By: Brian Metzler
In the early days of triathlon, participation numbers were low, but interest was high among spectators and casual followers. That was largely due to a 1979 Sports Illustrated story by Barry McDermott who chronicled the second edition of the Hawaii Ironman. At the time, SI was riding high during the heyday of American magazine publishing. Their very large readership marveled at the “crazies” who would voluntarily torment themselves for 140.6 miles. So while only 15 souls braved the four-six foot seas off Waikiki in that second Ironman, millions more read about their efforts in the pages of SI. As Scott Tinley later wrote, McDermott had supplied “The Pen that Launched a Thousand Triathlons.”
One man and his company are trying to recapture the attention of American sports fans with the Super League Triathlon. On September 25, the race series will make its debut in the U.S. market during the 34th Malibu Triathlon in Malibu, California, with the 2021 championship finale of its fast, exciting, spectator-friendly format of professional triathlon racing. The Malibu Triathlon will welcome more than 5,000 participants and 10,000 spectators during its late-September event, with an Olympic distance event (1.5 km Swim, 40 km Bike, 10 km Run) on Saturday, Sept. 25, and a Classic-distance event (½-mile Swim, 17-mile Bike, 4-mile Run) on Sunday, Sept. 26. The Super League Triathlon Pro Race will be the newest addition to the Malibu Triathlon, taking place at noon after the Olympic distance race ends on Saturday.
Event organizers recently announced a world class field that includes the Gold, Silver, and Bronze Tokyo Olympic triathlon medalists Flora Duffy, Georgia Taylor-Brown, and Katie Zaferes who will compete in the SLT championship race. They will be joined by their male counterparts, Silver and Bronze Tokyo Olympic triathlon medalists Alex Yee and Hayden Wilde.
At the Malibu Triathlon, to-date we have confirmed a powerhouse relay team including Alexi Pappas, Mary Cain and Rich Roll and celebrity actor, Chace Crawford.
We caught up recently with Michael D'hulst, CEO and Co-Founder of Super League Triathlon, to talk about the details of the brand’s U.S. debut.
Q: What does it mean for Super League Triathlon to enter the U.S. market?
A: “It means a lot. If you look at the numbers, the U.S. is the biggest market in triathlon. If you look at it in more detail, it is very dominant in long-distance triathlons — Ironman, 70.3, etc. But in my opinion, in the U.S., triathlon has evolved to be very much a participation sport. Back in the 1990s, I was inspired by watching Luc Van Lierde become the first European to win the Hawaii Ironman in 1996. Ironman grew on the back of professional athletes doing things that inspired people. But it has definitely developed into a movement that is driven by participation and possibly driven by the ownership of Ironman because that’s where the money is. Our vision at Super League Triathlon is that triathlon is also a professional sport, but it hasn’t been treated as a commercial entity and looking at it from the number of eyeballs that are watching it, as a media property professional sports kind of focus. That has been our initial approach.”
Q: Why have you decided to focus on a short-course triathlon format?
A: “We know that triathlon is doing very, very well in long course, but at a professional level, is long course where it’s at? If you look at it from a media consumption point of view — or even the attention span of my young kids or of the younger generation — and it’s not that. So we decided to go short, to go fast and go creative with formats, so it is less predictable and a lot more engaging. I have asked my friends who do Ironman triathlons if they know who won the previous year’s Ironman Championship and they can’t tell me. I’ve noticed triathlon has become a personal journey for them rather than something they tap into from a fan point of view watching the pros.”
Q: Why is the timing right to come to the U.S. market?
A: “So North American and the U.S. has the biggest market in triathlon, but it’s predominantly participation-based and predominantly long course. Europe still has a tradition of short-course triathlon, so there is still a very engaged existing fan base and an existing commitment to short course. And that’s why we started the Super League with European events predominantly, but always with a vision of wanting to go to North America. But we wanted to create a critical mass first. And when I say, critical mass, it’s about digital following, it’s about interest in the broadcast and just making sure that the product works for the international viewer and an international fan base. We always had the vision to align what we’re doing with the Olympic cycle, because short-course triathlon is an Olympic sport so you have new heroes and interest that come out of the back of that.”
