CLEARWATER — When organizers decided the Ironman World Championship 70.3 would move this year from Clearwater to Las Vegas, Clearwater's only salve was the promise of a new race — the 5150 Triathlon.
But this week, the World Triathlon Corporation abruptly cancelled next month's race due to too few registrants. That leaves the city without its signature tourism magnet and the dollars that follow.
"It's very disheartening, very disappointing," said D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater. "We were happy to have this to replace the Ironman. Now, for this to happen, it's really a blow."
For five years, the Ironman championship brought thousands of athletes and widespread media coverage during a slow spell for local businesses. Visitors to last year's event paid for nearly $1 million in hotel stays alone, Minich said.
But with this year's start of the shorter, less-watched triathlon, fewer athletes seemed eager to compete. About 700 registered, drastically lower than expectations and almost half last year's turnout, said Philip LaHaye, the 5150 Series' director of operations. "We couldn't go into this event and produce it without taking a sizable loss," he said.
That came as a shock to city leaders, who had already committed nearly $90,000 for services like traffic control, parking and trash. "We've grown accustomed to the tourism demand in the area during those five years," City Manager Bill Horne said. "Obviously we're going to feel it."
Centered at Pier 60, the 32-mile race was expected to be more welcoming to local athletes unprepared for last year's 70-mile course. The longer Ironman championship, which the city used to pay more than $135,000 to help accommodate, was moved to take advantage of Nevada's steeper, tougher terrain.
Named for the 51,500 meters that make up its 1.5-kilometer swim, 40-kilometer bike ride and 10-kilometer run, the 5150 was scheduled for more than a dozen locations, including in Germany, Switzerland and South Africa.
The season's first races — in Key Biscayne, New Orleans and at the St. Anthony's Triathlon in St. Petersburg — were a hit. But either because of the location, the late-season date or the $150 price tag, the Clearwater race saw little of the championship's fervor.
The 5150 races in Clearwater now face an uncertain future. LaHaye said organizers are committed to trying again next year. But city officials have 45 days after the cancelled event's scheduled date, Nov. 12, to decide whether they will again agree to play host.
"We're disappointed," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "The question is, will we pull the plug, or wait to see if interest grows."
Poncho Smith, 53, of Ludington, Mich., was planning on driving with his wife, Nancy, and cat, Smores, in their RV to Clearwater for the race. Last year, when Smith came to race for his first time in the championship, he also visited the beach, went shopping and toured the Pinellas Trail.
"I was pretty bummed out when I found out," Smith said. The race would have been the start of his winter vacation and a weekend spent nearby.
Instead, he said, his group has made other plans.
"We'll probably head over to Orlando."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or email@example.com.