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On the Radar: College Triathlon is on the Rise

1 Nov, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

The announcement, from USA Triathlon, that Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, is the latest school in the nation to add a varsity women’s triathlon program, isn't just a press note. It's a wake-up call to event planners and destinations to recognize a growing trend.

Need proof? That announcement was the third in two weeks to feature news of a college adding triathlon. Previously, Milwaukee School of Engineering and St. Thomas Aquinas College had been officially recognized. Triathlon, named an NCAA Emerging Sport for Women in 2014, has been quietly growing across the U.S. And with it, the events have been growing in number. The 2017 women’s varsity collegiate triathlon season included three regional qualifiers in Naperville, Illinois (Sept. 4), Berkeley, California (Sept. 30), and Sarasota, Florida (Oct. 7). 

The season will culminate in the Women’s Collegiate Triathlon National Championship, set for Nov. 5 in Tempe, Arizona. The championship race will be held on and around the campus of Arizona State University, home of the defending national champion ASU Sun Devils.

All races throughout the season are contested over a draft-legal, sprint distance course covering a 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike and 5-kilometer run.

Both colleges illustrate the growing trend of popularity in triathlon - at all levels. Milwaukee’s multisport community, for example, is thriving, as the city hosted the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships in 2013, 2014 and 2015. St. Thomas Aquinas is the second school in New York to add the sport to its varsity athletic offerings, joining Daemen College in Amherst. Millikin joins North Central College in Naperville as the second varsity women’s triathlon program in the state of Illinois, and multisport already has had a strong presence in Decatur since 2007.

So what can this mean nationwide? It can all add up to increased economic impact for the destinations that embrace the program, and the planners who work with colleges and event owners to put on championships – or who create special registration categories for college students or college teams.

As a case study, USA Triathlon reported to SDM that at its April 2017 USA Triathlon Collegiate Club and High School National Championships in Tuscaloosa, almost 98 percent of participants used lodging, resulting in close to $1 million economic impact in that area. The total economic impact (including the lodging figure plus shopping, attractions, dining, rental cars and more) came to more than $2.1 million. Tuscaloosa will host the 2018 championships as well.

Currently, varsity women’s triathlon is offered at 18 universities at the Divisions I, II and III level. Under its emerging sport status, triathlon has a 10-year window to prove continued momentum in order to become a full-fledged NCAA sport. That means that by 2024, at least 40 NCAA Division I, II and III institutions must adopt the sport at the varsity level for women. 

While the sport is not seeing the meteoric rise that beach volleyball enjoyed, it is nonetheless continuing to grow. USA Triathlon has aided that growth by offering three-year grants for eligible college programs. At Millikin, St. Thomas Aquinas and Milwaukee School of Engineering, for example, the USA Triathlon Foundation provided a $70,000 Women’s Emerging Sport Grant to develop, implement and sustain women’s triathlon programs at the NCAA varsity level.

In addition, the organization is working to reward individual students for their start-up work in college triathlon. USA Triathlon created the Truxes Model Scholarship to award $1,000 scholarships to current college students to write proposals for NCAA institutions (Division I, II or III) whose institutions officially commit with USAT to add the sport.

Men’s Programs

While the women’s triathlon is the side receiving the most support presently, expect collegiate men’s triathlon to be a wave of the future as well. USA Triathlon is keeping its focus on the women’s effort until the sport is fully successful and firmly positioned at the NCAA level for women. In the meantime, destinations and event owners can expect to see collegiate men’s participation at the club level.

The projection is for college multisport to continue its rise. Working to attract this demographic early, and promoting opportunities for students to register can help create the reputation of a student-friendly event that continues to grow and create positive returns. SDM will continue to follow the development of the issue and of the sport.

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