I’m just going to warn you, this is a long blog post. I thought about summarizing to shorten it, but I was worried that I would neglect some important concepts of my thought process. Also note that this is purely a Monday Morning Quarterback perspective of something that’s really a great and successful activity. So now that I’ve made you not want to read the rest of it….
In thinking about doing some writing about my ride last Wednesday night with the group I found myself re-visiting a conversation I had with my friend Mark after our ride a couple of weeks ago. After talking about attendance at the various mountain bike race events throughout Michigan during the year, I shared my observation about why Mountain Biking seems to be behind in popularity from running events, triathlons, and road biking tours. Even the adventure races like Tough Mudder have experienced faster growth over the past few years than Mountain Biking. The fact of the matter is, that mountain biking is not a great fan sport. Because mountain biking is generally best experienced in limited access natural locations (the middle of the woods), opportunities for comprehensive or even decent vantage points for fans are limited. Finding your way to a good vantage point is even harder.
To be fair, the sport of Mountain Biking is growing. Race attendance at many events has been on the rise over the past few years. More race organizers are putting caps on participation to keep events manageable and many sold out races are drawing more and more regional and national pros. But mountain biking is still primarily an experience sport. The only way to really enjoy it is to participate in it. So the question becomes: “So what? Does it need to be commercialized to be successful?” There’s a cake saying that I can’t quite put my finger on that might apply here.
A whole new understanding of ‘sports as a business’ hit me this past year after the Iceman Commeth Challenge in Traverse City, MI. This sold out epic of a race drew international pros this past year along with the national household names that have been attending for years. The thing to remember about Iceman, though, is that what might be an epic challenge to the average rider is really only a mild training day for a pro. It’s relatively short at 30 miles, the hills are many but manageable, and much of the course is two-track (faster and typically smoother than single track).
Most of the pros are interviewed after the races for cyclingdirt.com and what struck me was how many of these riders were heading down south directly after the race to compete in a cyclo-cross race the following day (I was thinking food, beer, hot tub, more food, sleep, and then don’t touch the bike for a week). Cyclo-cross is a popular sport in itself and has experienced success in Michigan in recent years. KissCross Cyclo-Cross, for example, has developed a very successful race series in the greater West Michigan area that happens in the fall.
The other thing that struck me was how many of the riders mentioned the purse as one of the reasons why they were at the race. The winning pro for each gender received $5,000 for first place. Follow that up with $3,500 for second, $2,250 for third, and another $4,385 for 4th through 10th places. Even for all of the sport categories, average joe’s (yes, I’d consider myself average in this aspect) get paid money for a top 5 finish ($175 for 1st). On top of that there’s raffle prizes and drawings. That equates to big money in mountain bike racing terms. In contrast, the Leadville Trail 100 MTB Race offers no prize money at all but it is known as one of the most grueling mountain bike races in the country.
But, in order for awards and prizes to even be feasible, race organizers need to be able to fund them. For that, there are three primary revenue sources: Race Entry Fees; Vending; and Sponsorships. Race entry fees vary by event, but most of the races I’m entering this year will cost $25-$40 to participate. Obviously, the more participants you have, the more revenue you generate. But if you cap the number of participants, you have to start increasing the entry fee in order to increase revenue.
Vending includes clothing (t-shirts, race jerseys, socks, beanies, etc. with that year’s race artwork on it), knickknacks (pint glasses, bottle openers, etc.), and possibly food sales (I’m not sure if the food vendors pay a fee to be there or not). Again, it would be logical to deduct that the more participants you have, the more vending revenue you’re going to generate. The more challenging your event, the more proud participants will be to buy and wear the t-shirt (again, look at Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash).
Sponsorships, though, seem to be the cake icing of race revenue. Build up a great event, and sponsors will be easier to find to headline your race…and pay more money to do it. Sponsors in mountain biking should take a look at their involvement no differently than their involvement in advertising anywhere else. Put your name in front of as many people as possible at the lowest cost per eyeball. I don’t want to make light of the fact that there is also an element of simply supporting the sport through sponsorship as well (some races raise money for charity or trail maintenance for example). Rather, what I’m proposing is that once you move beyond a certain threshold of sponsorship for support’s sake, you enter the realm of sponsorship for advertising purposes. Are you beginning to see it? There’s a challenge that mountain biking economics presents.
