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Interview: Super League Triathlon building a sports entertainment brand

Cycling - Super League Triathlon Hamilton Island

With dynamic formats around the core elements of swim, bike and run – Super League Triathlon aims to deliver a high-impact, and unpredictable, sports entertainment product that engages and creates a conversation among fans.

Focusing on being, foremost, a sports entertainment offering, the team at Super League Triathlon add that it ‘is shifting the sport of triathlon from a participation sport to one that also has appeal to active communities and general sports fans alike.’

Using innovation in course design, media and event formats, the Super League Triathlon team adds that it is offering up ‘world class sport, but it’s more than that… It’s entertainment.’

Fast and furious racing, unpredictability on course, high production values for the race broadcast and a roster of elite triathletes have all helped to push Super League Triathlon into the attention of the wider triathlon community.

To find out more about the new event series and its plan for raising fan awareness, we spoke with Michael D’Hulst, co-founder and Managing Director of Super League Triathlon. We jumped on a call just ahead of the recent Super League Jersey event, where Super League co-founder Chris ‘Macca’ McCormack joined in the call. We also exchange e-mails with Michael to find out more about what’s making Super League tick…

endurancebusiness.com (EnduranceBiz): Super League Triathlon was co-founded by (two-time IRONMAN and two-time ITU World Champion) Chris McCormack, Michael D’Hulst and Leonid Boguslavsky. Please tell us how the three of you got together?

Michael D’Hulst (MDH): I met Chris back in 2011 through Challenge Family. Chris was an ambassador for the brand and I was the first licence holder for Challenge in Asia, having Greater China and organising an event in Taiwan. That brought us together and we discussed in detail the business model of triathlon and the strengths and weaknesses of the different brands, like Challenge and IRONMAN, operating in the industry at the time. We also talked a lot about the old F1 series from Australia.

At that time, we tried to convince Challenge Family to set up Challenge Asia, leveraging the opportunity that IRONMAN’s Singapore and Phuket races were called-off, and the China event was cancelled. The aim was to invest in the brand in Asia and build a management support basis in the region. For that project, we could not get things off the ground in Asia. I then sold my Challenge licence and Chris and I moved on to work together at [sports resort] Thanyapura [in Phuket, Thailand] and established the [pro triathlete] Bahrain Endurance 13 team. But the topic of events remained on the table.

It was actually Chris who met Leonid first. Chris was guest speaker at a triathlon conference in Moscow, Russia; and that is where they met and shared their passion for triathlon. Leonid discovered triathlon at a later age and is a Kona qualifier. Over the next couple of months, we had a few phone calls and exchanged our ideas on the status quo of the business of triathlon and the opportunities that present themselves. We very quickly connected through a shared passion and on our views of where triathlon is as a sport.

The week after IRONMAN South Africa, which I attended with His Highness Sheikh Nasser and the Bahrain Endurance 13 team, I met with Chris and Leonid in London. It is here that we laid the foundations for what would become Super League Triathlon.

EnduranceBiz: Michael: please give us a bit of background about you, and how triathlon/endurance sport appeals to you.

MDH: I’m from Belgium; and triathlon has always been a popular sport in the country, especially after Luc van Lierde won IRONMAN Hawaii in 1996. I have always loved sport and throughout my high school years I participated in many running races and started to ride the bike a bit. Luc van Lierde’s win inspired me to do triathlon and I participated in a few races, including ZwinTriathlon [running between Belgium and the Netherlands].

After university I was recruited by Volkswagen Group and was based in China. In those days, work was all that counted. After eight successful years with VW Group I decided to take a sabbatical and wanted to pick up triathlon again. This quickly turned into a pursuit for a Kona slot, which I achieved after winning my age group at IRONMAN Korea in 2011 and then participating in the IRONMAN World Championships. In those years, I engaged in sports both as an athlete and as an entrepreneur, and it was also around that time that I met Chris.

Michael Dhulst - Super League Triathlon

EnduranceBiz: How long did it take to get Super League off the ground?

MDH: We are still working on that; this is only the beginning! Our focus is on sports entertainment: creating a triathlon product that is engaging to a wider audience of both participants and spectators. Our first step was to get the [pro] athletes on board and convince them of our vision. This wasn’t too difficult as these athletes also recognise the need for an entity in triathlon that focuses on showcasing the sport and the characters in it to create an exciting and spectator friendly sport.

The next step was to re-invent the formats to ensure these achieve our objectives: action focused, unpredictable and spectator friendly. We developed different formats which focus on the different strengths of athletes, in turn making the outcomes unpredictable. The original triathlon format can be predictable as the event often boils down to the running portion, with the best runners winning. We changed that!

It is also very important to us is that our formats can be organised in pretty much anywhere without causing day-to-day disruption. Our aim is to bring Super League Triathlon into the hearts of major, destination cities, which will make for some very interesting viewing whilst simultaneously bringing the sport to a much wider audience.

To reinforce this, we have a strong commitment to TV, using all modern techniques and platforms to bring the action to viewers and to introduce the sport to a wider audience. Our TV product is really an innovation and is the key to our long-term strategy of elevating the sport to new audiences.

