“Words, words, words.” ― William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Words matter. While we all may spew thousands of words a day and think of many of those words as throwaways, the words we use have meaning. In some cases, lots of meaning. When we wrote about the Professional Triathlon Union (“PTU”) last week, we explained that the PTU is a union in name only as professional triathletes are independent contractors and cannot unionize (or collectively bargain) under United States law. While the PTU is a union in name only, several major triathlon publications — including TRS Triathlon, Lava Magazine, Dirt Tri and Slowtwtich — have picked up on the word “union.” In fact Challenge Family even explicitly referred to PTU as “an independent union created by pros, for pros.”
By calling itself a “union,” PTU is creating expectations that it cannot, as a matter of law, meet. Given PTU’s rocky launch and the subsequent expectations imposed on it by the media, professional and age group athletes, and potential partners here are our thoughts on what PTU can and should do not only to right the ship, but also to serve as an advocate for the sport.
- Change the name. We know that domain names have been purchased, twitter accounts created and a certain amount of publicity done BUT, by calling itself a union, PTU is creating massive confusion among both its potential members (professional triathletes) and partners (race organizations and sponsors). We like Organization of Pro Triathletes (“OPT”). There’s lots of great plays on words that can be used with OPT and it alleviates the union confusion.
- Clear up Conflicts of Interest. As we wrote in our analysis of the Ironman Foundation, it is imperative to create distance between the board of directors of a non-profit and the roles those individuals hold with other entities. Rich Allen, President and Chairman of PTU, is also the owner of PROthree marketing, an athlete representation firm. His client, Dirk Bockel, serves as Vice President of PTU. Allen also represents, according to the PROthree website, ISM, Ceramicspeed, Champion System and Huub. His serving in these roles begs the question: are deals for PTU made exclusively for the benefit of PTU and all of its members, or for the benefit of PROthree clients? In addition, Allen is listed as “PTU Staff,” which suggests he is being paid for the services he’s providing PTU. If so, PTU should disclose both his rate of pay and the the funding source for his salary.
- Diversify the Board of Directors. The Board of Directors includes some of the biggest names in triathlon today. The Board, however, lacks so-called “working class pros” — those who may be consistently placing in the money at WTC and Challenge events, but are not collecting enough points to qualify for Kona or 70.3 Worlds. These are the kinds of pros who generally also have some of the most successful endemic business ventures (coaching businesses, clothing companies, nutrition services and the like), which furthers the mission of preparing pros for life outside of triathlon. The board also lacks neo pros and up and comers. All levels of pro triathletes should be represented on the Board of Directors. This goes hand-in-hand with Number 4.
- Engage ITU athletes. In the initial announcement, PTU announced that it was tailored to non-draft athletes. PTU’s reasoning was that there is adequate dialogue between national federations, the ITU and draft legal athletes. This seperation further compartmentalizes non-drafting athletes away from the national governing bodies, at a time when one of the stated purposes of PTU was to standardize methods of earning pro cards and rules for non-draft athletes. What better way to come together with the governing bodies that control pro cards and rules than to use the athletes that are in contact with them the most? Moreover, with the 2016 Rio Olympics fast approaching, draft legal triathletes have quite a bit of influence. PTU would only benefit from having athletes such as Gwen Jorgensen, Sara True and Katie Zaferes on board.
- Narrow the mission. PTU is stating that it is trying to do a lot of things all at once, many of which require sponsor funding that is not yet (or may never be) in place (See, e.g., the grants to athletes and a World Grand Slam Series). PTU’s success will be measured against it stated goals and right now those goals are likely out of reach. We would suggest to PTU that they evaluate what things can be accomplished in the near term versus long term aspirations. Rework the mission statement to focus on short term potential successes — things like athlete education, a business/legal boot camp for neo pros, creating forums for communication and supporting fair starts and gender equality. PTU can then build on these successes to work towards its loftier goals — increased prize purses, growth of the sport, revising pro card criteria and possibly a grand slam series. Success is built one small step at a time and PTU needs to build a foundation of small successes to gain the credibility to address some of the big issues.
- Build consensus: An advocacy organization only works if it has a critical mass behind it. While PTU did an excellent job collecting some big names, PTU launched before it built consensus among its potential members. Rather than asking the journeyman professional triathletes what they wanted and needed out of an advocacy organization, PTU set a high price (up to $600) for membership and told athletes that them needed to buy in before they had a voice. Our suggestion to PTU would be to dramatically reduce membership fees for the first year or two (perhaps going from $200 – $400 – $600 to $25 – $50 – $100) to encourage pro triathletes to join. We’d also encourage PTU to conduct listening sessions at a variety of events with pro races in order to hear what the “average” professional triathlete has to say without requiring them to first pay a membership fee.
- Know their limits with Challenge/WTC. There has been a lot of talk about PTU brokering some type of deal between WTC and Challenge to set race schedules, prize purses and allow for allocation of athletes throughout the season. That type of deal treads into dangerous territory. Currently, in the United States, WTC is a “natural monopoly” so it generally steers clear of potential antitrust violations. If WTC were to enter into a coordinated agreement with Challenge (brokered by PTU or not) to set schedules, divvy up talent, allocate prize purses and conduct promotions, this would likely lead to violations of both U.S. and European Union antitrust laws (also this type of agreement would require that pro triathletes be employees of the respective race organizations, which they are not). While PTU can work with both WTC and Challenge to set codes of conduct and to address athlete concerns about fair starts, gender equality and prize purses, they can only do so in the form of an advocacy organization and not in the form of a collective bargaining unit. PTU will need to work with carrots, not sticks (unless all of their members are prepared to boycott over a specific issue).
- Release the Code of Conduct. This isn’t a bad thing to have, per se, but the problem is that nobody knows what is in it, nor what it means. If the Code of Conduct is going to be the center piece of your organization, it should be available from Day One. It is likely, however, that the PTU Code of Conduct will be an improvement over WTC’s attempt to silence discourse on social media. There are improvements to be made on all sides (race producers, sponsors and professional athletes) with regards to overall professionalism and brand standards. But it is meaningless without seeing what the suggested guidelines are.
- Eliminate the PTU branding requirement. Members of PTU are required to put the PTU logo on their kit; this would mean that in 2016, all professionals racing Challenge Family events will need to have a piece of their kit dedicated to PTU. This is problematic for multiple reasons. First, it devalues the meaning of choosing to join PTU and choosing to put it on your kit. Secondly, the branding requirement also eats up valuable kit space where a savvy athlete may have been able to put a sponsor logo, thereby limiting potential selling points. It would mean more to see athletes who are PTU members opting to put the logo on their kit, rather than being forced to put said logo on their kit.
- Manage Expectations. Back to our original premise — words matter. PTU debuted with lots of words but with very little substance behind those lofty statements. Go back to the drawing board, prioritize your objectives and let the word know that you’re more than just delusions of grandeur. There are lots of people in the triathlon world (us included) who want to see a professional advocacy organization survive and thrive. We love nothing more than to see PTU’s words come to mean something positive for triathlon as a sport.