Modern pentathlon goes digital
Pentathlon's new mobile game and streaming service, French football broadcast dealings and F1 held hostage
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Modern pentathlon goes digital
I’ve been on the modern pentathlon beat for a few months now. The world is changing rapidly in innumerable ways and sports are scrambling to keep up while trying to balance their natural disposition towards maintaining tradition.
Following the antics of Saint Boy at Tokyo 2020 and a desperate need to have some sort of relevance if the sport is to regain its place at the 2028 Olympics, modern pentathlon is a rare and instructive example of a highly conservative and very small sport being forced to respond to these changes extremely quickly. This is why I’m keeping an eye on it.
The governing body, the UIPM, has been pushing through a constant stream of reforms over the last two decades, which will culminate in the elimination of horse riding from the sport to be replaced by an unknown fifth discipline (likely some sort of Ninja Warrior/obstacle racing if you can believe it).
It is somewhat incongruous, but entirely within the times, to imagine the UIPM needing to have a digital strategy to keep alive Pierre de Courbetin’s dream of the modern pentathlon1. I have no idea where the money is coming from to do anything of this, but let’s look at how the UIPM is going.
Spoiler alert: I don’t think this going to save the sport in its current execution but I guess it’s a start.
The UIPM has released a mobile game which is to meant to simulate the fun and excitement of the laser run, the cross country/laser gun biathlon that concludes the pentathlon.
I downloaded it and the app absolutely refused to open on my phone, which was not an inspiring start. A few days later there was an update for “minor fixes” and I was able to actually get the thing going.
Being a middle aged dad, I don’t have the energy to play modern video games which seem entirely tooled to 15 year olds that have sugar-sharpened reflexes and infinite time2. With that in mind, I don’t have a good grasp of where Games Are At but the UIPM’s E-Laser Run does not require that. I won’t go into reams of detail, because you’re free to download and play it for yourself, but it’s clear that there’s not enough people playing it so any online action is inevitably against computer opponents, all of which suck. I won on my second attempt. The shooting mechanic is fine but the running gets tedious very quickly. Perhaps against humans, the battle for power ups and the optimisation of running lines would be more important, but against the computers, you can just do whatever if your two rounds of shooting are in any way reasonable. The game offers no real challenge.
At the time of writing, the app had “100+ downloads” on Google Play, which gives the whole thing the vibe of a kid who organised a birthday party and no one came3. At the same time, the UIPM can’t seriously expect this to have any cut through in its current form. The app is too cheaply made, too buggy4, looks like its been set in The Sims circa 2000 and is of a sport too obscure for the Olympics. Who's going to promote it, other than maybe those weird mobile game ads you get when you use free apps?
Unless this is the first step of continual development, perhaps ending with enough of a talent pool large enough to hold e-Laser Run as a standalone event, this game is surely a box ticking exercise that the IOC has set for the UIPM.
The UIPM put out a tender for a new broadcast partner at the end of last year and this is the result. UIPM.tv is the UIPM’s updated streaming platform and €16 a year5 gets you access to the three World Cup events scheduled this year, whatever world championships the UIPM happens to end up running for biathle (swim/run but different to the ITU aquathlon - somehow), triathle (swim/laser run6) and modern pentathlon (show jumping7/fencing/swimming/laser run) and a back catalogue to 2019.
The UIPM has been endlessly referencing its Exciting New Format, which reduces what was once a five day event, then condensed into a single day, and now condensed into nominally an hour and a half (the finals from Cairo run for a bit under two and a half hours each), as well as trying to keep all events within a single stadium for convenience’s sake. This is the first time we’ve seen it in action and it is, if nothing else, a constant stream of action, like a smorgasbord of Olympic events8.
The shortened format allows for the event to be run multiple times in a week to reduce the field down from sixty or so athletes in the qualification rounds, to 36 for the two semi-finals and then 18 in the final, which introduces a level of jeopardy that didn’t previously exist. It also means that athletes are required to do the couple of minutes of fencing (individual bouts in the bonus round are decided by single touches and don’t last more than 30 seconds), two to three minutes of swimming and nine to ten minutes of laser run multiple times, reducing the risk that someone could fluke their way through fifteen minutes of athletic activity to a gold medal. It’s worth noting that the qualification and semi-final rounds are run as tetrathlons, with the horses absent from proceedings.
The changes notionally make for a more spectator and broadcaster friendly sport. The event can be run in a two hour-ish window with plenty of space for ads while the athletes transition between disciplines. Of course, ads need an audience and there isn’t one, so there are no ads. I feel a tiny bit for the commentators who have to vamp through this but I guess if the UIPM strategy pays off, then there will be sponsors at some point to give them a break.
