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Is the Collins Cup the future of triathlon?

The biggest names at the best venue in a compelling new team format sounds like a winning formula. But triathlon’s transition from hobby to spectator sport could be its toughest yet, writes Tim Heming

 On the 18th hole of the final match on Kiawah Island in 1991, Bernhard Langer stood over a six-foot putt knowing to sink it would retain the Ryder Cup for Europe. The atmosphere was as tense in the packed galleries as it was nail-biting in homes either side of the Atlantic.

“I think it’s around 230 million,” Patrick Hunt, the competition’s chairman boasts of the audience for the biennial showpiece that has stretched to over 160 countries with viewing numbers to rival the Super Bowl. “It’s certainly the most widely covered golf event there is.”

Given world-class golfers thwack little white balls down fairways all year round, how does the appeal of a three-day team competition between Europe and the USA transcend golf enthusiasts? And if a nervous Langer had held his putter with the same grip as the event captivated its viewers, might he have holed the damn thing?

While history cannot be rewritten, the answer to the first question is fierce rivalry, according to Charles Adamo, the chairman of the Professional Triathletes Organisation (PTO), that is adapting the Ryder Cup template for swim, bike and run in the form of the Collins Cup.

CHANGING THE STATUS QUO

When I first met Charles last summer he was new to multisport, and like many fresh to this nook of the endurance world, was marvelling at how dedicated its elite performers were, and bemused by how poorly they were paid.

In trying to change the status quo, he impressively outlined the plan for a three-team international competition raced over middle distance and built around engaging fans and improving the lot of professional triathletes.

The Collins Cup: a new Ryder Cup-style team competition for long distance tri

Named after Ironman pioneers, John and Judy Collins, the concept loosely mirrors the Ryder Cup singles’ match-play format except it will – in keeping with proud triathlon tradition – include both genders. Its chief aim is to build the profile of long-course professionals so they’re better remunerated.

There is work to do. Both the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) and the PTO work as not-for-profit entities, but the former wields considerably more influence. Golf’s US Masters paid out $11,000,000 in prize money in April, compared to the total purse for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii in October of $650,000. The 30-40% of revenues that filter back to golfers is way above the percentage claimed by Ironman professionals. The difference in power share between the organisers and participants is stark.

Consider the impact if Jordan Speith and Rory McIlroy, for example, decided to sit out a major because of a pay dispute. All sides understand the damage the sport’s profile would receive. In contrast, if professional triathletes decided to boycott Kona, would Ironman just fill the pier with more amateur racers? Given professional fields have already been axed at many Ironman events, the perceived value of the pro racer is negligible. And, perhaps, with some justification.

Unlike golf, triathlon has yet to prove it can draw a crowd for professional long-course racing, and plenty will argue that watching swim, bike and run for hours – however adept its proponents – will never hold an allure for a large-scale audience. Adamo believes triathlon’s protagonists have yet to harness their collective power and spin an engaging enough narrative. There have been previous attempts. The Professional Triathlon Association in 2009, and then the Professional Triathlon Union (a precursor to the PTO) in 2015 both failed to gain traction, and the hope is that the Collins Cup finally provides a platform – albeit a self-generated one – to prove their worth.

DRIP-FED DEVELOPMENTS

So will it work? Adamo’s presentation was clear in pointing out the Collins Cup would chase the biggest names to give it the greatest chance of success. Confidence was bolstered by the backing of Wasserman, the sports media group, worth upwards of $115million according to Forbes. But it was also conceptual; an untested event to be shoehorned into an increasingly cluttered calendar. And it was independent of the International Triathlon Union and WTC, the sport’s two big players. It was hard not to be impressed by the ambition, but putting that plan into action was the real challenge.

