Jan Frodeno was sprinting hell for leather for the finish line.
The 6-foot, 4-inch German, the biggest name in the sport, had looked serene for the past three hours, whether diving into the Danube or effortlessly pushing the pedals in his time-trial tuck on the Slovakian highway. Now he was straining every last sinew to get to the tape. And there was no one anywhere near him.
Kyle Smith was sprinting hell for leather for the finish line.
Having fought back from a bike crash on roads slick with lashing rain, the bloodied Team Internationals wildcard had been overtaken in the final yards of the run by USA’s Collin Chartier. Smith, just 24, was striving to take back that place and collapsed to the red carpet exhausted. In his three-way heat, he finished dead last.
The efforts of both men epitomized how the concept of the Collins Cup—this fledgling and oft-misunderstood competition— works at its best.
Frodeno, in Match 7, clear of the field (as always), yet still having a goal to chase—maximum bonus points for Europe by virtue of a big enough winning margin.
Smith, in Match 8, trying to beat Chartier and close the time gap to European victor Gustav Iden.
It mattered as much to both men.
“It was beautiful to have something to push for,” Frodeno said. You sensed that Smith, having lost a complete tri-bar in the bike crash, would’ve kept going had he lost a leg.
This was an event that was supposed to harness the rivalry of golf’s Ryder Cup, and with the dark skies closing in to prompt a flurry of crashes, and USA’s Taylor Knibb kicking off a string of beaming performances from the U.S. women—three of them moms, all of them underdogs—it over-delivered on drama.
After the 12 three-way match-ups, Team Europe eventually triumphed with 42.5 points, 11 clear of the U.S., to lift the $160,000 trophy. But this wasn’t the story, and nor for this first edition, were the exploits of the fearless, sweat-soaked, blood-stained racers.
That may change moving forward, but for now the nub of this is whether the concept worked, whether the Professional Triathletes Organization’s money revolutionized triathlon broadcasting, as promised, and whether in years to come we’ll look back on this—as Team USA captain Karen Smyers put it so eloquently when reflecting on the first ITU World Triathlon Championship in Avignon, France back in 1989—as the dawn of a new era.
An estimated $2 million was invested to put this on, in addition to more than $1.5 million paid out to 42 triathletes, including six replacements. Triathlon had seen nothing like it—and the initial response to the broadcast, albeit via social media and armchair experts, was underwhelming. In some quarters, the broadcast was ravaged. Maybe by those too close to the sport and expecting too much, maybe by a few with an axe to grind. At over seven hours of live action, the naysayers will always say it’s too long. I’d question whether they’d be appeased at any length. The audience, if it exists at all, lies elsewhere.
When chief executive Sam Renouf has a moment to catch breath and watch the coverage, the biggest disappointment might be that just too many missteps were made, too many gremlins sneaked into the works.
The make-up of the commentary team, the direction to follow the action when and where it mattered, the guile to understand how this new format of triathlon—spread over one million square meters of the x-bionic sphere in Slovakia, and the highways beyond—should play out on TV. All this was in the PTO’s gift to get right with planning, and what’s perhaps more galling—and also perhaps encouraging—is that many of the right elements were in place, they just didn’t shine through.
Renouf’s early observations, although admitting that, understandably, he hadn’t had time to watch the broadcast, were predictably opposed. Feedback from potential investors, broadcasters, production companies, and sponsors had been “resoundingly positive,” he said. Those are important pieces of the puzzle; the viewership is a more important piece and one that may be harder to fit.
This is not the place to go line-by-line, but for one example, mic-ing up Europe’s Holly Lawrence and the Internationals’ Ellie Salthouse to speak in-race to their respective captains was inspired. A spat between the duo had escalated to such extent that while the Danube might be 1,771 miles from source, they decided to squabble over the same square meter.
So what were Lawrence’s thoughts when she came crashing down on the bike and her rival rode past? Her emotions when battling back and receiving a standing ovation arriving in T2? We don’t know. The microphones didn’t work, although Lawrence did give word at the end that Salthouse’s fingernails are still sharp. Rivalry not quite done.
The data was there too. The matches were updating in real time on the website. Yet, this ‘second screen’ option wasn’t apparent enough to viewers, while errors in flashed up graphics on the broadcast certainly were. No, Taylor Knibb, while impressive, did not actually go just ten minutes slower than Frodeno. (She went 17 minutes slower.)
At 100 kilometers, is a race with starts spread over three hours just too unworkable for live TV? While affluent and valuable consumers, triathletes are invariably a curious time-pressed breed that spend leisure hours doing rather than watching. It’s those wedged tighter into the couch than the Europeans were into their aerodynamically-optimized trisuits that need winning over. This didn’t just need to be triathlon’s best-ever broadcast, but it needed to prompt a sea-change in the way endurance events are consumed. It didn’t achieve that, but it planted seeds that it still might.
Plates were spinning and crockery was bound to smash, but what PTO chairman Charles Adamo and Renouf will rely upon is that the investors can see beyond the problems to the potential.
There were a bunch of plus points. On the ground, it felt like Collins Cup week rather than a one-day event. From the opening ceremony onwards, those present embraced the team ethic. The tracksuits became closer knit in the dining hall, and even the press conference delivered enough tasty lines that the PTO could have added another T to its initials and become the Professional Trash Talking Organization for the hour-plus it lasted. The race-day VIPs enjoyed themselves too. With the quality of beer in these parts, it’s hard not to.
The PTO has a rich benefactor in Mike Moritz, who will shell out another $2 million through the rankings at the end of this calendar year, and while the execs protest that patience is in abundance, when more investment comes in or Moritz simply wants to reposition Crankstart, the sands could shift. The balance sheet must turn before that happens.
Next year, though, the spend will be higher still. The plan is an annual four majors, and the PTO will hope to confirm the first for 2022. The Collins Cup will return at a non-European venue. Three cities are currently in the “negotiating process.” Three pro-ams will also complement as exhibitions, Renouf admitting they are “shamelessly copying the golf model” and citing the interest when Samuel L. Jackson tees off alongside Tiger Woods as a shop window to bring people to the sport. The first pro-am will be announced within the next two weeks.
Sponsorship, age-group racing, and economic hosting all make for part of the business plan, but the critical one is broadcast rights that must turn from being handed out to be seen as valuable enough to earn a buck. “It’ll be the last part, because it’ll take the longest to come,” Renouf said, naming the exclusive deal with Eurosport as “the biggest achievement of the event” and landed years ahead of expectations. Live in over 100 countries, some broadcast revenue was brought in too.
A final personal note. Since Adamo walked me through it over coffee six years ago, even before the PTO was born, I’ve wanted this concept to succeed. There may need to be tweaks with the bonus points structure to make it easier to follow, but caution should be heeded in wholesale changes such as redrawing the territories. Building a legacy rather than ripping up the blueprint is the way forward. Whether it can be conveyed through broadcast as well as it was on site remains to be seen. For the sake of the professional side of the sport, I really hope it can.