In Episode 106 of the MX Endurance podcast, our founder and four-time world champion Chris McCormack sat down with Tim Ford to chat about the state of affairs for triathlon amid a global pandemic.

Macca talks about the Super League Triathlon Arena Games and how they can be exciting to watch as well as another game-changer for the sport.

In contrast to Ironman which has professionals racing in a mass participation league, Super League Triathlon is a professional league first. Triathlon has always supported a handful of athletes as professionals for years, but with Super League, we aim to present the professional arm of the sport as the catalyst for the sport's growth. (This is the case in all the major sports in the world but was never the primary driver of revenue in triathlon up until we launched 3 years ago.)

We’re dealing with professional athletes, and they do this sport for completely different reasons as I wrote about previously. We’re trying to create a league for them that’s driven for prize money, driven for content, for broadcast numbers and gives validity to professionalism in the sport of triathlon.

When conventional racing came to a halt so rapidly, that didn’t kill off the desire for athletes to compete and it doesn’t kill off the desire for people to witness their heroes or their stars compete in some sort of way.

People are talking about waiting for a vaccine to bring events back, but that’s pinning a lot on hope on an outcome that has no specific time frame on it. Hope is not a strategy, especially when you’re trying to build a league and you’re trying to push forward and stay relevant.  

At Super League Triathlon we realised quickly we had to pivot -- like many other sports who adjusted their output and their forecasts to adapt and be relevant in this short term -- and get back to what we do.

Athletes are most certainly realising that without the platform on which to express their skills, they are just really fit people who post things on social media. I have a heavy heart for many of the athletes as peak performance and careers are measured in single-digit years, and missing a year or two of competition could very much be to miss their peak. I always say athletes age in dog years, so it is hugely disruptive to their careers, even more so than the event and league owners.  

We have actually seen in our audience numbers and our content since the pandemic a growing appetite for seeing professional athletes race again. We share that drive and vision, and for myself personally as a former professional athlete I felt a heavy weight of responsibility to my sport to focus on pursuing this vigorously.

It is one thing to talk about it and pass comment and judgment from afar on what “others” should be doing in this environment, and I have seen and read a lot of that from many of the experts in our sport, but the frustration is none of these people seem to action any of their statements. It is easier to stand behind a keyboard at times and just blurt opinions.

Whilst we listened and read, I think our main modus operandus and what I was driving my entire global team to do was to action and not complain. Push forward ideas with purpose, not necessarily aiming for perfection but fundamentally to thrive with the cards we all have been played and work towards getting back to what drives us at Super League Triathlon: passion for amazing racing.

We’ve been talking for years about bringing triathlon indoors. We’ve done some indoor races in Australia in the ‘90s, using velodromes and making it easier to broadcast triathlon, maximising spectators. These races were always very popular visually, and many event promoters have adopted our SLT formats and taken some of these races indoors prior to the pandemic happening. We were looking at a venue in Paris with a velodrome to install a temporary pool in for our 2020 season -- and then COVID happened.

From our experience working with Zwift in their cycling races as well as our own esports cycling league, a hurdle we had to jump was really establishing parameters for competition in esports racing. Getting on a wind trainer or on Zwift and riding on your own: is that sport, or is that just exercise? What transitions you from just physical activity and exercise to sport is competition. I define sport as an environment with rules that make for a fair platform for competition with your peers and with yourself. I love sport!

The feedback from Super League athletes was: “we’re dying to compete, but this isn’t triathlon. We’re triathletes doing cycling events on an Esport platform. It is fun and we thank you for it, but it is just one of the disciplines we do and not all of them.”

From our end as the league owners, we began to look at the government requirements of operation in a COVID world, how we could work between our established host cities and many of the cities we were in close connection with, and how we could move forward for the athletes. So basically: what can we do that has relevance to triathlon? How can we create that competitive ecosystem that will bring the best athletes in the world together to race with purpose, responsibility, and an attachment to outcome?