The new format and the streaming presentation achieves its stated goals but I still don’t find it particularly compelling. I didn’t watch the mixed relay and I don’t know if I am sufficiently interested to clear time to watch the next two World Cup rounds but maybe I will, just to see if things improve. It does reinforce my impression that, were equestrian to be removed, this would be much more fun to participate in than it would be to watch. Seems like it’d be the perfect college sport.
To air specific complaints, the graphics from the Cairo event were non functional for the women and marginally better for the men. The commentary got out of sync during the women’s laser run and the men’s fencing, which ruined the subsequent disciplines. The commentators are clearly remote from the event, which matters when the director is not focussing on the most interesting part of the race. The sign-up process does not give you a lot of confidence that you’re not being scammed. The links on the front page doesn’t take you to a stream but to the 2021 catalogue for some reason.
UIPM.tv fits somewhere on the spectrum of broadcast spectacle between SEC softball and third grade park footy, and is likely to drive just as much revenue for the UIPM.
The grace, the beauty of sports
You can feel the panic as the graphics guys try to work out not only who’s about to fence, but how long a bout is (it’s on the clock behind).
Anyway, that one sucked so here's a bonus one.
CVC et Amazon entrent le marché pour le foot
Some background reading from 2020:
For now, the LFP and French clubs are surviving due to a pair of government-backed bank loans. The first was taken following the Covid-19 crisis and the second when Mediapro missed their payment in October. Canal Plus are now negotiating to take over the rights, but they intend to offer a sum below €700m per season – less than they paid before the arrival of Mediapro.
And then in 2021:
Internet giant Amazon has secured the lion’s share of the domestic broadcast rights to French soccer’s Ligue 1 for the three seasons from 2021/22 until 2023/24’…
‘After the failure of the choice of Mediapro in 2018, Canal + regrets the decision of the Ligue de Football Professionnel to retain Amazon's proposal to the detriment of that of its historic partners Canal+ and BeIN Sports,’ the company said in a statement.
‘Canal+ will therefore not broadcast Ligue 1.’
Pretty cool that everything, and I mean everything, not just French soccer broadcasting rights, is being handed over to Amazon and venture capital!
CVC already has a stake in La Liga (Spain) and now Ligue 1 (France) with discussions around a similar investment in Serie A (Italy) and a hard nein from the Bundesliga (Germany). I gather that the motivation, to put it very simply, is that money now is better than money later and a lot of these clubs and leagues are struggling to deal with a covid-led collapse in revenues and the transfer market.
The knock-on impact being that Italy, Spain and France were already behind England in terms of raw commercial power and they don’t have the funds to be closing the gap if they’re just focussed on year-to-year survival. But the EPL seems to be growing faster than the rest of Europe’s “Big Five” (which is really a colossus EPL standing alone with a very large four in the next tier down), so while there is a mini-boom in broadcasting rights, especially for some European soccer in the US, the EPL will still pull away while these deals borrow against the future and hope the bill never comes due. The long term outcome will likely be the same winner-takes-all effect we see very often in other spheres: the money, talent and interest will accelerate towards the EPL, with each reinforcing each other’s flow, at the expense of everything else.
In the short term, if all of the clubs in France and Spain and maybe Italy get an injection of cash, that’s just going to turn into a big inflationary pulse in the labour market, so while German clubs can reject CVC involvement, they aren’t necessarily insulated against the impacts. Some sort of central regulation from the leagues would help here but that is not the way these things are done so live by the sword, die by the sword.
Of course, things can change and extrapolating a line on a chart over the next thirty to fifty years isn’t that smart but if a once in a century pandemic was only a bump in the road for this trend, you really have to wonder what it would take to really derail it. Perhaps some sort of European Super League?
Very normal things
My audience for this newsletter and my rugby league site are slowly diverging, which is a good thing, but it will mean more cross-pollinating links between the two. This week is about the relationships and future of NRLW, State Cup, Phil Gould and The Game, which if any of that made any sense to you, you should probably read it.
As a bonus to you, dear SSWOS reader, what I didn’t include - because it would have ruined the rhetorical flow - was a digression about how trends of the 2010s were about moving away from homogenisation and towards fracturing, atomisation and catering for niche interests. Because it’s reflective of an even earlier writing project of mine at Drunken Speculation, which is still standing after the last post was written in 2015, I think the emergence of craft beer exemplifies this idea9.
