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Vibes from Milwaukee
On-the-ground at a U.S. Open.
The craziest sports thing I saw this weekend (and I watched a lot of sports things this weekend) wasn’t at the PTO U.S. Open. It wasn’t Jan Frodeno or Taylor Knibb’s impressive wins, or the all-out sprints between Jason West & Kristian Blummenfelt or Lucy Byram & Holly Lawrence & Ellie Salthouse & Kat Matthews. It wasn’t even the bizarre (ugh!) penalty that ended up the U.S.-Sweden World Cup game.
The craziest sports thing I saw this weekend was at the Crossfit Games on Sunday afternoon. In the second-to-last event of the Games, the guy in second place came out with a small brace on his foot. He had fallen weirdly coming over a log in the morning’s event and now couldn’t put much weight on his foot. But he was in second place overall (which is basically the World Championships for Crossfit) and he didn’t want to just withdraw. Anyway, even if you’re last, even if you don’t finish the event under the time cap, you’re still in it if you get something on the board.
So, he proceeded to do as many jump rope double-unders as he could on one foot. For 15 minutes, he worked his way slowly through rounds of one-legged parallel bars/jump rope double-unders with a weighted rope/sled pull. All the other athletes finished, the stadium was screaming, and he was still just hopping through whatever he could get through.
Have you ever tried to do a double-under on two feet? Much less with a weighted rope? On one foot? It was maybe the craziest sports thing I’ve ever seen in-person.
Sure, of course it wasn’t necessarily a healthy thing to do. Sure, there are lots of inherent problems built into glorifying extremes. But, at the level of world champions, none of this is healthy, all of it is extreme. Sometimes it’s just about seeing what’s possible, about personifying the vibe.
Let’s talk about vibes.
I wanted to give you my fresh on-the-ground perspective from Milwaukee, what I saw and heard and felt. This is the first PTO race I’ve been to in-person—and I’ve been to Milwaukee for USAT Age-Group Nationals a couple of times before—so I thought here goes, I’ll really be able to say: Success or not a success? How many spectators? How much hype? How did it compare to others?
But now I’m even more unsure than I was before that it matters what I think. I’m not sure my list of specific examples or issues or things to improve matters. The PTO is going to do what the PTO does. It’ll succeed or it won’t. It almost certainly won’t be coming back to Milwaukee; it may not even look like this again. I don’t know. All I know is that big things are perpetually coming “next year.”
All of which is my preamble to: They say you should start constructive criticism with the positives, so:
The actual racing at PTO events is next level quality.
They get the best athletes. They match them up head-to-head. It’s a distance that’s short enough to still create drama and shake-ups. And the athletes absolutely deliver almost every time. It’s taken a little while to work our way to this (and I don’t think the Collins Cup should ever come back as a spectator product), but these Opens now tend to be good exciting world-class racing. All of these things are not necessarily easy to make happen behind-the-scenes. But the PTO’s managed to do it—mostly through sheer force of money, yet still no small task.
The PTO also made a decently smart move to connect their events to large amateur championship races that already exist. It creates a spectacle and a built-in fan base that cares deeply about triathlon. I think, to a degree, this one in Milwaukee worked better than the one at the World Triathlon Multisport World Champs in Ibiza (or even than the Challenge Champs in Samorin in the past), because there was no confusing other pro race also taking place. The U.S. Open race was the pro race. End of explanation. And the structure of USAT combining their National Championships into a multi-day event with youth, juniors, age-group racing, and a sprint allowed for a fully fleshed out calendar that the PTO could fit well into.
However. That structure added to complicated-ness and confusion—among staff, athletes, and many (many) spectators. That’s fine, if that’s something you’re ready to navigate. From an operational standpoint, the PTO and USAT were almost entirely distinct separate events (a known factor and part of the arrangement), but in some cases there was a noticeable lack of communication across vendors. And it’s not like the random person showing up knows that there are two sets of operations, so they don’t understand why some people in staff shirts don’t know what other people in staff shirts are doing. On-the-ground the PTO needed to have more schedules posted around the expo, more signs with course directions and clarity, more outreach locally in Milwaukee.
