The Finances of Pro Triathletes

Several months ago, I sent out a simple, 10-question survey to several USAT Elite Triathlon license holders.  In the US, “Elite” and “Pro” are used interchangeably, although they are not exactly the same thing in my mind (more on that later).  This wasn’t meant to be a super-scientific study, just a quick glimpse into our finances.  Here are the results of the survey:

. How long have you held a USAT Elite License?
answered question 30
skipped question
0
Response
Percent
Response
Count
Less than 1 year
36.7% 11
1-3 years
26.7% 8
3-5 years
16.7% 5
>5 years
20.0% 6
2. What is your primary race format focus?
answered question 30
skipped question
0
Response
Percent
Response
Count
Half Iron Distance
23.3% 7
Iron Distance
46.7% 14
Non-Drafting Olympic Distance
16.7% 5
ITU
13.3% 4
3. What is your primary source of income?
answered question 30
skipped question
0
Response
Percent
Response
Count
Job “in the industry” (sales, coaching, etc…)
16.7% 5
Full-time job, not “in the industry”
46.7% 14
Part-time job, not “in the industry”
6.7% 2
Racing/Sponsorships
23.3% 7
Mom and Dad 0.0% 0
Spouse/Partner
3.3% 1
Savings from a Prior Job
3.3% 1
4. What percentage of your total income can be directly attributed to race performance? (prize purses & sponsor bonuses)
answered question 30
skipped question
0
Response
Percent
Response
Count
0-10%
60.0% 18
10-25%
6.7% 2
25-50%
13.3% 4
50-75%
6.7% 2
75-100%
13.3% 4
5. Regardless of income from other sources, do you make enough money directly from racing (prize purses and sponsor bonuses) to live on? “Live on” means you can pay for your own rent, groceries, health insurance, car insurance, phone bill, etc…
answered question 30
skipped question
0
Response
Percent
Response
Count
Yes
13.3% 4
No
86.7% 26
6. What is your annual income, from all sources?
answered question 30
skipped question
0
Response
Percent
Response
Count
<$15,000
16.7% 5
$15,000-$25,000
16.7% 5
$25,000-$35,000
3.3% 1
$35,000-$55,000
20.0% 6
$55,000-$75,000
6.7% 2
>$75,000
36.7% 11
7. What is the most you’ve ever made in a single year, directly as a result of racing (prize money and sponsorships)?
answered question 30
skipped question
0
Response
Percent
Response
Count
<$500
13.3% 4
$500-$2000
26.7% 8
$2000-$5000
16.7% 5
$5000-$10,000
3.3% 1
$10,000-$25,000
26.7% 8
$25,000-$40,000
6.7% 2
>$40,000
6.7% 2
8. What has been triathlon’s “net effect” on your net worth? (i.e. the total you’ve made directly from triathlon minus the total you’ve spent on triathlon)
answered question 30
skipped question
0
Response
Percent
Response
Count
Net loss of >$10,000
33.3% 10
Net loss of $1 – $10,000
33.3% 10
Roughly broken even
13.3% 4
Net gain of $1 – $10,000
10.0% 3
Net gain of >$10,000
10.0% 3
9. Are you trying to make a living off racing, or is it just something you’re doing purely for fun/satisfaction?
answered question 30
skipped question
0
Response
Percent
Response
Count
Trying to make a living
50.0% 15
Fun/Satisfaction
50.0% 15
10. Are you male or female?
answered question 30
skipped question
0
Response
Percent
Response
Count
Male
60.0% 18
Female
40.0% 12

Here are some of the quick “takeaways” that I have from the survey:

***Most pro triathletes aren’t truly Pro Triathletes.  They are professional in something else, and just happen to be fast enough to race in the “Elite/Pro Category.”  Only 4 out of the 30 respondents actually make enough money from racing to support themselves.  The other 26?  Gotta get money from somewhere else to make the ends meet (unless they’re willing to live like hobos).

Sorry, fast age-groupers who think “pros” have a huge edge on you because of unlimited time for training:  most of us need to work other jobs, just like you.  I know several other Elite/Pros who are attorneys, physical therapists, teachers, shop owners, etc…  For me, personally, only about 10-15% of my income comes from racing.  The rest is from triathlon coaching.

***There are two distinct type of Elite License holders.  1) Those who have “regular” jobs, and are racing in the pro category to have fun and challenge themselves.  These folks actually make good money…  from a different job.

2) Those who have decided to throw everything else away and dedicate themselves 100% to triathlon.  They tend to be fairly poor, at least at the start.  Those who can make good money stay in the sport.  Those who can’t make good money from racing, either get a better paying job, or leave the sport (or accept living like hobos into their late 30’s and early 40’s… which is fine, it’s their life and they live it however they want).

***Being a Elite triathlete is not about making money off triathlon.  That certainly is part of it, and we all want to make money through triathlon, but if someone truly wants to be rich, there are more profitable paths to follow.  It’s about being the best you can be, and testing yourself against the best, in a sport that you love.  This is evidenced by the fact that most of us have experienced a net financial loss by being in triathlon.  I think most Elite License holders would be perfectly thrilled to make $35k per year from racing, and have a guaranteed job when they quit the sport.

Personally, I do it for the challenge.  Objectively, I have a strong resume full of challenging accomplishments.  However, racing as an Elite/Pro triathlete is by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, both mentally and physically.  There are a lot of talented athletes fighting for a relatively small pot of money, so it’s extremely competitive.  But because it’s so challenging and competitive, any successes I’ve had as a Elite/Pro triathlete are also the most satisfying successes I’ve ever known.

(addendum, a day later)

Summary:  There seems to be an underlying public assumption that “pro triathletes” are organized into a union/league/etc…, are receiving set salaries/gifts/ subsidies, etc..  That could not be further from the truth.  The term “pro triathlete” is very ambiguous.  In reality, here is the situation:

“Elite License Holder” is merely an arbitrary category made up by USA Triathlon, and having an Elite License does not automatically make one a “pro triathlete.” (I’m defining a true “pro” as someone who can make a living off the sport).  All an Elite License truly means is that USAT has deemed that a person is fast enough to race in the Elite wave.  Only a minority of Elite License holders are actually able to earn a decent living purely from racing.

It may be more realistic to view everyone trying to make a living through racing as an “independent contractor.”  We go after prize purses at races, and try to demonstrate our value to potential sponsors (in exchange for product and/or cash).  Every race winning & sponsor contract, is an individual, independent, entity.  We are employees of no one.  And the very best win enough so that they never need to be employees…

There is money out there to be won, and so we go after it.  It’s pure capitalism.  The money is out there.  Who gets it?  You? Me?  Let’s go and find out who wants it the most…

Until next time… keep training hard, and resting harder,

Doug MacLean

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