Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Numbers shrink despite Cole’s weather

"Kevin's" calf after being drafted upon at
the Cole Classic. Noice.
If you’ve seen our report from last weekend’s Cole Classic in Sydney, you’ll have seen the report from “Kevin” who was drafted, heel-wafted and calf-thumped throughout the 2km at the Cole Classic last Sundee. Shocking. Check the pic for the effect on “Kevin’s“ leg...

You’ll also have seen our rundown on the Cole’s continuing falling numbers (… click here). Entrants in 2014 fell for the third successive year. Far from the “more than 6,000” boast of the organisers, Fairfax Meeja, in the weeks leading up to the Cole, entrants tallied c. 3,600, and participants just over 3,000.

This was the lowest entry for the Cole Classic since Fairfax Meeja took over the event in 2009. And this despite that Fairfax give away many entries to the Cole for free to employees, to suppliers, to contractors and to large customers.

The Cole used to be the most anticipated ocean swim in NSW, with Fairfax claiming it to be the biggest in Stra’a. But it continues to fall behind the actual biggest swim in the country, The Pier to Pub at Lorne, in Victoria (which we suspect also is the biggest ocean swim in the world in participants).

Fairfax Meeja changed its rhetoric in the few days leading into this year’s event, to claiming only to be “one of the biggest” swims in Stra’a, and amended its prediction of “6,000”- plus swimmers this year to “thousands”. Judging by news reports, the flacks whom Fairfax hired to spin the Cole to the meeja were still pumping away at the inflated figures. It was always strange that Fairfax, which purports to be Stra’a’s most respected private meeja group, should have persisted with these untruths for so long, even as the results from previous years’ swims, posted on its own website, actually put the lie to them. But no hack bothered to check, which was a sad commentary on the meeja overall, not just on Fairfax.
Make it friendly

The fundamental problem with the Cole, we reckon, is that, under the Fairfax Meeja banner, the Cole is not a swimmer-friendly occasion. It’s become just another mass-participation event churned out by the Fairfax Special Events people, who run it as if it’s a street run. They have their template; never mind the world.


We’d love to see the Cole return to its glory days when run by the Cole family, although we doubt the family is keen to take over the event again. We’d love it to become the festival that it once was. Fairfax could do this, of course, given the will and responsive, aware, caring management.

It requires Fairfax to respect our community of ocean swimmers. That's what it's all about: respect.

Here are a few gratuitous tips as to what they could do…

Lower the entry fee

The organisers persist with the over-price on the Cole despite the dwindling numbers. They showed sensitivity to criticism this year by introducing a four-tiered timetable, which stepped up the entry fee over four stages. Enter by November 8 (three months ahead of the swim) for $50 ($40 for the 1km), rising to $65/$55 from January 25, still over a week ahead of swim day. The entry fees are unprecedented for NSW, apart from the equally over-priced Byron Bay swim in early May. Fairfax, as a private organiser, has some costs that traditional organisers – surf clubs, winter swimming clubs – don’t have, but much of that can be amortised over a much larger number of events and entrants. It doesn’t account for the difference. You can do the same swim at Manly in mid-December for $25/$15 when run by Manly Life Saving Club. Even the private organisers at Sydney Opera House on Stra’a Day charged a top entry fee of $50, and for that you got a goodie bag stocked with merchandise from sponsors, much of it useful. Fairfax explain the high entry fee by saying putting on the Cole is very expensive. But it’s not as expensive as, say, the City to Surf, or the Dee Why-Manly run the day before, which requires street closures and marshals. And while we can estimate how much Fairfax raises in entry revenue, we have no idea how much they also make from sponsors.

How can Fairfax charge so much? Are there other costs that punters don’t know about? Must Fairfax pay to run the event under the Cole banner?

At the very least, have a look around at other events and see what they charge. The Cole ran very nicely at $40 an entry before Fairfax arrived.

