Yesterday I went for a quick meander down to Rotterdam to check out the first major Super League Triathlon Arena Games event. Of course, unlike a typical Super League Triathlon Series event, there were virtually no spectators, no cheering crowds, and the non-watery parts were done entirely in Zwift. Oh, and it was broadcast to 30+ countries on regular TV live. How the world has changed.
In any event, super sprint type triathlons for pros are not new. You might remember 7 years ago when I went to watch a fully outdoor one in a Las Vegas Casino parking lot. These days though the Super League Triathlon entity conducts events in various locations around the world, with large purse prizes and elaborate hospitality setups onsite. The event is essentially spectator focused, with pro athletes competing in a round-robin repeating format: Swim, bike run, then reset into a different order of swim/bike/run, and then repeat a third time.
However, what makes this entirely different is that this time the bike and run are in Zwift, while the swim is in a 50m pool in front of them. While indoor triathlons are common for clubs in the winter, the organizational complexity here is substantially more difficult due to the challenges of the repeating sets as well as integration with Zwift – a platform definitely not suited to triathlon (more on how creative they have to get, later).
So in this post I want to dive into all the nuances of the behind the scenes aspects. If you want to watch the full broadcast, you can hit up their YouTube channel to see it here. However, if you want to see my entire behind the scenes video with all the nuggets in there, simply hit play below:
Ok, let’s get into the details.
The entire goal behind a super sprint triathlon is to make it TV-friendly. As such, an 8-10 hour long Ironman this is not. Instead, the whole thing wraps up in about 45 minutes, perfect to fit into an hour TV slot with commercials, or two hours for both men’s and women’s groups to compete.
As noted, the race is a triple sprint triathlon. Three sets of races, run back to back with a short 2 min 30 second break in between to get people into the right positions. Notice how the order of the event changes for the 2nd and 3rd stages:
Also, unlike a normal triathlon, the end-state winner is a blend of points and time. Each stage is absolutely time based, so the first person across the virtual running race finish line is the ‘winner’ for that stage, and awarded 10 points, 2nd person is 9 points, and so on.
However, for Stage 2, they all start ‘equal’ again, and then a second set of points are awarded based on that particular Stage. Rinse repeat again, and a winner is crowned.
Here’s where each segment is completed:
Swim – 200m: The 50-meter pool in front of them
Bike – 4km: Zwift Crit City Course (cycling)
Run – 1km: Zwift Crit City Course (running)
Now as mentioned, this is all about spectators, and one of the bigger challenges that Zwift has seen with their pro series races over the last year or two is making it easy for spectators watching Zwift avatars online to figure out which rider is which visually. Sure, you can put names above them – but the visual identity is just as important.
Super League solves that in probably one of the more interesting aspects in that each athlete is provided a tri suit that matches both real world and virtual. However, more importantly – with only 10 athletes, everyone is wearing a uniquely clear color. For example, Anne Haug from Germany in Blue, or Maya Kingma from the Netherlands in Orange.
And what about sponsors you ask? Well, the race will print sponsor names on the uniforms, and the athletes have until just 5 days prior to the race to get those to the organizer. It’s impressive to see the logistics of such to allow effectively last second entry into the event.
A couple of other randomly interesting things in the event:
– The facility included both a warm-up pool a swell as a dedicated area for warming up on treadmills and rollers
– Athletes are paid to be there (like many high profile races) and that includes accommodations
– The prize purse included $7,500 for the winner (each male and female)
Here’s the two warm-up areas:
Finally, from a COVID-19 standpoint, there were only a handful of spectators in the facility, most of which were actually athletes that had competed earlier in the day. All people in the building were required to wear masks at all times (except the athletes currently competing) – and the organization provided those masks to everyone entering. And all people had to remain spaced at 1.5 meters apart (the required distance in the Netherlands). The treadmills/trainers appeared to be a touch more than 2 meters apart from each other. Some federations required their athletes to also be tested for COVID-19.
Given various global travel restrictions, it meant that certain athletes from the US, Australia, and elsewhere weren’t able to attend. One Australian athlete (Natalie Van Coevorden) was already in Europe at the time, hence her ability to attend. Also of note was that some countries actually have exemptions for travel related to professional athletes with various requirements in place.
