Tauranga's iconic Port of Tauranga Half is facing an uncertain future, with race owners Sport Bay of Plenty seeking a clear mandate from the triathlon community, sponsors and stakeholders after the emergence of a new ironman 70.3 championship in Auckland from next January.
Ironman 70.3 Auckland has prizemoney of US$75,000 ($94,400) up for grabs, four times what's on offer in Tauranga, and is tipped to attract more than 1200 professional and age-group participants, including a significant number of internationals.
It will also be the official Asia Pacific championships and will provide an additional opportunity for athletes to qualify for the annual 70.3 world championship at Las Vegas.
Auckland's Jane Patterson and Janette Blythe from Auckland-based company The Patter are contracted to run both events, which are two weeks apart, but have signalled they'll relinquish control of the Tauranga Half to concentrate on the Auckland 70.3 beyond that. Patterson's company has run the Tauranga event, which is owned by Sport Bay of Plenty, since 2005.
Wayne Werder, Sport Bay of Plenty's chief executive, said while it would be business as usual next year, with the January 5 event sold out, time would tell what changes, if any, would come from the emergence of ironman 70.3 into a market that was becoming more congested.
A 70.3 race was touted for Tauranga several years ago but it was believed a licence to stage the race, owned by the powerful World Triathlon Corporation, was too costly. The Florida-based World Triathlon Corporation holds the rights to the name Ironman for promotional and licensing purposes, as well as the Ironman 70.3 (half) series and new 5150 (standard distance) series, forcing Tauranga to drop the word Ironman for its race two years ago.
Rather than viewing 70.3 as an immediate threat, Werder said it would bring about a timely review of the Tauranga Half's positioning in the market.
"We've known about the 70.3 for a while and Jane informed us The Patter would be involved, so we weren't caught on the hop. Being sold out already next year means there won't be any dramatic impact numbers-wise, but we need to work out beyond that what the closeness of the 70.3 to our event means.
"We probably needed to start working through 2014 and the future of the Half regardless of the 70.3 because we can't just keep rolling out the same event with the same format. We need to keep it fresh."
Werder said discussions had already started with naming rights sponsor the Port of Tauranga but he was keen to involve as many affected sectors of the community as practical.
"More work needs to be done with the port as to what their end goal is but for us it's gaining an understanding of what Tauranga wants to do, because rather than an iron grip ownership of the Half we've always seen ourselves as guardians of what is a flagship event for the city.
"We'll work with all the key players to see what they want - city council, the port, the triathlon community - and what shape this race takes from 2014.
"The fact we're selling out is a good sign but I'd hate to rest on our laurels, especially with more competition coming in."
Positioning the Half as the centrepiece of an early January triathlon/multisport/watersport festival at Mount Maunganui had long been mooted but never vigorously pursued.
"Whether that's a possibility could be one aspect we look at but that's an issue for triathlon.
"There are now so many events it's a matter of trying to work out which ones and in which format are needed."
The Rotorua and Taupo half ironman events are in December, with Hawke's Bay's popular Iron Maori race also scheduled for pre-Christmas. Challenge Wanaka and the Lake Wanaka half are on the same weekend as the 70.3, with the Auckland's event's timing no coincidence. It's a controversial move that has elicited angry reaction on Facebook about the likely impact on the Queenstown races.
Tauranga still has a popular teams component many other events struggle to match (70.3 is for individuals only) but the elite end of the race stands to take a hit given there's 400 per cent more prizemoney and world champs qualification on offer in Auckland. Tauranga's professional field usually numbers about 40, just five per cent of the total individual field.
"We're nowhere near that level [of cash] so the top end has got to be part of the thinking. Is it about trying to attract the elite or the weekend warrior, or is it about targeting more teams?"
Patterson and Blythe's involvement now spans nine years and the race returns a healthy profit back to Sport Bay of Plenty, and in turn the community, which hadn't always been the case a decade or more ago. Werder said the Half didn't generate "ridiculous amounts of money" but was sustainable in its current form as long as demand continued.
"No1 for us has always been to deliver a good, safe event with a good field, with the second goal tied into the fact we're a not-for-profit organisation, which usually means we're not-for-loss either, so financially we don't want it to be a drain on our resources.
"We haven't heavily targeted events for our business but that's one we have kept hold of to ensure it stays in Tauranga. Now we're looking to Tauranga for an understanding of how valuable this event is."