Q: Why is Malibu Triathlon the ideal venue for Super League Triathlon to debut in the U.S.?
A: “We asked ourselves if we’re going to North America, do we do it from the ground up as a green field strategy or do we take over an existing event? And given that short-course triathlon needs a big revival in the U.S., and so does triathlon as a professional sport, we thought it would be best to align with an event with history and an engaged audience — because we didn’t need to tackle everything at the same time. So that was kind of the motivation to build on an event’s existing success. Obviously, the Malibu Triathlon has a massive history that also has a good participation base, but it is also what I would argue is the most successful fundraising triathlon in the world with a massive legacy there, not to mention a very nice media footprint. There was a lot of alignment with what we were doing that really fit for us.”
Q: How can you kindle the passion for watching triathlon as a spectator sport in the U.S.?
A: “There are two aspects to that. First, you have people who are active in triathlon, know triathlon and have an affinity for triathlon. I think those people we can easily reach through social media and the creation of good content. I do think there is a lot of value in traditional broadcast, no matter if it’s a free-to-air broadcast or an online streaming service, to build out that reach to an audience that is not necessarily in close connection to the sport. I think the value proposition of what we do is exciting and new enough to put it in front of people and they’ll say, ‘What’s that? I want to know more. That’s exciting.’ So we will definitely go back into broadcast and make it available because we believe what we’re doing and how different it is, it’s more engaging and will help us grow the fan base.”
Q: Why do you think short-course triathlon has a future as a spectator sport?
A: “If you look at the excitement of the triathlon mixed relays in the Olympics, and how it’s not a foregone conclusion anymore, that’s how we developed the formula for the Super League. It’s not clear who is going to win, it’s always a battle, there is always something happening. Ironman has done well with broadcasting its highlight show because it tells all of those great, emotional stories and it also makes me believe I can be an Ironman, but that’s a very different thing than our sports broadcast. Their version is more of a documentary to promote the brand, in my opinion. Our value proposition for broadcast is not just to reach out to Ironman athletes who are committed to watch eight hours of a broadcast, but also the wider public. But also, it’s about the notion that it’s cool to do a sprint-distance triathlon — because it is cool to do a sprint-distance triathlon. It’s more like a HIIT session or CrossFit. Ultimately that’s what short-course triathlon is all about, a HIIT session of swim, bike and run and how fast I can do that. I’m also very enthusiastic about the virtual movement on Zwift and Peloton and I think for a lot of people, the convenience makes it a lot more accessible.
Q: Do you think virtual racing or spectator racing as hurting participation in live events?
A: “Some people might argue that it’s killing off live races, but I don’t see that happening. I see us making mass participation events much more accessible to a wider group of people. If there are 10 million people now participating in mass participation events, adding the virtual races, if properly done, with the community for it, it will make the mass participation events grow to 20 million. Everyone will still desire to do real, live events, but those will become the cherry on top of the cake. And we have seen that participation is bullish as the pandemic goes away; right now registrations for the Malibu Triathlon are through the roof.”
Q: How have you seen the return of live events in 2021 and what do you envision for 2022?
A: “We’re excited to be back with live events and we’ll take whatever comes along. It’s not going to be perfect in 2021, but 2022 will be better. With Super League, we are very much about the experience, and I meant the wider experience and not just racing. And in 2021, live events are still very tricky to deliver. It seems some people are comfortable with racing because you’re ultimately out there on your own for the most part. But doing hospitality, doing activations, doing more static events, it’s a bit more tricky. It’s definitely about showcasing what the potential is and getting the people involved for next year.”
Q: How would you envision the SLT debut at Malibu playing out this year?
A: “In a perfect scenario, Malibu always has two very important things. They have the fundraising aspect for pediatric cancer research at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which has a massive impact on the event and carries a lot of weight. And it also has a lot of celebrities participating, so we’re encouraging celebrity athletes racing with Olympians and also encouraging Olympians to be involved with what the CHLA is doing, which is always motivating and empowering. We want to come together on those two levels so we can have an impact on the community and what the Malibu Triathlon stands for. Beyond that it’s all about experiences, but with an obvious level of caution this year because Covid is still around.”