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Exclusive Interview With Ironman CEO – Andrew Messick

  • By Paul Moore
  • Published March 25, 2014

As the CEO of Ironman Andrew Messick has one of the busiest and most important jobs in triathlon. His role involves delivering great middle and long distance races throughout the world, while expanding the brand into new locations and opening the sport to a wider audience. As the captain, he is steering a big ship and has a lot of responsibility when it comes to the future of triathlon. Fortunately, he was an Ironman before taking on the role, so understands the demands, needs and sacrifice of his audience. This combined with a long career in global sports marketing provides him with the perfect experience for his role as CEO. We managed to get an exclusive interview to find out about his history, what’s going on with Ironman and 70.3 racing, recent drug allegations regarding age group athletes and where the mighty M-Dot is going in the future.

 

Can you give us a run down of your career history?

I started out in advertising working for one of the big agencies in New York City. I enjoyed it but decided to go back to graduate school and got my MBA at Yale, and was recruited to work at McKinsey and Company. I did six years there working largely on sales and marketing. I left to work for Sara Lee Corporation in England, Australia and Canada, and lived in all of those places. I was then recruited by the National Basketball Association to run their international businesses in 2000. I spent seven years working for David Stern and Adam Silver helping to grow their businesses internationally. I worked a lot in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the USA. In 2007 I moved over to AEG in Los Angeles and ran their sports division for four years. I focused on basketball and we also focused on China for a chunk of time. We owned the Bay to Breakers running race and the Tour of California bike race. Then I moved to Ironman.

How was it becoming Ironman CEO in 2011?

It has been fantastic. My skills and experience at this phase in Ironman’s history are fairly well aligned. I have spent 25 years of my career focused on growing companies and brands outside of the United States. I have an unusual amount of experience of international business, at least for an American. I’ve spent a lot of time on sports properties, more than a decade, and a lot of what I learned working for David Stern is about how you build a global sports brand. This is a very relevant and germane set of skills and experiences given the truly global nature of Ironman. It has been an interesting and rewarding chunk of my career so far. I feel like we are poised to do even more interesting and greater things.

It must have been exciting as an Ironman to go and head up the company?

It was fabulous. In a lot of ways it was a dream come true. Being in the endurance and participation sports space, which was a big part of my job at AEG, being the CEO of Ironman is the best job in the industry. I knew that a long time ago. Knowing that, being prepared for it and getting the chance to do it are all different things. It was a fortunate confluence of opportunity and interest that put me in the chair.

What does the role of Ironman CEO entail?

We’re doing a lot of things and part of the job is to be a commissioner of global sport. We are independent and work In increasing partnership with the ITU, but we are our own entity and operate our world championships. There are lots of governance responsibilities in terms of the oversight of our professional and age group athletes, those world championship races and all that goes with it. This is an area where I spend a lot of time. I also spend a lot of time on the things that I think are the most fundamental to our future success. A lot of that revolves around operational race delivery, and even as we continue to grow we don’t want to lose our core DNA, which is as an operational company focused on races. I spend a huge amount of time thinking about how do we grow. I think about where we do have athletes and where we should have athletes.

What were the major challenges you faced coming in?

What hasn’t changed at all is the fundamental expertise and operational delivery, but what makes us unique is that we are really good at organising races and delivering an extraordinary athlete experience. We’re world class and I don’t think there’s any other organisationany where that’s as good as us. We deliver great events everywhere, whether it’s Asia, North America or Europe, and our athletes recognise that. That’s an important part of the Ironman brand. What’s interesting is there is an increasing interest globally in participation sports and our position is at the top of the participation sports pyramid. In terms of the commitment of our athletes, the magnitude of the sacrifice and magnitude of the accomplishment for competing in an Ironman, I don’t think there’s any comparison to other types of participation event. These are things that have always been and hope they will continue to be.

How have things changed since your arrival?

