By Pete Williams
The folks who organize the St. Anthony’s Triathlon can make it a difficult event to like.
In recent years, it’s grown so big that it becomes a weekend-long ordeal to race, with those in the latter waves waiting more than three hours from the time they arrive in transition until they get in the water.
For all of the sponsors and massive financial resources of the organizers, the goody bag and schwag is modest and the shirt has dozens of logos on the back, which means no women are going to wear it.
Despite a bad economy, race fees have gone up in each of the last three years and, when combined with the mandatory Active.com ransom, soon will approach $200 for an event that technically has not been an Olympic-distance triathlon since 2008.
Sure, nobody can control the weather. But between the cancellation of the swim in 2009, the shortening of it for the latter waves last year and for everyone on Sunday, it makes you wonder if the triathlon gods aren’t trying to send a message.
St. Anthony, after all, is the patron saint of the poor and travelers.
Now BayCare, the Tampa Bay healthcare juggernaut that owns the event, has partnered with World Triathlon Corp. to make St. Anthony’s part of the 5150 series, Ironman’s latest brand extension.
The use of 5150 is a reference to the combined number of meters in an Olympic-distance triathlon. Others have noted it’s a ripoff of Van Halen, which used it as an album name in 1986, taking a cue from the California police code referring to a “mentally disturbed person.”
WTC and Baycare joining forces is like a marriage between the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys. (That actually happened recently when Jerry Jones and the Steinbrenner family created a joint catering business for their new billion-dollar sports palaces.)
But a funny thing happened on the way to St. Anthony’s alienating even more triathletes in 2011.
It accidentally stumbled upon a winning formula.
Because of declining attendance – Sunday’s race featured about 3,200 competitors, insiders say, as opposed to the 5,000 that race organizers continue to announce as if it’s still pre-recession – it’s actually a much more manageable and enjoyable event for everyone.
By tweaking the swim to 1,000 meters (down from the 1,500-meter standard) and shifting it toward the beach in front of the North Shore pool, away from the rougher waters in the Vinoy basin, they’ve found perhaps a better swim site. Any reason why that couldn’t become a permanent change of locale?
It would be nice to see St. Anthony’s freeze entry fees for one year or even offer a $15 discount to recent customers. Imagine if you made your St. Anthony’s debut in 2009, swam in a latter wave in 2010, and showed up again this year. You’ve spent about $500 in entry fees, still haven’t done an Olympic-distance event, and must feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s football.
It’s also interesting to note that far fewer people have made the trek down from Atlanta in recent years. The debut of the popular Augusta 70.3 event in 2009 no doubt made a difference, along with the economy and the addition of other races.
The greater competition in the industry means St. Anthony’s no longer can hope to have unbridled growth every year.
Perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Longtime triathletes reminisce about when the event was 1,500 people.
It seems like the smaller St. Anthony’s gets, the better.