British female triathletes dominated at every level this year, boosting sales of women’s bikes, shoes and clothing for companies such as Oakley Inc. while bringing in new sponsors.
Chrissie Wellington won her fourth Ironman World Championship in October. The success of the 34-year-old has allowed her to sign sponsor agreements with wetsuit and gear company TYR Sport Inc., nutritional drink-maker CytoSport, Cannondale Bicycle Corp. (BIKEQ) and Brooks Sports Inc., a shoe and apparel designer and seller.
Wellington is one of several British women at the top of the sport. Three of the top four spots were taken by U.K. women at the Ironman World Championships in October, which combines a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. Sportswear companies are noticing the increase in female triathletes and boosting product lines and sponsorships, said Tom Cannon, a professor at the University of Liverpool.
“Women spend more on clothes and related items than men,” Cannon said. “If a woman can develop that kind of image or develop that kind of profile and use it smartly then basically there’s an awful lot of money in it. If you’re Nike and you partner with somebody like that you can see a long-term mutually beneficial business potential.”
Wellington, who co-founded the GoTRIbal, a website that links female triathletes to discuss endurance sports, said she can see the changes in the sport, where manufacturers are adjusting product lines “so we don’t have to wear men’s cycling shorts anymore.”
Sunglasses-maker Oakley Inc., one of Wellington’s sponsors that’s owned by Milan-based Luxottica Group SPA (LUX), has several new lines out devoted to female athletes, said Scott Bowers, the company’s senior vice president of global marketing and brand development.
“We’ve seen a significant growth in” women’s purchases of Oakley’s products, Bowers said. “That’s a constant -- with any new trend, women are the leading consumers not only in eyewear but in clothing sales. They’re more active now than they were two years ago and we don’t see that slowing down anytime soon.”
Membership in USA Triathlon in 2010 jumped to 133,876 from 21,341 in 2000 and the British Triathlon Federation’s numbers have more than doubled in the past five years, according to the organizations’ websites.
The number of females participating at the Ironman World Championship race has risen to 476 this year from 299 in 2000, World Triathlon Corp. data show. About 489 women in 2011 completed the championship race for the company’s 70.3-series, a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1 mile run, up 35 percent from its inception five years ago, according to WTC.
WTC announced new Ironman races for 2012 in New York City, which will serve as the U.S. championship, and in Melbourne, where the Asia-Pacific championship race is to be held. It also will have a full-distance race in Quebec, Canada, and plans to add another in a yet-unannounced locale in Europe next year, CEO Andrew Messick said by telephone.
British athletes who won 13 triathlon, aquathon and paratriathlon world championships in 2011 are thriving as the number of multisport clubs in the country increases, said Wellington, who did her first triathlon after being encouraged by friends in the Birmingham Running and Triathlon Club.
The groups encourage athletes to get involved and provide gear and bike discounts, making the sport more affordable, she said. The country’s culture also plays a part in the athletes’ success, said Lesley Paterson, 31, the 2011 XTERRA World Champion, who was born in Scotland. The British don’t reward success the same way as in other countries, Paterson said.
“There’s a cultural cynicism whereby people anticipate the next fall rather than celebrate the rise,” Paterson said. “This mentality keeps you honest and keeps you working hard.”
Helen Jenkins, 27, the winner of the ITU women’s title this year and one of Great Britain’s representatives at the 2012 London Olympics, said the proliferation of the sport make it easier for athletes to find sponsors.
“Definitely the Olympics raise sponsorship opportunities,” said Jenkins, who is sponsored by GE Capital, among other companies. “The hope is to get some sponsors from companies” that aren’t affiliated with sporting goods, she said.
John Jenkins, GE Capital’s CEO and a triathlete, said sponsoring Helen Jenkins exposes the company to people it otherwise wouldn’t reach. It also benefits the company and its employees, he said. About 100 GE Capital staff members participated in the Dextro Energy ITU World Championship Series Race in London’s Hyde Park in August, he said.
The sport has become more mainstream in the last five years, Wellington said. In the past, she said she had to answer a lot of strange questions when people found out she was the world champion at the Ironman.
“A few years ago I was speaking and someone asked me if I pulled trucks,” she said by telephone from her childhood home near Feltwell, England. “They thought I was some kind of strongman. I pull muscles sometimes, but not trucks.”