To establish this, we decided to start with a ‘Proof of Concept’ event in Hamilton Island, Australia. This ‘concept’ event demonstrated to sponsors, TV channels and venues the innovation that we offer. Now we are moving towards the first season of pro-racing and I am very excited that people will start to see what we are really all about.

EnduranceBiz: What is the vision for Super League Triathlon (i.e. broadcast reach, inspiring fans/followers, etc.)?

MDH: The vision of Super League is indeed to inspire and engage fans and new audiences. By having the best athletes in the world, who compete in these exciting unpredictable formats, we will build a brand that stands for quality events, which are also exciting for spectators. With our strong focus on content and media we will be able to engage a wider audience.

Ultimately, we are investing in generating value for athletes, venues, sponsors and we believe that our sport is ready for the next step.

Competitors Dive In - Super League Triathlon Hamilton Island

EnduranceBiz: How do you aim to expand the fan/viewer reach of Super League Triathlon beyond the natural fan base of the core triathlon community?

Chris McCormack (CM): There are two aspects to this. One, is to focus on the character of the athletes and also in their engagement with local communities. Two, is the use of excellent venues. In the future we have downtown city venues arranged. That will add a strong demonstrable tourist value.

For example, there are lots of people who watch the Tour de France. Many do so not just because they like cycling. They like the French landscape. This helps to capture the imagination.

It’s also about the characters. Triathlon is a sport where characters are almost punished for being characters. Being outspoken is not necessarily seen as a good thing. But in other sports it’s a key component of fan engagement.

At its heart, Super League is about the athletes, and enabling the fans to identify with the person. They need heroes and villains. Super League can help to channel this engagement.

We are putting the cornerstones in place to build great relationships with TV. We fit with what the TV networks are looking for. Many networks are taking triathlon in a proscribed form. With Hamilton Island and Jersey, the networks can see that Super League is a different proposition.

In broadcast, we will see a growing trend. It’s about showcasing triathlon, outreaching to a wider audience. We’ve raised the bar in terms of quality.

Coupled with this, data is important. We will integrate athlete data and stats more and more as we build momentum. It’s important to get the audience understanding what the athletes are going through out on the course and well as taking in the spectacle.

EnduranceBiz: How do you differentiate the brand from other event series, such as IRONMAN, Challenge Family and the ITU World Triathlon Series?

MDH: A distinct difference between Super League and IRONMAN and Challenge Family is our focus on short distance events. Age group athletes will be racing our races all year round whilst committing to a couple of IRONMAN or other long distance events a year as well.

The ITU is the governing body of the sport with a clear Olympic mandate and the sport isn’t where we are today without their contribution. The opportunity for Super League presents itself because of what both IRONMAN and ITU have done for the sport. Super League will add value and further elevate with a specific focus on media entertainment, new formats and, different than ITU, with a commercial mandate.

EnduranceBiz: Is there any cooperation in place with ITU in particular, given that many ITU World Triathlon Series (WTS) athletes race in Super League events?

MDH: We are working on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) and we have open lines of discussion. We are committed to core ITU principles such as equality in the sport and drug testing.

EnduranceBiz: What levels of persuasion and cajoling were required to get so many elite triathletes on board for the inaugural event?

MDH: Very little! Chris has a long-standing reputation in the sport; and as businessmen we have delivered and continue to deliver Bahrain Endurance with great success. Once we took the time to explain what we are setting out to do with Super League, and explained that this is complementary to everything already in place, and how we will grow into a great platform for them to build their own brand and speak to a wider audience, very little cajoling was necessary!

Super League Triathlon athletes banner

EnduranceBiz: Are there any specific commercial arrangements in place with the athletes?

MDH: Yes. There is a quite extensive commercial arrangement which rolls year-on-year and reflects our long term goal. Our agreements also position the athletes to benefit from this as well.

EnduranceBiz: Have you faced any challenges, for example with individual athlete sponsors or with timetabling events?

MDH: There are definitely a lot of challenges; if it was easy everybody would be doing it. But I think we came in well prepared, in terms of handling athletes, sponsors, etc. Communication is key, as our goals are aligned.

As you point out, one of the most challenging tests is to outline a timetable of events. We are a series and therefore we need multiple venues. We are selective with our venues, as they must all be in line with our strategy; the individual events cannot cannibalise each other; they need to add to the ‘look and feel’ of the series and be geographically spread around the world without clashing with other key events already in the calendar. And on top of all that there is a lot of bureaucracy to work through with most venues!

EnduranceBiz: There was a fair amount of criticism about a lack of female racing at Hamilton Island. Can you clarify why the pro females were excluded for the inaugural event? Did the criticism take you by surprise?

MDH: The amount of criticism did take us by surprise. It may be our fault in not communicating clearly. We did communicate with the athletes ahead of the race. Leading up to race day, we had a sense of urgency, particularly with it being the inaugural race and with the aim of getting Super League Hamilton ahead of the start of the ITU World Triathlon Series this year.