In the 12 months that followed, the PTO has drip-fed developments, including naming the six captains, announcing a new rankings system for selection and finally revealing the location. For dyed-in-the-wool triathlon fans, it should have hit the spot like flat cola on the run. Regional skippers such as Dave Scott, Simon Whitfield and Chrissie Wellington and a host venue of Roth for its debut in 2018, show that the PTO wants the Collins Cup to be taken seriously.

Roth is the obvious – and correct – choice. Up to 260,000 turn up every year in the small town in southern Germany for the Challenge race, a fan-base that dwarves any in long-course triathlon and rivals Hamburg on the ITU circuit. It’s bringing the Collins Cup to those with the biggest appetite for non-drafting racing, and to a nation that, led by Jan Frodeno and Sebastian Kienle, provided five of the top seven men’s finishers in Hawaii last year. 

Yet it brings no guarantees of success. A new venture in a niche sport a year hence proved a predictably difficult sell to mainstream media, and while the hype probably wasn’t overbearing ahead of the first Ryder Cup match in 1927, Adamo et al were hoping for a bigger impact.

The Collins Cup may also take a while to bed in (Dave Scott, the US men’s captain and six-time Ironman world champion, loves to tell of how all he received for his early Kona wins was a t-shirt), however a more fundamental issue might be the duration of competition.

AT ODDS WITH CURRENT THINKING

It’s at odds with the current thinking that to make triathlon coverage more engaging the format needs to be shorter and sharper. The introduction of the lightning fast-paced, and viewing public-friendly, relay event into the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 as well as an increasing number of sprint races being added to the annual World Series, suggests the ITU might be leaning towards shorter distances in the not-too-distant future. Even more dynamic was the recently launched Super League Triathlon, a mixed bag of made-for-TV racing, pioneered by Chris McCormack, and a throwback to the Australian Grand Prix series in the late 90s. Instant gratification rather than a slow burn seems to be in vogue.

Anything longer simply hasn’t worked. The NBC Sports Ironman World Championship show is an annual staple, but it is also a highlights package broadcast weeks after the event with producers including human interest stories for added frisson. The live online stream for Kona has limited production values, although is at least an improvement on the epic tussle between Jan Frodeno and Javier Gomez at the 2014 Ironman 70.3 world title showdown in Mont Tremblant, which could only be followed via an online tracker.

The PTO believes it’s time for this young sport (the first ITU world championships were held in 1989, Ironman made its bow in 1978) to grasp the nettle. It’s helped that the proliferation of global media and the rise of digital broadcasting allows dedicated channels to comprehensively cover more events. The Collins Cup will still be over in the time it takes to play a round in the Ryder Cup, and consider that NFL games last over 3 hours on average with just 11 minutes of on-field action. If nothing else, it allows for a lot of ad breaks.

PACK A PUNCH

Triathlon may not have matured enough for these comparisons, but it can pack a punch. Two years ago 1.4million viewers tuned in to German broadcaster ARD for live coverage of the Mixed Relay World Championships in Hamburg, more than the Tour de France that was running concurrently.

It’s also a laudable, perhaps necessary, ambition to put professional wellbeing at triathlon’s heart. If you don’t try to build the profile of its elite performers it will forever remain a fringe sport with a mainstream Olympic focus once every four years.

As for the format, while it might seem an obscure distance of 3km swim, 120km bike and 25km run, not too much stock should be placed in this. Whether a golfer shoots a 65 or 75 in the Ryder Cup, what matters is how he fares against his opponent, and it’s this drama that the Collins Cup head-to-head format is trying to capture.

One boon of the distance is its appeal as a carrot for short-course racers to step up (each team has four wildcard picks), which leaves the door ajar for the likes of Olympic medallists Javier Gomez, Nicola Spirig, Gwen Jorgensen and the Brownlees, with 220 understanding organisers have already contacted Alistair. The Yorkshireman has ruled himself out for the rest of the year due to hip surgery, but the biggest name in the sport has long broadcast his desire to test himself at all distances. If the money is right, it shouldn’t be ruled out.

THE THREAT OF IRONMAN?

