Triathlon - A Spectator Sport?

Since I began to race, I have always been fortunate enough to have the full support of my family and friends. For 99% of my races, I have had a spectator cheering me on, whether it be a cross country race, cycling race or triathlon of any distance from a try-a-tri to full Ironman. As much as I appreciate the support, as a competitor its easy to forget just what a spectator experiences during a given event.

When you’re in the race, you see all the action; its very exciting. However, for a spectator at an event, you may see the sharp end of a race for a cumulated 60 seconds as they rush through transition and finish down the finishing chute. The rest of the time is spent waiting around. At “bigger” events (i.e. Kona/ITU races), an attempt at media coverage had been made over the past few years to immerse spectators more so they can see some racing at all times. Though this does provide more visuals, the majority of the air time is pretty monotonous and the whole race can be nicely summarized in a 3-minute highlight video. Not many people would sit down and watch a 5 hour ironman bike leg or even a 2 hour Olympic distance of relatively steady state racing. This doesn’t really help the commercial progress of the sport, particularly pertaining to sponsors and prize money, where screen time is a major incentive. Think NFL/NHL advertisements. This would really help to drive the growth and development of the sport. With most ITU and Ironman events only being live streamed to mediocre quality and audience size, this poses a problem.

Enter Super League Triathlon. The purposed solution to the lackluster spectator aspect of triathlon. The draws to this series are:

1. Loaded fields

2. Unique, fast racing

3. Huge prize pools

4. Professional coverage

I have “sacrificed” the better part of my weekend watching the first race weekend of the Super League Triathlon and have some thoughts.

To address the first point, the field is absolutely stacked. This pulls in the medias attention and hypes up the event. From short course specialists to long course legends, there is a little flavour of all disciplines of triathlon. Though not a novel idea, the Island House Triathlon has done this the past few years, what sets it apart is the consistency of a high level field over the series and the pull of the most recognizable names in the sport (Brownlee’s, Mola, Gomez, etc.). This, mixed in with relatively inexperienced racers in the junior wildcards it keeps the racing exciting and gives you clear underdogs to cheer for. I found that the Island House triathlon had big names, only known to attentive viewers of the niche sport.

To address the second point, again, it is not novel. Changing up the format was originated on this level by the Island House Triathlon. What is new is the short circuit, short distances which keeps the racing fast and exciting. The swim loop was 300m, the bike loop was 1km and the run was 500m. This won’t really make a difference viewing from a screen, but this is the sort of format that could draw huge crowds to watch live. From a grand stand, you could see nearly every inch of the race. The three formats that were at the first event, Hamilton Beach, were the Triple Mix, Equalizer and Elimination races competed on three consecutive days. In short, the triple mix consisted of three mini races of triathlon events in varying order, separated by 10 minutes each. Total cumulative time ranked athletes for that day. The equalizer started with a cycling time trial in the morning, and a pursuit style race in the afternoon which was swim-run-swim-bike-run. The finishing order of the afternoon race ranked athletes for that day. The final day was an elimination race, where 3 triathlons were held where after each race, the last few athletes were eliminated for the day. Again, the finishing order of the last race ranked athletes for the day. Athletes got points based on their daily placings and their cumulative scores ranked them for the whole 3-day event. Confused yet? As a triathlete, this made sense to me, but I can see it being very confusing to those not familiar with the traditional sport. I found the media coverage to be very focused on a triathlete audience. Where in the Olympics, they know non-triathletes are watching so they take their time to explain more technical details that new views may be unfamiliar with. None the less, this helped to solve the issue of long, drawn out races. Each mini race was between 20-40 minutes maximum, so a viewer could easily sit in for one or more races, which was shown over the weekend to have vastly different results each time – not the same few athletes dominating every race (Brownlee/Gomez/Mola/Murray).

The final two points go hand in hand in my opinion. Offering huge prize pools keeps the racing honest and competitive. The athletes suffer knowing the stakes on the line. Thus, the best of the best attend to have their shot. This, coupled with the very professional media coverage incentivizes sponsors to support the sport and get their airtime.

Although in its infancy, Super League Triathlon was a good start to what I hope is the introduction of triathlon into mainstream sports. It answered many of the issues that I identified of triathlon, however it is not perfect. To keep it brief and to account for the fact that this model of triathlon is in its very early stages I argue two points. The first being there wasn’t a women’s division of the race. Granted, they released plans to incorporate a women’s event at some point in the future, I believe they should have ran both categories in tandem. There is a huge range of female talent in the triathlon community and I believe they would have offered as exciting of an event as the men, if not more due to the broad range of talent in the women’s field. My second argument is the event styles could get old and repetitive. This first event at Hamilton Island was exciting, because we got to witness the athletes hurt and fail and suffer. We do not usually see these elite athletes endure these conditions, because they spend day in and day out training to swim then bike then run a set distance. This race was exciting because they didn’t know what they were getting into and could not prepare accordingly. A quick browse of the Super League Triathlon website indicates that these three race types are here to stay. My fear is that the athletes train to adjust to these new racing conditions and it becomes as easy for them to complete as a regular triathlon, becoming monotonous again.

What would interest me is an event running males and female athletes simultaneously and also hiding the true race format until race day. I think this would really test the athlete’s pure ability to swim, bike and run. Typically, the women’s times have been a bit slower than the mens, but I think seeing the women work together with the men could add an interesting element to the race. If a combined scoring system could be implemented (i.e. teams of 2 men and 2 women with a cumulative time from simultaneous racing). Although typing that, I feel like I may have read that somewhere before….

I would love to hear other opinions regarding the future of triathlon, and its potential as a spectator sport! Leave a message or comment on our facebook page!