What Triathlon Can Learn From Augusta National

For as long as I can remember, the second weekend of April can only mean one thing — it’s time for the Masters Tournament. From Greg Norman’s ugly collapse on the second nine on Sunday, to Tiger Woods breakthrough, dominance, and return to glory, and now the impressive run of Scottie Scheffler, Augusta National Golf Club is where the best of the best in men’s professional golf rise to the occasion.

OK, Ryan, so what the hell does that have to do with triathlon? More than you’d probably think at first glance.

The men’s professional game has splintered. The PGA Tour is no longer the sole home of the best, with LIV Golf signing some of the brightest stars of the recent era to lucrative contracts — in no small part thanks to funding from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. It’s resulted in dysfunction, as LIV events do not earn critical Official World Golf Ranking points which determine eligibility for the four majors of the year — the Masters, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, and the Open Championship. Ratings for non-major championships are down significantly for the PGA Tour. And, well, LIV’s television viewing is laughably low.

Sound familiar? Because that’s where we are at in professional triathlon with IRONMAN and T100.

Yet, somehow, this year’s Masters Tournament featured the highest ratings in six years. Why is it that possible? For a variety of reasons — and they’re lessons we hope that the stewards of our sport can figure out.

History and Tradition Matter

There’s a reason why the four majors matter — they’ve been playing these tournaments for decades. History gives us context for performances. It provides color to specific moments, like Woods’ breaking the record for most consecutive cuts made this week.

For better or for worse, history in long-course triathlon is ultimately tied to IRONMAN. It’s why reaction was so forceful against the split of the IRONMAN World Championships into two venues (despite the fact that the race needed to be two days in order to provide fair racing for both men and women). When it comes to Kona, we have had nearly the same course since 1982. We know the landmarks; we know where passes have been made; we know the incredible set of names that have won that race and the importance of joining them.

The Importance of Deep Fields

The Masters, famously, is an invitational tournament. There are published criteria to earn your way into the field, such as finishing tied for twelfth or better in the prior year’s tournament, or earning a lifetime entry to the tournament with a victory.

But, as Chairman of Augusta National Fred Ridley made mention of during his annual press conference, the club knows that the fractured nature of the professional tours can wind up creating havoc with the published criteria; because LIV golfers can’t earn OWGR points at their events, they run the risk of falling out of the qualification cycle for the tournament. And that’s something that Augusta National will not stand for — sending out a special invitation to LIV’s Joaquin Niemann, who had won other international tournaments (and a LIV event) in the lead up to this year’s tournament, but was otherwise not included.

Having a deep field of contenders is critical to drawing interest. Eighty-eight players either qualified or were invited to this year’s tournament, with the top 50 and ties making the cut and playing the critical final two rounds on the weekend. Having more players in the field made for more compelling coverage; for example, Tommy Fleetwood’s charge up the leaderboard on Sunday to finish T3 after starting the final round six shots off the lead. Or Shane Lowry’s eagle two on the 14th hole on Saturday. Or even Jordan Spieth’s meltdown quadruple bogey 9 on the 15th to ensure he wouldn’t make the cut.

More players means more moments. Without deeper fields at the IRONMAN World Championships, for instance, we never would have had Chrissie Wellington breakthrough in Kona to begin her epic run of dominance. Twenty professional athletes does not make for the most compelling event possible. We lose most of the element of surprise that is critical to sports viewership.

Live Coverage That Makes Every Moment Important

If you really wanted to, you could watch almost 11 hours of continuous golf from Thursday to Sunday at the Masters. You could see every single shot of a single player’s round, if you so chose to, on the Masters app. Or you could stick with Featured Groups coverage. Or you could wait for the “normal” broadcast feed on ESPN / CBS Sports.

What makes it all work? You don’t miss something that is critical to the results. We watched the unraveling double bogeys of Max Homa, Ludvig Aberg, and Collin Morikawa, contrasted with the steady, relentless hand of Scheffler as he took grasp of the win. Every single shot that mattered was shown.

How many times have we lamented the live coverage in triathlon being overly focused on the front of the field, and not showing the jockeying for position on the bike or run that is critical to the end result? And even worse, those moves don’t even warrant a mention in the commentary? We only find out what is happening by endlessly scrolling through a results app, chasing timing splits, or hoping that someone in production has relayed information to a commentator. It’s maddening, especially given that both IRONMAN and T100 are trying to produce a better broadcast experience.

Reconciliation of the Pro Sport

The shock of the golf world last summer was the announcement of a framework agreement between the PGA Tour and the backers of LIV, the Public Investment Fund, to re-unify men’s professional golf. It would eventually see all of the best players being eligible to play all of the best events again, eliminating the schism that exists today and has reduced viewership numbers for almost all tournaments outside of the four majors.

Ultimately, it’s the same thing in triathlon today. We’re seeing athletes split across T100 and IRONMAN Pro Series events; some committing to exclusivity, others committing to try to somehow race enough to earn critical points (and paydays) across both series. That much racing is likely unsustainable over the long haul. And, more importantly, it’s splitting the existing pie of triathlon viewership. YouTube streaming numbers for both race producers are roughly equivalent to what they have been over the last few years — this despite the sizable investment from both organizations into the professional sport.

It may, in my opinion, make far more sense to have a single Pro Series. Given the history, that probably needs to be IRONMAN. Have the PTO run the rankings system to determine qualification for triathlon’s majors — the IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships, and perhaps somehow get Roth in there. Combine cash efforts to *really* benefit the professional field. And use each other’s expertise to create a finally compelling broadcast product.