There are also logistics to overcome. It’s a coup for the PTO to take the Collins Cup to Roth on the same day as the established Challenge contest, not least because of the readymade crowd it will bring. But while the team event is planned for the afternoon, Roth typically has competitors out on the run course until late into the evening, and, as was seen from Challenge’s inaugural ‘Championship’ venture at Samorin in Slovakia, it can be confusing to have fast-moving professional triathletes dodging tired age-groupers on the course at the event’s climax.

How the PTO is accepted by Ironman, the ITU and Challenge is another hurdle. Adamo is clear the PTO favours collaboration and Challenge, in opening up Roth, has shown its hand of accessibility. The ITU will be ambivalent at best. Its focus is on growing the sport, and, at elite level, the World Series that underpins the Olympic qualifying programme and sees many competing athletes funded by national bodies via, for example, the national lottery in the UK.

Ironman is the threat. The professionals are not its core market – as underlined by its refusal to up the number of female pro slots, so there’s parity of genders in Hawaii. With some amateurs paying up to $100,000 for a start, those extra places on the Kona pier are golden tickets for CEO Andrew Messick keen to impress his commercial stakeholders at Chinese-owned parent company, Wanda Group.

Consider how Ironman lays siege to Challenge’s largely franchise model. It buys its races from local organisers or schedules rival events in nearby locations. It’s a confrontational approach by any measure, and if the Collins Cup looks like it might prove successful, it will be judged with the same hostility. WTC could, for example, up its prize purses at Ironman Frankfurt, a race that takes place in close enough proximity in both time and distance to the action in Roth. A step on, but it could also tie professionals into more lucrative contracts for the full year, dissuading them from taking part in ‘rival’ events (the paradox being that even the notion of the Collins Cup could then works to the PTO’s ultimate aim of boosting the professionals’ earning power). Whatever happens, history suggests that a commercially-hardened WTC will be no friend of this new format because it has no stake in it.

TIME TO FIND ITS FEET

The PTO has also launched a new qualifying points format that differs from Ironman’s Kona Points Ranking and a separate pro money list pulled together by Challenge. The sport’s leading statistician, Thorsten Radde, has been recruited to make it work, and while the logic of building drama as athletes strive for qualification is sound, when the pro list is based on ‘propriety algorithms’ it’s all getting rather wonkish. For the record, Sebastian Kienle and Daniela Ryf are the current chart toppers.

The Collins Cup World Ranking System

  

Another challenge is that its first television broadcast does not garner the interest demanded by its media partners – missing the dreaded ROI or KPIs of marketing speak. The format could be a masterstroke, yet the race could still fall flat. Triathlon is at its best when there is ebb and flow between competitors. Think Mark Allen v Dave Scott in the epic Ironwar of 1989, or Chris McCormack v Andreas Raelert reliving that experience 21 years on. But sport is also unpredictable, and while the format might be captivating the event could be skewered by simply being a mismatch, and a landslide victory for Europe. Consider Frodeno, Gomez, Brownlee, Kienle, Ryf… it’s a formidable European union that looks a lot more secure than the one Jean-Claude Juncker is currently presiding over.  

It needs patience. The Ryder Cup limped along from 1927 with USA thumping Great Britain and Ireland on a regular basis until it expanded to include the rest of Europe in 1979, and six years later Tony Jacklin’s side beat Lee Trevino’s in an epic contest at the Belfry. The Collins Cup does not have 52 years to bed down, but, like anyone who has ever stumbled out of T2 with jelly-legs knows, it does need time to find its feet.

What next? The Collins Cup has its qualifying system, its captains and its venues and is currently looking to confirm broadcast rights. Then it’s all set for race day and while it will take a big effort for either Europe, the USA or the Rest of the World to win the inaugural contest on July 1 next year, the bigger triumph will be if the hearts and minds of sport’s fans really buy into this brave new venture.


 
 

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