Tuesday 26 March 2013

How ballots break great events - Hyde Park and London lose again...

As you get into triathlons, marathons, half marathons, etc. you get used to talking about your experience as the curious and would be athletes constantly ask about your experiences, training, and generally the process of getting into these sports...

... as this happens, and being a Londoner, you rapidly learn how lucky we are as Londoners in having Hyde Park, and other parks to train in. My friends who live in the country cannot train due to country lanes accessing open areas being dangerous, others live in cities that just do not have the parks we have in London.

However, aspiring sportsters very, very seldom do their first event alone, nor do they do it far from home. They do it with people who have done it before and they do it close to home and at key locations, like Hyde Park (and uniquely Blenheim Palace). This is where Hyde Park has been pivotal in getting myself and all the people I know who do triathlons and half marathons into these great sports that have changed peoples' lives and make London one of the best places in the world to live in. For me, the Hyde Park triathlon was the London 2012 legacy we heard so much about.

The key to these events changing peoples' lives, helping them live longer, stay fitter, being proud of their city and to keep doing these sports is not only that they get people into sports, but they keep them in these sports by creating a stable event around which to keep bringing people into these events. Yes, some go, but for each that goes, at least one new comes, and the one that goes often come back again.

The Hyde Park Triathlon is, or was, a "must do" event that we hyped up, got everybody to subscribe to, to the point that we all follow the event religiously as we did all the brands that sponsored these events: We checked the pages weekly, daily, even hourly and when the moment came, we acted; there was no room for doubt - you were in, and committed to doing the event as it became available - but moreover, we were "all in".

Hyde Park Triathlon was an olympic experiment that got many Londoners into triathlon
This "all in" is important, as we are in together, we train together, and so the event is a success. You cannot expect to sign up for your first triathlon or half marathon alone and expect it to be a success. Do it alone and the chances of it being an unmitigated disaster you tell all your friends never to do is almost guaranteed. Join or participate alone it will most likely be a one-off, like the London Marathon and like so many "bragging rights" events that people come to, they do and they leave with the t-shirt.

Marathons are different; a marathon is 3 or 4 times the distance most avid runners ever want to run and then some more...they are bragging events and so the ballot works: Ironman is the same.

Half marathons and triathlons however are different: We are all members of clubs, either registered clubs or social clubs of our own making via email and social networks - we train together year after year, we plan the following year together, we race together and we compare personal bests year after year together... Which bring others in.

That is until someone who has no interest in the sport, or just wants to exploit an event for short term gain, decides to turn marketing and sponsorship gold that is a whole city gripped for an events release into a mass market maybe in one foul swoop by putting a ballot in place. It happened to the Royal Parks half in 2011 and it happened now in 2013 to the Hyde Park Triathlon. In 2011 I know of spouses who got a place in the Royal Parks Half, but the person who got the spouse into half marathons did not. In the 2013 hyde park triathlon I know 30 people in 5 groups who entered but only one got in. None of us have returned to Royal Parks half and none of us, not even the one who got a ballot ticket for the Hyde Park Triathlon, want to do the event again while there is a Ballot.

While I am very happy for those who got a place, and want as many people who can and want to, to enjoy a great event and a location I am lucky enough to train in every day; the long-term value of an event is built on the fact that it grips its locals and continues to change lives and return sponsor value year after year, and carries on building the legacy of the people who built it and the Olympics that changed London. It also depends on the people who are dedicated enough to follow the event and its sponsors to be on top of the event, its sponsors, their social presence so keenly that the moment they announce entry they buy a ticket and email the people who they bring into the sport and will continue in, the sport. The legacy builds this way.

A ballot not only ruins this community spirit, but also ruins sponsorship value: the Hyde Park tri this year is sponsored by Pruhealth, my insurance provider of many years, and a provider I have introduced and convinced many to join over the years... Is now a sponsor and health insurance provider, like the event, that I now no longer not want to be associated with! In 2010 and 20111 we all came back from holiday to compete and in 2012 we did the same and even took days off while screamed ourselves hoarse at last year's event we could only watch (due to the Olympics) while discussing next year's come back. This year we are unlikely to even turn up, even the one who got a ballot ticket, such is the disconnect a ballot causes.

At the same time, my loyalty to last year's sponsors; Garmin, Tata and Specialized, could not be stronger, and if they sponsor a rival event; I and my training partners will most likely follow wherever they go. And at least there is still the Blenheim Triathlon, which despite being just a sprint continues to grow from strength to strength, like the legacy of the of the man who was born there.

Organisers of events take note - the people who build your event are those who will maintain your event and its ability to continue to attract bigger and stronger sponsors, who in turn will attract more dedicated following and with it more tourism, bigger crowds and new entrants alongside loyal followers and the long term chance of your event going from a "must do" to a legendary fixture. Put in a ballot an you turn it into an x-factor that churns out one hit wonders and attracts second tier follower brand sponsors instead of market leaders... This is not the legacy London 2012 was supposed to create, and it should not be allowed to repeat itself.