Plans are afoot to shake up triathlon, with an athlete body supported by a major investor targeting high-level media coverage and sponsorship for innovative competitions, as Simon Ward reports.

The Professional Triathletes Organisation claims that the new international events that it is planning will help to attract new audiences and revenues for a sport that, in spite of an affluent following, remains “very undercommercialised.”

The PTO, a body comprising many of the world’s athletes in the swim-cycle-run discipline, is presently focusing on preparations for the Collins Cup, a competition based on golf’s Ryder Cup involving teams representing Europe, USA and Internationals that will take place in Samorin in Slovakia later this year, and offer record prize money of $1.5 million.

The inaugural event was recently postponed for a second time, on this occasion from May to August 2021, because of challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, but the organisers remain confident it will provide a further catalyst for increasing the profile of triathlon, with private investment already secured, and plans for annual ‘majors’ down the line.

Encouragement has been taken from the PTO 2020 Championship at ChallengeDaytona, an international event held in Florida, USA, last December, which was broadcast in more than 100 markets, and promoted as having the strongest field of triathletes ever assembled.

Meanwhile, the PTO business has been strengthened by recent recruits, including Tim Godfrey, from SailGP, as chief marketing officer, director and producer Martin Turner, who previously headed up UK pay-TV operator Sky’s coverage of Formula 1, to lead the broadcast team for the Collins Cup, and now Christophe Balestra, formerly of Sony-owned video game development studio Naughty Dog, as chief technology officer.

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They have joined an organisation headed up by executive chairman Charles Adamo and including vice-chairman Chris Kermode, formerly executive chairman and president of men’s tennis’ ATP, who was appointed last July and brings valuable experience from an athlete-run body.

The PTO was established in 2016 by a group of triathletes seeking a greater say in the running of non-Olympic disciplines, and is stepping up its activity on the back of a financial injection from Crankstart Investments, the vehicle of UK billionaire venture capitalist Sir Michael Moritz.

Looking ahead to 2021 in an interview with GlobalData Sport, PTO chief executive Sam Renouf says: “The biggest priority and taking up upwards of 90 per cent of Tim and mine and everyone’s time is the Collins Cup, partly because it’s our banner event, and we’re making sure that we finally launch that after a couple of false starts due to Covid.

“And secondly because as a product it is the event that is aimed at growing the triathlon audience. It is a reformatting of triathlon that should appeal to a broader audience than the diehard fan. Daytona was very successful and we had some fantastic numbers with the ratings, but it was ultimately a triathlon product that was quite traditional in its nature.”

US national network NBC’s delayed prime-time coverage of ChallengeDaytona averaged 600,000 viewers and attracted 1.1 million views, and there was a live stream on sister streaming platform Peacock.

IMG, the international agency, was responsible for the distribution of media rights worldwide, and broadcasters beyond USA included BT Sport in the UK, Fox Sports in Australia, TSN in Canada, Tencent in China, L’Equipe in France, Eurosport in India, Sportitalia in Italy, DirecTV in Latin American and the Caribbean, Fox Sports Asia, SuperSport in South Africa, RTVE in Spain and SSport in Turkey.

Meanwhile, there were over 100,000 registered users for the PTO livestream and an average watch time of 32 minutes across all platforms, a figure that increased to over 1 hour and 20 minutes for users of the PTO mobile apps.

Realising the commercial potential

Renouf admits that 2020 was “a challenging year to launch a new sports organisation,” and the PTO’s focus quickly became ensuring that athletes were sufficiently remunerated, with the year-end bonus programme increasing from $2 million to $2.5 million, and paid out early in the season based on the PTO World Rankings.

Given the relative lack of marketing for the Daytona event, the PTO was impressed with the reception, and is confident the Collins Cup will have an even bigger impact. With this in mind, it has already commissioned sports documentary specialist Noah Media to roll out ‘Beyond Human’, a production that will feature top triathletes preparing for the event.

"I think a lot of it (the focus) is going to be about our core messaging around the Collins Cup," says Godfrey. "How do we go to market with that? What's our big splash? How do we create a connection with the wider casual sports fan? It's not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be a process of the Collins Cup returning every single year.

“But there is a big opportunity to broadcast the Collins Cup to the masses and try and expand the [triathlon] audience. Wrapped around that is the key storytelling piece, so we’ve done the deal with Noah Media to create some shoulder content, which will be released this year and is going to focus on the backstories of these amazing athletes.”

While triathlon has enjoyed a significant increase in exposure since its addition to the Olympic Games in 2000, and grassroots participation has swelled, with the sport having a wealthy demographic, this has not necessarily been reflected off the course in commercial terms.

Outside the Olympics, there are regular events organised across the globe by the likes of World Triathlon, the international governing body, Ironman, the high-profile organiser of long-distance races, and Super League Triathlon, but genuine cut-through has been evasive.

Renouf says: “On one hand, triathlon has grown hugely. In the past 20 years it’s been one of the fastest growing sports, certainly from a participation perspective. However, it’s highly undercommercialised. It’s surprising for most people who work in the industry, and folks who come in, when I mention the numbers, and they’re like, ‘wow, how is this not bigger?’

