Triathlon gets a UFC-style makeover

01 Sep 2018

By: Sport Industry Group

A new global triathlon series is set to kick off in Jersey next month, supported by some of the sport’s leading athletes – including Great Britain’s Brownlee brothers – as well as a major corporate backer in Royal Bank of Canada. Super League Triathlon’s sportainment-driven concept takes elements from other new and updated sports formats, among them T20 cricket and UFC. The new property is the brainchild of three men from three very different backgrounds: Belgian businessman Michael D’Hulst, Russian investor Leonid Boguslavsky and Australian two-time Ironman World Champion Chris “Macca” McCormack.

Sport Industry Group spoke to two of the trio ahead of the first race in the inaugural global series, which follows two successful pilot events last year. We asked D’Hulst and McCormack for their blueprint of how to launch a new global sports property in the age of snack sports, corporate purpose and OTT….  

Could we start by hearing how the Super League Triathlon (SLT) concept was born?

Michael D’Hulst (MDH): It is a story of a couple of people with different backgrounds who saw the same “blue ocean”. Chris had a long background as an athlete, seeing the opportunity from the inside. I come from a corporate background, but have always had a passion for the sport, and I started to understand the business of triathlon when I began organising races. Coincidentally, as the world works, I ran into Leonid around the same time. He also has a passion for triathlon with a different, but complementary, skill set to both of us – and he also really understood our vision, and, again, that same blue ocean. I think the foundation of most new ideas, and new businesses, is ultimately this connecting of people.


So what is this “blue ocean”? What’s the gap in the market that SLT is filling?

Chris McCormack (CM): We looked at triathlon globally and it’s a sport that is relatively young; that grew up as participation-first; with grassroots events suddenly popping up all over the world. And out of that evolution a professional element gradually emerged, which is now an Olympic sport, with incredible athletes.

So we saw the opportunity to sort of flip the sport on its head and start with the professionals first; create a format that’s relevant to the pros, highly media-friendly and based on the core fundamentals of triathlon: swimming, cycling and running.

And the “ocean” that we saw was that this is the fastest-growing sport in the world: participation numbers are up; youth numbers are up with federations all around the world. There are so many children coming into triathlon in the USA now, with it just becoming an NCAA sport, which means kids can now go to university as triathletes where it used to be that you would see a lot of triathletes on running, cycling or swimming scholarships.

Now as triathletes, we saw the need for a “Champions’ League”, a “Golden League” for triathlon professionals. It’s a bit like what tennis has done with the Grand Slam.

Then the plan is to go top down: lay out a corporate offering and then look at mass participation leagues at the shorter distances from that point on. Everything in the triathlon space is being built around this endurance aspect, this super long racing, and to some degree the sport has grown up with that. But I think we can do a hell of a lot more if we start to tie a lot of this into things that regular people can do. Shorter distances can bring a lot more accessibility.


How is your relationship with the International Triathlon Union (ITU)?

MH: The ITU is obviously the governing body of the sport. We recognise that and believe they have done a fantastic job of bringing triathlon up and making it an Olympic sport. Together we have signed an MoU agreeing on certain principles, for example regarding (gender) equality. As you know, triathlon was one of the first sports to have equal prize money and have equal participation between men and women and that is a key principle the ITU has pushed, which is a fantastic principle.

We obviously follow the ITU on things such as anti-doping and we share a lot of their rules and technical officials, and collaborate across the board. Then again, the ITU also recognises the opportunity and the valid merit that we bring to be an extra organisation investing in the sport but with a specific character and way of doing things, which is slightly different. And the sport has come to a stage where this should be good for its growth as a whole.

CM: Also, to some degree, the ITU mandate is also delivered by the IOC, so they have to create events for national federations around Olympic qualifying criteria. We are in a position to be able to deliver more media-friendly races and grow the sport in a broader sense with events that aren’t bound by an IOC mandate.

