Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: Examining the Global Champion League’s Bold Debut

Global Champions League

“At the end of the day it’s just horses jumping sticks.”

That offhand comment from one of my colleagues stuck with me throughout the day on Sunday. Indeed, the event was just horses jumping sticks, in the same way that tennis is just a fuzzy green ball and a net; as Formula One is just cars going round a circle.

But tennis, car racing, and so many other sports have solved the puzzle of global attention in ways that show jumping hasn’t. Not yet at least. As I watched the brand new Global Champions League unfold in Miami Beach, Florida on Sunday, it was indeed horses jumping sticks. However, this version, wrapped as it was in a new, bright and alluring package did feel like several big puzzle pieces falling into place.

The Global Champions League has been trying to get off the ground for two years. Organizers of the internationally successful Global Champions Tour dreamt up the idea of a league, with team players and rankings, athlete trades and strategy, as a way to engage new fans into the sport.

But when they went to get their idea internationally sanctioned, strife with the Federation Equestre Internationale, the world’s governing body of equestrian sports, held up the formation of the GCL while the two sides battled it out. Late last year, the world’s highest court of sports authority, the Belgian Competition Authority, stepped in and ruled in favor of the GCL, and the game was on. (For a more thorough explanation of the conflict that delayed the GCL, see “The Great GCL Debate: Decoding the LGCT and FEI’s Epic Tug of War for the Global Champions League”).

Bold, bright colors identify the different teams.
Bold, bright colors identify the different teams.

So when dawn broke on Sunday morning and GCT staff began adding Global Champions League banners around the ring and over the ingate arch, it wasn’t without a sense of “finally.” Horses came to the ring outfitted in saddle pad and ear bonnet logo wear that coordinated with their riders’ professional jersey shirts, custom stitched with last names across the shoulders. Flashy names for the 12 GCL teams each reflect the city of a LGCT stage (Monaco Aces, Vienna Eagles, and so on, with team logos reflecting each city.) Grooms and managers were given their own jerseys too, and team members who weren’t riding donned their jerseys and came to support the effort. Team lines were crystal clear, right from the get go.

As this media outlet was fairly vocal when HITS Thermal gave their riders an assortment of polo shirts to wear in a grand prix a few weeks ago, it’s fair to note here that the GCL’s version of modern riding apparel stood in stark contrast to that effort out in California. Firstly, the GCL was not a grand prix, and second, it could not have been more apparent that extraordinary attention to detail had been dedicated to the visual look and feel of the League.

And it worked. These jerseys were anything but random. Matching (not to mention professional, stylish) outfits are the first step to establishing identity and comradeship. Next up would be the actual competition, where everyone would be looking for just how this was going to be different from another day at the show.

Each team consisted of five riders, including one under 25 rider per team. But only two riders compete at each GCL stage, of which there are 15. Team managers are said to choose which rider gets to compete where, but no matter who chooses, each team’s own “short list” opens the door for flexibility in who competes where and when throughout the season. I’m still hoping for open drafts or public rider trades between teams to come into play, but as GCL co-founder Frank McCourt noted, the team selection process was very organic this year. Selection formats will become a factor at later dates, as demand to participate increases.

There’s good financial reason that demand will increase; over $3 million dollars in prize money is up for grabs during the GCL season, with each stage worth a purse of 200,000. Team owners, not all of whom want to be publicly identified (although if the league does go the way of mainstream sports, that will change quickly), paid a rumored 2 million for ownership rights.

Ben Maher and Aristo Z enter the arena as their introduction plays on the jumbotron.
Ben Maher and Aristo Z enter the arena as their introduction plays on the jumbotron.

As each rider rode through the ingate, a flashy introduction reminiscent of the production when a baseball player steps up to home plate played on the arena jumbotron and over the speakers, and for me, it was a fantastic addition to your ordinary class.

As was the commentary and visual scoring for the two-round, 1.50m/1.55m competition that proceeded. This essential factor, which was noticeably absent when the LGCT held a test event last August in Holland, has been solved and solved well with a vertical list of live rankings that showed spectators where each team was placing at that moment. Jumping faults and then combined times were used to establish placings, so that even if a rider had a rail, they could improve their placing with a quick time.

The scoreboard left no mystery as to who was winning and losing, and into the second round, when rankings became a small degree harder to follow, eyes shifted constantly from the rider to the scoreboard to see if an effort had been enough.

However, when I stopped several spectators, both riders and non-riders alike who were watching from the stands and asked them what they thought of this new format, I mostly got blank stares in return. The two scoreboards were really only legible from the VIP and the riders areas, not the general grandstand. The commentator was easy to tune out. It was clear that for the flashy scoreboard to actually reach its intended audience –the general public– the jumbotron will have to be larger, the commentators louder, and the explanation dumbed down, a lot.

Go here to find out how Bertram Allen and John Whitaker won the first stage of the Global Champions League.

This concept still has a long way to go, as anything new and different needs time to mature and establish itself. And it remains to be seen just what the FEI’s next move will be, as last December they had no intention of letting their objections to international riders competing in an unsanctioned event slide to the wayside. But as the FEI said itself at its annual Sports Forum early last week, show jumping must innovate to stay relevant. Well, here you have it, innovation in sport, front and center. Hard work from the organizing team made this dream finally come to reality, and teamwork among the riders will paint the picture of the league’s success this year.

The participating GCL teams at Miami Beach. Ph. Stefano Grasso/GCL
The participating GCL teams at Miami Beach. Ph. Stefano Grasso/GCL

There’s no greater skeptic than an austere member of the media, but right out of the gate, the GCL earned my support. I know that as the next 14 GCL stages unfold (the next one is coming right up this week in Mexico City), it will be impossible to turn away as the Global Champions League reaches for the high bar it has set for itself.

Read more about how the GCL hopes to bring in elements of mainstream sports in “Lofty Goals, The Global Champions League’s Mainstream Sport Ambitions”, as published in the Spring 2016 issue of NOELLE FLOYD Magazine.

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