Reasonable close for earlybirds

Fairfax either doesn’t understand or doesn’t accept that swims are different to runs: a road is the same whatever the weather, apart perhaps from being a bit slippery in the wet. But weather and seas can change swim conditions overnight, perhaps making conditions life threatening. Swimmers need the opportunity to assess likely swim conditions before they enter. That’s why Fairfax’s earlybird entry timetable is so unreasonable.

Other swims close their earlybird entry fees when online entries close, usually the day before the swim. Why can’t Fairfax do this? Even if they closed earlybirds, say, two days before the swim, leaving a higher entry fee on the Saturday, this would be more reasonable. Fairfax deals with bigger numbers than most swims, but they also have much greater staff resources, and they make much more money from the event than those other swims do. It's eminently doable.

Make swim pack pick up easy

Enter the Cole and you must pick up your swim pack – basically, your timing chip -- ahead of swim day. Fairfax gives you two options: either attend Dee Why SLSC on the Friday ahead of the swim, or Manly LSC the day before the swim. Fairfax traditionally has had an inner-city view of the world; they don’t realise that requiring punters to go to Dee Why or to Manly ahead of swim day, then to turn up at Manly again on swim day itself, is difficult for anyone who doesn’t already live in Dee Why or Manly. Both are a long way from most parts of Sydney, let alone the rest of the country. The Pier to Pub at Lorne has many more entrants – over 5,000 – yet they distribute swim packs at the beach on race day morn. And they’re just a surf club.

Surely Fairfax, with its multi-billion dollar resources, and its dedicated special event staff, can organise themselves on swim morning.

Another very important point: if you don’t distribute timing chips and require swimmers to check-in on race day, then you can’t be sure who is in the water and who might not have come out of the water. You can lay mats at the start to detect starting chips, but that’s no guarantee you’ll get everyone. Requiring check-in on swim day gives you more certain knowledge of who actually enters the water, and of who should come out. We’d have thought Fairfax’s insurers would have had something to say about this before now.

Promote a safe event

… such as through cap colours. We mentioned this in last week’s Cole preview: many of the cap colours used by Fairfax are unsuitable – unsafe – for an ocean swim. The Surf Life Saving Association has identified five fluoro colours for caps to be used in ocean swims. We’d have thought Fairfax would have the commonsense to follow this guide in their swim, too. It’s a question of safety. These colours are about the only ones that will stand out in the sea in all conditions. Many of Fairfax’s cap colours belong to the “lost-at-sea” range. What say you, insurers?

Be compassionate towards the sick and injured

Once you’re compelled to enter up to three months in advance to get the lowest entry fee, but then you fall ill, or have an accident, rendering you unfit to swim, you might get only a 50 per cent refund, then only with a doctor’s certificate, and only if you fall ill or have your accident by January 10, almost a month ahead of the swim.

Encourage punters to enter both swims

The Cole is two swims: 2km and 1km (three if you include the 9km swim, but this ain't for everyone). Virtually all other organisers of multi-swim events encourage you to do multi-swims by making multi-entry cheaper. It’s more entry revenue for them, after all. At North Bondi this Sundee, for example, you could enter both swims, after both swims at North Bondi’s earlier swim on January 12, for $90. That’s $22.50 per swim. One swim is $40.

Under the Cole family, there was concessional entry for entering both swims. But there’s no concessional entry fee with the Cole. Indeed, Fairfax make it even harder to do both swims. You have to enter both swims separately. But once you’ve entered one swim, their online entry system rejects you because you’ve already entered. To one enquirer in January, Fairfax explained in an email how to go about entering the second swim:
“Once you have entered into one event, you will also need to alter your name slightly for the second entry as the system will think that you are trying to create a duplicate entry. This may be in the form of using a knick name (sic – and they’re a meeja group!) or putting a full stop after your first or surname.”
 One would think they’d be keen to encourage punters to enter both swims. It means more money for them, after all.

