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Challenge Miami: Are we on the cusp of a broadcasting revolution in Triathlon?

With Challenge Daytona used as a test event this past December and Challenge Miami hitting our screens last Friday, the short answer is yes. Yes, we could very well be on the cusp of Challenge North-America changing the game when it comes to broadcasting professional long-distance Triathlon. There is a still a long way to go before Triathlon can even think about competing for airtime with any of the established mainstream sports across the globe, however there is no reason not to aim big. Due it’s relative short history as a sport, Triathlon is yet to settle on a commercial model that makes the sport viable for both event-organisers and professional athletes alike. Wherever you look at the money in triathlon, there is an angel investor behind it who will eventually get bored and move their money on to a new toy. With their two races in Florida, Challenge North-America have demonstrated that there is potential for a viable commercial broadcasting model in Triathlon.

Pay Per View – Confirming Proof of Concept

After attracting its captive audience with a free livestream of the PTO Championships in Daytona last December, Bill Christy and Challenge North-America upped the ante with their first pay per view race on Facebook Live last Friday in Miami. Advertised initially as $2 USD for early-birds, and increased to $3 thirty-six hours before the race, Challenge weren’t taking many risks with their price point. Any self-respecting Triathlon fan should be willing to pay a few bucks for 5 hours of live broadcast, especially when coverage of these races has been so limited in the past. Moreover, every fan who was willing to pay the $3 USD helped Challenge North-America confirm their proof of concept and in parallel invested in the future of this sport and its athletes. Whilst pay per view at $3 USD per race probably isn’t the long-term answer (World Triathlon already operate a similar subscription model for the WTS), proving that the demand and willingness to pay exists is a big step forward.

With the highest number of concurrent viewers peaking around the 13.5k mark on the Facebook Live we can comfortably assume that at least 15k Facebook users purchased access to the stream. Using the conservative number of 15k viewers, Challenge North-America will have raked in somewhere around $40’000 USD in pay per view income. Anyone used to working in Football or the American Big-3 sports would probably scoff at this meagre income; nonetheless, if you look at the total Pro Prize-Purse that was paid out in Miami, the $40’000 covers almost 75% of that cost. This is non-negligible as it provides a serious revenue stream that could potentially cover a budget line at all pro races and help professionalise the sport and its broadcasting. Whilst event organisers have historically relied on Age-Group paid-entries and small commercial partners to pay their bills, having proof of this new revenue stream will also create new commercial opportunities for organisers, athletes and both endemic and non-endemic sponsors.

Commercial Opportunities

Bill Christy (CEO of Challenge North-America) said it himself in his interview with Bob Babbitt in the lead up to Challenge Miami, you can only sell so many triathlon bikes and shoes, if you want to create large commercial revenue you need to go after the big fish like banks and insurance companies. It’s no secret, to attract the attention of these big fish you need to create broadcast and media value. The broadcast of Challenge Daytona and Challenge Miami showed the first interesting steps in this direction.

It’s all good and well getting your race in front of watchful eyes, but to create commercial value you need to create commercial opportunities for brands to exploit throughout the broadcast. In stadium sports we’ve seen the emergence of static boards, pitch-side LED and overlay graphics on the broadcast, but how do you do it in Triathlon?

On Friday a keen eye will have spotted the first clues towards how Challenge North America plan to exploit their broadcasts to create commercial opportunities and value for partners. Here is what we spotted:

- Improved Camera Work – This is a subtlety, but it can make a huge difference to the sponsorships that athletes and event organisers can sell. Compared to Daytona, the in-race footage in Miami included much clearer shots of the brands that athletes were using (the contrast to Ironman & WTS broadcasts is even clearer). Whether it be their swim-skins at the start, the helmet & shoes they put on in transition or the bikes they were riding, the difference in camera angles and footage was notable between Daytona and Miami. Improving the visibility for these endemic brands will increase the advertising value that athletes can provide for their sponsors and the size of the contracts that event organisers can sell.

- Athlete Labels – Throughout the race the broadcast included digital athlete labels that identified the athlete on screen, showed some information or live data about the athlete and featured a large sponsorship box across the top of the label. Most of the labels featured USA Triathlon or Challenge North America as the generic race sponsor/organiser, however if you paid close attention you would also have noticed that certain athletes were used as guinea pigs to test this commercial opportunity. Lionel Sanders’ label featured Freshii, one of his main sponsors, and cycling powerhouse Andrew Starykowicz’s label featured his bike sponsor Orbea. Whilst this might seem trivial, it increases drastically the amount of visibility that sponsors can obtain from a race. Whether the event organiser sells this opportunity to one sponsor for the entire race (eg. a Data Sponsor) or athletes each sell this visibility to their own personal sponsors, it can create a new revenue stream from sponsors paying for tangible and measurable TV time.