At Hamilton Island, there were logistic issues on this first race of the Super League series. Ultimately, this limited the racing that was available. So, we had to make the hard call and limit to men’s racing only at Super League Hamilton Island.

CM: We anticipated an outcry. It did take us back a bit. But it was a one-off. Super League will continue for years to come – with female athletes. Leading up to Hamilton Island, no one really took us seriously until they saw the impact of the final product. No one jumped up and down at the outset. The outcry really happened after people saw the hi-impact, hi-quality of the racing and the media package.

We spent the money and delivered. Women are racing now. We’re keeping our head down and getting on with the job. As Michael mentioned, there were logistic issues in our inaugural event that limited the size of the field. The racing in Jersey has male and female athletes racing.

It’s all about inclusion. Both male and female athletes are fully on board going forwards.

EnduranceBiz: In terms of current sponsors, interestingly [former ITU World Triathlon Series commercial partner] Lagardère Sports is listed as one of Super League’s sponsor partners. Can you clarify Lagardère’s input and role with Super League (given that the endurance division of Lagardère was acquired by IRONMAN back in early 2016)?

MDH: The mass participation events of Lagardère were indeed sold to IRONMAN. They saw an exit opportunity and realised that back in 2016. Now, going forwards Lagardère believes in the media product that we have with Super League and in an opportunity to create and build a strong media product. So, with Lagardère we have partnership around production and distribution, initially focusing on the Super League Jersey event.

Super League triathletes run in Hamilton Island

EnduranceBiz: The Corporate Mix will allow companies to compete against each other at Super League Jersey. Going forwards – do you have plans for mass participation, age group racing?

MDH: The Corporate Mix is our first step towards mass participation and a concept that we will continue to build and carry across to all future venues. We are just very much aware that what we roll out needs to be of excellent quality, and especially with mass participation racing, it is imperative that the brand has value, and that value has to be established first.

EnduranceBiz: What sort of take-up do you expect for non-elite racing at future Super League events?

MDH: In general, people who say they play golf or tennis would typically play every weekend. As triathletes we train multiple times a week, but ‘play’ (read: race) typically only a couple of times per year. I think Super League can be the go-to race for those new to the sport as well as veterans fine-tuning their speed or just going out there on course doing what they love.

EnduranceBiz: What are your thoughts on the current commercial status of the triathlon event landscape?

MDH: I think a lot of independent races are definitely struggling. The margins are getting squeezed as athletes are expecting more for less. People are expecting to be part of something that may be difficult for independent races to deliver.

The branded races and regional series creating extra value for athletes do well, for exactly that reason. The value creation for sponsors, number of participants and venues is still high.

I think on the global scene IRONMAN is still strong and has a good value offering, although there is the risk of brand dilution as in certain areas there are definitely a lot of races. People are currently paying premium prices for being part of the select club, so it is important to keep that exclusivity.

EnduranceBiz: Turning to the wider triathlon industry, i.e. products and services for athletes, do you have any further thoughts on the current commercial landscape?

MDH: I think the sport of triathlon has plateaued over the last couple of years through a lack of innovation within the sport, and lack of ‘entertainment’ around the sport. This is in contrast with the macro trend of health and fitness, which continues to boom! I believe we can ramp this up with Super League and we can grow audience numbers. And, as it has been proven, the triathlon audience is a very valuable audience for any innovative product or service; so I think that the commercial landscape is good on all fronts.

EnduranceBiz: The two events on the Super League schedule (Hamilton Island, Australia, and Jersey, British Isles) are on less populous islands. Was there a particular reason for choosing these locations?

MDH: No not really, this is more coincidence of the sequence, and once we have rolled out a full season you will see the full picture. We want to establish a unique mix of idyllic destinations – stunning locations, and urban high-traffic and spectator-friendly locations.

Hamilton Island was very much a short term decision to get the brand launched before the WTS season started. It’s a beautiful island and private, which makes it much easier to navigate. Jersey came as a unique opportunity as it is also a fantastic destination flanked by some of the hot beds of triathlon in Europe – with France, UK, Spain and Germany on the doorstep. But it is still a bit exotic, a place not many people are necessarily familiar with.

EnduranceBiz: Are there any new Super League events that you can talk about? Any city/urban locations in the pipeline, for example?

MDH: There are many locations we are very keen to talk about, but until the deals are signed we can’t. But yes indeed, urban locations are definitely in the pipeline and those are the ones I’m most enthusiastic about as they are going to look great on TV and will really capture a greater audience.

EnduranceBiz: When do you envisage that you’ll be able to announce your next location(s)?

CM: Our next location, which we were going to announce in Jersey, just got levelled by a hurricane. It’s not off the table. We’re looking at a date change. There will be another announcement in around five to six weeks. We’re just figuring out the logistics on the two new events in the pipeline.

The host cities like the fact that each roll-out has a focus on them. We want people to understand the format and what Super League represents. We’ll focus on this, event by event. We give kudos to the cities that actually hold those formats. People will talk about the series, the format and in turn each event.

Different cities will have different formats. We want to take our viewers and fans on this journey and are really excited to do so!





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