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After a first year that finally saw its first-ever event in the Collins Cup, the Professional Triathletes Organization has now announced two new $1 million “Majors” to take place next year—with two more to follow in 2023.
The PTO Canadian Open in Edmonton, Canada in July and the PTO U.S. Open in Dallas, Texas in September will be joined by a PTO Asia Open and PTO European Open in 2023, as the dollars continue to flow into the non-drafting side of the sport and the organization sets out its bold plans to change the landscape of pro racing.
After its 2021 debut, the Collins Cup will also return to Samorin, Slovakia in August with another $1.5 million paid to the best athletes from USA, Europe, and the rest of the World to race in a head-to-head team format.
As part of what is being dubbed the PTO Tour, all three events next year will be contested over the blossoming 100K distance (2km swim, 80km bike, and 18km run) that the organization is trying to ingrain into the psyche of tri fans as much as Ironman’s 140.6 or 70.3.
In a new move for the PTO, there will also be age-group racing on the same weekends as the pro action. Racing options include that 100-kilometer distance or a 25km event, plus single discipline competitions, as PTO officials say they’re aiming for “a festival-like celebration of multisport.”
This is all in addition to the first PTO Pro-Am at the Los Angeles Triathlon on May 15. Whew.
What can we expect from the new PTO Majors?
The PTO has long been making noises about wanting to follow the tennis and golf model in having four “Majors”—ie., massive scale and money-heavy triathlons—per year. Now it’s realizing that ambition.
Edmonton (July 21-23) and Dallas (Sept. 15-17) mark the start of this journey, where the 40 top men and women in the PTO rankings will be invited to race, plus a limited number of wildcards.
The specific course details and how the prize purse will be broken down will be announced in January, but expect it to be similar to the PTO Championship held at Daytona last December. For that race, the pot was eventually boosted to $1.15 million, as space was made for 60 pros on each start line, with the winners taking home $100,000 each and paying down to $4,000 for 20th. All others received $2,000 to cover expenses.
As for the venues, Edmonton, in the Canadian province of Alberta, has long embraced triathlon. A regular stopover on World Triathlon’s World Series, it was the host of this year’s championship finale (formerly called the Grand Final), with Hawrelak Park and its lake swim used as the venue. The PTO has confirmed a similar set-up will be used for the Open but to expect “some surprises.”
The Dallas venue has also been home to several domestic and international triathlons over the years, including the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2000, and is one that PTO CEO Sam Renouf believes will prove popular.
“Texas is one of the fastest growing triathlon communities in North America, and with close proximity to one of the most connected international airports, we are confident this will be a popular destination for professionals and age-groupers to visit from around the world,” he said.
As you’d expect from an organization whose business plan places broadcasting rights at the heart of generating revenues, both races will be broadcast live—although agreements are yet to be put in place.
Looking ahead to 2023, negotiations with several potential hosts are also ongoing for the Majors in Asia and Europe, but the PTO remains tight-lipped over those for now.
What about the age-group racing?
For the age-groupers, myriad choice seems to be the order of the day. The PTO Tour events will offer not just a middle distance (100km) and sprint distance (25km) swim-bike- run, but also the chance to take part in single disciplines. Specifics will be shared when registration opens in January, but Renouf said that “just as Wimbledon and the U.S. Open are bucket list events for tennis fans, we’ll deliver an experience for age-groupers and fans that makes these events the bucket list triathlons of their regions. This will span across multiple areas—the racecourse experience, the swag, opportunities to meet and engage with the top professionals in the sport, and a few other surprises we have planned!”
While amateurs might be racing the same course as the pros, they won’t be sharing it as is traditional with long-course races such as Ironman. “We will stage the professional events at different times than the age-group races,” Renouf said. “As amazing as an experience watching the tennis at Wimbledon is, you can’t rock up to center court after watching Serena or Roger play. With a PTO Open you can!”
The PTO also pledges to make the events more affordable and accessible. “Our business model isn’t focused on entry fees. A good comparison is the London Marathon, which has a lower entry price than many marathons because they have a fantastic TV and sponsorship model, as well as the mass participation component.”
Don’t forget about the Collins Cup…
In August, Renouf was clear that the Collins Cup wouldn’t be returning to Slovakia for 2022 because of the PTO’s promise to rotate the venue, similar to how golf’s Ryder Cup alternates between the US and Europe.
RELATED: Was the Collins Cup A Success?
That would have meant either the U.S. or the Internationals would host the next event, but that would also mean taking a tricky live broadcast proposition to a fresh location and facing many of the start-up TV challenges that were evident in August in Samorin.