So, practically, we have an open dialogue with the ITU and we coordinate efforts, technical officiating, rules and regulations, drug testing but also obviously dates of events etc. All of that is an open dialogue and we strive to work more and more together.


And what about the reaction of the elite triathletes to the new concept – how receptive have they been?

CM: I think that the top athletes in the world recognise what we are doing is magnificent. With any change and with a new organisation, there is a need for time for people to understand what it is we’re actually doing. For the Brownlees, and the world’s best, they saw this opportunity as magnificent when they realised what we were doing, with the biggest media footprint the sport has ever seen outside of the Olympic Games, so they were right behind it.

With me being an athlete, I think, when they looked at our formats, they understood what I was thinking, and what we were trying to achieve.

There’s a predictability that’s come into regular racing. I think it was Lance Armstrong once described triathlon as “shampoo, blow-dry and a 10k run”. It’s the idea that it really comes down to a running race.

What we’ve tried to do with Super League is give athletes the ability to showcase their strengths over the three disciplines, benefitting from the fact that it’s not always in that Swim, Bike, Run order. The athletes really understood that. It’s what drew to them to the sport in the first place: to be the best multi-sport athlete in the world. So overall the realisation is that it’s a great thing and you can see by our start list that we have the world’s best racing. In year one, that is testament to what we are trying to achieve.


You mentioned the media footprint, how have you approached the broadcast piece as a start-up property coming on the market at such an interesting time?

MDH: The strategy is to build an audience first so instead of trying to monetise and limit ourselves by doing pay-per-views, we are focusing on growing the audience beyond the core of triathletes themselves. We have reinvented the format; we have been delivering races in more spectator-friendly locations; and developed courses that are more engaging for broadcast. For the time being, our business plan is very much built around making sure we can be seen.

CM: What we all decided to do was to really invest in the athletes and in the production quality and the distribution. We are trying to bring about significant change in the way that the sport is shown, so that when people see Super League, they recognise it straight away. I think when people see the production quality, and what we are doing, everyone else will have to either step their game up or they are going to look obsolete very, very quickly.

We are in a sport that is very aggressive, very fast paced, but often, when you watch an Olympic triathlon event and there’s a 1500m swim going on, the commentators are focussed on the surroundings and other stuff happening around, as opposed to calling the race action. With SLT, our races are so short and dynamic, it’s the race action that is important.


What notable broadcast deals do you have in place?

MH: Previously [for the pilot races] we had Eurosport, ESPN, Fox Sport in the African continent. So we had a global reach. We are now packaging the whole season, ‘18 and ‘19 together and we are making seasonal deals. That is happening as we speak and details will be announced in early September.

Maybe an important point to note is that we will have three broadcast products. We have the live show, which is two times two hours a day. Then we have the post-production highlights package. Now, this year, we will also have a specific streaming feed that is slightly different from the live and particularly gives a little bit more behind-the-scenes detail, with a bit more insight into the festival activities and that aspect of our events. So the live streaming will be slightly different, and a little bit more comprehensive than just a live television product.

CM: That is seeding our vision for the future – sort of what surfing has done with that all-day streaming of the events.


What does the commercial model look like overall?

MD: Our current revenue model is focused on venue fees, sponsorship, fan engagement, big corporate hospitality and corporate participation. The leveraging of our professional athletes in community and corporate engagement is also somewhere where we have seen a very good interest and, as the group grows, obviously its becomes more and more a festival of sport. In Jersey this year, for example, we have a fanzone supported by Jersey Telecom, with acrobats, virtual reality and engagements to basically submerge fans in the experience of racing. We will also have a kids’ zone so again this will be suitable to attract a wider fan base.

CM: Overall, we are trying to build at a professional level. We need time to do that because of the way the sport is structured at the moment, but we are building a closed league, similar to what the UFC has done, and where the next generation of athletes will all be contracted to the series completely.

That gives us the ability to on-sell to partners in the sport all the athletes and that is the direction we would like to take it with the professional element. Because it really gives us in the sport the ability to leverage our media platform, to leverage our athletes and then there is a single vial to get to those athletes. So the UFC is definitely the model we copied in that sense.