The seating area had placards on the vast majority of them dictating where you could and couldn’t sit, ensuring the spacing – and there were also staff that came around if they saw anyone getting too close to remind them to separate. And of course, no interaction with the pro athletes was allowed, and no yelling/screaming/cheering/etc (clapping was allowed). Even during the awards ceremony, medals were not placed on athlete’s necks, they were laid on a stand to pick up by each athlete and put on their own necks. All surfaces (iPads, Trainers, Mats, Treadmills) were also disinfected as well between any athlete changes.
Finally, I’d say that as one who lives in the Netherlands and gets to observe how various entities (businesses, schools, grocery stores, etc…) conduct themselves in relation to COVID-19 on a daily basis, this was *by far* the most well-run entity I’ve seen anywhere here with respect to COVID-19 rules and doing their best to make it work.
So, let’s talk tech. That’s what you’re likely here for anyway. To begin, we’ll state the obvious – the swim is in the water. Specifically, pool water. And more specifically, a 50-meter pool.
There was no tech in the pool, the athletes jumped in akin to a normal ITU triathlon (so, not on the blocks, just from a platform). The athletes completed their 200m swim, and then hit a button at the end of the lane to mark their swim and time as complete. The button wasn’t super important per se for the segments that didn’t end with a swim. However, it was more useful for the segment that ended with a swim to mark it as finished.
After they finished their swim they had to drop their swim gear in the box next to the platform. Else, they’d receive a penalty. In fact, anytime they didn’t place their gear in the box after that segment they’d receive a 5-second yellow card penalty.
With the swim done, they run over to their bikes on trainers. The event was partially sponsored by Tacx, and as such, they had Tacx NEO 2T trainers there.
And since Rotterdam was just a few minute drive from Leiden (home of Tacx), they also had Tacx staff on-hand acting as mechanics. They were swapping out cassettes as required to ensure compatibility with different drivetrains of athletes (for example an 11-speed cassette versus a 12-speed one).
The Tacx NEO 2T’s were then connected via Bluetooth Smart to an iPad on a tablet stand in front of them. The Super League staff noted that for them the big advantage of the NEO 2T trainers was there was zero calibration option, which meant they didn’t have to deal with/worry about differences or about people dorking with them.
Those connected iPad Pros were actually rented for this event, which turned out to cause some minor heart-ache when the vendor didn’t include the original power adapters with them, so they’d slowly drain their batteries during the event running Zwift constantly, rather than holding charge.
Thus the day before the event the organizers had to make a run to a nearby electronics store and buy a bunch of higher amperage wall plugs to ensure they didn’t power off mid-ride or run.
Also, pre-race there was mandatory controlled weigh-ins for all athletes, so that their in-game weights matched their real-world weights.
Now, the 4km long Zwift Crit City Course had double-draft enabled (just as the Virtual Tour de France did last month). However, what was potentially far more interesting is the logistics of setting up each bike and run. See, Zwift doesn’t have any sort of triathlon mode, nor any sort of ‘multi-stage’ race mode. So for the first Stage, when they arrived at the bike following the swim, the Zwift ‘Race’ had technically already started. It was simply that the bikes were in the starting corral waiting for them to start pedaling.
The same was true for the run. Those ‘races’ were basically started earlier. But wait – it gets even trickier. See, Zwift requires races to be pre-built and start at a specific time. So in this case, the first Zwift bike leg started at 13:06 – and that was fine, the athletes got there a couple of minutes later and started racing. The same for the first run.
However, for the 2nd stage bike and run, those events started at predefined times about 10 mins later. If however there was a delay at the event (perhaps due to a broadcast issue, or something in the facility) – then the entire event would have been hosed – because the riders/runners wouldn’t have been able to go back and compete across the three sets of races. Obviously, events like this are a one-off in the grand scheme of Zwift, and given this event was co-produced with Zwift, it’s likely they could have salvaged stuff, but a delay was described as “a nightmare” scenario specifically because of the stacked nature of the races.
Speaking of which, each athlete raced under unique profiles for this event. Two in fact. Each person had a runner profile created for them, and a rider profile created, thus allowing them to go back and forth between the different sports. Also, staff members then logged out and re-logged back in every athlete in between each stage leg, to join the next race setup. Another level of complexity that makes your head hurt – given they only had a couple of minutes to do this across 20 iPads.
