Thoughts on Hamilton Island

Can the new Super League change the landscape of the sport around the world? It's going to be tough, but the potential is there.

| March 9, 2017 | RACES

Photo >Super League Triathlon

The triathlon world has been talking through the announcement that yet another “championship” series has been launched. The brain child of Chris McCormack, the newest player on the competition block has been launched in the form of Super League. Yes, triathlon now has not just a league, but a “Super League.” And it comes with a few more bells and whistles than you might expect from the standard triathlon.

So with the newly minted launch in mind, Super League looks to take on not just the triathlon market, but to gain a hold in the highly competitive mainstream sporting landscape. In fact, it might be safe to say that those running Super League aren’t looking for you, the triathlon-loving folk. These guys are attempting to build a product that is expected to be a hit with mainstream sports fans. What Super League is coveting is the arm chair sports lover. You see, to get on television you need a product, the venue and, more importantly, the money to gain access. Triathlon’s support base is too small to make money.

So, what’s going on here?

Well the concept, which has been done before, is quite simple. Sign some of the best talent in the short course triathlon world, give them a venue, add prize money and then make a television show out of it. It’s a pretty simple set up for most mainstream sports, but in triathlon, this is a herculean task. Triathlon has cracked the mainstream sporting landscape in the past, but that was years ago. Now all sports seem to be in reinvention mode.

Taking on the big leagues

Triathlon will have more than a few challenges. There is no fan base. There are no household names to promote this event and associate their names with the race series. Sure, some people might know who an Alistair Brownlee is, but poll 100 people on any street outside the UK and 95 wouldn’t know who he is. Other sports are finding this out, too, as they try to secure their own share of the market, however small. In Australia this summer the Big Bash Cricket league (BBL) and the Nitro Athletic competitions both had marquee names that would hopefully help them break through to the market. BBL had a a host of international players and free-to-air television coverage, while Nitro deftly manoeuvred to secure Usain Bolt to a three-year deal to promote their series.

Super League faces the challenge of building a narrative around the talent that they have acquired, which will take time. To be fair to the newly formed league you need to allow at least three seasons to gain any credible data pertaining to main stream market traction. There is precedence to say this can work. A lot of excited tweets proclaiming it’s “like triathlon we haven’t seen before” are out there. But that’s not true. We have seen this before. The much vaunted Tooheys Blue Series (in Australia) had this type of mixed-format racing and starred the likes of Brad Bevan and Greg Welch.

If it’s executed properly there’s lots of reason to think the Super League will work. There’s no room for this to look like “amateur hour,” though. The mainstream sports fan sees lots of big-money events that look amazing. Anything short of amazing and this series fails. The bar must be set high, but McCormack and his team know that. This is not new to them.

Gender equality

The other question that has been raised is the gender issue. There are only men racing in the Super League launch at Hamilton Island. Super League got called out by a few high-ranking women’s triathlon pros. And you can see their point. But Hamilton Island is very much a proof of concept. Get this template right without the additional pressure of two races and there is scope to grow. Not unlike many sports in the world, Super League must be proven before expansion. You can’t deny the inclusion of women racing would be good, but the start up costs of just getting the men to the line might have been enough for the first time out. It was no-doubt a tough call in a sport that has always been equal in the sense that women have the same starting point as men, regardless of overall numbers.

Love it, hate it, or, if you are paddling the indifference boat, this has to be a good thing for triathlon. The purists will argue this is not real triathlon, but then that same argument would have been stacked when drafting was introduced to elite racing. Comparing it to the likes of the Collins Cup is insulting to those running Super League. This is more than a press release and a flawed and inane concept. It has a plan, cash and the talent to make it work. This is tangible and real for those racing and, if it can be pulled off, will give the pros much needed exposure and a financial boost. Anything that allows triathlon to be seen outside of us who know and love the sport has to be a good thing. But the Super League crew are at the equivalent of base camp with a sporting Everest to climb and only a few short seasons to achieve it.