By Pete Williams
The decision by the World Triathlon Corporation on Tuesday to pull the plug on its season-finale 5150 triathlon series event in Clearwater is the latest move that indicates the world of Florida endurance sports might not be recession proof after all.
The Champions Mud Bash canceled its Nov. 5 event in Tampa. Like the 5150, low registration was the reason. Muddy Buddy opted not to have a year-end championship in Punta Gorda. Several other events have been quietly canceled or indefinitely postponed. WTC, the parent company of Ironman and creator of the 5150 series, pulled the plug on Primal Challenge, which was to have been a new obstacle mud run series with a November event in Lake Wales.
Many other events have experienced declining numbers after years of unbridled growth.
We’ve marveled at how recession proof Florida has been when it comes to endurance sports. After all, the Sunshine State has suffered more than most of the country in terms of the real estate crash and unemployment, a figure that probably does not fully reflect the job troubles in a state where many people are independent contractors and/or self-employed and thus not counted on the unemployment rolls.
Since the economy crashed in the Fall of 2008, Florida endurance sports actually have taken off. The state already lead the nation in the number of triathlon and running events and now can claim top status in obstacle mud runs and stand-up paddleboard events.
The theory is that people will cut back on their discretionary spending when it comes to entertainment, eating out, and home improvement, but will be less likely to slash on participatory events that give them a feeling of accomplishment, which is perhaps more important during stressful economic times. Not only that, many people have more time to train.
We’re of the belief that it’s not the recession but a flooded market for races. Two years ago, Muddy Buddy had a virtual monopoly on obstacle mud runs in Florida. This year, there will be at least 30 such races. Dozens of triathlons and running events of all distances have been added to the calendar since 2009, many with entry fees of $100 or more.
So it figures that there will be a shakeout and, perhaps not surprisingly, many of the initial casualties have been newcomers that have not gained sufficient traction.
Philip LaHaye, WTC’s director of operations, said Tuesday that Clearwater probably cannot sustain a year-end event at $150-a-head like the proposed 5150 finale. LaHaye, the longtime race director for the St. Anthony’s Triathlon, has seen that event’s numbers plunge in recent years, no doubt fueled by increased competition by other races at the Olympic-distance level and the rapid increase in St. Anthony’s entry fees.
It’s not just triathlon. We’ve wondered how long athletes will continue to commit to obstacle mud runs where they must pay $75 entry fees, $10 parking, and receive little more than a bottle of water and perhaps one free beer at the finish line for events that take less than an hour to finish.
And at what point will runners balk at paying up to $100 for a half-marathon? Unlike triathlon or obstacle mud runs, it’s easy to go out and run a half-marathon without entering a race.
Then there’s our pet peeve: lousy T-shirts. Athletes, especially women, do not want to wear something with sponsor logos on the back, especially when they’ve paid $75 or more to enter. If race directors believe they must include logos on the back to provide sufficient value to sponsors, well, they’re probably not providing sufficient value to sponsors.
Like any other product, the winners in 2012 and beyond in endurance sports organizers will be the ones who provide the best value for the entry fee.
For Florida endurance athletes, that’s a positive development.