Next, let’s talk the run.
The treadmills were self-powered Assault Fitness Air Runners. There was not a sponsorship for this part of the event (hence why they were blacked out). These were units they bought themselves and then had the enjoyment of assembling 14 treadmills on Thursday in Rotterdam (10 for the racing + 4 for warm-ups).
These curved treadmills are self-powered, which means that the runner must provide the power to get the platted belt up to speed. So the speed is controlled by the runner. It also means they tend to favor heavier athletes to overcome that initial resistance. Practicing running on this type of treadmill would be strongly recommended prior to racing an event such as this, especially with respect to getting it up to speed.
While this treadmill can provide speed directly to Zwift, the tech team there didn’t find it super accurate, so they instead used NPE Runn units at the front of each treadmill to capture the exact speed of the treadmill and broadcast it via Bluetooth and ANT+, which are then connected to iPad Pro units running Zwift via Bluetooth Smart. This provides pace and running cadence.
They found that, for the curved treadmill, using the standard calibration yielded more accurate results. The staff also noted that they took pains to ensure that even the NPE Runn stickers were placed in exactly the same spot on each and every treadmill to ensure consistency. They also noted that they even adjusted the rear of the treadmill to the exact same height, making the units level (versus sometimes being a bit more slanted).
All of the data from a race standpoint is driven purely by the iPad Pros in front of the athletes, going to Zwift just like any other person in their living room. There’s no ‘behind the scenes’ data capture. While they did have some Zwift to treadmill connectivity hiccups in the test events the days prior, they didn’t appear to have any while I was there for the women’s race yesterday.
I asked multiple people involved whether a wired trainer or treadmill connection would have helped here anywhere – and they answered a variant of ‘Meh, maybe…but probably not’. They noted that for them it would have been more useful to lock-out connection attempts beyond that specific iPad/Trainer (or treadmill) pairing. Meaning that with the Tacx trainers only accepting a single Bluetooth Smart connection, they did all the pairing ahead of time, but with having to log out and log back in to each iPad and Zwift pairing three times in a short span (for both ride and run), there was a chance that another iPad (or device elsewhere) could block that connection to the trainer/treadmill. In that case, the staff simply unplugged things and re-plugged them back in to reset the connections.
And again – just like with the cycling side, you can see a treadmill here waiting for the next Zwift ‘Race’ to start, even though the actual sprint triathlon is going on around the arena as I took this photo:
By and large though, what you saw in this broadcast was actually fairly close to what you can set up at home. There was no real major or special sauce setup here from a Zwift standpoint. It’s all pretty straightforward.
As noted earlier, the event is really about the broadcast – and in non-COVID times, about the spectator angle of it. Hence why it’s broadcast in more than 30 countries live (actually, it’s more like 100+ countries since SuperSport covers the continent of Africa, and the Olympic channel covers all of the EU, etc…). That’s all in addition to watching it on Super League’s site, Facebook, and YouTube.
Of course, like everything else with this event – there was no easy button. And that was made even more complex with new UK travel restrictions a week ago, requiring 14-day quarantine coming from certain EU countries. Here, let me explain:
In Arena Camera Work: Rotterdam – where a local TV production crew did camera work
Zwift Game Feed: Edinburgh – This is where Zwift does all their broadcast work (I detail that here)
Production Director: London – This is where they decide which camera/video/etc is used, live
Commentators: Sydney – This is where Macca was commentating live
Graphics (live): Singapore – The graphics are generated with timing overlays and race textual graphics
Originally the plan was that the TV production crew from London would come over and produce the event in live TV trucks outside the venue, just as it’s done for most sporting events like football, baseball, etc… Standard issue stuff. But with the new quarantine rules coming back into the UK, that meant the production crew stayed in London instead (though, the Super League Triathlon staff did travel to Rotterdam and will have to quarantine upon return).
However, the camera crews were local in the Netherlands. They started setup of the trucks and all their cabling on Friday, and then transitioned to doing test runs with age group athletes into Saturday. So while that was never broadcast anywhere, they basically used those days and 5 series of races to perfect what the broadcast would look like for the pros on Sunday.
They then coordinated with a local crew that was controlling the big screen in the arena as for what to show, which was mostly the broadcast feed being showed. He sat in his own little room controlling that.
