(Bloomberg) — Coca-Cola, once triathlon’s little secret, is going mainstream.
A team of seven professional triathletes, led by Ironman champions Rachel Joyce and Tim Don of Great Britain and Australia’s Paul Matthews, will race under Coke’s colors this season, beginning this weekend in Dubai and Brazil.
Coke’s title sponsorship of the team is being funded by a group of private investors, including one with Coca-Cola’s Brazil office, and will for the first time put Coke’s red and white logo on athletes competing in the sport’s biggest races, including the annual Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.
“This is the most authentic product used in triathlon,” said Franko Vatterot, a manager who represents Don, Joyce and Matthews. “It’s a lifeline in a lot of ways for these guys. This is a product that has been involved in the sport for a long time but it has never had a commercial value.”
While endurance sports competitors are focused on fitness and proper nutrition, Coke has been a mainstay on race courses for years. Three-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander is among those who has said he drinks Coke during the run portion of a triathlon, which also includes swimming and biking. Coke provides a concentrated source of caffeine and sugar, helping fuel a late-race energy boost, athletes say.
The local sponsorship comes as Coca-Cola fights a backlash against its sugary drinks amid a global obesity crisis. Drinks by the soda maker and its competitors are taxed based on their sugar content in France and Mexico, and in the U.S. lawmakers in at least 30 states have tried unsuccessfully to pass similar measures.
In response, Coca-Cola has peppered its marketing and lobbying with the message that exercise is important to control calorie intake and weight gain.
“We care about people’s well-being and want to make a positive difference in their lives, both physically and emotionally,” Coke said in a statement provided about the sponsorship. “We also aspire to help people lead active healthy lifestyles through the beverage options we produce, the nutritional information we provide and our support of programs that encourage active, healthy living.”
The company now emphasizes its calorie-free diet sodas and waters, and suggests that consumers balance their consumption of full-sugar versions. The company is expanding distribution of Coca-Cola Life, which replaces some sugar with a no-calorie stevia sweetener.
Brazil is Coca-Cola’s fourth-largest market by sales volume. The company expects to spend $7.6 billion building out its manufacturing and distribution network to meet demand in the nation between 2012 and 2017.
Coke’s second-biggest Brazilian bottler, Solar BR Coca-Cola, is based in Fortaleza, site of Brazil’s top Ironman triathlon race since 2010.
The new Coke-sponsored team will also include four Brazilian-based professionals, including Guilherme Manocchio, winner of November’s Fortaleza race.
The two-year sponsorship will lead up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Coke has been an Olympic sponsor since 1928. Financial terms weren’t disclosed. Read more…