BY NICOLE FORMOSA
KAILUNA-KONA, HI—As is tradition at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, the who’s who of the triathlon industry gathers at the end of each day in the few restaurants on a three-block stretch of Ali’i Drive to swap stories on the day’s action over a pint of beer.
This year, the industry chatter among magazine editors, photographers and marketing folks didn’t revolve around the athletes, the latest technology or racing conditions, but rather a new policy that restricts the number of photographers allowed on the 112-mile bike course.
The policy, announced by Ironman organizer World Triathlon Corporation less than two months before the Oct. 9 race, aims to reduce the volume of on-course vehicles and traffic by fulfilling media requests for race images through the new WTC-owned EnduraPix Web site.
The WTC described the change as a measure to increase course safety for athletes, but the diminished access left many feeling blacklisted from the biggest and most important event on the triathlon calendar, and questioning whether the move is an underhanded attempt by WTC to monopolize race coverage.
“This is a huge concern for the detachment of certain photographers with brands and companies that they work for and it’s a huge detachment of uniqueness of images that go out from the sport,” said freelance photographer Eric Wynn, who shoots for Ironman sponsors like Power Bar, TYR and Cannondale.
Wynn skirted the new policy by chartering a helicopter, allowing him to snap aerial photos that would meet his clients’ needs. That ultimately resulted in the WTC stripping his media credentials.
EnduraPix hired eight photographers to shoot Kona, granting them motorcycle and vehicle access to the bike and run course, as well as full access to the finish line floor. Among those were Sammy Tillery and Jay Prasuhn, the photo editor and senior editor, respectively, of Lava Magazine, the new WTC-owned triathlon publication, as well as photographers with other media affiliations.
Other credentialed photographers were restricted to using a press truck available to a limited number of media to access the full bike and run course, and access to the finish line from media bleachers. Access to the swim start from the pier was permitted as was foot access to the open portions of the run and bike course.
Typically about 350 to 400 international media are credentialed to cover Kona, said Jessica Weidensall, director of media and public relations for WTC, and of those only about 30 were permitted to access the course via motorcycle or vehicle in the past.
In past years, Ironman has granted the additional access based on the size of the media outlet—including circulation and viewership numbers—and details of the assignment, Weidensall said.
TJ Murphy, editor of Competitor Group’s Triathlete and Inside Tri magazines, said he devotes about 30 pages of editorial space in print to Kona including photo galleries and stories, in addition to online reporting. The new rule made it difficult to capture intense close-up shots of competitors or dynamic images set against the lava fields on Queen K, although Murphy said he didn’t scale back on his coverage.
Competitor Group’s photographers opted not to use WTC’s credentials due to ambiguous legal language over what entity would retain rights to the images. Instead they shot aerials and had two photographers stay overnight in a resort in order to get beyond the closed off area on Queen K, a public road.
“We kind of made it up as we went,” Murphy said. “We wanted to be respectful of the race and the WTC, however, we have a job to do and that’s report on the race best we can. That was our decision and the way we carried it out on race day.”
Competitor Group’s decision to shoot the race without WTC credentials was controversial, and executives at both companies are discussing how they can better work together in the future, he added.
Sponsors, who often use the dramatic backdrop of the island for images in advertisements and catalogs, also had to adjust their plans when they discovered that their contract photographers were no longer allowed full access to the bike course.
Orbea’s Tony Karklins said he brought his top athlete Craig Alexander out to the course in the days after Kona to recreate the race scene. One bike company opted against running a congratulatory advertisement with one of the race winners because it didn’t have a unique image. Other companies, like Gu, purchased pictures from EnduraPix instead of using their own images. Wynn said none of his clients purchased EnduraPix photos.
“It’s really hard because if you buy into this new policy you’re really limiting yourself as a brand because you’re stuck with their ideas and their photographs of what the sport should be for your marketing message. But, if you don’t buy into it you’re stuck without photographs,” Wynn said.
Weidensall said the site offers exclusive photos for purchase and is designed to broaden coverage of the event since EnduraPix is available to anyone so images aren’t limited to media who travel to Kona for the race.
She said with a growing company such as WTC, there’s always the risk of the misperception of trying to control or monopolize an event, but she insists all media are given equal access under the new policy.
Weidensall said the WTC is committed to maintaining the policy for the Ironman World Championship and the 70.3 World Championship in the long term, but is open to feedback on potential improvements in the future.
“Change is challenging. Not having the same resources and capabilities you’ve had in the past or access in the past is an adjustment that’s going to require some time,” she said.