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Can Triathlon Ever Be a Spectator Sport?

A number of race organizers are making a serious commitment to bring triathlon to the mainstream. Can it actually work?

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In November 2020, ESPN2 broadcasted the Disc Golf Pro Tour Championship for the very first time. Even though it aired at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday, nearly a quarter of a million people tuned in, giving it more viewers than the flagship SportsCenter program on standard ESPN.

While the numbers weren’t massive compared to mainstream sports, it was a huge number for such a late timeslot and for, you know, disc golf. ESPN execs quickly realized they had underestimated the public interest in precision frisbee throwing. A few months later, the Disc Golf Pro Tour announced a new contract with ESPN for future broadcasts, including a two-hour feature of the Portland Open that aired in August.

For non-mainstream sports, a major TV contract is the epitome of “making it.” But it’s more than just a status symbol. There’s no better way for an athlete to show value to a sponsor than to use their products on screens that people are actually watching. Around the same time the Disc Golf Pro Tour announced its ESPN deal, Paul McBeth—the Jan Frodeno of disc golfing—signed a 10-year/$10-million deal with disc manufacturer Discraft. Such a contract is unheard of in triathlon.

So how does triathlon get there? Better yet, can triathlon get there? Can it be at least as successful as disc golf? A couple of billionaire investors think so, and they’re betting a small portion of their fortunes on our sport breaking out of its niche status.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the top one percent of the one percent have taken interest in tri, but the dollars are bigger than ever before and there appears to be a long-term commitment to making it work. The main downside is when it comes to a sport as complex as triathlon, as so many have learned before, not everything works on live TV.

Every decision that’s made at Super League is about what is going to make the best TV product. At the heart of it is ensuring there’s constant jeopardy throughout the race. Otherwise, the only drama is in the final kilometer of the run.

What Does Work

Attention spans aren’t getting any longer (quite the opposite, in fact), so for triathlon to truly be a fan-based mass spectator sport on television, it needs to be shorter, faster, and more fervent than it has been before. Enter the triathlon mixed relay, which made its Olympic debut this summer in Tokyo to much acclaim, and Super League, which came about in 2017. All of a sudden triathlon has two formats that are actually exciting to watch on a screen.

The men’s and women’s individual races in Tokyo were part of a primetime package that brought in nearly 20 million U.S. viewers across all NBC platforms. That doesn’t mean 20 million people watched each of those races; just that they tuned in sometime during the package. Still, there were another 11 million people who potentially watched the new mixed relay—or at least a portion of it—and the social media response from those tuning in to tri for the first time was overwhelmingly positive.

Yet, when it comes to innovation and made-for-TV racing, Super League is undeniably leading the way. The brainchild of two-time Ironman world champion Chris “Macca” McCormack and Russian billionaire Leonid Boguslavsky, it’s modeled after the former Formula 1 Grand Prix Triathlon Series that had a successful (albeit brief) run in the 1990s, but the level of production quality and prize money, and the new formats are something never before tried in tri. The constantly evolving format pits 15 to 25 of the top short-course athletes in the world against each other in multiple (and sometimes confusing) swim, bike, and run segments.

“For the longest time the only cricket in Australia was test cricket. It could go on for five days and end in a draw. That kept the fan base very limited,” said Will McCloy, the host of the Super League broadcast. “Then in the ’80s, they brought along World Series Cricket. Every team had bright colors and it was much shorter and everyone had a big party. All of a sudden, money flowed into the sport and it made the athletes true professionals. That’s a bit where triathlon is now. When the music stops, I don’t know who is going to end up having led the way, but I think Super League is doing a lot to get triathlon there.

“We’re not hemmed in by regulations or rules,” he continued. “Every decision that’s made at Super League is about what is going to make the best TV product. At the heart of it is ensuring there’s constant jeopardy throughout the race. Otherwise, the only drama is in the final kilometer of the run.”

The British mixed relay team celebrates gold at the Tokyo Games. Photo: Jamie Squire / Getty Images

To create that constant jeopardy, Super League has introduced things like a team competition and jersey points, and they’ve put real money behind it to ensure it matters to the athletes. The only way to make fans care about arbitrary teams is to first make the athletes care, and athletes will care when there’s a $320,000 bonus pool for the teams. That, plus more money for wins, jerseys, and individual standings, was on the line over this year’s four-week championship season, which culminated in its U.S. debut in Malibu at the end of September.

RELATED: What is Super League Triathlon, Anyway?