So, the U-turn now to stay at the X-Bionic Sphere in Samorin, Slovakia has some clear advantages. While not the most exciting course, the elements (providing there’s no threat of an electrical storm that almost derailed this year’s event) and the quiet roads around the complex make for a more controllable environment to capture the action.
But the biggest advantage is that the PTO now has a blueprint from 2021 to work with because this is a difficult format to get right. There were a lot of positives to the first Collins Cup—not least that they simply got it off the ground and quelled many naysayers—but there were downsides too, and the broadcast needed noticeable improvement.
Renouf justified the return to Samorin by saying: “We were very grateful for the effort and support our hosts in Slovakia went through to help us deliver the race in the middle of the pandemic. While other major triathlon events were canceling, X-Bionic Sphere and Challenge Family went to every length to bring together professionals from all corners of the globe and provide a hosting environment that made the first Collins Cup an even more special event.
“Recognizing we couldn’t deliver the full experience with the restrictions that we’d first planned, we offered for Slovakia to retain the rights one more year before we move to a new region, and we’re excited to deliver an even better experience for both our athletes, fans, and age-groupers who will get to experience the event for the first time.”
Renouf also confirmed the event will go to a non-European location in 2023.
What does this new PTO Tour mean for the sport?
Make no mistake, a three-month run of events from August to September, with the Collins Cup sandwiched between the two Opens, might not be welcomed by Ironman—which already has a packed schedule of Ironman World Championship in May, return to Kona for 2022 Ironman World Championship in early October, 70.3 World Championship in late October. But it’s great news for professional triathletes and the sport as a whole. It’s two big money races to add to the PTO’s growing roster, and builds confidence that they’ll continue to make good on their promise to reward and promote the pros.
With Ironman’s participant-focused business model ravaged by the pandemic, and its crown jewel of Hawaii postponed or canceled for the past two years, professional long-course racing would be in tatters had it not been for the investment from billionaire businessman Mike Moritz. [Ed note: Moritz is also an investor in Outside Interactive, Triathlete’s parent company.]
Despite its protestations, it’s clear the PTO is now a rival race organizer to Ironman and even to Challenge, which is has partnered with on events. Since inception, the PTO has maintained it isn’t a race organizer, but that’s a semantic argument over where it hopes its long-term revenues will arise. The business model might be different, but the PTO is putting on races for amateur athletes and they’re likely to be cheaper than M-Dot races. That constitutes direct and aggressive competition.
Along with the end-of-year rankings bonus pool, these three events mean a total of $5.5 million will be paid out in 2022. It’s a sign of commitment, because the reality is there’s not a lot coming back the other way just yet. While sponsorship and hosting rights might add to the coffers, it’s unlikely any significant revenue will be generated from broadcasting rights in the short-term.
Although prize money breakdowns are yet to be confirmed, they’ll likely to pay as deep as Daytona did at the end of 2022. Where the PTO may face backlash is not over the individual race purses, but where the lion’s share of the $5.5 million we be handed out in 2022. The contentious point is whether too much is laid at the feet of the top triathletes. Only 36 will compete in the Collins Cup, and then those same racers will benefit from the rankings payouts. Plus, expect them to largely be at the fore in the Opens too. These are the biggest names generating the most sponsorship income already, so is the money really helping enough pros or is it widening the gap?
There is also incongruity and contention over the distances. As 100km becomes baked in, so it pushes out those iron-distance specialists who aren’t competitive enough at the middle distance, but whose lack of financial backing was partially the reason for the PTO’s creation in the first place. As we’ve seen with the success of Taylor Knibb at the Collins Cup, the 100km makes racing more favorable for triathletes who are often already funded by national governing bodies as part of an Olympic program. The PTO has confirmed that one of the 2023 Majors will be contested over 200km.
The bigger question inherent in all of this is how many professional non-drafting triathletes the sport should be able to sustain anyway, and what is the pathway for up-and-coming athletes to make it a career? When you set that all against the backdrop of the fact that the PTO is billed as an athlete-led organization, yet appears to be going head-to-head with Ironman, while most triathletes would still have success in Hawaii as their number one objective, there are certainly some wrinkles to iron out. Let’s tackle all that another time.
Overall, though, we can pick through the weeds, but these are exciting times. Olympians looking to extend their career don’t need to leap straight to Ironman. Younger professional triathletes not suited to draft-legal racing now see more opportunities and middle distance riches than ever before. And this year we’ve seen standards raised and times lowered. As the PTO Tour kicks into gear, expect that to continue.