So we decided to move forward with the Arena Games, and instead of going to velodromes we’re going to swimming pools and stationary trainers and treadmills, creating a mix of Esport and real racing delivered in a unique and effective way for the online viewer, but has real relevance and demands for the athletes’ current physicality.

Esports is a completely different game to conventional racing. For instance, Lionel Sanders is a better esporter than he is an ironman athlete. Even though he has finished second in Kona, he’s a lot more successful at esport racing when you put his race winning percentages online against those he has in the real world (I mean that with the utmost respect to Lionel, who is an amazing athlete). With esports, you’re eliminating the things that limit Lionel -- handling and race strategy and aerodynamics -- and he’s just putting out big power.

Esport cycling and real cycling, whilst similar in action of pedaling, diverge when it comes to transferring these skills to the road. On the road, skill is a much larger component of the racing alongside aerodynamics and strategy. These things are less relevant in the virtual world. Power wins in esport racing and the ability to deliver that regardless of position or size is huge, especially in the cycling component.

Our athlete stars on both the men’s and women’s side of Super League Triathlon are not only the most gifted at swimming, biking and running from a physical perspective, but their handling skills and technique are also factors that put them on the top podium. Super League racing and our course and format designs were built for this very reason. It is what makes our racing the most difficult in the world to conquer.

But when you eliminate these sorts of skills and factors in an arena like the Arena Games, will the podium stars be the same, or is the game completely different altogether? Are our star athletes like Vincent Luis going to be as competitive and successful in the Arena Games as they are in the more conventional Super League races?

Then you have to have COVID-safe policies and procedures, so delivering events like we used to see with big finish lines and crowds -- that is gone. Those big mass starts, those days are done. By holding the Arena Games at a swimming pool, we realised we could bring in 30-50 people, meet all the standards that have been set to provide a safe racing environment, and focus on the broadcast and digital experience rather than the in-stadium audience.

What will make this different to watching the Zwift races (which are mainly avatar-driven with quick cuts across to an athlete’s pain cave) is we’re showing athletes where they actually have to transition off the bike or run into the swimming pool and vice versa. You’ve got this crossover between real and avatar.

Also, you’ve never been able to get this up close and personal with conventional triathlon and cycling. You can’t interview an athlete on an actual bike or run course because they’re going down the road too quickly. Now that they’re stationary you’re able to get up close, see their face, potentially talk to them, hear them suffering.

This format also brings in another element: athletes can rely on their coaches being around them. So does an athlete need to be watching what’s on the screen or is it a coach-driven race where the coach can say “Control your power/effort”? Now they don’t need to turn the corner or look up, they don’t need to do anything except follow the coach’s instructions or follow a plan that they’ve implemented.

The Arena Games is like our Hamilton Island race 3 1/2 years ago. It really feels the same. Those close to it see the value and the reasoning and the excitement about delivering competition again, yet still we have some doubters that are unsure of just what this will look like.

What I do find about triathlon is that many times we identify ourselves based on what we don’t like or what we think won’t work. But let’s flip that on its head and start talking about what we do like and what does work. We got that buy-in from our professional athletes. Every single one of them said I’m in, how do I get in, I want to race, whatever you say let’s do it even if it means wiping the slate clean of expectations and the traditional way of doing things.

How do we make a professional league in a relatively boutique sport work in a post-COVID world? What I’m hoping for is that Ironman and these disparate event companies will be a lot more receptive to a group of us coming together and having broader discussions for the benefit of the sport.

For the industry, you have to keep pushing forward. You either get busy with it and try to make change, or give up and just fold it all. And I’ve never been one to give up. I love what I do and love sports, and giving up on that would be like walking away from everything I love. It is just not going to happen.

The SLT Arena Games debut with the first event in Rotterdam on August 23. Stream live from superleaguetriathlon.com.

For the full podcast interview, head to mxendurance.com/podcast. Sign up for our MX Endurance podcast membership to gain access to exclusive monthly bonus podcasts with Chris McCormack, as well as a wide range of benefits for only $10/month.