It’s exciting, but it’s still inherently hard to translate to most viewers. A lot of people view triathlon exclusively as long days on hot Hawaiian Islands and see its pros as “professional exercisers” who are inspiring, but not that fun to actually watch.

Of course, triathlon is not the only niche Olympic sport hoping to capture mainstream attention more often than once every four years. It’s something swimming has been attempting to do for decades, and the sport’s most recent attempt—the International Swim League—is its own version of Super League. It is team- and TV-focused, complete with laser light intros, loud music, unique formats, and funding from—you guessed it—a Russian billionaire.

Both ISL and Super League also have short seasons that are meant to work with athletes’ commitments to their national teams and sponsors. In just four weeks of Super League or six weeks of ISL, the top athletes can make nearly a quarter-million dollars. It’s not quite tennis or golf money yet, but it’s a truly professional salary.

“Just like triathlon, there’s a traditional audience that will always watch swimming,” said Rowdy Gaines, who does commentary for ISL and has called swimming for NBC at the last seven Olympics. “It’s great to have that built-in audience, but swimming—or triathlon—will never bring in a new audience unless they try something completely new. The ISL is trying to re-educate the traditional swimming audience to focus on team battles, points, and MVP bonuses, instead of just focusing on the clock.”

Triathletes compete in the Super League Triathlon Championship Series finale in Malibu. Photo: Tommaso Boddi / Getty Images

Will it work? Gaines would be the first to tell you he has no idea. But, like Super League, the funding isn’t drying up anytime soon, and the broadcast numbers are reaching that threshold where they won’t have to rely on venture capital (i.e., Russian billionaires) to keep them afloat. The big question is how long it will take triathlon to hit that threshold and become financially viable on TV, and whether or not the billionaires will lose interest before it reaches that point.

“Sports like swimming and tri can’t hide their heads in the sand anymore,” Gaines said. “I applaud organizations like ISL and Super League for taking a big risk and doing something radically different. I have no idea if it will work. But I’m hopeful, and I know the athletes love it.”

What Might Work

While the general consensus is that long-course triathlon will never make for as good TV as short and fast formats, the Professional Triathlon Organization (PTO) is betting a considerable fortune on trying to make it work. It’s not like sporting events that take an entire morning or afternoon can’t get ratings. The Tour de France averaged 290,000 viewers per stage in the U.S. last year, according to NBC Sports. While that may sound modest, the numbers in Europe are anything but, with 3.4 million French households tuning in each day and a total of 150 million Europeans watching at least one stage. If they’ll tune in for long stages and multiple days of cycling, surely they can tune in for a few hours of swim-bike-run?

The big question for the PTO, which finally launched its marquee event, the Collins Cup, in August, is how many viewers do they actually need to make their events commercially viable without venture capital investment? Currently, the group is funded by Crankstart Investments, which is run by Sir Michael Moritz, a Welsh billionaire. (There’s a theme, here.) [Ed note: Moritz is also a partner at Sequoia Capital, which is an investor in Triathlete’s parent company, Outside, Inc.]

While the PTO has made frequent comparisons to golf and tennis as a model, PTO CEO Sam Renouf is confident that long-course triathlon can be a commercially viable TV product with far fewer viewers needed than either of those sports.

Daniela Ryf exits the swim at the Collins Cup. Photo: Courtesy PTO

“We don’t need to have an audience that’s the size of tennis or golf,” he said. “We need a much smaller one, because the value of the triathlon audience is so high. So if we can get two or three million people watching each PTO event, that’s enough to convince sponsors and broadcasters that it’s something valuable.”

The good news is that they say they reached that two million–viewer threshold with the inaugural Collins Cup, and they were able to negotiate a few substantial broadcasting deals, including with Eurosport, which sold a solid chunk of advertising in advance of an unknown event that took six years to get off the ground. So there’s definitely potential, and it’s not likely Sir Moritz is looking to cash out too quickly, even if it takes a few years to turn a profit, thanks to his current estimated net worth of $7.2 billion.

At the heart of the PTO’s mission is the goal of elevating the professional athletes in order to lift the sport as a whole. If it sounds a bit fluffy, consider where mainstream sports would be without their biggest stars. And now, with the extension of social media and YouTube channels, niche-sport athletes have the opportunity to reach fans more directly than ever before.

“Our core business thesis is that all sports grow off the backs of the top professionals,” Renouf said. “The Michael Jordans, Serena Williams, and Tiger Woods are what draw people into a sport. That’s what’s been missing in this space, and if someone invests in that, we believe the sport as a whole will grow. That’s not to say that Lucy Charles-Barclay is going to have the same following as Serena, but we’ve only just scratched the surface of triathletes’ potential.”

