Super League CEO Michael D’hulst On The Future Of Triathlon

COLUMN

The triathlon industry has some big questions to answer in the wake of COVID-19 and we could see a huge change to the landscape of the sport we all love.

When I look at the industry as a whole I have two immediate thoughts.

The first is around what impact this will have on the traditional mass participation model, both in terms of the costs and practicalities of organising races and, once racing resumes, the willingness of people to take part in the big events.

From a race organiser’s perspective there is so much to think of – do they have to provide PPE equipment to all volunteers, how do they manage aid stations, starts, race courses, bike racks etc, and how does that reflect in costs and what athletes will be asked to pay?

The other side of this dilemma lies with the participants and whether they are still willing to sign up in their droves for the big events where there are many thousands of people or will they choose a local triathlon with smaller fields?

The second, which we in Super League are very focussed on, is for the professionals and whether the global travelling circus that has been the bedrock of short course racing will be able to simply just resume given what is likely to be a long lasting impact on how we travel.

It is probably stating the obvious to say the impact of COVID-19 on the triathlon industry is severe.

At Super League the short term impact has been having to postpone our Qualifier events and big plans for post-Olympic expansion, but we are actually lucky it happened at this phase of the business where we are not solely reliant on revenue.

As for the long term impact, of course all of us are having to wait and see how the world looks in the future, but every business is planning for the possibilities of what could happen in the ‘new normal’.

For us, the professional element of short course triathlon is very similar to Formula 1. It’s a global circus that travels all over the world, but I believe this concept is now being challenged.

That then leads to thoughts of where the tipping point will be post COVID-19 in terms of a regional focus versus a truly global set-up.

Indeed, I am asking myself whether our previous aim for a major global championship series will be feasible or, instead, if we will need to look to regional events to feed into an international showdown race.

You can already see many countries are supporting their homegrown industries, both as governments and in the general population. Anything homegrown is the first recovery process of the crisis.

To amplify that, travel is likely to become more complicated.

We are already seeing in other sports that national leagues can bounce back relatively quickly and so all arguments indicate a change in the tipping point.

These are all considerations for Super League as we focus on a ‘new normal’ after working through the first two steps of a three point plan:

  1. Prepare. Cut fixed costs and ensure that we are prepared for whatever comes next
  2. Sustain. Decide to either cut everything back and hibernate or implement an MVP while staying true to our brand
  3. Adapt. Prepare for the ‘new normal’ and plan and implement a new strategy

None of this is easy, and it involves some painful decisions and frank discussions.

On the second point, we positively decided to stay relevant rather than hibernate as we see an opportunity to innovate and speak directly with the triathletes themselves and keep them engaged considering they might race less, train more, compete in a virtual world.

Frankly speaking, what we are doing at Super League now is to remain relevant.

Virtual racing, which we will be doing more of in the very near future, is not something that will necessarily have a positive impact on the business model, but it is an exercise to be visible, to make some noise, entertain our fans and help our brilliant athletes stay in the spotlight.

Moving to step three, to adapt, I think there is an opportunity for us at Super League because we are not mass participation.

People may well become more fans of triathlon rather than just participants as they train and race largely by themselves and engage with the sport as a supporter and virtually.

On working from home…

I have traditionally always been a firm believer in an office.

When starting Super League we considered being completely decentralised, but I always felt we needed an office. As a start up, I believe sitting together, having that constant, quick interaction and a boiler room feeling is where great ideas come from.

But now with social distancing and working from home I must say I have been happily surprised with how well we have dealt with being away from the office for three months now.

I am asking myself similar questions as I imagine many CEOs. For any start-up business who has to be conscious of their fixed costs is there an argument for being more flexible? Do we rotate and have marketing in the office on Monday, operations on Tuesday, the whole team together on Wednesday or similar?

Working from home has been enjoyable, and also much more productive than I imagined.

Personally it is also a challenge with three young kids but I think most people are very understanding.

The first few times they walked in and made a distraction while I was on a Zoom I felt a bit self-conscious and apologetic but then you relax and realise most people are grappling with the challenges of being at home. It is at the stage where you introduce the kids if they walk in, they can say hi, meet the team and the background noise is a nice distraction from the serious business rather than anything to worry about.

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