Prior to circa 2010 in Australia, industrial beer, brewed by big corporations in enormous factories at huge scale, was the norm and more or less the only available product. The product was made deliberately bland in order to have the best chance of pleasing the widest number of people in order to sell the volumes required at the relatively skinny margins that fierce competition with largely fungible products has forced big brewers to operate on. Since then, the market for beer has diversifed and the number of breweries and brewing brands - big and small - has exploded with a corresponding explosion in the types of beer. A subset of drinkers responded extremely positively and it became a feedback loop, creating a cottage industry. Irrespective of whether you like craft beer, most people will agree that having more consumer choices is better than not.
So it’s interesting to see the NRL and the AFL try to homogenise their product around the brands at the top of their respective sports. A subset of consumers have rejected top-down corporate homogenised products in some areas, which would suggest the market has an upper limit on what its willing to accept. Of course, the craft beer analogy is limited by an inability to define it, big brewers buy-outs undermining what definition does exist and a centreing on white cishet men leading to discrimination throughout the industry and leaking into ordinary hospitality operations, all of which might also be relevant to consider. In contrast, sports media is as beholden to the top end of town as the Wall Street Journal, which prevents the proliferation of alternative viewpoints, which is a complicating factor for this metaphor.
Still I think there’s something there but it may take a while to ferment to fruition.
A BBC report stated that the F1 teams had been implicitly threatened with not being able to leave if the race didn't go ahead. The race went ahead and so we didn't get to see if the threat was legitimate, but it does illustrate the other side of sportswashing. I don't know if these soft western sports understand the kind of people they're dealing with. The Saudis don't have a reputation for resolving things in court.
The WWE faced a similar problem in 2019 after an alleged dispute over payments led to the Saudi broadcast being pulled, which would have turned up in any due diligence F1 cared to have done with the Saudis. Oh well.
The International Swimming League has canned its 2022 season due to the war in Ukraine. The main backer for the competition is a Ukrainian-Russian businessman, whose main assets seem to be electrical infrastructure in Ukraine, so I guess this is not surprising. In a letter to ISL athletes, the ISL said:
Facing this situation, and given that most of the IL’s financing originates from Ukraine, we cannot in good faith commit to hosting any commercial matches in 2022. As such, we have made the difficult decision to postpone Season 4 to 2023.
Importantly, our first obligation remains to yourselves. This decision has been made because we recognise that we cannot ask you to travel, train and compete on a promise alone. Rather, we must settle all of the ISL’s outstanding payments to each of you before we can push forward to another Season.
In the meantime, the League will use this period to reflect, and adjust our plans moving forward.
It remains to be seen if the ISL will return. I suppose it depends on how hard the war hits Grigorishin’s pocket and how long it lasts. The ISL’s creation caused a stoush with governing body FINA in 2019 before being allowed to proceed and athletes are still owed money from previous seasons, so it remains to be seen if they'll get that. It probably deserves a Splinters post, to be honest.
Staines Town FC, now the official Football Club of SSWOS
FA Cup Factfile @FACupFactfile@Ollie_Bayliss Here is the statement in full @SSMLFixtures https://t.co/kZp61o6DSm
Now, obviously, they should have refused to deal with such an organisation in the first instance or at least once they found out the shadiness involved. Instead, the club sat on this information and ate shit for it. Now it’s come to light, they’re telling tales but, presumably, had this not happened, they’d still be in bed with Downing. But even so, this statement is so much better than what we usually see, I’m willing to overlook all of that.
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Perhaps the biggest misnomer in sport.
Trying to get good at games would also take away precious time from scrolling Twitter.
Even though this never happened to me, it is somehow one of my greatest fears and a direct kick to the feelings just thinking about it.
Some examples of both bugs and weird design choices: the stats don’t count wins and losses properly, the results don't display properly at the end of the race while your avatar just floats underneath the screen, you can supposedly download alternative courses but this didn’t seem to want to work for me, you can purchase different avatars that all have the same speed but varying stamina, you can purchase emoji and messages from the store but I have no idea when you could use these, not least because there are no other humans playing the game. In the final game I played, I managed to run through the boundary of the course at full speed and the game had no idea what to do about it when I finished but it assumed I hadn't.
About AU$22, a price I am more than willing to pay to watch a sport I don’t care about for you, dear reader. These are the sacrifices I make for this stupid newsletter.
The laser run, a land based biathlon, counts as two disciplines even though its one event.
I really fucking hate watching show jumping. Fun fact: if you fall off, you get eliminated from the entire competition.
Would the pentathlon be better if it was a random selection of any five Olympic sports? Patent pending.
Especially given the demographic I strongly believe this newsletter has.