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Is Mixed Relay Racing The Future of Triathlon?

The details on innovative U.S. series Major League Tri.

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The details on innovative U.S. series Major League Tri—which will hold its official draft this evening (Wednesday, Feb. 22) at 7 p.m. EST. 

After race sherpa-ing for him for six years, Daniel Cassidy’s girlfriend finally had enough. “One day she got annoyed with the whole thing,” Cassidy says. “She said, ‘I know you love this sport, but it’s boring. All the waiting, all the getting up early.’” Cassidy said they came to an agreement—he would go watch her first triathlon from beginning to end.

“It was the first tri that I had ever watched and not raced,” says Cassidy, whose girlfriend—now wife—competed at the Sheriff’s Sprint in Massachusetts. “It was pretty brutal. I felt like there had to be a better way to watch the sport.”

Today’s triathletes want to go long. Numbers from the World Triathlon Corporation show that 2016 will reach a new high water mark for participation in Ironman and 70.3 events, as USAT — who sanctions mostly shorter events—has seen a recent 4-6 percent drop in membership. But while more people are racing at long course events, the inescapable monotony of actually watching an event for over four hours hasn’t changed much.

Cassidy, a former employee at accounting giant Ernst & Young’s financial consulting practice, spent the next couple of years after that “traumatic experience” working on something different for the sport; in 2016 he launched Major League Triathlon. Instead of disappearing for hours on the bike and run, pro athletes compete in a mixed team super sprint of two men and two women. The relay alternates gender with each racer completing a 300-meter swim, a 4-mile bike and a 1-mile run before handing it off to the next teammate. The action is contained in a small area so spectators can easily follow along.

Teams are set for the entire season so fans can follow along based on geography (each team is hosted by a city) or personality. In 2016, the series offered up $25,500 per race in prize money with a $20,000 year-end bonus purse for the top four teams of the eight-team group.

While the whole setup may seem unusual to fans in the U.S., the rest of the world has been riding the pro super sprint bandwagon for years. In Germany, pros compete in the Triathlon Bundesliga—a term that literally translates to “National League.” In France, big name ITU pros like the Brownlee brothers and Javier Gomez compete in the French Grand Prix Series with teams centered around French towns. Both European leagues have wildly different formats than MLT, and money in both leagues surpasses what is currently on offer in the U.S., but European ITU pros have been sharpening their knives in these leagues for years.

Longtime fans of the sport might also remember the days of the Australian F1 Grand Prix triathlon series where stars like Greg Bennett, Chris McCormack and Luke McKenzie got their starts. “We look at the old F1 series, what the ITU does with the mixed team relay, and we said ‘This is the most spectator-friendly version of the sport,’” says Cassidy. “Not only do you have this amazing race style and format, but we are big believers in equality in sport, and this is men and women competing in the same race at the same time on the same course.”

The mixed relay format is also on the rise, ever since the first ITU Mixed Relay World Championships in 2009. Recently, the style of racing has seen a boom in popularity for pro events as fans enjoy the lead changes, the unpredictable racing and the team aspect. According to an ITU press release, more viewers tuned into the 2015 Mixed Relay WC in Hamburg, Germany than the Tour de France on German broadcaster ARD—reaching a peak audience of 1.49 million viewers. This year, the event returned to Hamburg where the U.S. squad presciently won their first team title over Australia and Germany in front of an estimated 160,000 fans.

As the format’s popularity continues to gain steam in Europe, the ITU has also been tirelessly pushing to have mixed relay super sprint included in the next Olympic program. Despite being denied entry in 2016 due to funding issues with the host country, the ITU seems very confident that mixed relay racing will be a part of the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

All of this bodes well for Major League Triathlon, who—backed by private investors, sponsors and some of Cassidy’s own personal money—is looking to carve a niche for itself. This year, they’ll be offering more prize money, a team draft and a few famous faces with the inclusion of Australian Olympian Erin Densham, multiple WCS winner Paula Findlay and the return of newly-minted Mixed Relay world champion (and Olympian) Ben Kanute. (See the list of all 32 professional athletes here.)

However, Major League Triathlon will also have to compete with the new, big money kid on the block, the recently announced Super League triathlon race series. Both events seem to have the same goal in mind. “We want triathlon to be more of a mainstream sport—something that people travel to and watch, something they turn on TV in primetime,” says Cassidy, who adds that the draw of his series is the accessibility of the pros to the public. “We want to really tell the stories of our athletes.”

Tune into Facebook Live tonight (Wednesday, Feb. 22) to watch the draft and find out which athletes will be a part of each team.