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Ironman’s business model: A $730m company that targets high-earning triathletes

Cliff Taylor: Competitors become customers - a typical triathlon entrant in the US is a homeowner and graduate earning at least $200,000

Helping you to live your best life is big business now. We are living in what has been called the “experience economy”, where we are being sold many goods and services based on the impact we perceive them to have on our lives. You go to a coffee shop not just for the coffee but for the ambience, the wifi and the friendly staff. You travel or go to a pub or an event not just for a holiday, a drink or to hear a band but for an “experience” and the Instagram shots.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the world of endurance sports, where businesses are now moving in to organise many events previously run by amateur bodies. In Youghal last weekend, we find a private company, local bodies and an amateur sports federation all driven by different motivations. Behind this lies the fact that the Ironman is now big business. Participants have become customers.

The company behind the Youghal triathlon is part of a United States organisation – the Ironman Group – that has invested heavily in buying up not only the rights to Ironman triathlons but also a range of other marathons, adventure races and ultra events across the world. It is hoping to cash in on the increasing popularity of fitness and challenge, particularly among more affluent parts of the population.

The business opportunity behind the Ironman has been bought and sold four times, including the purchase from its founders in Hawaii for $3 million in 1989. It is all based on the valuable Ironman franchise. Part of the agreement is an ongoing deal with Marvel Comics, the owner of the Iron Man superhero brand, which is paid annual royalties.


The Ironman company is part of a private group and the sparse financial details published over the years and the use of franchise agreements, debt and intercompany deals make it hard to identify how profitable it all is. There has been hope value along the way and a big value put on the potential of the franchise.

The market value of the Ironman franchise has shot up over the years, reaching an estimated $900 million when sold by then-private equity investors in 2015. There was a subsequent wobble, as plans to expand rapidly in Asia proved disappointing and the business was hit by the pandemic. But the current owners, a private US group called Advance Publications – which also owns Conde Nast – paid some $730 million to take it on during the pandemic in 2020. And when you pay that kind of money, you need to make the franchise sweat. Youghal and Triathlon Ireland could have arranged their own triathlon but it would not have had the magic dust of the Ironman brand.

Some key insights were given by an IPO organised by Chinese owners in 2019. The Ironman boss said at the time the new cash would help them to continue “to provide exceptional, life-changing race experiences to athletes of all levels, from their first step to the finish line”. The prospectus for potential investors said the company’s goal was “to unite people in sports and enable athletes and fans to live their passions and dreams”.

The unsatisfactory finger-pointing in relation to the decision to go ahead with the triathlon last weekend raises questions which have still to be answered

In the small print, however, was a more sobering paragraph. It read: “Accidents or other situations involving serious harm or even death to one or more athletes or spectators could lead to negative publicity about us or our events. The increasing popularity of mass participation sports events also means an increasing number of inexperienced participants who may be more prone to injury or heart attacks, which can be fatal.”

Deaths at the Youghal Ironman

Listen | 29:52
Ironman participant Stephen Donnelly – who came sixth in the competition on Sunday – explains how the day unfolded; reporter Hugh Dooley in Youghal talks to locals and competitors, and current affairs editor Arthur Beesley explains the blame game. Presented by Bernice Harrison

The company says its events – also including popular marathons and adventure races – attract 1 million participants a year. The average entry fee revenue per athlete is over €100, according to the 2019 prospectus, and it will be higher for triathlons, with the Youghal entry fees running from €400 for the half-Ironman event to close to €600 for the full event, with various add-on packages available. It is not clear how the event finances, including the entry fee, were split. You can see if sponsorships are added in and the costs model is right that Ironman is potentially a big business.

It is an unusual model, however. The relationships with local authorities and national bodies like Triathlon Ireland are vital. You can’t run a triathlon if the roads aren’t closed and local volunteers and the police aren’t on board. The national body is needed to sanction it, which may also have insurance implications. These kind of arrangements work when it is a “win-win” – the estimates are that the boost to Youghal of up to 12,000 visitors was worth some €8 million. With athletes also coming before the event to train, it is a vital economic factor for the town. This encouraged Cork Country Council to enter a sponsorship deal, which runs until next year.

A host of other sponsors are also attached to the Ironman event, ranging from sportswear and cyclewear companies to fitness trackers and travel firms. Ironman’s research showed a typical competitor in its US triathlons was in their 40s, a homeowner, university-educated with an annual household income in excess of $200,000 – ideal territory for sponsors and those selling their merchandise around events.

For many years, companies have made money out of sports but the big money has been in getting cash from people watching, either in person or on pay-per view TV and trading the rights for this. The idea of making money from mass participation events has only built in recent years. Now, if you have enough money, you can do an Ironman, climb Everest or participate in any manner of extreme adventure races.

Does money change the decisions made around the safety of participants? If you take a commercial trip to Everest, you implicitly accept the risk. And people do, occasionally, die in marathons and triathlons. Participants in the Youghal event signed a waiver warning of a risk of “discomfort, illness, injury and even death”. That said, the finger-pointing in relation to the decision to go ahead with the triathlon last weekend fails to clarify what actually happened.

There is nothing wrong with seeking to make money from a new social trend. That is what businesses do. The reliance on local authorities, volunteers and non-profit national sporting bodies like Triathlon Ireland, however, is a peculiarity of this business model behind the Ironman. For it to work, everyone has to feel there is a “win” for them. And when things go tragically wrong, as they did in Youghal, this raises big questions.