Ironman World Championship’s Economic Impact

Every year I see many people in our West Hawaii community (and, indeed many from afar) complain about the effect Ironman has on our community. In the past, Ironman basically took over the main tourist area and one of our two main north-to-south highways for one Saturday in October for the race. This year they are holding the event on a Thursday and on a Saturday as a way to allow those who qualified during the COVID pandemic a chance to participate. 

This is the sixteenth Ironman World Championship that I have seen in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. I have been a business owner who has benefited from Ironman being here almost all of that time, so I definitely have a bias.

First, I understand and sympathize with those who need to be in downtown Kailua-Kona or at their job on the Kohala Coast. Access is, no doubt, difficult and cumbersome. That’s an undeniable truth.

Another truth is that Ironman is a for-profit organization, and it makes millions off the generosity of our community and those who choose to volunteer. Thousands of people volunteer every year and the only tangible thing they get is a t-shirt.

Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii

But, for this post, I’m just going to look at the arguments of those who claim Ironman doesn’t contribute to our community financially. This is just false, 100% untrue.

With 5,000 athletes and their supporters in town, the economic impact is huge. All the hotels, short-term vacation rentals, and B&Bs are 100% full for at least a week, probably closer to two. All those athletes fly here, rent cars, take Ubers and airport shuttles. Everyone cooks with locally bought food and many have meals and drinks at our local restaurants. Farmers, food distributors, and grocery stores (many locally owned) have more work and income because of Ironman. Bikes shops, massage therapists, paid security guards, logistics, and setup crew have a very good two weeks. The people who clean the condos, homes, and hotels have two to four weeks a very solid work. Kona Impact sells many thousands of dollars of signs during Ironman.

What about the cake baker who says the Ironmen don’t buy her cakes? What about the accountant who can’t get to her office on Ironman day? How about the other businesses that have to close on Thursday, and possibly Saturday? Aren’t they “losing” lots of money because of Ironman?

To me, this is a tough argument to make. Here’s my reasoning:

  1. If you want something from an affected business, wouldn’t you purchase before or after Ironman? If Kona Impact closes for a day, my overall business results don’t change much as most customers will just shift their spending to another day. After all, most businesses like mine are closed on Saturdays, Sundays, and major holidays, but we don’t blame them for losing sales.
  2. As for the cake baker, the accountant, and restaurants that have to close during Ironman race days, I argue that more money in our community—$72 million according to a study on the 2019 Ironman economic impact–is a good thing. The athletes might not buy cakes, but I do, and when I have more money I am likely to spend that in my community. Uber drivers and police officers who make thousands during Ironmen are more likely to eat out, buy locally-grown food and pay someone to upgrade and repair their homes. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.
  3. Kona, Hawaii is known for a few things that other parts of Hawaii, and indeed, the world can’t match. Ironman brings athletes year-round for training, and it’s a priceless commercial for West Hawaii in all corners of the world. Kona, for good or bad, is known by millions worldwide because of Ironman. Our deep sea fishing, 100% Kona Coffee, scuba diving, and land tours businesses are supported at some level by the recognition that Ironman brings. Like it or not, tourism employs tens of thousands on the island.

I, like everyone else, would love to be the last person to the island and to have unfettered access all the time to the things I love about Kailua-Kona. I understand, though, that for me to live here, we need the high-end resort homes that pay enormous amounts of taxes and we need events like Ironman to inject tens of millions of dollars into our economy a year. 

I am certainly willing to avoid the area, share the road and not go to Target on a day or two of the year to make this happen. After all, I will wake up Sunday morning and the athletes will all be packing to go home, the roads will be uncluttered and everything I love about Hawaii will be the same. I will even have some extra money in my pocket to go buy a cake.