This just in -- Lance Armstrong's return to professional cycling has dramatically increased membership for USA Cycling.
It's not much of a surprise, but then again, there is something comforting about statistics backing up what you believe to be obvious.
In an article this week in Cycling News, USA Cycling announced its number of license holders will reach an all-time high of 66,600 members by the end of the year -- a 5.62 increase in memberships over last year.
This, mind you, is not the total number of people cycling. These are people who are joining USA Cycling -- the national governing body of the sport. While the organization promotes riding at all levels, its main thrust is competition. So most of those 66,600 members have joined because they want to race their bikes, not just ride their bikes. If there was a way to count that, the number of people cycling and the percentage increase would probably be even higher.
While difficult to pinpoint exactly the cause and effect of the membership gains, there is clearly a correlation between Lance and the popularity of the sport.
Again, it's not rocket science. In order to have success in today's over-crowded media world, a sport has to have a strong and compelling personality. It helps immensely if that personality also wins. (Although there are historical cases where that's completely necessary. See Anna Kournikova.)
Lance Armstrong's story -- his battle with cancer, his foundation, his comeback, heck even his pop-celebrity status -- have made him a household name, gaining attention for a sport which lacked any type of foothold in the American sporting culture.
"Sports needs people," Armstrong said in the Cycling News article. "It's important to have those stories so people pay attention. As teams and people involve in the sport, you gotta keep that going. If you don't have the athletes who have the story and carry the personality, the sport will go away. It's our job to develop young guys, riders who can keep people interested in cycling and interested in their stories for whatever reason. People look at my story and you can say they're interested because he's a strong cyclist or because he's a cancer survivor."
Ah, but will people's interest change in 2011 if Lance makes the move from cycling to triathlon as he's indicated?
Armstrong first got his competitive start as a triathlete before switching to professional cycling. He has said that in 2011 he would like to race Kona -- otherwise known as the Ironman World Championships. Unless there is some special dispensation for Lance, he will have to compete in at least one other Ironman that year and perform well enough to qualify. Those details aren't the priority right now -- the 2010 Tour de France is.
But just as Armstrong has boosted cycling, there is already talk of what his re-entry into triathlon will do for that sport.
USA Triathlon, the governing body of that sport, announced 115,000 annual memberships -- not quite double the amount that USA Cycling had. The sport of triathlon is growing, in part because of branding and marketing efforts of the World Triathlon Corporation, which owns the Ironman and Ironman 70.3 race series. It's also growing because of the increase in the number of smaller, local races and the plethora of distance available -- from "try-a-tri" events and sprint distance all the way up to the grueling Iron Distance events (whether they be trademarked Ironman races or independent events).
If the sport is already growing, what will the Lance affect be?
In the eyes of Claire Lunardoni of the Boston Triathlon Examiner, it has the potential for widespread disaster.
"While the sponsorship opportunities that Armstrong will bring to triathlon will benefit pros and race directors, mid-pack triathlon veterans are likely to suffer," she writes. "With more triathletes, races will sell out even more quickly and qualification-only events like the world championships in Kona and Clearwater will become out of reach for more and more athletes as qualification slots are spread thinner and thinner across more North American races. ... With a sharp increase in triathlon participation, the sport will almost certainly need to stratify based on ability, bringing the common age grouper farther and farther from the elite level."
But what if a company like WTC looked at how championship spots are given? Right now, you qualify for one of the two championships (Kona for Ironman, Clearwater for 70.3) at designated races throughout the year. How do you qualify? Each race has a certain number of slots allocated for each age group based on the number of participants registered. The bigger the race, the more slots available. The smaller the race, the fewer the slots, though potentially slightly easier competition.
Maybe a system like one used by the Boston Marathon, with qualifying times and easily understood standards, would make the triathlon process less messy. Maybe there's some sort of combination of the two.
Either way, would the added media exposure, sponsorship dollars and popularity that Lance would bring to triathlon hurt the every-day athlete's experience?
I'm not so sure it would. Qualifying for a world championship should be difficult by nature. And while managing more participation may mean some growing pains and rethinking traditional ways of being, the more people brought to the health and fitness table the better we all are.
--- Amy Moritz
Follow Journey to the Finish Line on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amymoritz