Given the uncertainty around when The Ironman Group will be able to resume the 235 live, in-person events it hosts in more than 50 countries annually, the company shifted its priority to launch a new virtual platform.
Already in development before the pandemic, the new platform will serve as a bridge of sorts for the brand between its athletes and events while it works to find new race dates, locations, and other ways to stay connected. In 2019, Ironman organized over 150 of its flagship triathlons for more than 330,000 athletes.
“Our mission is to provide exceptional, life-changing race experiences for athletes of all levels from their first step to the finish line and while our traditional ways of racing are not available for the foreseeable future, we believe that under extraordinary circumstances such as these, athletes should be able to maintain the structure and continuity that training and competition provides,” Andrew Messick, president & CEO of The Ironman Group, said.
Known as the Ironman Virtual Club, the web-based platform’s main function is focused around continuing the community and competition of Ironman races virtually. The offering includes a global racing series, Ironman Virtual Racing, with weekly pro challenges and other digitally-focused features like its activity-based loyalty program.
The platform was designed to allow Ironman triathletes to train, compete and stay connected with the brand’s global athlete community through technology – an ability that has become increasingly important as the coronavirus crisis has caused dozens of postponements or cancellations of Ironman’s traditional events around the world.
“Extraordinary times call for innovation and creativity,” Messick said. “Thankfully, for us, we had our digital product offering in development, and so our focus has been on accelerating that to be able to provide solutions to our athletes in a timely fashion.”
Both amateur and professional athletes can participate in the virtual races and challenges from anywhere in the world, at any time. The format and distances will vary for different endeavors, but weekly amateur races will begin each Friday at 2 p.m. ET and close at 8 p.m. that Sunday. There will also be recurring pro challenges for women and men where professional athletes will compete head-to-head for prize money.
The first competitive race, IRONMAN VR1, debuts on April 3.
Participants will be able to sync wearable and connected fitness devices to the platform to upload their swims, rides, and runs to compete against one another. Select races will include the opportunity to secure in-person qualifying slots for the 2020 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship in Taupo, New Zealand – currently scheduled for November.
And while competition is at the core of Ironman’s events, training is too. Features like the loyalty point system were designed to motivate athletes during preparatory sessions and workouts, which the brand hopes will help keep its athletes both mentally and physically healthy during this crisis. Athletes will be rewarded for their efforts through merchandise, discounts, and other special benefits.
All of these elements were under consideration throughout the app’s development – from training to competitions to community – but each has taken on a new significance given the global climate, which also prompted an expedited launch of the virtual offering.
“It is our belief that athletes should always have the opportunity to test themselves in body, mind, and spirit whether in person or virtually,” Messick said. “We already had our digital product offering in development, and our focus has been on accelerating that to be able to provide solutions to our athletes in a timely fashion.”
The brand also integrated other technologies into their offerings: the Ironman Now Page on Facebook Watch will broadcast the events for fans and provide virtual live race coverage. Facebook said it has seen the number of live viewers on its platform in the US increased 50% during the past month.
Over the past two years, more than 5.3 million people have watched at least one minute of an Ironman live event broadcast on Facebook. Both average watch time and viewership numbers are expected to increase in the absence of live events.
Maintaining the brand’s audience is especially important after the Ironman triathlon business was sold by Wanda Sports Group Co. to Advance Publications Inc. – owner of the media company Conde Nast – for $730 million. The cash deal was agreed to at the end of March.
Nearly 1.3 million Facebook users like and follow the Ironman page, where a “Rolldown Show” will recap the most exciting moments from each weekend the following Monday. An interactive live awarding of the World Championship qualifying slots will also take place.
Hoping to capitalize on a larger audience, the Ironman Foundation will also run Facebook fundraisers during its live virtual race coverage to provide support for the race’s traditional host communities. Messick said that the Ironman Foundation would match all donations up to $10,000 made during the first VR Pro Challenge, scheduled for April 4 and 5, for their newly announced IRONAID COVID-19 Support Fund.
User-generated content shared on an interactive platform will complete coverage of the competing age-group athletes, allowing them to see how they match up against fellow competitors through live look-ins and age-group leaderboard updates.
“We’re creating ways to keep our community connected,” Messick said.
Upon completion of a race, athletes will receive a finisher package including the collectible Ironman VR medal and finisher tees for their specific race – an element of in-person events that Ironman hopes will make the virtual offering feel a little more familiar to finishers during a time when familiar faces and routines are limited.