Where we have changed is that we have put more emphasis on being consistent. Our athletes come from all around the world and they travel all over the world to compete in Ironman races. There’s an expectation that there’s going to be a certain level of consistency in terms of the excellence and operational delivery of our events. We spend a lot of time and effort doing this, and if we have races that don’t meet this expectation, we fix them fast. We want our athletes to have the confidence they will have an extraordinary race experience wherever in the world they race an Ironman or Ironman 70.3 event.

Was this the reason you pulled out of South East Asia and are now bringing events back to the region?

Very much so. We measure athlete satisfaction at a very detailed level at every race. We ask our athletes where we do well and in what areas we need to do better. We have a detailed and sophisticated understanding of where we are delivering great races and where we need to get better. We are extremely focused around this. We are already the best in the world but we have plenty of room to get better.

Tell us about the sports you did growing up?

I’ve always been an enthusiastic yet untalented athlete. I lived in Europe twice when I was growing up and played football when I was living in the Holland and Norway. I played rugby in college, but have been a runner and cyclist for almost my whole life.

How did triathlon enter your life?

I was living in New York City, which is a fabulous place to run and ride. I was running a fair amount and I had done the Maratona dles Dolomites Gran Fondo in the Dolomite Alps five times, and thinking about the next challenge. Like a lot of Americans I had seen the NBC show of Ironman Hawaii and I had put a little marker next to that when I saw it. When you’re a reasonably ambitious and goal focused person you know at some point you want to do that, so I signed up for a triathlon. I liked it and started to think what’s next.

What was next?

That was Ironman Canada in 2005. I spent a year training for it like a lot of age groupers. I liked the process, the discipline and how it made me feel.

How did your day go?

I had a shocking day! On my final training ride in Central Park on the Monday before the event I ran into a pedestrian, crashed my bike, broke my helmet and broke my arm. I had a non-displaced radial head fracture. I went to a bunch of doctors on the Tuesday and scheduled my flight for Thursday. Most of the doctors advised me not to race as they’re trained to do, but two doctors told me that unless I crashed on it I wouldn’t make it any worse. It was all about pain management, and rightly or wrongly, that is something I have always been able to handle. I had to go and do a bunch of practice swims because I couldn’t swim in a straight line because I couldn’t pull as much with my right side.

How did your swim go on race day?

I had to put in an extra stroke from time to time to not veer off course. I got through it. On the bike I reach for my bottles with my right hand and it was my right arm that was broken. It was too uncomfortable to do, so I used my left hand and didn’t drink enough as a consequence. I started cramping about 170 kilometres into the bike and my run was a disaster. I ran 5:26:59.

Did you ever say, ‘never again’?

I never said this, but I did say, ‘this sucks a lot’. Immediately, I started to analyse everything that happened and how much better I could have done. When your legs are cramping and you run for five hours you have a lot of time to think.

You raced again in 2006 at Ironman Lake Placid. How was that?

I was almost an hour and half faster. This was more of the race that I wanted. Then I got a new job, had new child and a knee surgery. This knocked me out of the triathlon game for a number of years.

How did you find time to race another Ironman in 2012?

I didn’t train for it (laughs).

How had things changed from your previous experience six years earlier?

I was 40 minutes slower in Mont Tremblant in 2012. This course is a little faster than the Lake Placid course and conditions were really good. I was able to do it on base fitness and I had a good day. The result and the time were better than I deserved.

Didn’t you do a race with the number of Andrew Naylor, who lost who lost his life at the New York Ironman event, as a mark of respect?

That was in Mont Tremblant in 2012.

What are you strengths as an athlete?

Relatively speaking, I am a bad swimmer, an okay cyclist and a decent runner, although cycling is where my heart is. I think this is something I can do for longer and it doesn’t put the same amount of pressure on my knees, back and the rest of my body.

Who’s quicker you or Geoff Meyer (CEO of Ironman Asia Pacific)?