“Obviously it’s a global sport, it’s in the Olympics, it has billion-dollar brands like Ironman, and the audience that makes up triathlon is well documented – the household income of a triathlete in North America is upwards of $200,000, twice golf’s average.

“Yet the number which I always refer people to is that if it’s comparable to golf, that sport has $1.6 billion per year spent on sponsorship, mainly by non-endemic brands, by the likes of Goldman Sachs, Allianz and Standard Life, to reach its audience. Triathlon has less than $50 million by our measure, and so there’s a huge disparity between the two.”

In this context, the establishment of a commercial joint venture in which the non-profit PTO and Crankstart Investments both have 50-per-cent stakes, is claimed to be a game-changer, in seeking to enable triathlon to realise its media and sponsorship potential.

"Although Ironman and other brands exist, they’re not really focused in the same way we are, which is that sport is a marketing vehicle, and you need to have a strong broadcast proposition, which is what we’re aiming to create," says Renouf.

“For us it’s very much about growing the pie and we’ll be the tide that that rises and lifts the boats. And that’s the fundamental of why someone like Sir Michael Moritz has invested in the model. He is not a triathlete; this is not a passion product for him. But he’s backed hundreds of companies that are highly disruptive and change industries, and we are another one of those for him…

“The reason he’s done this [investment] is that he can see the commercial return, and that’s down to the numbers I mentioned.”

New events and strategy

On top of the Collins Cup, the PTO wants to follow the template of golf and tennis and have four annual majors in prominent markets around the world.

Renouf says: “We would like to found the Wimbledon of triathlon wherever that may be in Europe, or indeed the US Open, and those would be permanent events that become part of the community and part of a city or region that recognises the value of endurance sports and indeed triathlon within it."

He adds: “In the long term, the plan is to have four majors and the Collins Cup, which will move around. Europe is the inaugural host, but we will then move it to the US and to the rest of the world, and it should go between them.”

Asked about the response from the triathlon market, Renouf says that there was general “warmth” given the need for investment, and that the PTO had been open about its desire to be governed by established national bodies and World Triathlon.

However, he admits that promoters such as Ironman did not regard it “as such a positive force,” a not unsurprising state of affairs given that a PTO offer for the company was rebuffed last year with Chinese company Wanda Sports Group instead selling the business to US media company Advance Publications in a deal worth $730 million.

In terms of media, for the PTO, exposure is more of a priority than rights fees in the short term, as it seeks to build up the profile of its events with a mix of free-to-air, pay-TV and streaming coverage.

Godfrey says: “I think it starts with the Collins Cup being a new format. Based upon the success the Ryder Cup has had, we can translate some of that into triathlon. It’s going to be based around the rivalries, so Europe versus USA versus Internationals is going to be huge for us, and we have to play on that.

“We also have to focus on key athletes. We’re not going to be able to promote 300 member athletes, we’re going to have to focus on ones that have good reach in key markets.

“The second point is probably producing for the right platforms. So we know that a seven-hour live window is primarily going to be focused on streaming platforms, and that was proved in Daytona. We had some great numbers in terms of sign-ups and registrations to that live stream, but that’s not all.

“After that live window, he had the hour-long highlights slots, which went to various pay-TV sports broadcasters and free-to-air broadcasters. It’s about having a mix in terms of media strategy so it’s not just going to be a pure DTC play, but we’ll be serving content to the right platforms at the right time.”

He adds: “It’s about getting the maximum awareness in the early years but then obviously building our own audience as we move along and become a bit more known in the market once we have the four majors plus the Collins Cup.

“It’s about giving broadcasters what they want. We will work hand-in-hand with them to understand what is the best way to deliver the content and what type of content they want rather than just arriving at their desk and saying, ‘okay, here’s our content, it’s this long, it’s going to look like this, here’s the running order.’

“Because we’re a new entity we probably need to work a little harder. We’re not the Premier League nor the Rugby World Cup where we’re going to get millions of dollars of rights fees immediately. We’re going to have to work a little bit more in partnership with those distribution partners.”

There is a similar approach to sponsorship, with Renouf admitting it will take time to attract big-spending, non-endemic partners.

He says: “We know the endemic brands that are selling products related to swimming, cycling and running to that audience. Our thesis is that they’re valuable to the audience and they’re important members of the ecosystem. They should be suppliers and they should be partners.

“But the title sponsorship should be fintech, insurance and the companies you more traditionally see in golf. They value the demographic as much as they value what the demographic is doing, and so that’s very much our focus this year, and heading into the next.

“We’re fortunate with the investment model we have that we don’t need to rush into monetising this straight away. We needed to validate the value of the proposition, which is what we’ve done – obviously with Covid very difficult – and then over these two years really show the commercial value and take it to market to bring in non-endemics that are not in the space at the moment.”

After working with IMG on ChallengeDaytona, the PTO remains open to partnering with agencies going forward, with Renouf saying: “We don’t look at what we’re doing as requiring an army of people. We would rather have strong relationships with people who are in the market, whether that’s media rights agencies or sponsorship agencies where we can leverage them and indeed their networks.

“Whether it’s IMG in the future or not, it’s absolutely part of the plan to have strong relationships that help us deliver on the goals.”