What do you see as being the core strengths of triathlon as a commercial proposition when compared to other sports?

CM: It’s a sport that everyone can do. Swimming, biking and running are three sports that everyone can relate to. But what I think has failed in the past, at the professional level, is to get a true understanding just how athletically brilliant these athletes are. It’s up to us to try and to call these athletes “athletes” and pretty much all other sportsmen “sportsmen”.

Also, with our formats and the events we are doing, the big upside is the value with the corporates. We experimented last year in Jersey with our corporate participation event and corporate hospitality and the feedback from big corporate players was “we are going to Formula Ones, golfing events, and rugby events and this was one of the best corporate experiences we have ever had.” Because it was very open to both genders, very inclusive. So I think there is a lot of opportunity there. There is no age barrier to triathlon – you can be an 80-year-old athlete doing a triathlon and it brings people together.

We are also an extremely green sport – and a healthy sport – which are areas in which governments and corporate organisations are increasingly focused.


What were the main hurdles you faced in bringing this new property to market?

CM: Change is always difficult for people. Michael and I are sport fanatics at heart and I was looking at the success of T20 cricket, for example, and we had this idea, thinking everyone would be: “wow this is fantastic let’s go for it.” But obviously we had some power players in the sport concerned about what we were doing and why were we doing it.

MH: When you bring something new, people – sponsors and venues especially – often have preconceived ideas, for example that triathlon will mean road closures, resident complaints… We have to explain that we are doing things differently – that we only need to close 1.5km. Then they are like: “okay, how does this work?”

Same with sponsors: they have this preconceived idea of what triathlons deliver, so they don’t think about television. They typically associate us with Ironman, which is really not broadcasted and only really reaches the 3000 people that participate in the race.

So the challenge is to make them understand we are talking not only to the triathlon audience, and that we have these VIP areas and corporate areas etc.

CM: Basically, it would be a lot easier if triathlon didn’t exist and we just invented it, and there were no preconceived ideas.

Because we are flipping everything on its head, it was not until people experienced our events that we got a really big tick, because, for the first time, we brought major corporations that had never really been involved with triathlon. So the main issue has been trying to re-educate people, with SLT being very, very different even though the main athletic stars that people know from the sport are the same. The format is different, the delivery is different. We are not trying to take over the sport. We love the Olympic Games and we don’t want to be the new Olympic Games. We just want to be the channel or the league for professionals to exist in and truly make this a professional sport as opposed to just being for people that don’t work!

MDH: At the beginning, we actually considered not calling ourselves “triathlon” to reinforce this difference and stop people approaching us with a preconceived idea. But obviously that would also be a barrier to understanding among sponsors and other audiences. So we’ve had to invest in making sure they understand what Super League is, what it stands for, the complexity of the different formats etc. It is a bit of learning curve and it needs time.


Finally, then, looking ahead to the season, what can we expect?

MDH: the first actual Super League: a series of events connected to a points system that ultimately crowns the best triathlete. To make this a reality, we had to go to market with five events across three continents, and make that available to our broadcasting partners.

On the event side of things, I think Jersey will be the benchmark of what Super League is growing into: a sportainment festival, adapted to the location of the different venues we go to, building in an element of participation, spectating and entertainment.

CM: At the pro level it’s going to be about establishing that league as an important asset and making it part of a pro’s aspirational goals. Obviously the prize money is very important, and I think the media and broadcast are also very important to them, as well as the way the league has been structured.

Being a pro, I really wanted to make sure that that feeling of being a professional athlete was delivered in everything we do. Once you are in our league, you are treated as the most important asset and that is absolutely key.

Overall, I hope that people will watch us and realise that we are very, very different, bringing in a whole bunch of new and interesting things that are made for television, with those big things that make the racing less predicable. At the end of our last event in Australia, I am hoping that the takeaway is just “wow” and “that was really cool!”