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(EN) Rudy von Berg: Managing my career as a professional triathlete

It didn’t take very long for the young American Rudy Von Berg to become a household name in the non-drafting triathlon scene. After a series of stellar races and podium finishes in 2017, Rudy’s first full season as a pro in 2018 featured three major Ironman 70.3 victories (Buenos-Aires, Nice and Elsinore European Championships), and a victory at the famous Wildflower race in the US. Rudy backed this up by defending his titles in Buenos-Aires and Elsinore in 2019 and winning 70.3 St George in Utah before finishing third at the 70.3 World Championships at home in Nice. Following in his father’s footsteps by starting Triathlon at a very young age, Rudy has his sights set on a long and prosperous career in Triathlon. We spoke to Rudy last week before he headed to Hawaii for some training ahead of his first race of the 2021 season at Challenge Miami.

Athlete Profile – Rudy Von Berg

DOB: 1993 Nationality: USA Favourite Training Locations: Boulder, Colorado & Côte d’Azur, France Favourite Races: Nice, Wildflower, Kona? (TBC once I’ve raced there!) University Degree: Business Marketing, Colorado University Triathlon Idols: My dad and many big names like Craig Alexander, Chris McCormack, Alistair Brownlee, Javier Gomez and Tim O’Donnell. Club: Les Sables Vendée Triathlon (backed by Groupe Mousset) Partners & Sponsors: Trek Bikes, RYD, DT Swiss, Garmin, Sailfish, Ekoi, 51SpeedShop, Rejoy, X-Sports + two soon to be announced.

Toe The Line: Hi Rudy, thanks for taking the time to speak to us this morning, we’re keen to discuss your career, your ambitions and your take on the state of triathlon as a profession currently. To kick things off, how do you define ‘professionalism’ in triathlon? We know this is a touchy subject and one that some people like to avoid.

Rudy Von Berg: For me a professional is someone who earns a living from their sport, regardless of what sport we are talking about. In Triathlon I know some people have their elite card and race at that level but unfortunately aren’t able to make a living from it even though they train as many hours as I do. By my own definition I wasn’t a professional until 2018, even though I raced elite since I was 17 and had some good results after completing my studies in 2017.

TTL: Who was the first sponsor or partner that backed your career in Triathlon then?

RVB: When I was racing for Italy as a Junior in 2012-13 we had an agent that got me some product deals with Willier bikes, Santini apparel, Fizik Apparel and then Rudy Project in following years. I was on product-only deals until 2017 when I signed a small deal with the Maverick Multisport team and that was my first actual payment from a sponsor on top of Prize Money. The following year in 2018 was the first year that I had multiple paid deals with Colnago bikes, RYD, Infinit nutrition and Ekoi but we were still talking small numbers. Based on my 2018 results however, my 2019 sponsorship opportunities were much better, and I managed to bring in good prize money as well. The pattern repeated itself in 2019 as I managed to sign both more and better deals for 2020 and 2021.

TTL: Do you still work with an agent who sorts out your various contracts?

RVB: Yes, I signed with an agent in 2018 and he deals with most of my contracts and negotiations. I also like to do a bit on my own though as I like to retain some element of control and I enjoy developing the relationships with the companies in a more direct one-to-one manner.

TTL: For those not familiar with the sport of Triathlon and the way in which athletes make a living, could you give an overview of the types of contracts that you have and the different revenue streams you must create to make a living?

RVB: Yes of course, like you said it’s quite varied and I think many people don’t realise the amount of work that goes into this. First up there are obviously Prize purses, but you can’t plan specific amounts or budget your season based on this. I expect to make money from races, and train to do so, but the aim in the middle to long run is to lower the percentage of my income that is dependant on Prize Money and increase the other sources to ensure I have a stable income. Relating to races again, sometimes you are lucky enough to get appearance fees, but this is rare. Next up there are the various salary, retainer, and stipend agreements with sponsors. Since 2018 this as increased from 10% of my income to now 60%. Depending on the size and the type of company this can vary from a small retainer fee, to a yearly salary or monthly payments even. With certain sponsors you can also agree a performance-based bonus structure that can come compliment your base salary.

Next up there is a new one for me this year and that is a salary from a club. I signed with French club Les Sables Vendée Triathlon (backed by Groupe Mousset) and I will be representing them in 2021. The other two sources of income that I have are the occasional sale of used/old gear and then I have also a small shareholder agreement with one of my partners. Finally, there is also the value in kind that you can get from the various partners which saves you from spending money on equipment and the like. If you add all the RRP on this equipment it makes quite a large number.

TTL: That is quite varied indeed, and like you said, the more you can structure it to have a guaranteed income the better, but you need to get the results first. Are there any other types of income or value that exist in Triathlon that you know exist but haven’t had the opportunity to exploit yet?