- Leaderboard Labels – In the same vein as the above-mentioned athlete labels, Challenge North America featured a rolling set of sponsors at the top of their leaderboard throughout the race. Again, whilst this might seem trivial at first, it provides tangible visibility for sponsors that is comparable to pitchside LED or static boards in stadium sports. In order to increase sponsor revenue going forward for the sport of triathlon, these two types of digital labels are the type of visibility that must be considered as it will provide guaranteed air-time for sponsors which is not dependant on athlete-performance.

- Commentator Knowledge – Having competent commentators is not only key to satisfying your audience and providing relevant and analytical commentary, but also an opportunity to deliver added value to athletes and their sponsors. Knowledgeable commentators are able to seamlessly mention the brands that athletes are using and do so in a relevant manner that also provides insight for viewers. For example, on Friday the commentators were able to reference Paula Findlay’s new contract with Specialized and the impact that it’s had on her bike position and aerodynamics (Paula has already said she’s going to be in the wind tunnel soon!), as well as the intriguing bike frame design of Fenella Langridge’s Reap bike and the new carbon sole Hoka One One shoes that Jan Frodeno was using on the run. Being able to provide this type of commentary and insight might seem irrelevant, however it is only possible if you hire competent commentators who do their research and know the sport.

- Overlay Interviews – Something that we are more used to seeing with Age Group and Legacy athletes during the Ironman broadcast (different product & target audience!), Challenge North America had filmed several pre-race interviews with star athletes and overlayed them on split-screen during the broadcast. Athletes are paid by their sponsors to wear branded hats and t-shirts during interviews, so broadcasting these interviews during the race provides again more visibility for these sponsors and these athletes. Moreover, adding context to the races by sharing the stories and rivalries that exist within the sport adds to the overall storyline of the sport and potential commercial interest in the athletes and events.

Overall, these small changes might seem trivial when considered in isolation, but when amalgamated they illustrate a good step in the right direction towards providing more commercial opportunities for brands and sponsors to get involved with the sport.

Broadcast Quality

Having strong broadcast quality is vital in creating a viable commercial model for a sport. After all, brands that invest in sport are looking to get airtime for their name and their products, and fans are looking for good coverage so that they can feel connected to their idols. What did Challenge North America do in Miami that was better than what we’ve seen in Triathlon before? Firstly, the number of camera angles increased compared to Daytona, secondly the quality of the camera work became increasingly specific to the sport of Triathlon and demonstrated an understanding of the race dynamics. Just like we saw in Daytona, live action replays were used to show important moments that were initially missed in the coverage (eg. Ben Kanute’s exit from T1, Lucy Charles-Barclay’s illegal pass, or Jan Frodeno dropping his gel). This provides more context to the evolution of the race and the storyline behind the results.

The live broadcast also included brief summaries of what’s happened up to now in the previous disciplines, this is invaluable for people tuning in late to the race or tuning in and out throughout the broadcast. As was mentioned previously, the quality of the commentators and reporters on the ground was stepped up again compared to Daytona. The background knowledge, commentary, analysis, and insights from the team was almost faultless and the banter between them kept viewers engaged throughout.

The broadcast also featured some interesting new features such as a microphone in the penalty tent, summaries of the fastest moving athletes through the field on the Bike and Run and data tables showing the relevant strengths and weaknesses of certain athletes. One of the critiques after Daytona was also addressed, with the broadcast moving beyond simply following the front of the race. Often the stories of the battle for the podium, Top 5 or Top 10 are just as interesting as the battle for the win, so it was refreshing to see this featured in the coverage. Finally, whilst it wasn’t done perfectly, having the cross over between the end of the women’s race and start of the men’s race allowed the overall broadcast length to be shortened and allowed for an intense 45 minutes or so trying to follow both races at the same time.

What next?

Whilst it’s great to see some steps in the right direction, the sport of Triathlon, and Challenge North America as the de-facto market-leaders in the domain of broadcasting, still have their work cut out to develop a viable commercial product. They need to keep getting big names on the start lines, they need to ensure both the race courses and formats are athlete and broadcast friendly (using NASCAR courses forever isn’t viable) and they need to start attracting big name non-endemic sponsors. A few avenues to explore are obvious, such as on-board cameras & microphones on the bike, cameras on the water and sponsor logo overlays during the broadcast (digital or painted on-course). Others might require a bit of creativity and willingness for athletes to participate in the quality of the broadcast (on-bike interviews, microphones on their followers/coaches, sponsor broadcast/race activations). Overall, there are a lot of positives to take home from the Challenge Miami broadcast, and strong reason to believe that Challenge North America are making strides in the right direction for the development of the sport.

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