Interview with Joe Coito, the Santa Barbara Triathlon Race Director

The Santa Barbara Long Course Triathlon, a rite of passage for many local triathletes these past 28+ years. A step between an Olympic distance triathlon and a half Ironman distance tri, with distances of 1 mile, 34 miles, and 10 miles, on a hilly course, it is not to be taken lightly. Prior to 1990 the race was some years a half Ironman distance but after a one year absence a group of locals got together and resurrected the race in ’90 for one year at Leadbetter Beach, moving it the following year to East Beach, where it has been there ever since. The race course remains now as it has then, with a few minor changes to the bike and run courses for the sake of safety.

One of those locals who helped reestablish the race is Joe Coito, and he has remained as the Race Director to this day. Continuing my string of supporting races run by independent RDs this year, including Auburn, June Lake, and now Santa Barbara, I wanted to get Joe’s thoughts on how his race is doing in the face of dwindling race participation while the number of races run, taken over, or created by at least one very large race organization, has continued to grow year after year.

I have known and worked with Joe since I started racing the long course seriously in ’95, and more personally through the SB Tri Club where our August meeting was the SB Triathlon bag-stuffing party. Our club gets together and stuffs all the goodie bags handed out at the races, at one point stuffing upwards of 1800 bags! Since I was Tri Club president in 2005 Joe and I have continued our relationship and I look towards him as another excellent example of someone that has profited from the local triathlon and endurance sport scene, but has also graciously given back to many local charities that are the primary recipient of the fund raising that goes on each year for a given cause, while putting on a world class event. I also want to add that Joe was the last person added to the Santa Barbara Triathlon Hall of Fame in recognition of at that time 25 years of running the SB Triathlon!

Joe has grown his race into a two day event including on Saturday the long course race, a relay team event, a just for fun race, and a long  course aquabike. Sunday includes two sprint races, coed and female only, both including a just for fun race and a parent-child event, and new this year a coed duathlon for non-swimmers. His awards have long been these very nice tiles where those of us that have, uh, been around for a while, claim to be able to use to redecorate our bathrooms or kitchens, NOT!

Seriously, I asked Joe if a couple weeks after the race if he would be willing to answer a few questions about the SB Triathlon and that I would write a story about the race and he graciously agreed. The following are those questions and his responses, so let’s see what he thinks about the triathlon scene and what’s happening locally.

Fred: Joe, first off, thanks for agreeing to let me grill you with my questions! The focus of my last two race reports at Auburn and June Lake was not only my race but the high quality of the races that were put on my RDs that only do one or two races a year. It is these smaller races that have been going by the wayside recently and I wanted to know how your race, once with over 1500+ athletes competing over the course of the weekend, did this year, numbers wise?

Joe: At the top of the market (2008) our participant numbers were approximately 2100. That includes all team members and individuals who actually completed at least one of the disciplines. Since that peak we’ve dropped approximately 7.5% per year. In 2017 were down to approximately 1400. Which is still a big number relative to many of the independent races that have been having troubles surviving these past few years. So, at the end of the day I feel fortunate and confident that this is a storm that will pass and we will be one of the survivors.

Fred: I put together a panel of local “experts” a few years back to discuss the local triathlon scene and you were part of that. You came prepared to talk about the numbers and how races were doing, and since then we, the SB Tri Club, have tried to promote the sport as strongly as possible, but have you seen a change in the overall picture since say 2015?

Joe: Obviously I’m grateful for your efforts, but as the numbers indicate we’re still experiencing some shrinking in the market. I believe there are some initiatives in place by USA Triathlon and other national endurance organizations to expand the youth base. There seem to be mixed reviews on the success of that program and ones like it to date. The fact is there are new and competing events cropping up every day, and athletes have more options than ever and only a finite amount of time. Like I said, my belief is that the lesser races will fall to the wayside and the strongest will persevere.

Fred: Is there a number of athletes that you need to have register to continue putting on the race, or have you already decided to make changes next year (more on that in a minute…), and possibly revert back to just a one day, a Saturday only event, running the long course and sprint triathlons concurrently again? Would this mean dropping the women’s only tri and some of the other options you’ve added or are you holding out a while longer before having to do that?

Joe: This event is an icon. I don’t think in terms of quitting – if that’s what you’re asking. Obviously, like any other business if the numbers don’t add up at the end of the day then either the product suffers and continues to lose steam, you change the product or you call it and go home. We’re not anywhere near that – we still have 1400 people relying upon us to throw the “party” every year. It’s a staple for many and a gathering place for old and new friends. If numbers continue to decline then we would hit a tipping point that would require us to move to a single day. In my mind that number is about 1000. That’s the number of participants we had the year we changed to two days. The two-day venue has allowed us to create more options for participation – more aquabike, relay, duathlon, parent-child, women-only entries are feasible with two days. If we move back to one day, we’d take a very careful look at which of those might have to be limited or removed.

Fred: Speaking of next year, and maybe the year after, the East Beach Pavilion which basically hosts the SB Triathlon, will be closed for an estimated 18 months starting this November for a long needed major remodel, meaning it could possibly open in May 2019, time enough for that year’s edition to once again have access to the bathrooms, showers, restaurant, promenade, parking lots, etc. Knowing very little about what things will look like in 12 months, are you already planning on moving the race down the street a bit and re-configuring things to carry on or do you think you can continue with the race in the same place it is now? Are you hopeful that you could move the race and have it still being successful?

