Upstart has big ambitions

A swimmer in the first group makes it out of the water during the pro Major League Triathlon race Saturday at Nathan Benderson Park.
A swimmer in the first group makes it out of the water during the pro Major League Triathlon race Saturday at Nathan Benderson Park.

Sometime during the third and penultimate leg of Major League Triathlon’s first stop in Sarasota, public address announcer Mike Plant’s eyes darted around the intersection at Nathan Benderson Park where athletes hopped off their bikes to begin a sprint in front of the bleachers which overlook the course. The crowd was sparse but enthusiastic, and so was Plant.

“We want about 1,000 of you to see this and one day there will be,” Plant said over the PA system. “One day there will be.”

The few who were at Benderson Park on Saturday got a sample of what Major League Triathlon hopes will eventually make its sport a spectator event. The Temple Toros went into the final leg trailing the Sarasota Sun by a handful of seconds when Ben Kanute tagged in. The Olympian chased down the field with an individual-best time of 17:37 to turn the Toros’ deficit into a seven-second win.

Temple’s victory was complete in a brisk 1 hour, 19 minutes and 38 seconds. CEO Daniel Cassidy envisions MLT as a spectator sport and the weekend at Benderson — only MLT’s second event — made his case. The bleachers watched over the entire 400-meter swim, the transition from the 10-kilometer bike ride to the running portion, and the home stretch of 2  1/2-kilometer run.

“It’s much more spectator friendly. Cassidy said. “Our main goal is television, which is what we’re working on right now.”

Cassidy, who used to compete in triathlons himself, feels he understands the past shortcomings of the event. Olympic triathlons traverse more than 32 miles and the full Ironman Triathlon covers more than 140 miles. Viewers can only see fractions of each event.

Cassidy would go to races with his wife, who would stand around and only catch glimpses of Cassidy competing.

“I love coming to support you,” Cassidy remembers her saying, “but this is boring as hell.”

The result was two years of organizing MLT, which held its first race April 16 in Temple, Texas. Sarasota edged Temple to win the first race, then the two traded places Saturday to share the top spot in MLT’s standings midway through the first year. Events are scheduled for Lincoln, Neb., and Westbrook, Maine, later this season to correspond with the “homes” of two other MLT teams.

Right now the relationship between home team and city is tenuous, although Cassidy hopes it changes. Teams from California, the Carolinas, New England and Colorado join the Sun, Toros, Lincoln Mustangs and Portland Keepers to make up the eight-team league. Teams, however, aren’t operated individually and most athletes don’t train in the cities that correspond to their home teams.

“We’re trying to get people to cheer on, come out and support their local teams,” Cassidy said. “Eventually we’d like to have people stay in the city and train there, but we’re still very early on.”

MLT also has the attraction of Kanute, who qualified for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil just more than a month ago for his performance on the ITU World Triathlon Series. Relays like MLT still hold their own special place to Kanute, though. In the past, super sprint relays only came around once or twice a year for national and international championships. He hopes it’ll be part of the Olympics by 2020, but for now he’s happy to have a consistent field to compete with, even if the league is stage isn’t quite what it will be in Rio de Janeiro this August.

“It’s always hard to start a series like this,” Kanute said. “Right when I joined in I wanted to help this grow. I think that this racing is super exciting, so anything that I can do to kind of help it get jump-started and all that, I’ll do that, for sure.”