This month, Competitor magazine turns 30. Things have come a long way in those three decades—so we sat down with the creator of it all, endurance-sports legend Bob Babbitt, to hear how it all started.
Thirty years ago this month, Competitor magazine was created in a 200-square-foot storage shed in northern San Diego by Bob Babbitt and Lois Schwartz. In the beginning, it was a regional publication on newsprint that covered running, cycling, triathlon and every emerging fad sport you can imagine in Southern California in the 1980s. Babbitt was already a familiar face in endurance sports, having competed in the second ever Ironman triathlon in 1980 and being friendly with many star athletes. He handed out copies of his new magazine at local races in the region every single weekend, and distributed it at Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill and at Jamba Juice locations. In the ’90s and 2000s, Competitor expanded all over the nation—first by buying other regional endurance-sports magazines, and later launching Competitor editions in other parts of the country. Babbitt also expanded his duties—co-hosting the weekly Competitor Radio show, and Breakfast with Bob during the annual Ironman World Championship, and creating the Endurance Sports Awards and the Muddy Buddy Race Series, among many other things. He stepped away from Competitor Group in 2014, but hasn’t slowed down one bit: He raced 40 times last year, and recently ran the Boston Marathon—dressed, as usual, in his Elvis costume.
How did you end up in San Diego and covering endurance sports?
I was living outside Chicago, working with emotionally disturbed kids at a residential treatment center. My sister was teaching school here, and I decided I was tired of 60 below zero and all that crap, so in 1978 I came out and got a couple different job offers, including running a PE program. The program was called Bob Time, and basically I’d play with kids. We had no athletic fields, just blacktop, but we had a volleyball net and a pool. One of the things I did was create a little kids’ triathlon, called Ironkids, in 1981. Then I called up a guy from Running News [Editor’s note: it was later changed to Running and Triathlon News] and said, ‘I’m putting on this thing, why don’t you come out and cover it?’ He says, ‘Why don’t you write it up?’ I thought, OK, how hard can it be? So I wrote it, and he liked it. That led to leaving teaching in 1984 and working full-time as L.A. editor of that publication. Lois Schwartz, who was also a teacher, became the art photographer.
How did you go on to create Competitor?
Running and Triathlon News was bought then immediately put out of business, so we were trying to figure out what to do with our lives. I talked to other regional-magazine publishers around the state, but no one was interested in having skinny runners on their covers, and they thought triathlon was a fad. So some friends called Lois and I into a meeting and gave us a check for $17,000 and said, go start your own magazine. For $200 a month we got 200 square feet under a guy’s bike racks in a shed in Del Mar. We didn’t pay ourselves for a year and a half, just lived on our savings and slept on people’s floors. But we loved what we were doing. We loved the athletes we were meeting. We loved telling the stories. The elite athletes are great, but it’s really the stories of perseverance and overcoming that are the hallmark of what Competitor is really about.
What were the early days like?
Sometimes ignorance is bliss. We had no idea that 95 percent of all magazines go out of business in the first year. But we loved what we were doing—it never felt like I had a job. In the early days, we couldn’t pay our print bill. So I would drive to L.A. to supplement our dollars. This was when bodybuilding pants were big. I would buy these pants, and we’d get free booths in the race expos for Competitor, and I’d sell the pants then use the dollars from that to help pay our bills. There were some months we made more selling pants than from selling ads. And every once in awhile, a client couldn’t pay their bill with us so they’d give us a lot of their product—like sunglasses. So we’d sell them at the expos too to help pay our bills.
What made Competitor successful?
I’ve always been a firm believer that you can rely on social media all you want, but when you want to grow something, it’s got to be person to person. I prided myself on handing out magazines at the races. Our philosophy first and foremost was that for us to be successful, events have to be successful. And if they’re filling up, then the retailers would be busy—and everyone in the sport wins. So it was our job to convince race directors to put on events all year long, and we would be there promoting. Our race-ad prices were a third of our regular advertising prices, because Lois and I didn’t look at those as ads.
I looked at our editorial like a triangle. The tip of this triangle are elite athletes. Those were the stories that a lot of people wanted to read about: what made them tick. A lot of the elites started out as age groupers. And their stories helped motivate our readers, the base of the triangle, to get into the sport. If those stories could keep our readers excited and touch the nerve of somebody who hadn’t done our sport before, and got new people in, that was huge.
What does the name Competitor mean to you?
When I’d be handing out magazines at events, I’d have people come up to me and say, ‘That’s not for me, I’m not a competitor.’ I’d say, ‘What do you mean?’ They’d say, ‘I’m not an elite athlete.’ So I said, ‘The word “competitor” does not mean elite athlete. What time did you get up in the morning? What did you come out here to do? You’re competing with the course; you’re competing with yourself.’ To me, that’s what it’s all about: The masses.
What’s one thing that should never change about Competitor?
The Competitor brand has always been about changing lives through endurance. Even if it’s a color run, people are changing perceptions of themselves through that achievement. All it takes is to put a number on, and you can change everything.