The Super League Triathlon Is Awesome in Theory—but Will It Work?

There’s a lot riding on the success of the first event, kicking off this weekend on Australia’s Hamilton Island.

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Ironman world champ Chris McCormack announced in early February that he and some friends had created a series of TV-friendly sprint events called the Super League Triathlon. A roster of 25 top male triathletes, including the Brownlee brothers, signed on to compete head-to-head for up to $100,000 a match. Now Johnny’s out with a hip injury and the series launch is finally here. There’s a lot riding on the success of the first event, kicking off this weekend on Australia’s Hamilton Island. Kelly O’Mara has the inside scoop on what to expect.

According to Chris McCormack and co-founder Michael Dhulst, what they’re trying to create isn’t so much a one-off invitational race, a la Island House Triathlon or the proposed pro athlete-led Collins Cup, but more of a traditional professional sports league. Or, if you remember it, something akin to the era of high-stakes Formula 1 triathlon racing in Australia in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the elites of the sport went head-to-head in intense sprint races. At the time, it brought the sport into the public mainstream and created a fan spectacle in Australia.

That’s what triathlon needs again, says McCormack. The goal is to bring back the character to triathlon, noting he was considered a villain in his day, but it used to be everyone was aggressive and passionate. “Social media’s made people really, really vanilla,” he says. “That, in a nutshell, has driven professional triathlon to where it is today. It’s not professional at all. There’s two people making a profession out of it, and the rest of them are just really fit athletes who don’t work.”

“To some degree, we blame the establishment for getting us here. So, when we were launching things, I said, ‘I want to do everything different.’”

To that end, Super League has signed 25 men, who McCormack calls “the best 25 in the world,” to contracts to compete in four to five events from October to March for what they’re calling a $1.5 million (USD) total prize purse.

That necessary element has definitely been checked off: the best of the best (at least in terms of men). Gomez, both Brownlees, Mola, Murray and a whole bunch of other top ITU and up-and-coming athletes.

Where are the long-course stars? “If there are other athletes not on that list, then they’re either not good enough or scared to do it,” says McCormack, arguing they approached some athletes who were interested, were offered good money—“I know what they make”—and then backed out once they saw the start list.

For this to succeed, there are also other necessary conditions that need to be met: high-stakes and fast spectator-friendly races, TV coverage and dedicated sponsors and fans to ensure the finances work.

Those are the things McCormack and Dhulst hope to show off at their first race on March 17-19 at Hamilton Island, in Australia, with a $200,000 USD prize purse. The rest of the events will come much later in the year, with a full season in 2017-18, so as to not conflict with ITU and Ironman. Most notably, the Hamilton race will be a three-day mixed format: the triple mix (short swim-bike-run, run-bike-swim, bike-swim-run races with 10-minute breaks in between), the equalizer (an individual bike TT, followed by a pursuit swim-run-swim-bike-run based on time differences), and the eliminator (three short rounds with the bottom athletes eliminated each time).

“Nobody knows who can excel at it, because the formats are so different,” says McCormack. That makes it exciting and punishing.

Unless you live in the U.S., you should be able to watch it live on TV. Deals have been made with Eurosports, Fox Live, Sky and Alisports—which McCormack says will be the first live airing of triathlon in China. Those networks were the most excited about getting a commercially viable and TV-friendly triathlon product launched, he says.

Having athletes on handsomely-paid contract also means it’s a “closed league,” said McCormack and Dhulst. Super League then centrally controls everything, owns all the TV and merchandise rights—and you can bet there will be merchandise. Super League is, then, able to guarantee to sponsors and broadcasters that all of its very high-level athletes will be on the start line at each and every event. (As opposed to most races, which can only hope the best athletes show up.) It also allows them to negotiate directly with cities. “You have to set up the spectacle and make it commercially viable, that’s why the closed league element is so important,” said Dhulst, who has managed Challenge events in Asia and is the COO for Bahrain Endurance.

According to McCormack, the plan is to guarantee appearance fees for the top 15 athletes at the end of the year, ranging from $10,000 to $250,000, in addition to prize money. And, according to McCormack, an athletes’ association made up of the athletes in the league will get to decide how to use the profits.

There are quite a few other plans: age-group events may be rolled out this summer to give people a chance to try the unique formats, online league standings could allow age-groupers to compare their times around the world, new cities and TV rights are being negotiated—with everyone waiting to see how the first one goes and with the goal of hosting races in the heart of large cities. Ultimately, there’s an idea for a system of minor and major leagues that athletes can work their way up through or be relegated down to. And, there should be an equivalent-level elite women’s field announced later, likely with their first event in the fall.

The lack of a women’s race has been one of the most obvious things currently missing. According to McCormack and Dhulst, a few of the marquee women—obviously, we can assume that included Jorgensen and Spirig—wanted to use this year after the Olympics to build their families.

One Olympian and WTS podium finisher said she sympathized with their concerns, but felt “there’s enough depth in women’s triathlon that we could have some racing that’s equally compelling to the men’s,” she said. “I know that I’m not alone in my disappointment in the lack of transparency.”

McCormack said they just couldn’t wait any longer. After 18 months of negotiating details, “it was important for us to get to market,” so that people can actually see what they want to do, instead of just reading it on a piece of paper.

Will it work?

I don’t know. I’ve talked to other athletes and race directors about the series and I don’t think anyone knows, because the only way to know if they can pull it off is to see what they do from here.

As Brett Sutton wrote on his blog about the new series: “It’s very difficult today to start something new in our sport. Between the WTS squeezing out all the independent short course races for their preferred formats, or Ironman rampaging through the existing long course scene like Godzilla, new ventures should be supported. I wish the very best to the backers, athletes and organisers. For triathlon’s sake I hope it’s a huge success.”

McCormack is certainly right that the current business model is broken. He also has more than a few points about the boring state of triathlon. Where are the villains? The characters and the rivalries? He’s right that professional triathlon needs a makeover and a new business plan.

“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.”

What’s less clear is if his business plan will be the one that works where others have failed. As is typically the case with new event ventures, whether they make enough money before they run out of money is the deciding factor.

According to McCormack and Dhulst, they have about 15-20 people currently working on Super League in logistics, accounting, communications and marketing. It’s also clear there’s a significant amount of overhead necessary to sign those top athletes and guarantee at least the first prize purse. Ultimately, the plan is for Super League to be funded like any professional sports league: through fans and sponsors.

For now, a few million in capital has been raised. “We’re well-funded,” said McCormack. Leonid Boguslavsky, a Russian businessman and triathlete who has qualified for Kona and who is also #1476 on Forbes’ list of the world’s top billionaires, is the third partner in the venture and appears to be the primary investor. Boguslavsky made his fortune from the IT business and then as a venture capitalist, with investments in the Russian search engine, Yandex.

“If it doesn’t [succeed], then triathlon’s dead,” said McCormack. “But I do not believe it will fail.” Winter biathlon, McCormack points to as an example, was dead, then the format was changed up, TV rights were signed, stars were created, and now it’s the most watched winter sport in Europe.

“We’re just doing what worked in other sports, but no one had the courage to believe in triathlon.”

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