Tri Battle Royale Review
If there was any doubt that Jan Frodeno is still at the top of his game at the age of 39, yesterday’s Tri Battle Royale undoubtedly eliminated what was left of it. Crossing the finish line in 7h27m53s for a new world-best time despite the cold weather, torrential rain, and a dramatic fall 10km into the Run, Frodeno cemented his position as the overwhelming favourite for Kona this October. Whilst Lionel Sanders finished 15 minutes behind Jan, his rapid finish time of 7h43 and change also proved that if he gets his pacing and nutrition right, he will be a force to be reckoned with in Kona.
Announced just a few weeks ago through some smartly orchestrated banter between Jan and Lionel on social media, the Tri Battle Royale was a first of its kind event and a great opportunity to test a new format, new commercial opportunities, and new broadcast features. If you missed the action, you could go back and watch it on Youtube here, but if haven’t got 8 hours to spare then you’re probably better off reading the rest of this article to get our take on the race, the broadcast production and the livestream.
The Tri Battle Royale was always supposed to be the Frodeno Show. With Challenge Roth pushed to September this year and his career (probably) nearing its end, Frodeno needed a race this summer to have one more shot and lowering his best ever time over the Iron distance. For the time to be ratified and accepted though it had to occur in a race situation, this is where Lionel Sanders and the Tri Battle Royale fit the bill perfectly. With a genuine contender looking to steal the limelight, and an opportunity to set up the ‘perfect’ course for a fast time, Frodeno and his agent Felix Rudiger had concocted the perfect storm for him to have a pop at his 7:35 mark.
To see what the course and conditions for the race were like, head to their website here. Everything was designed for speed and efficiency to maximise the chances of breaking the record as well as favouring a return of Lionel Sanders during the bike leg to create a true head-to-head race.
The race played out pretty much how most people expected, Frodeno took a 5-minute lead out of the Swim (note that Sanders had a lifetime best Swim, so his time with the Aquabears is paying off!), Sanders went hard at the start of the bike but failed to close the gap. Jan extended his lead towards the end of the bike (riding 3h55m for 180km i.e. above 45km/h) to nearly 9 minutes whilst Lionel also set a new lifetime best on the bike of 4h00m27s, and the two set off at the same pace on the run aiming for a 2h40m Marathon. Five hours into the race both were on course to beat the previous world best time of 7h35m. A little bit of jeopardy kicked in after 10km of running however, as Jan slipped on a soaking wet carpet, hobbling for a couple hundred metres whilst clutching at his hip, but he quickly settled back into his rhythm and grimaced his way round the final three laps.
Heading into the final lap both athletes were clearly suffering, Frodeno faded slightly but still finished in a lightening fast 7h27, and Sanders battled his way through the pain to set a personal best of 7h43 just a few weeks after having to walk almost 30km of the Marathon at Ironman Coeur d’Alene.
Whilst most Triathlon connoisseurs pretty much expected the race to unfold the way it did, the real unknown heading into the Tri Battle Royale is what Felix Rudiger and his team had up their sleeves for the 8hr+ live broadcast. Details weren’t particularly forthcoming in the lead up to the race, other than promises of live data, predicted times and a free livestream for all on Tri-Battle.com. The reality during the race proved rather good, and after the two recent Challenge events provided another step in the right direction towards promoting the broadcast value of long-distance triathlon.
Live Time Gaps – Something that Ironman are renowned for struggling with, the live time gaps shown on the swim and the run were great for viewers, as well as the average pace which showed the evolution of each athlete and their tendencies towards slowing down throughout the Marathon.
Graphics and animations – The broadcast graphics were great, with SAP as one of Jan Frodeno’s sponsors I think this was never in doubt. The commercial partners got clear visibility without it seeming like overt advertising, and the colour schemes for the two athletes were nicely integrated throughout.
Evolution of the gaps – Having the evolution of the gaps on screen during the three disciplines was a good piece of added value. It helped viewers understand the pacing strategy of the two athletes, particularly on the Bike where we saw Lionel go off hard before settling into his true race pace.
Predicted times – Using the average & live speed and pace of the athletes, SAP were providing predicted times throughout each discipline. This was particularly useful for the comparison to the World Record, but also exciting for the viewers particularly on the bike when it became apparent Frodeno was going to ride sub-4 and that Sanders wouldn’t be far off either!
Comparison to World Record – Having the comparison and time gap to the world record during the race was particularly insightful, not only did it demonstrate how fast Frodeno was going but it also reminded viewers that Sanders was flying as well. Lionel was on track to beat the previous world best time until very late in the Marathon. Being able to frame Sanders’ performance in comparison to this rather than just in comparison to Frodeno on the day was very valuable and demonstrated how incredible his performance was as well
Helle and Paul – Having competent and knowledgeable commentators is one of the major priorities for sports broadcasting, and something that Triathlon has struggled with in the past. Whilst everyone is aware of good Paul Kaye is, the pleasant surprise on Sunday was Helle Frederiksen. Helle provided brilliant insights as an experienced long-distance triathlete, comments, and analysis that even Paul as triathlon expert wouldn’t be able to provide and touches of humour and reality that triathlon fans and novices alike were able to appreciate.
Superimposed interviews – Superimposing pre-recorded interviews with the two athletes throughout the coverage provided good insights. During each discipline they provided comments about their training and race plan as well as their opponent, including predictions and insights into how they planned to race their race depending on how the dynamics evolved.
Guests – With the advent of zoom-calls as the new form of in-race interviews, the Tri-Battle were able to overlay interesting conversations with some great guests throughout the broadcast. This included cycling great Chris Hoy, triathlon superstar Daniel Ryf, 2008 Olympic champion Emma Frodeno, Sanders’ manager Pat Lemieux and several other guests who provided their take and insights on the race at hand. For an 8hr+ broadcast the quality and quantity of guests is important, as it allows the broadcaster to break up the inevitable monotony of listening to just the two commentators.
Lack of Live Gaps on the Bike – Even the biggest triathlon fan was unlikely to sit down and watch 8hrs of coverage in a row on a sunny Sunday in July. However, many would be likely to tune in to the stream every regularly to check on the progression and evolution of the race. As such, the lack of constant visibility on the live gaps during the bike ride was somewhat frustrating, it meant you couldn’t quickly check the evolution of the race without having the stop what you were doing and watch for 5-10 minutes to find out what was happening.
Dropped Camera Coverage – Whilst you can’t control the weather, you can always try and plan for the worst. During the bike section of the race the weather was appalling, and viewers were treated to a pure Jan Frodeno show for a while as the cameras following Lionel weren’t transmitting for the broadcast. Whilst technical glitches can occur, the broadcast team should have had a backup plan for this eventuality. With only two athletes out on course it was unfortunate for Lionel that he lost a large piece of his airtime (and hence value for his sponsors) during such a unique event.
The question of what next is quite simple to answer – we want more! The natural progression would be to do a similar event pitting two of best women against each other (Daniela vs Lucy? Anne Haug? Rinny?), building it out to a 4-5 athlete race or launching several head-to-head events between athletes with a similar profile (eg. Lionel Sanders vs Sam Long). In terms of broadcasting, it appears that the main players in the market have understood the direction they need to move in, the more value you can provide for the commercial partners and spectators at home the better– satisfying your core audience before appealing to the masses is critical.
Overall, the Tri Battle Royale should be satisfied with what they produced this weekend, it’s normal to have a few teething problems, and hopefully they have also been inspired to think even bigger and will be back soon with more blockbuster events!