Tell punters about other swims; don’t pretend you’re all there is

One of our major beefs with Fairfax is that, while they bring many new swimmers into the sport, they don’t let on that there are other swims on offer. Maybe they’re worried that punters will discover how over-priced the Cole is and how unreasonable their conditions are. We had a discussion with Fairfax about this shortly after they took over the Cole. Their main issue with telling punters about other swims, it seemed to us at the time, was that that would mean pointing their entrants towards, which is where details of most swims are available. Even now, the Cole website tells swimmers, “If ocean enthusiasts are looking for the next challenge, The Sun-Herald Surf Swim takes place on Sunday, March 23, 2014” at Dee Why. But there are 12 swims around Sydney between Cole day and Dee Why on March 23.

As a meeja group, Fairfax enjoys a privileged position in the community as it goes about making its multi-billion dollar revenue each year: it enjoys a respect that most private organisations don’t have, and privileged access to most events and areas of the community, that most of us don’t get. They have a moral duty to be generous to their community, for example by promoting fundraising events run by community groups, such as surf life saving clubs, which are charities, after all. They shouldn’t be pretending that theirs are the only events on offer because that serves their commercial interests. The Monday prior to the Cole this year, the Herald ran a spread over pages 2 and 3 promoting the Cole Classic. It was the day after The Big Swim (Palm-Whale), and the Great Australian Swim in Sydney Harbour. Yet neither received any coverage in the Herald that day. The only other event that Fairfax has promoted in the past was Bondi-Bronte, and that because, we suspect, they’d engaged the private organiser of the Bondi-Bronte swim to help them with the Cole.

Support charities, don’t just boast about it

Fairfax makes an enormous play of how much fund-raising support its events provide to “over 800 charities”. So far, according to the Cole website, at the time of writing, entrants in the Cole had raised $168,153.42 for those charities. But none of that money comes from Fairfax, apart from the $25,000 fee that Fairfax pays to Manly Life Saving Club to provide race-day logistics. We talked last week about how much money Fairfax raises for itself in entry revenue. Fairfax gives nothing from these events to any other of those “over 800 charities”. Fairfax should put its money where its mouth is: kick off the fund-raising itself with some of its own money. Maybe pay a proportion of the entry revenue to be split amongst those charities. When they do something like that, then they can boast.

There is plenty more than could be said. But this will do for now. Until next year…


  1. I was interested in your comments about the colour of the caps at the Cole swim. I was in the yellow cap lot and I found it a bit confusing when I looked ahead for orientation when swimming to see lots of yellow bits bobbing on the horizon - one of which was the marker buoy the others were swimmers.

    If the markers are yellow how about not having the caps that colour - With the swell that was running on Sunday it was hard to make out buoy from swimmer at least at a distance.

    I had a great time, but it's something to think about.

    Keep up the good work,

    Cheers, Ruth

  2. Fairfax have chipped - actually no, taken chunks out of all that's good about swims. A first-timer could easily be put off for life if they thought all swims required you to travel to the location days before to pick up a cap and racing chip. This equals stress and inconvenience. Amongst other things I swim as a release from all things inconvenient and stressful. A first timer needs to encounter a blissful morning at Malabar or Bondi or Palm Beach where the events have a great local feel and are focussed entirely on the swimmer experience. Where you just know your dollars are being poured directly into a SLSC or a needy cause. And that the organisers are usually seasoned ocean swimmers. The Cole Classic numbers will decline unless change happen, but hopefully so to the benefit of other smaller events. The new boss of Fairfax Media Events is Andrew McEvoy who previously was the head honcho at Tourism Australia. He's a good listener and very approachable and is all over social media. He'll no doubt pick up on this blob. I hope he's got his ears on.

    Greg Cole (not related to the Classic Coles)

  3. Glad I am not in "Kevin's" age group.

    I thought the media coverage of the Cole was poor.
    The main event was the 2km not the 9km. No mention of Callum Lowe-Griffiths,or Alicia Caldwell winning the 2km.

    Mr August

  4. I picked the Cole Classic this year as my first ever ocean swim because I was very nervous about being too slow and inexperienced, plus I loved the fact it started in the flat and pretty Shelley Beach. Now that I did it, I can read about all the great events in your newsletter knowing that I can give them a go. I guess my point is that Fairfax are offering an expensive but approachable event, and I hope they take your thoughts on board. All your points stated above are very valid, and hopefully (maybe, just maybe) Fairfax will take note.

