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Tampa-based Ironman brand now in hands of Chinese company

One of the world's best known sports brands and symbols of endurance competition, Tampa-based Ironman, now belongs to a Chinese firm. Dalian Wanda Group of China bought Ironman's parent company, World Triathlon Corp., this week from Providence Equity Corp. for about $900 million in equity and debt.

The buyer, owned by China's richest billionaire, says Ironman will remain headquartered in Tampa's Rocky Point area.

To say Ironman has run a long way — forgive the pun — is an understatement. Little more than a quarter century ago, the young operator of long-distance races was in the Pinellas County offices of ophthalmologist James Gills. He bought the Ironman brand in 1989 for $3 million from Valerie Silk, the former race director of the annual Ironman world championship in Hawaii.

Rhode Island-based Providence Equity, whose dozens of corporate holdings include Hulu and AutoTrader, bought World Triathlon Corp. in 2008 for an undisclosed sum. Ironman was then relocated to Tampa and transformed from a licenser of the Ironman brand to an owner and operator of races. It greatly expanded the number of races it owns and operates to more than 200 and grew its workforce to 250 from ten.

The endurance-athletics market stayed red hot throughout the economic downturn of seven years ago and has shown no sign of slowing. Across the world, growing multitudes of typically high-income professionals are paying three-figure entry fees — the typical figure is $650, up from $475 in 2008 — to compete as long-distance runners, triathletes, cyclists and swimmers. The sport is expensive, both in terms of travel and training time.

The classic Ironman race features a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run, though it is now known as the Ironman 140.6. A half-triathlon gaining popularity is called the Ironman 70.3. Ironman CEO Andrew Messick said Ironman hosts 200 events in 27 countries and has nearly 250,000 registered athletes.

The sports niche is also attracting new corporate competition. The Wall Street Journal reports Virgin Sport, part of billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group Ltd., was launched in May.

But the Ironman brand remains formidable, the Journal reports. "Within that market Ironman is widely perceived as the most powerful brand, in part because of its proprietary use of that name. Any race organizer can create a 26.2-mile course and call it a marathon," it states. "But no other company can call its event an Ironman, a race with such cachet that some finishers tattoo the Ironman logo onto their legs."

Licensed Ironman products, including races, accounted for $500 million in sales as far back as 2007. That merchandising figure is no doubt several multiples of that by now. And no, the Ironman races are not affiliated with Marvel's Iron Man character — though the immense popularity of the Tony Stark character in movies probably has not hurt the racing brand's reputation.

Dalian Wanda is a Beijing-based entertainment and property conglomerate owned by Wang Jianlin. Forbes pegs his fortune at $26 billion and he is said to enjoy close ties to the Chinese regime. His company said the Ironman deal will launch them further on the global sports stage at a time when sports competition is growing in China.

Coming soon: the first Ironman China event.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay

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