Are Festivals the Future of Triathlon?

Endurance sports are converging in weekends featuring tris in all sorts of distances and formats, running races, gran fondos, yoga—and lots of beer.

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Endurance sports are converging in weekends featuring tris in all sorts of distances and formats, running races, gran fondos, yoga—and lots of beer.

A new wave of events is betting on unique, fun, short, weekend triathlon festivals as the future of the sport. The idea is to offer something exciting and one-of-a-kind—to shake up the standard sprint/Olympic/half-iron/iron-distance offerings that dominate the tri space.

Super League Triathlon, Island House Tri, The Collins Cup and Major League Triathlon all promise non-traditional formats, varied distances, multiple days, and head-to-head racing, though none of them have opened registration to amateurs yet.

“The more you can make it a celebration, the better,” said Daniel Cassidy, CEO of Major League Triathlon, a mixed sprint relay series of primarily professional racers on teams.

Super League co-founder and Ironman world champ Chris McCormack said his series will roll out age-group races later this year so amateurs can try the festival’s unique formats: time-trial starts, ultra-short distances on repeat, and elimination rounds. Elite Energy has already launched its own version of Super League-style races for amateurs in Australia, and the Professional Triathletes Organization’s Collins Cup has also said it’ll have age-group races when it unveils its long-course competition in 2018, turning a weekend into a spectacle of constant racing.

“When we were launching things, I said, ‘I want to do everything different,’” McCormack said. And having a weekend full of multiple race formats seems different, particularly when juxtaposed against the typical single-race, single-format (swim-bike-run) events currently dominating the sport. And these super sprint, multi-day omniums and mixed relay formats promise extra frills pulled from other popular endurance events like obstacle racing, including headliner concerts, mud run 5Ks and craft beer gardens.

Major League Triathlon will be one of the events at the three-day NEOCycle sports festival in Cleveland, a cycling celebration with cyclocross races, mountain biking, 15 bands and lots of food trucks and beer. Rev3 now hosts running races and is partnering with adventure races and glow runs for calendars of virtually anything you might want to do outdoors.

But wait. Some of these things aren’t that new. The HITS Triathlon organizers have been offering multiple distances over a single weekend since 2011, and there have been big triathlon festivals in the past with multi-distance weekends, beer, camping, music. California’s Wildflower Triathlon featured all of those things and ran for 34 years. There was also the Bud Light Series that launched in the ’80s featuring multiple distances (and, obviously, beer), and the Formula 1 series in Australia that started in the ’90s with fast short-course professional racing.

These events have come and gone because there are challenges to making this approach profitable. One is getting people to come and then to stick around. The current triathlon ethos is: race, awards, go home. The other challenge is actually producing all those different things from the events themselves to the post-race party and not spreading resources too thin. Nobody wants to stick around to sip a Natty Ice while listening to the race director’s kid jam on his bugle.

“A festival is great if you can pull it off,” said Richard Izzo, founder of Toughman. “But how can you put five races on in the same weekend safely?” Izzo believes the answer to competing in the triathlon market is simply offering well-organized, independent traditional races as an alternative.

But major players in the sports world disagree. Virgin Sport recently announced that it’ll be launching four Festivals of Sport this year—three in the UK and one in San Francisco—with everything from yoga classes to running races to food trucks. And it may be turning its attention to triathlon in the next few years, because event producers are realizing a new generation of fit-conscious consumers enjoys all sorts of experiences, though they don’t always want to label themselves as runners, swimmers, cyclists, yogis or triathletes. And so event producers are increasingly turning toward multisport festivals to bring people with different interests together at one big event.

“The reason people don’t think triathlon is sustainable is because they blame the current business model,” said McCormack. “If you continue to go down this path and think it’s going to change in any way, shape or form, you’re mad.”

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