Robert Downey Jr. may be Ironman to throngs of movie-goers, but Ironman the athletic event began as a challenge among a group of Navy Seals more than 30 years ago. Since then it has grown to become one of the most recognized endurance events in the world with strong marketing support and, according to CEO/president Ben Fertic, a huge upside for continued expansion.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted December 12, 2009)
Originally a combination of the Waikiki Rough Water swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race and the Honolulu Marathon, the Ironman consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run. Each year, more than 150,000 athletes compete in 22 events around the world for slots in the Ford Ironman World Championship, held every October in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii; and also for the Foster Grant Ironman World Championship 70.3 held every November in Clearwater, Fla. The 2009 Ford Ironman World Championship will air, for the 19th consecutive year, on NBC, Dec. 19.
The 2010 series of events begin Feb. 27 with the Lotto Ironman in Langkawi, Malaysia. Among the top Ironman competitors from 2009 are Matt Miller, Mike Adamle, Chris Lieto, Chris McCormack, Brent McMahon, Matty Reed, Samantha McGlone, Julie Dibens and Joanna Zeiger.
On Dec. 11, John Felice, general manager, Ford, Lincoln and Mercury marketing, and Ben Fertic, president and CEO of World Triathlon Corporation, owner and organizer of Ironman and Ironman 70.3 branded-events, rang the Closing Bell on Wall Street, signaling the end of day trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and marking the renewal of Ford's title sponsorship of the U.S. Ironman event series through 2011. Other key marketing partners include Foster Grant, PowerBar, Timex and Gatorade. Ironman this month signed a deal to put fitness equipment into gyms and fitness accessories into retail outlets.
"Ford recognizes and respects the passion that people who participate in Ironman triathlons possess," said Connie Fontaine, manager, Ford Brand Content and Alliances. "Like those athletes, we have the same deep-rooted passion for our business and that resonates with Ironman athletes and fans."
Like their other partners, Ford is seeking ways to expand its alliance with Ironman. "We want to bring the series to life not only for the athletes participating, but for family members, friends and volunteers who provide such an important support network, as well as the fans," said Fontaine. "Triathlons are the fastest-growing participatory sport in the world, and Ironman is the most recognized and respected global events brand. We want as many people as possible to experience it, to become part of this highly connected community."
Fertic, who described himself as being on a "high octane" tour of New York, spoke with NYSportsJournalism about the power of the Ironman brand and its goals for 2010 and beyond.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What is the impact, especially in the current economy, of having Ford renew for two more years as title sponsor of the Ford Ironman series?
Ben Fertic: It says a lot about both companies. For Ford management, it talks about their products and the direction they are headed. For Ironman, it is from the perspective that we continue to deliver value to our clients, that we continue to strive to find ways to grow the business. That really is what we try to do through our sponsorships — work with our clients and work with our partners in order to figure ways to grow the business. Even in this crazy economy and what has been a downturn, we are strong enough for Ford to sign on for another multi-year agreement.
NYSJ: What has been the attitude among your marketing partners regarding the strength of the Ironman brand and where it will go and where you can take them?
Fertic: The health and wellness market is an interesting market because we continue to grow between 30-50% a year. It's not that it's recession-proof. I don't think anything is. But people who have embraced health and wellness are going to keep doing things in their lifestyle to promote that. It's really one place where they are not going to "cut corners." Our partners stay with us. Ford has been a partner for five years; Gatorade for 10 years. We are presented with a lot of partnership offers but we don't sign a lot of deals. We have an evaluation committee that goes through all the deals that are presented to us. But when we see a quality brand and quality products that we can integrate into Ironman, we go for it.
NYSJ: Are you seeing more people coming in who might have been casual observers but are now finding that Ironman is not just for the über-athletes but can, as you said, offer them health and fitness options?
Fertic: Absolutely. We do have the Ironman events, but we have events that basically go across the entire scope of the athletic population. We have Ironman, Iron Girl, Ironman 70.3 and Iron Kids brands. We have been very energized. Even in our all-women's series, we have seen a tremendous growth in participation this year. And we just signed a deal with HaB Group to develop, design, manufacture and distribute Ironman equipment and accessories to the mass market, which will enhance the brand's name not just among core enthusiasts but also among more people who might have been casual observers.
NYSJ: What challenges do you see in 2010 for Ironman and its partners to grown and expand the brand?
Fertic: For us, the challenge is always competition for space on TV and in the digital media. Just like any other brand. The competition at this point is not really other triathlons but the NFL, the NBA, MLB, and trying to get TV time. Another challenge is trying to get our athletes to become household names like other professional athletes in the NFL or the NBA.
NYSJ: Ironman does have world-class athletes, but can they become more accessible to the general public and maybe become more desirable for a wider variety of marketers to use in ads and elsewhere?
Fertic: Yes. When you think of the triathlon sport as a whole, it is an incredibly young sport. When you look at it as a property, we have come a long way in a short time. So the way we see the trend going now, it's only a matter of time the way we are growing when you will see triathletes more a part of mainstream marketing.
NYSJ: On a scale where the Arena Football League, which was very popular but had to shut down because of economic situations, is a 1 and the NFL is the gold standard at a 10, where do you see Ironman?
Fertic: Oh, man. That's a tough question. The NFL is an incredible franchise and is something that everyone aspires to be. I always strive for the top. I'd say we are a 5. We have quite a ways to go. But we have a lot of pieces in place that will see us grow. We have a partnership with NBC Sports and other NBC media partners. We have our own media company. We produce our own shows. But the goal looking ahead is to keep working hard and to put a tremendous amount of effort into expanding and generating awareness for Ironman and its athletes.