There also needed to be more communication and organization between the PTO and on-the-ground external media. Again, it’s fine if that’s not a priority and if the PTO has chosen not to focus on endemic external media (well, it’s probably not fine, but that’s a strategy-level discussion), but if they’re making that choice then they have to acknowledge that’s what’s happening. Fixing this is as simple as: 1. If you say there are media availability times listed for certain athletes and to come to a certain location at those times for interviews, then you need to also tell the athletes and not have them booked with other things. 2. Designate robust press areas at the start/finish/on-course that give media outlets the tiered access they need and then tell them where those areas are. 3. Have a press room. Simple things.
I get it, I do, the PTO is trying to revolutionize the sport and create a product that can rival mainstream sports, and that doing this requires an overhaul of how we think about triathlon. And, so, of course, we have to think bigger and wider and beyond nitpicky details and the PTO has to create their own content and generate interest out in the real world and so we must give them grace as they do this. I get that.
I’d argue the problem is they’re not doing this. What they’re doing is really the same thing everyone’s always done but with more money. Which, not to repeat the point, is fine, it’s just a choice.
You’re going to ask for examples here and for what I’m about to say in a second—and the danger is the very nature of making a list gives it an order and a structure. Yet, the thing about vibe is: it’s hard to create with a list.
And here was my fundamental takeaway from Milwaukee: Great racing. Fun location, OK course. (Not sure what everyone who was “surprised” by Milwaukee expected.) The best athletes. A solid number of spectators who were, genuinely, really there for the athletes; not just hanging out until their dad/wife/friend finished their race.
When you walk into somewhere you haven’t been before, how do you know if it’s your kind of thing or not? How do you know if it’s built for you? As a general rule, you probably get a feel based on who’s there, what it looks like, what kinds of signs are on the walls, what’s on the TV, who is doing the talking and what are they saying. Even down to the colors and the clothes and the slogans and the jokes. All those things go into you deciding how you feel about a gym or a concert or a bar, right? All those things go into you knowing whether or not this is for you.
Maybe, in Milwaukee, it was when the two dudes doing the pumping up on the event mic spent many many minutes explaining how “the PTO has an amazing position on equality.” (Their position is they’re in favor of equality, in case you were wondering.) Not only do they give equal prize money, the dudes said, but they also divide up the swag straight down the middle, 50-50 for the men and women. It was such an odd thing to call out on a mic that I couldn’t stop laughing for hours. (We give t-shirts to both the men AND the women!) Or maybe it was the constant talking about the men’s race during the women’s or so very obviously not knowing the female athletes. Maybe it was the way the women were discussed, the framing, this underlying feeling that seems to treat them as a ‘nice to have’, or that so many women off-the-record came up to me to ask wtf was with one of the dudes commentating and why did they keep talking about fiances and weddings in only the women’s race. Maybe it was the fact that there were just so many damn dudes everywhere. So many. And the same tri dudes who are already in everything.
Maybe it was all those things that created a vibe.
The PTO truly does have a great maternity policy. They actually do have amazing female athletes. But, as a general rule, talking about the boxes you’ve checked makes those people feel like boxes.
All of that is what it is. It’s not a vibe unique to the PTO. It’s not even unique to triathlon. It’s easy to explain why each individual thing is a thing, and it’s easy to explain why I’m wrong or too worried about half-the-population, and why ‘it’d be great if women’s racing was on the same level, but it’s just not and we have to get the eyeballs so it’s time for the Jan Cam,’ and then when everything’s better sometime in the future, then we’ll change the vibe. It’s easy to say I’m being too American and too female and too millennial for the PTO, but have you looked at what the fastest growing market is in sports viewership? Equal prize money is table stakes for that coming generation.
All of that is what it is—except that these are choices.
Sometimes it only becomes clear these are choices and not pre-determined when you stop making them, when you’re on the outside. Sometimes you can’t see the water you’re swimming in until you get out of it.
A pure coincidence of timing meant that on Sunday we made an hour drive from the U.S. Open to the final day of the Crossfit Games. I’m not a big Crossfitter. Every few years, I drop in at my local gym for a couple of months. So there’s no reason walking into a massive Crossfit Games grandstand should have felt like my vibe. And, in many ways, obviously it didn’t; there are a long list of things I don’t like about the Crossfit machine. (I will also probably never get into crop tops.) But, here there were women being loud and funny and bitchy on the mic; there were competitive adaptive athlete events and videos that told all kinds of stories without pandering; and there were female superstars. What is it that makes a vibe?
The PTO has an opportunity to create a vibe from scratch here, exciting and for everyone. They can make whatever choices they want. Why not make some new ones.