Robert Flanigan met Sean "Wattie" Watkins in 2011, in Kona, right at the time that the idea of a team of amateur triathletes connected to the "W" logo was percolating in the company's founder's imagination. Over beers, in the location that is the sport's spiritual home, Wattie floated the possibility of forming a triathlon team that could bear the physical standard of his young venture. Back then, Wattie Ink. was a representation company rather than the apparel company it is today, managing the careers of professional athletes such as Ben Hoffman, Heather Jackson, Joe Gambles, Fraser Cartmel, Tyler & Niki Butterfield, and Richie Cunningham to name a few. That Black W, though, had captured the hearts and minds of many in the triathlon world, Flanigan included. A few months after meeting Wattie, Flanigan heard that the idea had come to fruition, and there would be a "Wattie Ink. Elite Team" in 2012. He had to be on it, and he answered the the call in January of that year. He learned he'd made the inaugural squad not long after that, not knowing that his life was about to change. "The power of the brand even before it was an apparel company was something that was so attractive to so many people," Flanigan says. "It's interesting to have a brand exist and not necessarily have much substance behind it, because it was originally a sports marketing company. But Wattie had this brand that people followed—it was an edgy, fun, logo that felt different from everything else around it."
During the first two years of the team, over 2012 and 2013, Flanigan describes himself as "just a very active member of the squad." Then, as the team grew and as Wattie shifted the focus of the brand from sports marketing to apparel, it became clear that the Wattie Ink Elite Team would have to develop some structure. Wattie's hands were full developing the apparel side of the company and making good on his Made in the USA pledge, and Flanigan's past in the corporate management world made for a good fit for wrangling a committed but boisterous group of athletes. Over the team's first two years it had grown to 100 members, which seemed like a good place to cap the growth, and in 2014 Flanigan took on the role full time and began growing the team into what it is today: a tight, high-functioning squad that promotes its sponsors, reflects the values of the Wattie Ink. brand, and looks out for each other at races and other events around the triathlon world. "The mission of the team is to promote and represent the Wattie Ink. brand, and the sponsors that support our team," Flanigan says. "It became very important to me that we were returning the investment of all our sponsors, but we only have 100 slots on the squad, so to be effective ambassadors we needed to be able to cover as large as a footprint with our athletes so as to spread the sponsors' messages and to raise exposure and awareness of those companies."
Soon, many athletes around the country had the Wattie Ink Elite Team application date circled on their calendars each fall. As Wattie had envisioned with the apparel company, something about the look and feel of the brand resonated with many triathletes. The clothes and logo and athletes looked different and felt different from the rest of the sport, more punk and skate than lycra and math. Applications to the team soared, and this past fall they topped out at 4000 aspirants. "I think the selection process was one thing that became very important to us," Flanigan says. "Although it may be valuable to have another world-qualifying athlete in Southern California (where so many already reside), wouldn't it be more valuable to find someone that is a very quality athlete with a nice following in Tolupa, Mississippi, where they may not know Wattie Ink; where they may not know BlueSeventy, Cannondale, Herbalife? So we put methods in place to create as large of a sphere of influence and as large of a footprint as we could with our athletes. It's difficult, though. One of my saddest days of the year is the day after the team is announced, and I get a lot of emails, some disappointed, some downright angry, about not making it onto the team. But the reality is that we're trying to craft a very particular group, and the existing members of the team are already a family—we have to respect that and make sure we're bringing the right people into that already-established fold."
I asked Flanigan what it was, exactly, he was looking for each fall when the team was selected. First and foremost was that existing sphere of influence, in keeping with the team's mission, but close behind was an applicant's desire to be part of something larger than him- or herself. "We're looking for people who want to be part of a program not because they're getting free stuff; not because they're getting discounts on gear and apparel, but because they want to be part of this program of amazing people, to support others at races and to be supported themselves, and it really comes down to that simple thing."
The team has done just that, and more than that. Currently ranked second in WTC's worldwide club rankings, the Elite Team has lived up to its name. Oddly, though, that very name presented some of the biggest challenges to the group over the years. "Elite" is one of those words that can be appended to so many things, can lose its power and specificity so easily. Throughout the triathlon world, people asked why the team got to use the word, even though some of its members finished well back in the middle of their respective age groups. "We were thinking, a few years in, about changing the name," Flanigan recalls. "But that turned out not to be the thing to do. Elite can mean a lot of different things. Despite the fact that we do have over 40 people already qualified for 70.3 Worlds this, a dozen for Kona, countless more for ITU Worlds and Xterra Worlds, the people on our team are elite human beings. Elite mothers and husbands and professionals. We decided it was so much more than caving to the public's concept of 'elite,' and we found comfort in not necessarily caring what the public had to say about it.
What to do, though, with the 3900 applicants that were turned away each year? It seemed odd to miss out on the opportunity of connecting with those people that were fans of the brand, that deeply wanted to connect with the energy of the W. Flanigan and Wattie developed, in 2016, a fledgling ambassador program that offered some exclusive access and connection to what the apparel company was working on. 150 people received a racing kit, a W hat and socks, and the chance to give feedback to the developers of the clothing. After a successful first year, Wattie and Flanigan renamed the group The Hit Squad, bringing it more into line with the edgy, fun, raucous feel of the rest of the line. Rather than promoting sponsors, The Hit Squad exists to promote Wattie Ink. itself and to provide feedback on the various new projects the company rolls out month after month. Just as with the Elite Team, though, The Hit Squad has grown into a community that looks out for each other at races and events, becoming far more than a simple ambassador program.
Looking forward, I asked Flanigan what the future looked like, what the goals were. For now, he said, the Elite Team would stay at its 100 members, but several other initiatives had recently launched or were in the process of launching. Last year, in 2016, the Elite Team and its sponsors put together a raffle to support a program called Speak Up, which combats anxiety and depression in teenagers. "We were able to help put together a $20,000 prize package that included a Cannondale Slice, a set of race wheels from Knight Composites; BlueSeventy threw in a Helix; Herbalife threw in about $1000 worth of nutrition. It was just an amazing package. We created the Speak Up Sweepstakes and raised about $25,000 for the organization. We impacted over 1000 teens through programs that were created to help them manage anxiety, depression, and their education." This year's raffle is about to launch in the next few weeks. A foundation, as yet unnamed, is also in the works to combat bullying. Flanigan has also begun a program to support three first- or second-year professionals, helping talented athletes through the fledgling years of a tough road. In 2017 the Elite Team has supplied Lucas Pozetta, a long-course prodigy; Dylan Sorenson, an ITU specialist eyeing the 2020 Olympics; and Amanda Wendorff, another long-course racer, with bikes from Cannondale, wheels by Knight Composites, power meters by Pioneer Cyclesports, an entire year's worth of nutrition from Herbalife, and many other benefits, raising the profile of not only those racers, but the Elite Team, Wattie Ink., and the sponsors of the program, continuing to further Flanigan's mission of promotion and expansion.
I asked him what's the biggest thing he would want the public to know about the Elite Team, The Hit Squad, the professional program, the Speak Up Sweepstakes, and the upcoming foundation, and he told me "That the public knows that we want them involved. We want them to apply. We want them to follow and interact with the team because the more that I can say 'Look at the impact that we're having—the people that are involved, the people that are following, the people that apply—the more that we can show the power and the value of what we're doing, the more opportunities that will come of it. So what I really want people out there to know that are reading the blog is 'Hey! We want you involved in whatever manner you can get involved.' Whether that's following the program, supporting the program, being a part of the program, whatever it is, we want everyone involved. We don't want to be a small exclusive community—we want to be a large, inclusive community and that's where we're growing towards."