Geoff is way quicker than me. He crushed me when we raced 70.3 Auckland together in 2013. I had to give him career advice after that, and told him he really shouldn’t beat his boss by over half an hour. Four or five minutes are okay, but beating your boss by half an hour raises all sorts of questions about how you spend your time.  And they’re probably questions you don’t want to answer (laughs).

What would you like to achieve as an athlete?

I’ll never qualify for Kona, at least in the next 15 years. I’m at least an hour too slow. On my best day with some help from the roll down qualifying for the 70.3 World Championships is within my ability. I did qualify in 2006 and raced as an age grouper at the 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater. Being able to do that again is on my list of things I’d like to do.

Do you have or would you ever get an M-Dot tattoo?

I don’t have any tattoos, and my wife has told me that I am going to stay that way (laughs).

Do you have any races lined up for 2014?

I’m currently injured so haven’t been able to do much of anything. I will do at least a couple of 70.3s during 2014.

Things have developed considerably since you became CEO. Was it always the plan for Ironman to expand rapidly?

We have seen consistent growth in our sport for a long time and expect that to continue. There are huge parts of the world that triathlon is only just being exposed to on a broad scale. There’s tremendous demand for Ironman and that demand exists everywhere. We have a lot of aces in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, but when you think of the rest of the world it’s big and we don’t have a lot of races there. We have nothing in the Middle East and our 70.3 in Hungary will be our first race in Eastern Europe. On continental Asia (non-Japan) Malaysia is our only full-distance race and we only have 70.3s in the Philippines, Taiwan and now Putrajaya. We know we have lots of athletes there. Japan is a market that has a great history with Ironman and endurance sport, and we only have two races there with a population in excess of 120 million. In Latin America we have nothing in Argentina, Columbia or Venezuela, but we have four races in Brazil and one in Chile. We see massive growth in those markets and an extraordinary vibrant culture of participation sports that’s growing. We have nothing in India either.

Are events still dominated by Europeans and North Americans?

If we look around the world five years ago when we first put a 70.3 into the Philippines it was a 400-person race with 200 Filipinos racing. In 2014, that’s going to be a race with 2,400 entrants with 80 per cent Filipinos. At Ironman Brazil 10 years ago it was a 1,000-athlete race with 70 per cent European and North American athletes. Now, this race has doubled in size and is 75 per cent Brazilian, and another 15 per cent from other Latin American countries. There has been an enormous growth in our athletes all around the world. An important part of what we do is trying to find opportunities for our athletes to continue to compete, and to continue to grow long distance triathlon around the world, and we’re having a lot of success.

Is there room for further growth in more developed areas?

In our more developed markets there’s still more we can do. For example there’s no full-distance race in Italy, which is a country that has an extraordinary swimming, biking and running tradition. There are definitely more opportunities for races in Southern Europe. For 55 million people in France we only have one Ironman and no races on the Iberian peninsular. The only Spanish full-distance races we have are on the islands of Mallorca and Lanzarote. There are athletes, interest and plenty of growth potential.

How hard is it to deliver the same standard of race everywhere in the world?

We have the ability to deliver the fundamental promise to our athletes to deliver an extraordinary race, and meet standards of excellence that our customers from around the world expect from a race with the Ironman brand. That’s really hard to do. It’s easy to start a race and announce it, but actually delivering a race experience that’s consistent with your brand, that’s hard. We are very careful before we do that. It takes a long time to build credibility with your athletes and your customers, and it’s easy to erode that credibility.

Are you pleased with the positive changes for the 70.3 World Championships, firstly with Vegas that attracted a truly worldclass level of talent racing, and now with the rotating location?

The 70.3 World Championships will continue to get better. It’s going to be a lot better in Mont Tremblant than it was in Vegas, and Vegas was better than Clearwater. By rotating the championships we’re going to give our athletes the opportunity to compete on extraordinary courses. In 2015 we’re in Europe. It’s going to be great for European athletes to have the opportunity to compete against the best in the world without having to fly 12 hours to the USA.

How do you feel about the recent survey showing large numbers of age groupers taking drugs at Ironman Germany?

