By Pete Williams
World Triathlon Corporation, parent company of Ironman, has postponed the year-end event of its inaugural 5150 triathlon series, scheduled for Nov. 12 in Clearwater, because of low interest.
Philip LaHaye, WTC’s director of operations and the event director for the 5150 series, would not say how many athletes registered, but did say registrations fell short of the company’s modest expectations of “800 to 1,000 athletes.”
“When you have low participant numbers, from a budgetary standpoint, it starts to challenge what you can do from from a production standpoint,” LaHaye said.
Though the move is billed as a “postponement,” it’s effectively a cancellation as the race will not be rescheduled for 2011. Athletes were informed this afternoon that they would receive a full refund, including online registration fees.
With the cancellation of the Clearwater event, the 5150 season will end Sunday in Galveston, Texas.
The Olympic-distance Clearwater 5150 triathlon was scheduled a year ago after WTC moved the year-end championship of its 70.3 (half-Ironman) distance race to Nevada after five years in Clearwater.
Most of the 10 domestic races in the 5150 series were existing events with long track records of attracting thousands of athletes, such as the St. Anthony’s Triathlon, DC Triathlon, New York City Triathlon, and Hy-Vee Triathlon.
LaHaye said it proved challenging to draw athletes to a new year-end event in Clearwater that was not a championship. WTC staged the 5150 championship last month in Iowa, where the Hy-Vee Triathlon provides $1.1 million in prize money and attracts an elite field.
Reports of limited interest in the Clearwater 5150 finale picked up steam last month when LaHaye sent an e-blast offering a discount to athletes who registered for both the 5150 finale as well as next year’s St. Anthony’s Triathlon, which became part of the 5150 series this year.
Athletes could register for both events for $250, a discount of $60 from the combined entry fee price, and an unusual move for WTC, which during the triathlon boom of the last five years has been able to command increasingly higher fees for races of all distances.
LaHaye said price point is one area WTC will revisit as it restructures the 5150 series for 2012.
“While we can’t go in and produce a $65-per-person race, that doesn’t mean the (Clearwater) market is ready at end of the season to support a bigger production, $150-per-person race,” LaHaye said. “In 2012, you will see a different 5150 series with new things planned and a different pricing structure that will protect the longevity of the series. It will protect the quality of what we want to do and come in at a reasonable price point for athlete.
“In some regards, 2011 has been a learning experience,” LaHaye added. “There have been a lot of positives that we take away from that. The word I’ve been using is that we’re at a re-set point. I’ll be the first to admit we – and I – made some calculated assumptions that maybe we weren’t completely right on about.”
WTC announced the 10-race, domestic portion of the 5150 series a year ago, rebranding existing Olympic-distance races “5150” in reference to the usual Olympic distance of 51.50 kilometers (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run).
The 5150 series was the latest brand extension for Ironman, which successfully re-branded a number of half-Ironman races as “70.3” in recent years in reference to mileage of a half-Ironman race. That enabled athletes to pursue an Ironman-branded accomplishment without undergoing the ambitious training schedule to complete a full-distance Ironman.
The 5150 series, however, did not generate as much excitement. Unlike the 70.3 series, the Ironman logo did not figure prominently in 5150 marketing and merchandise. Many athletes did not view an Olympic-distance event as an Ironman-worthy accomplishment.
LaHaye said 5150 was never meant to be closely linked to an Ironman-distance race.
“There was never an intent to try to marry this series with Ironman,” he said. “We had the understanding that they were completely different. There is some appeal to going hard and fast on a shorter course for the longer distance athlete, and we want to re-energize the sport at the international distance.”
Unlike the 70.3 championship, which took place in Clearwater from 2006-2010 and determined the male and female champions for the season, the 5150 event in Clearwater was merely a series finale. The lucrative Hy-Vee Triathlon took place in Iowa last month with Greg Bennett of Australia and Sweden’s Lisa Norden each won $151,500 for winning the men’s and women’s divisions, respectively.
The 5150 postponement is the second recent setback for WTC, which in August quietly canceled plans for Primal Challenge, a proposed obstacle mud run series that was to debut in Charlotte last month, with a second run to take place in Lake Wales in November.
LaHaye said WTC wants to have a successful 5150 race in Clearwater but is limited by the calendar. The city already is packed from late February through early April because of spring break and the summer months are too hot for Olympic-distance racing.
“Is it a November race next year with some changes? I don’t know,” he said. “We will sit down with the city and come up with a plan that will work for 2012. Right now it’s too soon to know what that will look like.”