It’s launched an innovative ‘short chute’, is giving short shrift to conventional triathlon wisdom, and will be hosting its first grand final in Singapore this coming weekend. Super League Triathlon has arrived as multisport’s brash new kid on the block and whether a flash in the pan or the future of swim, bike, run, the weekend’s action in the Far East should be another yardstick for its evolution.
Ahead of the action, 220 Triathlon columnist Tim Heming caught up with its figurehead, the multiple triathlon world champion, Chris McCormack, in Thailand to find out what to expect…
220: How are the preparations going for Singapore?
CM: It’s difficult to deliver events of this magnitude in Asia, but we’re building a nice level of excitement in a region of the world that isn’t dominant in triathlon. Singapore is the most modern city on the planet, but it’s so organised it has a lot of red tape that can delay things longer than other cities we’ve dealt with.
220: What about the course itself?
CM: The venue is magnificent. A mile from the city centre on the private island of Sentosa. If you’re a billionaire and live in Asia, you’ve got a home in Sentosa. It’s home to super yachts. We’re trying to deliver the events around marinas and attach triathlon to that demographic.
The course is relatively flat with four technical left-hand turns. Everyone thinks you need hills, but like any good crit, you can make a parking lot difficult – with wide entries into corners and narrow exits that line athletes out. We pride ourselves on producing challenging courses. In Mallorca, Alistair Brownlee made a lot of changes to the top part of the bike course and that did a lot of damage [to break up the racing].
220: France’s Vincent Luis and USA’s Katie Zafares have healthy leads in the series, but do they have the overall titles wrapped up?
CM: With double points available, both athletes have to be on their game. If Vincent finishes third or fourth, Henri [Schoeman], Richard [Murray] or Jonny [Brownlee] could still win. It’s still wide open. We’re talking about what system we’ll move towards for next season and whether we stay with points or change to accumulated time. We want to make sure that unlike other series, Super League comes down to the final event and there are multiple triathletes who can still win.
220: Has anything surprised you in Super League’s short history?
CM: We knew it was going to be a big workload, but trying to build a worldwide series is tough. We based a lot of the concept on the Formula 1 series in Australia in the 90s, and if we were only delivering this in Australia it’d be a breeze. The biggest difficulty has been how different cities do things.
From an athlete perspective, I’m surprised at the discrepancy in skillsets, chiefly bike handling and transition skills. The top triathletes are very good, but the drop-off is massive. It’ll take one or two seasons, but I believe you’ll be able to tell the difference between those athletes that have done Super League and those that haven’t. After all, we’re running triathletes through transition 20 times over the weekend.
220: From a British standpoint, Jonny Brownlee probably had the worst season of his career in 2018, but looked reinvigorated by Super League in Malta and Mallorca…
CM: I’d agree. In Jersey, he didn’t seem to have the same look in his eyes as he did in Malta and Mallorca. Some silly mistakes cost him in Malta, but in Mallorca, when he took the short chute in the last race [in an attempt to beat Vincent Luis], all bets were off. That said a lot. He’s understandably keen to make 2019 a big season with the Tokyo Olympics next year, and needs to get his head around racing in hot conditions so has been over here training in Phuket.
220: Do you have venues secured for next season?
CM: We have qualification events in Bali, Poznan and Ottawa, and Penticton might be an age-group only race. Then we’ll return to Jersey, Malta and Mallorca, we’re speaking to Singapore again and we’re close to signing off in Shanghai, Dubai and Belgium.
220: How are revenues generated?
It’s mainly advertising. A big portion is corporate hospitality, but we don’t make anything out of TV revenue as we’re building an audience and continuing to work on the product. I don’t think we’re there yet. For example, we only went to two days of racing because of [the opening showcase event on] Hamilton Island where the athletes said it was fantastic. I’d always imagined having just one day. We’re thinking of maybe having heats and a final, but we’re still trying to refine that.
220: How viable is age-group racing in the Super League formats?
CM: We have the corporate experience of ‘Racing Like A Pro’, with 50 teams of six-to-12 paying £20,000. That sells out. It’s a no-brainer. For the age-groupers, we’re moving to an enduro type format – swim, bike, run, swim, bike, run – but we’re not looking to get rich from mass participation.
Unfortunately, Ironman has created a perception that people only race two to three times a year, but for 80 bucks you can come and do a Super League event. Poznan had 4,000 taking part, 2,000 in the enduro, plus a conventional sprint triathlon and fun runs. We want to build festivals. Ten to 15 years ago, people identified by a sport, but now they might do a Tough Mudder one weekend and then a triathlon the next. If it’s cool, you’ll do it.
220: Finally, how do you see the future for Super League?
CM: After Singapore, we’ll set up offices in London, and our ultimate aim is to have a grand final with athletes qualifying from European, Australasian and American leagues. We’d take the 10 best triathletes from each league and have five days or two/three weekends of racing in a grand finale that has big bucks on it – whether that’s in Dubai or Bahrain or wherever. That’d be the perfect scenario.
We would like to move our series closer to launching in late August/early September and finish within the calendar year. That’s what the TV networks would prefer too. But I’ve always wanted to create a professional landscape and not inhibit triathletes’ aspirations to win Olympic gold medals, so we’ve tried to communicate openly with the ITU and position events around their calendar, not encroach.
I think this style of racing is the direction the ITU wants to go and for a TV product you have to go this way. From the Nielsen [media coverage] reports we can see that 4.5 million watched the series. Our best viewing figures were in France and the UK. For perspective, 75,000 watched Ironman live at the world championship and its NBC highlights coverage was the lowest viewed ever at under 1 million. Triathletes are always happy to eat the crumbs that other sports drop, but it’s a beautiful sport people can relate to and by creating characters we can build audiences. The numbers to get to are not so high any more either. Sports viewing is not decreasing, it’s just that people have more options.