We make daily choices that impact our performance and enjoyment of sport. There are minor choices – like how early to rise, how early to call it a night, how hard to push a workout, or how much to indulge in pleasures which are not conducive to training (yes, beer and ice-cream). Though they appear trivial at times, even the most novice athlete realizes that minor choices have cumulative effects upon performance. Though these daily choices are sometimes overwhelming, experience and proper coaching usually lead to quick, almost instinctual, resolution.
Athletes face major decisions less frequently – choosing a coach, buying the right bike, deciding when is best to take time off and recuperate from injury or fatigue. Query your favorite search engine with sport specific questions and you’ll see plenty of opinion and expert advice – remarkably, little of it is reliable. Even experienced athletes struggle with the complex nature of these questions and many others.
One question that has befuddled me for more than a year is whether to turn “pro”? To learn more about the topic, I consulted some great minds – several members of the FFT Pro-Development Team. I asked the questions: when is one ready to turn pro, and what are some advantages and disadvantages associated with becoming one? Unremarkably, the responses mimic those of professional careers outside of athletics.
A career as a professional triathlete has one striking dilemma – mainly it is the choice to pursue a passion rather than an immediate family and permanent career. Passing up real jobs and normal lifestyles is difficult for a number of reasons. The purpose of this article was to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of doing so. In the coming weeks, I’ll post another article discussing deciding factors and my own verdict. Likewise, I hope other FFT members and the triathlon community at large will chime in on the subject.
The money. Professional triathletes, relatively speaking, don’t make much of it. It’s a hobby sport that longs for the mainstream’s money and opulence. The argument for better pay amongst triathletes really isn’t all that different from conventional employment. Professionals in any career receive salaries for their talents and services; that’s how market’s work, right? But athletes rely on their ability to attract attention (with any luck, good attention) and influence a market. Triathletes are assets, whether an Olympic athlete on a box of Wheaties or a cut-rate amateur shamelessly plugging First Endurance Kona Mocha EFS Liquid Shot. We sell stuff.
When it comes down to it, if you sell jerseys and box seats, you’re inevitably driving fast cars and trashing expensive hotel rooms. But rarely do spectators flock to catch a glimpse of pro triathletes. Unfortunately, triathlon lacks media attention, which has hastened non-triathlon sponsorships – a source of cash flow in all of the world’s major sports. Triathlon has no sporting venues. We pitch our tents in cities and towns around the world for one, maybe two, days at a time. Without the masses swarming to see carnage and devastation, we lack the ability to attract regular crowds.
Health Insurance. For anyone whose sole income is based upon triathlon, health insurance can become another concern. There are no doubt hundreds who race without it. And in a hazardous sport where there are limitless ways which you can hurt yourself, and just as likely, someone else can hurt you, it’s a dangerous game to be uninsured. Whether for better or for worse, healthcare policy is changing within the United States. For a triathlete, or anyone who is self employed, the changing healthcare market, not to mention the individual coverage that varies from state to state, makes finding a cheap solution tiring but not altogether impossible.
“If you don’t have any issues, basic health care (emergency only) coverage is pretty inexpensive. For $65/month (in North Carolina) you can save yourself the worry of “what do I do if the worst happens?” For me, it happened last year. The crash that severed my knuckles was proof positive that, despite sounding inadequate, my health coverage was perfect for my situation (as long as one is considering that I’m paying for it myself and my employer is not).”
Kristen Andrews, our resident health policy expert (not every team has one), agrees but cautions against emergency only insurance if you’re frequently in and out of care.
“Getting a “catastrophic” plan isn’t that expensive, but if you’re frequently in need of physical therapy / visiting an ortho for injuries (or think you might in the future), it can be quite a bit more expensive to get a plan like that on an individual basis. Though it would be worth looking into various options in your state and what the plan includes.”
However, Andrews is quick to point out what many of us are already aware of, that is “things on the health insurance front could change in 2014 when the affordable care act goes into effect.” And of course, if you’re covered by your parents’ plan or if you’re from a country offering public health care, you’re largely off the hook as long as you’re able to access those resources abroad. I would also suggest that high deductible policies are still a viable option that I’ve used between jobs and while working on the family farm.
Costs. Our athletes noted the costs associated with racing. It’s commonly accepted that racing actually gets cheaper when you become a pro. Sure race entries are often comp’d, and there’s the chance to offset costs with race winnings. But do things really get more affordable?
The answers varied, but most would agree that costs don’t really decrease all that much. This is because one must often travel further to race for large prize purses, and there’s the time associated with increased training loads and travel. On the other hand, a major benefit of being pro is that one is able to gain more attention for sponsors, who in turn help make racing more affordable. FFT is lucky to have a great group of sponsors, which we graciously thank. There’s also the free home stays, which Kristen Andrews recons are “100% awesome and beyond accommodating – way better than staying in a hotel!”
Besides the large “industrial” races that offer fat prize purses, there are of course the local races. These are the bread-and-butter for many an amateur-turn-pro. It isn’t said often enough, but these local races should be thanked tremendously for the cash pay outs for single-day and series events. During the last two years, my triathlon “career” has hinged upon whether I could afford to race one more season. Thanks to several local races, as well as the Rev 3 series payouts (which have unfortunately been halted), I was able to largely offset my racing costs.
Our sport needs more of these incentives, but there must somehow be a drive to improve athletes so they graduate to the pro ranks. We don’t need a system that encourages pro level athletes to sandbag amongst amateurs. For me, those incentives should be paying deeper into the professional finishers. Unfortunately, this may consequently decrease payouts to top placing pros. Another solution may be schemes that reward professional participation beyond race payouts – resembling a sponsorship deal, athletes would receive a small salary to increase amateur participation and community involvement (think athletes visiting local schools and reading books or offering clinics to athletic clubs in order to boost spectator and volunteer participation in the week prior to an event). There are loads of measures that could be implemented to shift the scales to favor careers for professional triathletes. I certainly admit that I know little about the subject, but there are a number of professionals who are actively lobbying for changes; therefore, it’s important to be open minded and supportive.
Next week, we’ll delve further into what motivates the decision to turn pro. Does the increased competition spur us onwards, or do our desires fade as the prospects of fame and glory wane?
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