CLEARWATER — One of Clearwater's signature events, the Ironman World Championship 70.3, is leaving town and moving to Las Vegas next year. It will be replaced with a shorter kind of Ironman race.
So what does this mean for Clearwater? It's a vital question because the local tourism industry depends on Ironman's athletes and their friends and families to fill thousands of hotel rooms and restaurant seats every November, which is typically a slow month.
Local officials hope that the replacement event will be just as profitable. But nobody knows for sure.
"We knew this was a distinct possibility. We're hopeful the transition will be smooth," said David Downing, assistant director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We're eager to see what the new event will bring."
This year's Ironman World Championship 70.3 will take place Nov. 13 in Clearwater. The race starts and ends near Clearwater Beach's Pier 60, and its 56-mile bike route circles mid Pinellas County.
Next year it will be replaced by a new Ironman race tour called the 5150 Series, which will feature shorter, Olympic-distance triathlons. The whole race will cover 32 miles instead of 70.3.
There are tradeoffs.
The negative: The 5150 race may not have the buzz of the 70.3 championship, which gets broadcast annually on NBC and makes Clearwater Beach look warm and inviting to a nationwide audience.
The positive: A shorter bike race will mean fewer road closures and inconveniences for drivers. Also, Ironman officials say the 5150 race could attract more athletes because, unlike the 70.3 championship, they won't have to qualify in other races to compete.
"I'm sure everybody feels bad about losing the 70.3 event. But it's invitation-only, and it's limited to approximately 1,700 people," said Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce. "This new event will allow us to market to a broader group. They're talking about it bringing in around 2,000 people."
However, Downing notes that the Ironman 70.3 championship fills hotels partly because it attracts the type of athletes who arrive early to train. Last November, the event filled 10,461 hotel room nights, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The Ironman World Championship 70.3 has been held in Clearwater since its inception in 2006.
Why is it moving? Partly to make the race tougher than it can be in flat, sea-level Florida. Next year's championship race near Las Vegas will feature a challenging bike route through Nevada's Lake Mead National Recreation Area that includes several steep climbs.
In contrast, the toughest part of the Clearwater race is the steep part of the Memorial Causeway Bridge, which some competitors have nicknamed "Heartbreak Hill."
"When you're at sea level, you're not going to get those hills and inclines. They were looking for more challenge in some respects," said Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne. "They gave it a good run here for five years, but the competition matured to a point where they wanted to do something else."
The inaugural 5150 Clearwater event is scheduled for Nov. 12, 2011. The new race series begins March 13, 2011, in Miami, has a May 1 date in St. Petersburg at the St. Anthony's Triathlon, and is scheduled for 10 other cities before returning for the series final in Clearwater.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.