The organizers stated they were “exceedingly happy” with how things came together despite this being the first time doing this sort of event. They said the practice sessions helped, and in watching the finished broadcast back today, things seemed relatively smooth. Some minor hiccups, and some realities of having commentators on literally the other side of the world in terms of delays – but given everything…impressive.
The Business Model:
So it’s about this point you’re probably asking yourself: How on earth is this at all financially viable?
And that’s pretty much the same question I had when I first walked in the door. Putting on an event like this isn’t cheap. Be it renting out the facility, to buying all that black carpet you see to cover the entire pool deck (or all the signage), to buying all brand new treadmills, to hiring three broadcast trucks for 3-4 days, plus flying in athletes, paying for hotels, etc…
To quote one individual with the organization, “the event will lose a reasonable amount of money”, however, they see it as an investment for a longer-term business. Just the same way Zwift loses a reasonable amount of money each month – it’s seen as a gateway to eventually turning a profit, today dependent on investor backing.
In the case of the SLT Arena Games, as well as the general Super League Triathlon series, the main goal is spectator sport then participant sport. The revenue primarily comes from host city fees, sponsorships (such as the Tacx one you saw), and corporate hospitality presences/packages. Those corporate packages are basically where entities pay for a complete experience in-person at these events, just like you see at the Tour de France or Australian Open, or any big sporting event. A company comes in, buys a race-side fancy tent for their employees or guests, and get wined and dined for the day watching racing. Pretty common stuff in sports.
They do see some broadcaster fees (where broadcaster pays Super League Triathlon to broadcast the event), but noted that’s a pretty minor element financially. As anyone involved in triathlon knows, there’s not a lot of money in triathlon. Cycling this is not. And football this is definitely not.
While age groupers did get to enjoy being guinea pigs in the day or so prior to the pro events, the Super League folks say that from a business standpoint it’s simply “not scalable” to do this sort of production for age groupers as a participation event. You just can’t run enough people through it to realistically cover your costs. That’s why most indoor triathlons you see are usually team events where turning a profit isn’t required. Also, they tend to have crazy long days, taking advantage of team volunteers to get everyone though (and most of them tend to place the run outside). Though, they are a blast, and I’ve participated in many of them over the years.
And, I think there’s also an opportunity there for Zwift to make some minor tweaks to how races are organized to potentially make those sorts of events viable for clubs on Zwift.
Ultimately, the future of Super League Triathlon indoors (or outdoors) will depend on whether they can keep the race interesting to watch. And, as I write this I’m watching both the men’s and women’s events from yesterday – and I can say that by far for an indoor venue race, it’s a much better watch on the TV broadcast than in person. Whereas I suspect for an outdoor event it’d be more fun in person.
Overall I’m pretty impressed with how this event came together, both logistically as well as in the final broadcast version. To people watching at home (or me, at my desk right now), you’d never had realized all the craziness behind the scenes to make something like this physically work from a race standpoint. All the people splattered around the world managed to make it quite cohesive given the circumstances, and I’d love to see how they can plug the handful of tiny gaps seen down the road in a 2nd or 5th edition.
While I’m not sure there’s a viable business reason for Zwift to do so, I’d love to see them be able to make it slightly more cohesive for this sort of event to occur in-game. For example, none of the 20 pro athletes ‘got credit’ for this in their Zwift profiles, because the logistics of putting on these events made it impossible for each athlete to use their own profiles in two places at once (run and bike). But implementing something like this would also be fascinating for regular triathletes as well. To be able to create a combined bike/run workout for example (or bike/run race) – that’d be cool for those athletes that do have treadmills at home. But again, I’m not sure there’s a viable business justification for doing so.
I do think though this sort of event shows how smooth the behind the scenes production/broadcast aspects of Zwift have become. As I showed in my Tour de France bits, this sort of event is mostly a shruggable event for them in terms of complexity. They’ve got people who put on these races day in and day out, and each month we tend to see slight increases in the overall production value. I do still think though the rendering quality of the bike/run pieces from a bitrate standpoint leaves some to be desired.
Still – as I finish up watching the men on the broadcast replay in the background, I continue to be impressed with how engaging this is, probably because of the fact that these athletes are actually together in a single place – which seems to add something (somehow) to the overall realism aspect.
With that – thanks for reading!