When the Pro Triathlon Union launched in July last year, the frisson of optimism soon gave way to an air of scepticism. With a board hastily assembled at a closed-shop triathletes’ meeting in Bahrain, it offered little to deliver cohesion in a disparate sport.
Long-course professionals struggling to pay their rent were irked at being asked to fork out up to $600 for membership. It took a further blow when Jan Frodeno declared he was “no fan of unions” and then the PTU’s vice president, Dirk Bockel, sent an ill-advised tweet asking Lance Armstrong for support. Had the whole thing faded away quietly, few would’ve been surprised.
When I met Charles Adamo, the chief executive of the Pro Triathlon Organisation (PTO; note the switch from Union), it was the morning after golf’s Ryder Cup. The USA had triumphed 17-11, buoyed by the patriotic fervour of packed galleries in Minnesota. It was without the nails-to-the-quick final-day drama that has spoilt sports lovers for much of the past three decades, yet the unique allure of the biennial contest still captured imaginations on both sides of the pond. Adamo produced a newspaper with the headline: ‘The theatre of sport at its finest in the bear pit’. “This is what we need to create,” he said.
Championing new ventures doesn’t come naturally to journalists, however it didn’t take tweets from multiple Kona winners Dave Scott (“a fantastic competition”) or Chrissie Wellington (“très excited, bring on 2018!”) to convince this hack of the merits of The Collins Cup. If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then the Ryder Cup has a devotee in the PTO every bit as passionate as the Americans hollering at Hazeltine. But where triathlon will move beyond golf is by including the rest of the world. And, thankfully, women.
The Collins Cup, named after Ironman founders John and Judy, is a three-way non-drafting competition: Europe versus USA versus the ‘Internationals.’ It’s akin to the Ryder Cup singles format with six men and six women from each region. Eight will be chosen from the new PTO world rankings plus four captain’s picks – which allows wriggle room to involve stars from the ITU’s World Triathlon Series. Set off at regular intervals, triathletes race head-to-head-to-head over a 3km swim, 120km bike course and 25km run. Bonus points are awarded for each 5min increment – so it doesn’t pay to milk the finish chute.
Turning long-distance triathlon into a spectator sport isn’t easy. In contrast, the real sagacity of The Collins Cup is how the intrigue builds throughout the day. Anyone who has watched the Ryder Cup scoreboard swing from red (USA) to blue (Europe) and back, will understand how it can command your attention in its vice-like grip. Moreover, the focus is on the team, so if Frodeno or Daniela Ryf disappear up the road, the contest isn’t over.
That said, golf is a behemoth compared to triathlon, built on a history of 19th-century mashies and niblicks, not neon Speedos in the 70s. Can a new competition with a complex format really thrive? Adamo points out that the Ryder Cup only prospered from 1985 when the USA started to lose, and that interest soared in Olympic basketball when the USSR inflicted Team USA’s first ever loss in Munich in 1972. His point is less about revelling in US misery, but more that the success of a tournament is driven – not just by its history – but by unashamed rivalry.
The triathlon calendar is already packed and the date (June looks favourite) will depend on which broadcaster – if any – bite. To help this, Wasserman, the world’s fourth largest sports media agency (for comparison, IMG are ranked 12th) with contracts worth $2.3billion, will act as business partners. It lends some serious financial clout.
The PTO’s solution to ensuring a crowd is to make the pro race the showpiece of a long weekend where age-groupers race on Saturday and then join the celebrations on Sunday. For a venue, think a dedicated resort rather than busy city centre streets. It’s due to run annually from 2018, and for a sport that continually innovates, I believe this could be one of the best moves yet.