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Ironman to Offer Enhanced Coverage of Major Races

At the end of January Ironman has announced that they want to improve the online coverage of their major races. Here’s a more detailed look at some of the questions around this issue. (Thanks to Joe Skipper for providing additional information.)

Races to be Covered

According to the press release Ironman wants to cover the Ironman World Championships (Kona), 70.3 World Championships (this year in Zell am See, Austria) and the five regional Championships (Melbourne, South Africa, Texas, Brasil and Frankfurt).

The first race that will benefit from this enhanced coverage will be Ironman Melbourne on March 22nd. It is not clear if there will also be enhanced coverage for IM South Africa – it is also a Regional Championship but just one week after Melbourne, so there may not be enough time to learn from the „beta test“ (Ironman’s words) in Melbourne.

Improved Ironman Live

For the races indicated above, Ironman will produce “a hosted online show with extensive, in-depth coverage of the professional race“. My expectation is that this will be a similar setup to the coverage that we have seen from Kona – mainly a couple of commentators in a „studio” with live pictures from the course and some additional commentary. However, it is very good to hear that Ironman has learned from the mistake of the non-coverage of 70.3 Championships in Mont Tremblant.

GPS Tracking

The main change to the coverage will be that every Pro athlete will be required to wear a GPS tracking device on the bike and run. The GPS data will feed into a new athlete tracking platform (dubbed Ironfan). Athletes can also opt into transferring additional biometric data such as HR or power.

This data will be very interesting (can I have a live feed, please?) but I’m somewhat skeptical about the value this will bring for following the race:

  • I don’t think too many athletes will be open to provide important data to their competitors.
  • The current Athlete Tracker had major functional and stability problems. It will be a huge ask for the new platform to work better, more stable and with a much larger amount of data.
  • Ironman has not been very good in using their data. For example, they have failed to provide really useful leaderboards. I’m not very optimistic that they will do better with the GPS data: They said that they will show this data “in an intuitive, map-driven design“. While that is certainly a cool way to look at it, distance between athletes has so far been expressed in time rather than shown on a map.

GPS Devices

In order to provide the GPS data, all athletes will have to carry a device supplied by Ironman. The size of the device may be a bit of a surprise to athletes, expecting something like a timing chip. In fact, the device is only slightly smaller than an iPhone 5, about the same weight but about three times as thick:

Tracking Device

As far as I can tell, the size of the device makes sense: It is basically a complete smart phone with a GPS chip, a cell phone to transfer the data and a large battery.

To help athletes carry the device, Ironman will provide „specifically-designed pouches“. However, athletes can have their own race belt to carry the device. In addition, some athletes (for example Martin Jensen) have indicated that they are working with their clothing sponsor to integrate a carrying pocket into their race suit, similar to the pitches for radios that the cycling Pros have in their clothing.

At first, carrying the unit will be new, and there will be some grumbling from those athletes that haven’t prepared in time for them. But over time, I expect these issues to go away, especially when technology advances will make the units smaller.

For now, the GPS tracking will be limited to Pros in major races, but Andrew Messick said that they hope to „expand .. to all races and to age-group athletes in the future“.

My Assessment

In general, the introduction of GPS tracking and the enhanced race coverage has the potential to be a very good move by Ironman, one that can make following races online much more interesting and help Pros to raise their profile. It would be great to be able to follow races online at a level comparable or even better than what the ITU and Challenge have been doing.

I hope that Ironman will be able to deliver on this potential and I’m willing to give them some time to get things right. But too often, Ironman efforts have been half-hearted and ultimately disappointing. I’ll be anxiously watching for Ironman to get things right this time!

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