We partnered with the people doing the study and we made our athletes available for that survey. We made a decision that we would not insert ourselves into any of the questionnaire or study design. We wanted the people in charge of that study to not feel that we were in any way trying influence their work. That said, I think it has enormous potential to be misleading and the headlines are wrong. It’s important to not lose the message, and the message is that we need to be really vigilant in making sure that age group triathlon is as clean as we can make it.

What were the problems with the survey?

I think the shortcoming in the study was that they didn’t differentiate between what constitutes doping and what doesn’t. We’re WADA signatories and we’re partners with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). We have signed the code and we believe in the code. And to ask a question of athletes that doesn’t differentiate between things that are legal and things that aren’t legal is really misleading. In both the physical, and what they call mental doping to use their words, are a bunch of things that are legal and a bunch of things that aren’t legal. No one knows which is which, and so to say that someone who takes a caffeine pill is engaged in doping, is wrong. Under the WADA Code you can take caffeine as long as you don’t go over a certain level. The headlines saying that 17 per cent are doping is misleading.

Have there been any age group issues with your testing?

We tested at the race and did in excess of 40 age group tests and no one failed. These are tests, where the German federation was leading the testing, and we tested for all the usual stuff. No one failed. The last year has proven that not failing a test isn’t a proof of no one doping, but my fear is that people are going to come to the wrong conclusion when they read that headline.

What is an appropriate level of testing for age group racing?

We do test a lot of age groupers and a lot of the federations where we have races test age groupers too. We believe, and as someone who is on the most aggressive side of anti-doping inititives and efforts, we are always endeavouring to make our sport as clean as we can make it. We have full-time staff who administer our antidoping programme, and work with WADA and all the other ant-doping organsiations around the world to do the best we can to coordinate and make sure the sport of triathlon is as clean as we can make it. We’re proud of those efforts.

Is this problem ever going to go away?

It is a problem that’s never going to go away. I was asked by someone a while back when we might not need to test and my answer was, ‘we’re not going to need anti-doping tests when we abolish police departments’. There’s always going to be a need for police. I think we’d all like a world where there’s no need for police but that’s not coming any time soon. And there’s not going to be any time soon when we won’t need aggressive and ambitious ways to make sure this sport is clean. We’re in the fight, we’re committed to the fight and there’s no one in the race organisation world that does more than us. We rightly believe we are the leaders in the fight against doping in triathlon and we’re going to continue in that role.

We recently saw the launch of the Uplace-BMC Pro Tri Team. Do you think we might see more teams in the future?

It would be fantastic if we did. I think that triathlon has always been a very individual sport for the pros, apart from a few exceptions like tri Dubai and the Commerce Bank teams. I think it’s good for the sponsors and good for the sport. I hope they succeed, and hope to see more of it because it’s important that our professional athletes continue to find avenues to gain sponsorship and the corporate support they deserve.

Can you tell us more about the rumour that David Beckham is going to race Ironman?

If we have something to tell you’ll be the first to know.

Any other big names we might see in Hawaii this October?

We’re not ready to announce all of our media athletes. Once again there will be an interesting and deep field of athletes. We also have some good age groupers competing including Magnus Bäckstedt, who won Paris-Roubaix (2004). He qualified as an age grouper at Ironman Wales last year. A lot of former cyclists have had a lot of success when they crossed over after their cycling career.

How do you relax away from swim, bike and run?

I have a six-year-old (laughs).

If you could have one super power what would it be?

I’d like to be David Beckham.

Tell us something people might not know about Andrew Messick?

I like to think I’m the most normal guy in the world, but every time I say that everybody rolls their eyes.

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Paul Moore

Paul Moore

Paul Moore is the Online Editor for Triathlete Europe. When not glued to a computer he can be found writing books - most recently Ultra Performance: The Psychology of Endurance Sports and The World's Toughest Endurance Challenges. Both are available on Amazon. Paul has also written Ultimate Triathlon: A complete training guide for long-distance triathletes which is also available on Amazon.