May 9, 2011
Rob Urbach was an All-American tennis player at Centre College in Kentucky, way more comfortable with serves, forehands and lob shots than he was with swimming, biking and running. A 1979 Sports Illustrated article on the Ironman triathlon forever changed him.
“This is something that really appeals to me,” Urbach said he thought as he competed in his first triathlon, an age-group event in 1981 in Louisville, Ky. “I want to do this.”
That burning desire equated to a lifelong hobby rather than a lucrative profession, but he never has lost belief in the value of the endurance sport, intent on using his power as the new chief executive officer of USA Triathlon to increase the crowds at the starting lines.
Urbach, 48, has spent his first two months on the job trying to determine ways to raise the profile of the Colorado Springs-based national governing body, which boasted an all-time high 134,942 members, $6.8 million in total assets and roughly 50 employees when Skip Gilbert was forced to resign in August from a $243,096 post he had held for 5 ½ years.
On top of getting money from its members, USA Triathlon is supported by 325,000-plus people who purchase one-day licenses to race in events across the country, as well as 869 clubs and 36 corporate partners. Media coverage of triathlon remains minimal, especially in non-Olympic years, with only a few competitions broadcast on TV and most reporters unlikely to write stories about the sport until the buildup to the 2012 London Games.
Minus a marketable superstar like Michael Phelps, seemingly small victories are gigantic steps for USA Triathlon. Olympic Training Center resident Hunter Kemper was the first triathlete to appear on a Wheaties box, in 2007. University of Colorado graduate Susan Williams won a 2004 Olympic bronze medal. And OTC resident Sarah Haskins Kortuem won a World Cup on Sunday in Monterrey, Mexico, where Kemper claimed a bronze.
The revamped slogan of USA Triathlon, adopted by Urbach, is “sharing the win.” Urbach wants triumphs at the Olympics, a better return on investment for sponsors, a boost in the coaching ranks, revitalized youth programs and easier dealings for race directors. Above all, he hopes the casual swimmer, the avid cyclist or the Saturday morning runner warms to triathlon, as he did in feeling a “great sense of accomplishment” in his triathlon debut.
Urbach said, “There’s something special about triathlon that’s not shared with our single-sport brethren. The complexity, the variety, the challenges are different,” stressing people “can pick up our sport a little bit easier because it’s less skill and more fitness-based. … It’s a very social sport. There’s so much atmosphere. There’s so much camaraderie.”
To grow the allure of triathlon, Urbach needs to “drive more and more exposure,” with a focus on getting the sport into schools, and he also holds aspirations for online streaming of events, social media ventures, a fan club and a fantasy league. “In the boardroom,” he said, “instead of bragging about your golf score, executives talk about their triathlon.”
With 63 triathlons under his belt, Urbach remains captivated by “the finishing, the sense of accomplishment, the elation. You’re part of this club that’s very inclusive. That’s the magic. … Hopefully you’ll do your first race, and you’ll want to do more.”