Beyond live event broadcasts, the PTO has invested big dollars into short documentary films about their athletes, and, like Super League, they believe compelling narratives are one of the biggest things missing from the sport at a pro level.

Our sport will only ever be as big as our biggest professionals.

“The commercial value of triathletes is huge. Think of all the products they can help sell versus other athletes. They’re not using just one or two pieces of equipment in competition,” Renouf said. “But triathletes like Frodeno, Charles-Barclay, or Ryf haven’t had their profiles built up enough. If we put these athletes on TV and do it in the right way, we believe we can change that. You have to build it first.”

What Renouf and the PTO have going for them is that triathlon is a truly global sport. They don’t need a half-million U.S. households to tune into every broadcast. If they can broadcast their event via livestream or with TV partners in multiple countries, reaching that two or three million–viewer mark isn’t so daunting. The 2020 PTO Championship, held in conjunction with Challenge Daytona, brought in an estimated one million viewers on the livestream. The PTO claims that the Collins Cup broadcast partners reached nearly six times that.

Since then, the group behind Challenge Daytona has splintered off and rebranded as CLASH, which will host its first rebranded event this December—again in Daytona—and will then roll out a series of racetrack-based events. CLASH’s tight connections with NASCAR make for unique broadcast possibilities, and live broadcasting of pro racing is a big part of their business plan. If the inaugural Daytona race is any indication, they might be onto something. And while the sponsors and TV advertising might not be there just yet for new events like the Collins Cup and Daytona, they now finally have something real to sell.

What Doesn’t Work

Outside of the Ironman World Championship and perhaps Challenge Roth, 140.6-mile triathlons have a very low ceiling in terms of potential viewers. Ironman said the 2019 edition of Kona had 20 million views on Facebook Watch, but that was split between two parts, so the real number is probably closer to half of that. Nonetheless, it’s an immense number for triathlon—or really any sport—and it’s something that the PTO and Super League will likely never be able to match.

But Kona is just one event, and generating huge streaming numbers to lure broadcasters and sponsors isn’t a big part of Ironman’s business model anyway. Anyone who has watched one of the non–world championship “Ironman Now” broadcasts on Facebook knows that it’s not uncommon to be one of about 900 people watching Ironman New Zealand at any given moment. Even if Ironman doubled their live production budget, there are still a very limited number of people who will sit down to watch people exercise all day. The constant jeopardy that is so valuable to Super League is rarely on display outside of a race as deep as Kona.

Jan Frodeno and Lionel Sanders go head-to-head at the Battle Royale. Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand / Getty Images

Even long-course triathlon with the biggest stars and all the splashy bells and whistles—like Jan Frodeno’s Zwift-sponsored two-man Battle Royale (and world record) against Lionel Sanders—brought in only about one million viewers online and another 8 million were reached on German broadcast TV. And that was with their own dedicated cameramen, amped up pre-race media blitzing, and on-course commentators.

What Ironman can do is help to lift the profiles and personalities of its top professionals, something that it’s taken a lot of criticism for, rightly or wrongly, in recent years. To be fair, Ironman has paid more money to professional triathletes than any other organization over the past 30 years. But that amount hasn’t increased much over the last 10.

What Ironman has done best for pros is its annual 90-minute NBC broadcast of Kona. It showcases the top athletes to millions of households who otherwise would never see the sport, and it’s inspired countless people to get into triathlon and follow their favorite athletes. The exceptional storytelling in that broadcast has earned NBC an astounding 17 Emmys over the years, and without it, triathlon would be a fraction of what it is today.

If Ironman and NBC could bring that level of production and those incredible narratives to a few more events, then it’s feasible that a nine-hour race could work on TV—it just has to be condensed into a much smaller package. While investing in that production might not be core to their business model, it could be a valuable long-term investment for the sport and ultimately for the company. The more people who care about triathlon and the more people who will pay to watch triathlon should ultimately mean more people potentially doing triathlon and more people who buy things triathlon companies want to sell them.

“Our sport will only ever be as big as our biggest professionals,” Renouf said. “It’s that way in every sport. And triathlon is the pinnacle of swimming, biking, and running. There are 800 million people worldwide who swim, bike, or run. So to me, that’s the total touchable market. That’s not to say 800 million people are going to tune in for a triathlon, but there are 800 million people out there who could watch triathlon if it’s done right.”