RVB: Everyone can be inventive to find their own way of making money, but one thing that I know is done occasionally and that I will investigate over the coming seasons is the covering of travel/accommodation expenses. Depending on where you go these can quickly add up, so if you can structure a value in kind deal with a company where these are paid for then it could be a great cost saving.

TTL: When it comes to sponsorship obligations and appearances, how much of your time does this take up and how much has this become a part of your day-to-day job?

RVB: Other than wearing and using the relevant equipment, most of the obligations relate to providing visibility on social media for example so this is a weekly and daily consideration throughout the year. Every contract also tends to have a clause relating to appearances (usually 1 to 5 per year) with the travel covered by the sponsor. This tends to be for photoshoots for example, or pre-race expos, signing days or whatever the partner has planned. So far, I’m lucky I haven’t had too many of these, and I know that it can easily take up a lot of time and impact your training or racing. Ironically, it’s usually the smallest sponsors that ask for the most and biggest sponsors that leave you alone, I think the bigger sponsors understand the implications of asking for more of your time. A lot of work and planning occurs during pre-season when you choose your schedule, design your race suit and finalise the details of all your contracts. During the season it’s an ongoing consideration to keep providing good content and visibility for my sponsors so I try to integrate it as naturally as possible into my social media channels.

TTL: Have you ever turned down any sponsorship or partnership opportunities? If so, why?

RVB: I’m at a point in my career now that my results mean that the visibility I can provide has become more valuable, and my time is also more valuable as I need to ensure I continue to train and recover appropriately to keep progressing. One of the parameters I use to evaluate any new opportunity is comparing the pros of the product and the financial incentive versus the time that it will cost me. I have also turned down partnerships in the past with companies that clearly don’t value you correctly as an athlete and try to treat you purely as a salesman.

TTL: Would you say then that you are still looking to extend and diversify your portfolio of partners and sponsors or not?

RVB: I’m content with the number of sponsors that I have at the moment, and I think the goal in the future is probably to maximise the returns from a small number of big sponsors so that I can focus my attention on those ones and simplify the overall process and sources of income. It’s easier said than done obviously, and the only way to do that is to get the results and keep them year after year. I’d say I always remain open to new opportunities if I deem them good for me, but I’m lucky enough to also be working with some of my dream sponsors already like Trek Bikes who I’ve admired since I was young. People ask me about a shoe sponsor as well, at the moment I don’t want to be tied down and want to be able to train and race in whichever shoe is the fastest shoe. One of my short-term goals is to introduce a non-endemic sponsor as well, to start reaching beyond triathlon and expand the horizons of the sport.

TTL: Did the COVID-19 pandemic impact any of your contracts or force you to reconsider any of your deals?

RVB: Thankfully the pandemic didn’t have too much of a negative impact and I’m still working with almost all my sponsors and I’ve also signed with a Club now. There’s just one dishonest company who I won’t name who terminated my contract for complete bogus reasons.

TTL: Do you see sponsors and partners as a source of pressure to perform? An incentive? Or more of a recognition of past results?

RVB: I think having sponsors and partners adds a little bit of pressure, but I view this as having a positive impact. Whilst they are a recognition of past performances, I see it also as these companies betting on me for the future and believing in my capabilities as an athlete. Regardless of this, my overarching goals in the sport of Triathlon have been defined for years now and would remain the same whether I had sponsors or not. The ultimate pressure to perform comes from within myself, not from any external factors. Finally, I recognise also that I am fortunate to have sponsors, they are vital for me to continue doing what I’m doing and for me to have a career in Triathlon.

TTL: How do you think the sport of Triathlon needs to evolve to make it a more financially viable career for professional athletes?

RVB: I think the PTO is doing exactly what the sport needs at the moment. Organising big races, with big name athletes racing against each other and reaching an increasingly large audience. We need to build the profiles of the athletes and create story telling opportunities. In the end it’s always the top athletes in a sport that drive its progression and visibility, look at Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods to name just a couple. The model is tried and tested by other sports, now it’s time for Triathlon to move through it as well. Ultimately, having an entity like PTO as the athletes-organization is of paramount importance as this is the only way for the increased revenue to flow back into the Pro’s pockets.

TTL: Thanks Rudy. Thanks for your transparency and your time talking about these important subjects in professional triathlon! Would you like to sign off this interview with any other thoughts or thanks to anyone in particular?

RVB: I’d like to thank my sponsors mentioned above for allowing me to do what I do, I’ve actually got a few new sponsors that I will be announcing soon as well. Finally, and above all, a big thanks to my parents for being there from the start and shaping me into the person and athlete that I am today.

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