Events

Last Weekend Now: The PTO Championships Daytona Edition

After five years of promising to change the sport at the professional level, the PTO 2020 Championship at Challenge Daytona came through with one of the best shows in the history of the tri.

Last Weekend Now is your Monday morning rundown of what’s happening in pro triathlon, brought to you with commentary by Brad Culp. (Ed note: So yell at him if you don’t like the comments.)

What a day for triathlon. For five years, the Professional Triathletes Organization has been promising something unique and spectacular, and after a very long road to their first event, they delivered with aplomb.

The 2K/80K/18K format pushed both short-and long-course athletes to their absolute limit, and after a little more than three hours of racing, it was two 70.3 specialists who came away with convincing victories. The only thing better than leaving Florida is leaving Florida with $100,000. Canada’s Paula Findlay and Norway’s Gustav Iden executed flawless races to do just that.  

Paula Findlay dominated the run to take the victory and the massive paycheck. Photo: PTO

The Good

Let’s start with what the PTO and Challenge Daytona did well on Sunday, because there was a lot of good to talk about. The logical place to begin is with the live broadcast, which was among the best I’ve seen in triathlon, and sadly, I haven’t missed many triathlon broadcasts over the past 15 years. 

From a production standpoint, it was nearly flawless. There was one, major hiccup (we’ll get to that later), but everything from the camerawork to the graphics to the highlight packages were done with a level of professionalism that was foreign to our sport. The NASCAR crew that PTO partnered with on the production side absolutely killed it, which should come as no surprise because they have plenty of experience covering races that go in ovals.

Speaking of killing it, Belinda Granger appears to have found her second calling. She was superb in the broadcast booth, carrying a team of professional sportscasters with decades more experience calling a live race. I was skeptical about using two hosts from outside of the sport, but the mix of Granger, Rowdy Gaines, and Rick Allen made for a nice balance. As an outsider, Gaines was there to ask the right questions, which is what’s needed to attract new audiences, and Allen did a great job of keeping the conversation going.

The racing itself was as world-class as any triathlon in history, even if there were a few notable names missing from the start list. But I don’t think having Daniela Ryf or Jan Frodeno in attendance would’ve changed the end result. Perhaps Flora Duffy could’ve mixed it up with Findlay at the front, but at the end of the day, the two best athletes came out on top, and there were some very unpredictable finishes behind them. 

If you called Matt Hanson and George Goodwin finishing second and third in the men’s race, then I’d like to call you a liar. I hate asking athletes if a result was a surprise, because it comes off as doubting their talent, but I couldn’t help myself during a brief chat with Hanson this morning. 

Matt Hanson surprised himself with a second-place finish. Photo: PTO

“I thought I could maybe sneak into the top 10 if I had a good run,” he said. “That was kind of my outside goal going in. So I don’t want to say it was a complete surprise to run up to second, but it was a complete surprise to run up to second.”

Lastly, the lack of ads throughout the show was a refreshing change for anyone used to awkward infomercials in the middle of the Kona broadcast, but one has to wonder if that will change as the PTO finds ways to make money instead of just spending it. Nonetheless, it helped keep me engaged, as did the live NASCAR-style leaderboard on screen at all times.

I could go on for days about all the good things about this race, but it’s not like me to be so positive, so let’s move on.

The Bad

There was a drafting issue early on in the men’s race. The first 25K ended up being a slightly better version of the first 25K in Kona, where there are simply too many fast guys bunched together to have a completely fair race. Vincent Luis was the most blatant offender, and ultimately it cost him a chance at the win. The women’s race splintered apart much earlier on, making for a very clean race, aside from a penalty for Anne Haug, which also cost her a shot at the title. 

The lapped traffic interfering with the front of the race ended up being the biggest issue for the men. I’m looking at you, Michi Weiss. Clearly there was no directive from the officials on how lapped traffic should behave, but going forward it’d be great to see the unwritten rules of auto racing applied to triathlons at auto-racing venues: If you’re lapped, move up the track or move down the track. Basically, get the hell out of the way of the actual race and then tuck in where you belong.

The one thing that could’ve really added to the broadcast, especially according to Twitter, would’ve been live metrics like heart rate and power. Twitter obviously doesn’t realize the added technical challenges that brings—or how many athletes would be willing to broadcast that information—but it’s something the PTO has talked about in the past and obviously wasn’t ready to debut at its first event. 

The Ugly

There was only one part of the entire seven-hour show that was remotely ugly and that was when the live feed cut out at the end of the men’s race for many viewers. Depending on where and how you were watching, your broadcast probably ended somewhere between right before Gustav Iden crossed the line and right after Tim O’Donnell crossed the line for tenth. I was in the latter group, so I got to see how the top 10 shook out and wasn’t as upset as those who watched the entire race and were only left knowing that Iden was going to win. It was a technical glitch that surely the PTO will address, and I don’t expect we’ll have to worry about it going forward. 

Whether or not the PTO can afford to continue to put on this level of production for the long-term is the big question. I don’t have the specifics on how much was spent on that show, but it was definitely into seven figures. Eventually they’ll have to start bringing those kind of dollars in at each event. But for now, the bar has been raised at what long(ish)-course triathlon can be on TV. As Hanson put it: “It just seemed like a well-oiled machine aimed at getting people to watch live, which is great for the sport. Triathlon needs more days like yesterday.”