Joe: That’s the million-dollar question facing us today. The East Beach Pavilion, which has hosted the SB Triathlon for years, will be closed for an estimated 18 months starting this November for a long needed major remodel. That means we already need to find a new venue for 2018. Under the proposed schedule, the new Pavilion will reopen in May 2019, time enough for that year’s triathlon to once again have access to the bathrooms, showers, restaurant, promenade, parking lots, etc. Unfortunately with construction, there are no guarantees. At this very moment, we are waiting to hear from the city with an exact timeline for construction and maybe more importantly, what the staging area for that construction will look like. The two parking lots at the East Beach Pavilion are the biggest unknown variables. Currently we utilize the east parking lot for the transition area. If that lot is not accessible we’ll either utilize Cabrillo Blvd or Dwight Murphy field for the transition, both of which have their unique challenges. We’ve submitted two plans to the city that we believe make good sense logistically and would have a minimum impact on local businesses and traffic. I suspect one of them will be close to what you will see in 2018. There’s no doubt this comes at a difficult time, but the good news is we’ll have a long standing and strong relationship with all of our partners. The city police and parks and recreation department know what to expect from us. I am hopeful and confident that they will assist in making the move as simple as possible. They too recognize the community impact of events like the Santa Barbara Triathlon. In fact, that recognition has played a big factor in their plan to renovate East Beach Pavilion – a host to countless sports-related events and programs serving our community.

Fred: Another thought, given the drop in the number of athletes competing at the local triathlons, including Ventura, Goleta Beach, SB, Carpinteria, and at the local running races, have you given thought to using your expertise as a RD and doing other races to expand your business to make up for the lower number of registered athletes?

Joe: When you say ‘doing other races’ do you mean taking them over or simply providing management services or consulting? If the former – probably not, but of course one never knows. In a shrinking environment, the economies of scale become much less attractive. Fixed costs for these types of events are very high. If some of the smaller events begin to fail it may result in a upward tick in our participation base. We’ve seen that before. It’s not the healthiest sign for the industry as a whole but it could result in some of the mid-sized, independent races being able to hang on until the industry turns positive again.

Fred: Years ago we had a duathlon in March/April time frame, something that was fun to do in the early season before the ocean temperature climbed back up over 60 degrees or so, have you considered putting one of those on?

Joe: Frankly I’ve contemplated creating a number of different endurance and adventure-based events over the years. The greatest challenge is finding the right venue or course. Again, unless one has access to a private venue the costs for a start-up event can be prohibitive– especially right now. There are literally dozens of athletic events in Santa Barbara and participation in those events is competitive.

Fred: Speaking of the drop in numbers at the races and the demise of many of the older races with unique locations, has the cost of dealing with the local municipalities, the Cities, the County, Highway Patrol, driven the cost up so high that RDs are leaving the scene having gotten fed up with the hassle and cost, or have you not had issues like that? For example, I know that years ago the City of SB raised the cost to provide police support for the duathlon by 100%, doubling it in just one year, without providing any more manpower or services. I’ve also heard that Goleta has had issues with races in the past and has basically just decided to not allow race permits to be issued, or is there something else we don’t know about?

Joe: As we’ve both noted, the costs are rising. That said, I have not experienced any increase in police costs without receiving additional manpower or services. As far as an official word from Goleta regarding their unwillingness to issue race permits – I have heard nothing about that. But regarding costs, I’m a bit of a control freak (just in case you weren’t aware) and tend to focus my energy on those things I can control. For example, the revenue side. How can I continue to drive participation and corporate partnerships? Even though our numbers have been shrinking, its at a slower rate than most of our regional competitors. We’ve also had great success securing multi-year agreements with local corporate partners. That’s what we’re focused on. That’s what we have to focus on to survive. We can be pretty savvy with our costs but the key to our longevity will be our support from the athletes themselves and those businesses that recognize the value of partnering with strong athletic community events.

Fred: Years ago the people that run Ironman came to Santa Barbara to see if we could host an event here and I believe you were part of that discussion. I also think that at one point you were approached about turning the SB Tri Long Course into a Half Ironman in partnership with them, was it WTC or their predecessor. Can you give us more information about those times and why we didn’t get an Ironman in SB and why you stayed the course and remained independent of their organization?

Joe: I believe it was WTC at the time. It’s been a while. My takeaway was that Santa Barbara was not a great fit for them. Ironman asks and expects a lot from a community. I think their biggest demand was permission to shut down roads for their bike course. Our local officials have never been excited about that option, and with good reason. Given our proximity to the natural borders of the ocean and mountains, long open roads are hard to come by. Designing a bike course with road closures for the amount of time required would be stressful on local traffic and residential access. My guess is that was the deciding factor for both the city and Ironman.

Fred: Along these same lines did you read the article on slowtwitch.com about Terry Davis selling the rights to Wildflower to Motiv Sports while remaining as the RD? Have they reached out to your or would this be something you would consider?

Joe: I’m not out actively trying to sell the Santa Barbara Triathlon. I’ve been successfully producing this event for nearly thirty years, and I hope I’ve been as good to it as its been to me. That said, if I were ever approached by a group or individual with great integrity who shared my passion for the event and this community, and I believed they could bring something incredible to the table, I’d be a fool not to consider that.

Fred: I guess finally, can we look forward to you and the team of helpers and volunteers you have assembled to put on one of the better run events that anybody could go to, continuing on in the future past next year and beyond?

Joe: The short answer is yes. We anticipate our numbers to level out in the coming year or two and hope we can continue to maintain our current level of options. If however, the industry in general and our event in particular continue to shrink then changes will be necessary. Either way, our team is committed to continuing to produce a world-class multisport event for our community. It’s a massive amount of work but with a team that has experience, it’s not only bearable but fun. As long as all of those parts are in place, the show will go on.

Fred: Joe, thanks so much for your time and consideration, I and my fellow triathletes look forward to many more years of competing in your race, “our” race.

Joe: Thanks for your continued support, and for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts.

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