Golfers Swap Spikes for Sneakers in Endurance Sports Boom

Three-time Ironman World Champion Craig Alexander keeps a set of golf clubs at his agent’s house in Boulder, Colorado. He got them as a gift after mentioning that he likes to golf “to relax” during a motivational speech at the Chicago headquarters of technology consulting company Accenture Plc.

“They’re still in the box,” Alexander, a 41-year-old Australian, said in an interview in New York before a recent swim workout. “It’s been 10 years, and I have never taken them out.”

Unlike the golf clubs, Alexander’s house is filled with brightly colored running shoes, $1,200 triathlon wetsuits and carbon-fiber bicycles that he uses almost every day. As interest in golf falls by almost every measure, so-called endurance sports -- triathlon, running, cycling -- are exploding in popularity.

Golf fans will descend on Valhalla Golf Club today in Louisville, Kentucky, for the start of the PGA Championship, the fourth major tournament of the season. Tiger Woods, who still draws television viewers when in contention for a title, played despite having spasms in his surgically repaired back in last weekend’s Bridgestone Invitational. Sales of golf equipment and television ratings are down and more courses are closing than opening.

Two weeks from now, more than 2,000 competitors will come to the city for its eighth annual Ironman triathlon. The race, composed of a 2.4-mile swim down the Ohio River, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon, is one of 103 staged each year by World Triathlon Corp., Ironman’s parent company.

New Triathlons

Since Providence Equity Partners, a Providence, Rhode Island-based private equity firm, bought WTC in 2008, the company has added 50 events around the world. This year alone, the company added 24 full-distance (140.6-mile) and half-Ironman distance (70.3-mile) races. There will be about 250,000 triathletes from 88 countries competing in Ironman events this year, according to Andrew Messick, chief executive officer of Ironman.

“We’ve started to tap into new pools of athletes from around the world,” Messick said on an Aug. 2 media conference call.

Ironman triathlons cost about $750 to enter and often sell out in fewer than 15 minutes. Marquee marathon events have sold out at similar speeds in recent years.

Meanwhile, golf participation in the U.S. has declined every year since 2003, when there were 30.5 million golfers, according to data compiled by the National Golf Foundation. There were 24.7 million -- a 19 percent drop -- in 2013, the fewest since 1996.

Shuttered Courses

Golf courses are closing after about 4,500 opened from 1990 through 2005. More shut in 2013 than opened for the eighth straight year.

“In recent years, the number of people entering the game has not kept pace with those who have stopped playing,” the National Golf Foundation said in a July report.

Television ratings for the Masters Tournament and U.S. and British opens -- golf’s first three Grand Slam events -- have all declined this year. Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. recently fired about 500 golf professionals from its stores as sales of golf equipment lags. Dick’s missed its first-quarter target for golf sales by about $34 million and expects it to get worse, Chief Executive Officer Ed Stack said on a conference call on May 20.

At the same time, USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body in the U.S., has 533,000 registered triathletes, more than four times the 122,000 when the sport made its Olympic debut in 2000. The American Trail Running Association said participation in races it tracks more than quadrupled since the association’s founding in 1996. And recreational running in the U.S. has risen 70 percent since 2004, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

Affluent Ironmen

The average household income of an Ironman competitor is $174,000, 83 percent higher than golf participants, according to WTC figures.

“It appeals to a highly driven, motivated personality,” Alexander said. “When I first started doing it in the mid-90s, Ironman was for crazy people. It was like a cult. It’s definitely more mainstream now. This is more than a fad. It’s a bona-fide sport.”

The endurance crowd was even targeted by the Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina, site of the 2012 PGA Championship. With golf participation skidding in parts of the U.S., the resort took over the Kiawah Island Triathlon last year after a local group was no longer able to stage the race.

“We didn’t want to lose that event,” said Liz King, the resort’s director of outdoor operations. “It is definitely the clientele we are hoping would come back to the resort.”

For select professionals like Alexander, who has endorsement agreements with 23 companies including Toyota Motor Corp. and Oakley Inc., triathlon still remains more appealing than golf, at least until his three children grow up.

“When they don’t want to hang out with their old man anymore, I’ll probably take it up again,” he said. “My wife wants to throw the clubs out. I have to tell her, ‘No. They’re brand new.’”

(A previous version of this story corrected the location of Providence Equity Partners.)

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