawaii. Multisport enthusiasts looked at the whole case with mixed emotions. I, as pretty any other endurance athlete at one moment of this developing story, would have loved to see Armstrong racing in peak form in the “big one”, the IRONMAN Hawaii. But - especially in Europe, fans were aware of a long history of doping allegations. These allegations finally build momentum and ended devastating for Armstrong. Would you like to provide your point of view as of now on the overall incentive, bringing Armstrong into IRONMAN?

Andrew Messick: WTC was the first private company to become a WADA Code signatory – we are proud that we have been aligned with the clean sport movement for a very long time. Because we are signatories to the WADA Code, we have an obligation to follow WADA’s rules. 
I do not think that anyone was fully prepared for the scope and magnitude of USADA’s findings as it related to Lance’s Armstrong. For us, the decision around Lance is simple: Since we are signatories to the WADA Code, if Lance Armstrong is not allowed to race under WADA rules, he cannot participate in any of our events.

DNF: You recently welcomed the 2015 WADA code changes regarding an extended four year ban for first time violations on Twitter. Athletes, like Helle Frederiksen encouraged more out of competition testing. Can you give us at this time an outlook on scale of the current testing regime and how WTC adapt and synchronizes its programs with various stakeholders, e.g. WADA, USADA and regional or national governing bodies?

Andrew Messick: We believe in clean sport and we are committed to do our part to make sure that happens. We conduct our own anti-doping program, in compliance with the WADA code. Our following the WADA rules means that any adverse analytical findings are automatically sent not only to WTC but to WADA and the athlete’s national federation and NADO.  

We work closely with NADO’s around the world to coordinate testing among athletes. Drug testing is expensive, so we need to be careful to make every test count. We test both in competition and out of competition. 

I am proud that WTC leads in this area. It would be easy to say, “drug testing isn’t our problem” or “someone else should spend the time and money and effort of doing drug testing” – But we are the leaders in the sport of triathlon so we are out in front on this issue.

Being a WADA signatory does create a certain tension for us. Many of us are athletes ourselves and we hold strong personal views about whether athletes who have been caught and sanctioned should be allowed back into our sport. But we follow the WADA Code -- and the WADA Code says that if an athlete fulfills their sanction, they are allowed to compete again. So we too let them race, regardless of personal views.

DNF: Lance had to enter the qualifying process for his road to Kona. The years 2008/2009 and 2012/2013 saw a major migration from well established, more mature Olympic Triathlon professionals following the games in Beijing, respective London into IRONMAN 70.3 and IRONMAN racing. Is this a natural evolution? 

Andrew Messick: It shouldn’t surprise people that in the year following an Olympic Games, there is a period where Olympic athletes make decisions about whether to sign up for an additional Olympic cycle or choose to explore other aspects of the multi-sport life.

Professional athletes are always going to follow the money. Kona is now the biggest prize purse in triathlon and IRONMAN’s total payout to professional athletes globally in 2013 will approach $5 million if you include Hy Vee [editor's note: 5i50 triathlon]. 

The money, combined with the prestige and exposure of winning either of our World Championships, make us attractive to professional athletes.

DNF: Javier Gomez Noya recently won the XTERRA World's by invitation. Would this be an option to invite ITU's World Champions and Olympic Champions the following year, using a wildcard system or do you see an unfair advantage? They might be a little bit fresher, than their competition, who is attending in these qualification races.

Andrew Messick: Our championship qualification system [editor's note: Kona Pro Ranking, aka KPR] is fair to the athletes that take the time and make the effort to qualify – and our loyalty is to them. Only a fraction of our professional athletes end up racing Kona and I do not want to create a system where qualifying is bypassed or athletes that are not committed to IRONMAN are gifted into our championship races.

That said, our partner race, Hy Vee, allows for a small number of wildcards. After the Olympics, we offered Hy Vee wild card entries to the Olympic medalists. Lisa Norden and Javier Gomez accepted theirs and ended up winning.

We have a rule that allows the winner of Kona, 70.3 WC & Hy Vee entry into all three races in the following calendar year. So according to our rules, Gomez and Norden are both eligible to race 70.3 WC and Kona in 2013. We will see how they do.

DNF: Reviewing this Kona Pro Ranking, will 2014 see some fine tuning regarding races, point allocations, points distribution within different series (5i50, 70.3, IRONMAN) or anything else important?

Andrew Messick: We are generally pleased with the KPR system. We believe that it has gotten the appropriate athletes to our races. We will nonetheless fine-tune the system in 2014. I believe that we can modify the structure somewhat to provide more incentive for athletes to win races and to somewhat de-emphasize non-top 10 performance in bigger races.

DNF: Back to age groupers. SwimSmart is a new initiative, which seems to be addressed to first timers, to make the swim a bit less stressful and safer. What are your first reactions from athletes so far? Can you share some already established insights?

Andrew Messick: The reaction so far has been positive. Swimming in a triathlon is a potential entry barrier to our sport. Even experienced triathletes often are uncomfortable in the swim.
We have an obligation as leaders in the sport of triathlon not only to do all we can to make the swim safe but also to help athletes overcome the stress and anxiety of racing in an open water environment. 
We intend to do everything we can to make our events as good for our athletes as possible. There is no one in the world with our organizational capabilities and we continue to get better. We will also do all that we can to help our athletes get physically and mentally ready for our races.

DNF: WTC announced IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship will rotate on an annual level. The pros loved the timing, just a few weeks ahead of IRONMAN Hawaii and the fair and scenic race course in Las Vegas as well. Doesn't the new rule put either some athletes out of the competitive mix, as they focus on Hawaii, or some races if the 70.3 Worlds does/doesn't move away from “traditional” September slot?

Andrew Messick: In its 35-year history, IRONMAN has never had a World Championship event outside of the United States. Need I say more?

DNF: As former IRONMANLIVE.COM contributor, I still get a lot of feedback from races all year and especially Kona. Are there any plans in place to enhance the current user experience during Live Coverage?

Andrew Messick: We are always looking to enhance the live experience at our races. We expect to launch some exciting new initiatives in this area later this season.

DNF: Thank you very much for sharing some current developments and insights.