  5. I fully endorse your comments on the Cole: Fairfax have hijacked this event – which is why myself and a pile of our North Sydney Pool regulars now avoid it. It’s not just the cost; it’s their arrogance.

    Keep up the good work

    Bob Hill
    Lane 2, N Syd pool.

  6. On Saturday we had a change from our usual swim at Coogee and made the trek to Manly. I do not use the word ‘trek’ lightly as Manly is far from being convenient beach for us (and many) to get to. The drive and the parking are a hassle. Before anyone starts banging on about the wonders of public transport, for my partner and I to travel to and from Manly from the inner west, using a bus and ferry trip each way, would cost us over $40 (for 2). This got me thinking about how expensive the Cole Classic really is for a lot of people, especially if you have to do the same trip twice in order to do the swim (the day before to pick up your cap and timing chip and then again on swim day). Add on the cost of the swim itself and it’s a lot of money.

    The Manly folk do not like outsiders driving to ‘their beach’ and so it was that we parked miles (literally) away from the beach. On the bright side we got a lot of good walking exercise on the hills and it was a lovely day.

    We met up with our swimming friends at the Manly Surf Club. Many Cantoo’ers were also there, no doubt getting in a final swim before the Cole. We had a lovely swim around to Shelly Beach and back. There were lots of people in the bay swimming, paddle boarding and even snorkelling, though I don’t know what they could possibly have seen as unfortunately conditions were very murky.

    It was then time to dry off, change and get to the #noWAsharkcull rally further along the beach (a big thankyou to Mr for tweeting about this event). It was great to see so many people there. Hopefully people power will make a difference and this ridiculous and cruel practice will be stopped.

    We enjoyed our day at Manly on Saturday. I hope that everyone who did the Cole Classic on Sunday enjoyed their swim.

    Susan Tutt

  7. I was amused by your graphical analysis of Cole Classic entrants and participants year on year since Fairfax “took over”, presented with clear intent but of course no comparison to other similar swims. An obvious candidate for such comparison would be the Big Swim (the Palm Beach to Whale Beach swim), another large participation swim run in Sydney about a week earlier than the Cole each year. Finishers for the Big Swim over the same period are as follows:
    2009 1,574
    2010 1,831
    2011 1,615
    2012 1,384
    2013 1,213
    2014 1,321
    (Source:; for 2009 and 2010)

    Note the marked decline in Big Swim participants since 2010, up slightly this year.

    In summary, this year’s participation in the Cole Classic was 4.2% lower than in 2009 while for the Big Swim it was 16.1% lower from the same baseline.

    Would it be reasonable to suggest Whale Beach SLSC, and Macquarie Bank as organisers and promoters may be equally culpable for “killing” the Big Swim? No, of course not. That would be absurd.

    Tuncurry Tim

    1. Not sure you can compare the Big Swim with the Cole. Palm Beach is a long way to go (even further than Manly); it is a longer and harder swim so doesn't attract as many new or slower swimmers; doesn't get anything like the publicity of the 'Cole'; considering the swimming distance, weather and surf conditions would play a bigger part in number of participants turning up. I also think you'll find if you look at swimmer numbers over the decades the Big Swim's been going that the variations you quote are par for the course for the Big Swim. I have always found that swim a joy, well organised incl the parking and a lovely journey swim where you don't get banged to death by other swimmers. I can't think of a single reason why I would ever enter the reinvented Cole, the whole thing sounds like my worst nightmare. Something has changed the Cole from a pleasant well-run swim at North Bondi to an event that has completely lost the spirit and mystery of ocean swimming. I reckon the Blobber has just about got it right.

    2. I like your thinking Tim. People can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of people know that. Also, the Byron Bay swim is a bigger rip off than the Cole. Whilst the Byron Bay 'community' dislike "corporations" they're home to most corporately run, money gouging swim on the calendar. "But it's for charity"...just about all swims raise money for SLSC but other swims do it in a way that encourages community participation. Chris


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