Without a significant amount of fan attendance, you only have your race participants to advertise to. That’s definitely a targeted audience for brands related to biking, but you really need a larger (and possibly wider) audience for more general brand inclusion. Meijer had sponsored Iceman up until last year when Bells took over I’m sure in part because of the high level of fan attendance. Aside from the fact that the race included a higher than average number of participants, each participant represented 1 of maybe 2-3 overall participants as most riders will bring their family and friends to watch the race and socialize with their rider after the race.
Aside from being a great endurance challenge to most of the sport riders that make up the majority of the participants, Iceman offers several great spots to watch and encourage race participants. With a starting route that cuts through 1-2 miles of Kalkaska streets and public parks, a halfway point that intersects a paved and easily accessible forest road, and a nasty hill climb (at least it feels nasty by the time you get there) that is within a few minutes’ walk from the finish but a several minutes’ ride from the finish, friends and family can encourage their favorite racer, feasibly from at least 3 different locations during the race.
So what does this mean for race organizers who want to grow their event? I think there are a few options. Before you read them, though, please understand that I have a great appreciation for race organizers in the work they currently do. Most of them that I know of have other full time jobs that they hold down and these events take an immense amount of time and effort to put together. These are just some observations that I’ve made about what seems to work well.
- Include entertainment/activities at the start/finish for non-racing participants. This doesn’t have to be elaborate, but make sure there’s music playing (live or otherwise). Have some community gathering areas like a bon fire or a picnic area for congregated eating. This also could include events for kids and parents.
- Make the start/finish line as accessible as possible to fans. The idea is to allow for friends and family as many opportunities to watch their racer in action.
- Include directions and instructions on how to access available vantage points on a race course. If there are roads or hiking paths that would allow fans to access the race action and don’t interfere with the race course, make sure everyone knows how to get there. Include that information on the info page of your race website and send it out to all of the riders before the race (as early as possible) so that appropriate planning can be done in advance.
- Contact local media outlets 1 month, 1 week, and 1 day before the event to try to get as much coverage as possible. Notifying the local community before might draw additional fan participation, and a race summary story with pictures just goes to build interest in the event for next year. It’s also a great way for race participants to read and re-live their experience at the race.
- Make sure the professionals get paid. This might be debatable. However, I enjoy watching the pro’s shred my time like wet paper and it adds to the excitement of the race day to be able to watch them hammer out a trail. But, they need to be at the race in the first place. Posting some good prize money for the top Pro/Elite riders should entice more pro/elite riders to attend. There are thousands of races that go on every year and I know that the pro’s have their favorites that they’re going to attend, but if you could pull even 2-5 regional pros that haven’t traditionally attended, I think you’ll make the race exciting to watch and give the rest of us something to shake our heads in disbelief about. This also means that the pro/elite race needs to be scheduled at a time where all of the other racers are able to watch them ride as well.
This by no means is an exhaustive list. There are a ton of other great ideas that make mountain bike races very successful. Not every race is going to have the ability to incorporate these ideas, either. Course enjoyment can play a part as well and that is far less manageable by the race coordinator. I do think there is a snowball effect, though, once you start enhancing a race’s fan access and finish area activities.
So why does the sport of mountain biking ‘need’ to grow? Well, the short answer is that it doesn’t, really. I have fun doing it, I love the health benefits of riding, and it satisfies my competitive itch. I don’t need more riders to compete with; I can’t keep up with all the riders in my current group. Bringing more participants to the sport might negatively commercialize it or dumb it down. However, I look at other sports and see that where there’s a good pro circuit and fan participation, there’s increased sport participation.
In the end, increased sport participation amongst adults is a good thing for both our health as well as our psyche. In my mind, growing the fan participation along with the racer participation in mountain biking will ultimately grow the overall sport. It’s taking some great strides already and I hope that mountain biking just continues to be successful in growing overall participation in the future.