cycling utah May 1999
Disaster of 1998 forces former promoter to rethink sport
By Ron Dillon
I had a rough summer. I really did, although things could have been worse, I suppose. A comet didn't strike my house, nor did an overhead train derail at the perfect moment. An errant semitruck didn't even swerve drunkenly onto my side of the freeway. But, I was still seriously bummed, and there were numerous moments where I would have probably chosen for one or more of the above events to have occurred to me, perhaps simultaneously.
After spending the majority of my adult life, working to be the mountain bike promoter in the Northwest, my dream was over. I was broke, depressed and disgusted. Most of our racers were upset, race turnouts were terribly down and I was a basket case. I spent months asking myself how could such a terrific dream go so awry?
In 1986, I hosted my first mountain bike race and instantly fell in love with the funky, clunky, down-home feel that the sport projected. By 1988, my partner and I felt confident enough to host the NORBA National Finals and we were astonished when 371 racers showed up. That event was also my first real experience with serious amounts of racer and sponsor whining and threats. During the race I didn't go to bed for three days and it took a month to recover. After months of work, my partner and I split the event's meager $2,000 net profit. This was the first time that my family begged me to stop promoting special events. It wouldn't be the last.
Like many promoters, my mountain bike event turnouts grew steadily throughout the 1990's and we added more and more races, in a larger and larger radius, around our home-base in Boise, Idaho. Along the way I also managed to find the time to run 14 AMA National motorcycle races, assorted foot races and triathlons and even a horse race or two.
I figured that to really play ball with the big guns I would need an education, so at age 32 I went back to school. When I finished up my marketing degree in 1996 and was named "Marketing Student of the Year" at my university, I figured that I was ready to be placed in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame at any moment.
At the end of a very successful 1995 promotional season, my wife and I decided to greatly elevate the look and feel of our event. After studying the market, we decided to focus our expansion on beginner, sport and expert riders, rather than pros and NCS-type events. We also tried to upscale the look, feel and prizing of our events to a level never before seen by amateur riders. We began sending out slick, professional sponsor ship packages and were immediately showered with impressive amounts of cash and prizes from sponsors like: Chevrolet, Nike, Fuji Film and Key Bank. In hindsight, perhaps this was the first major wrong turn that we took. In order to accept the cash prizes from sponsors, we spent more and more time looking out for the sponsor's best interest which diverged from the interests of our racers.
I didn't give the matter a lot of thought at the time; riders continued to respond in droves and we had a terrific year in 1996. I actually made $20,000 that year and even though my wage only worked out to about $3 an hour, I was happy. By 1997 we were averaging 333 riders per event. Several races pulled over 500 racers and our Idaho City race hit 904. I was very happy with these numbers, especially given the tiny population in our geographic region of Idaho. We started planning for the 1998 season, figuring that we'd easily average 400-plus riders per event in 1998.
The Looming Fall
By 1998, our Chevrolet Wild Rockies Mountain Bike Series weaved 34 events through eight states. Our motto was "World Class, Grass Roots." We covered the world-class end by looking really sharp. Our 24-foot trailer and Chevy dually pickup gleamed, our hand-made, overhead start-finish structure glistened, and our circus tents stood proud. We were clean and we were pretty. We had to look good to satisfy our heavy-hitter sponsors. they certainly didn't want the car lot flags and hay bales that we had used in the past, they wanted . . . slick.
The grass-roots portion of our motto was designed to remind everyone of who our target audience was: expert-level to beginner-level racers. Our ration of racers had remained stable for years: 55 percent beginner, 28 percent sport and 17 percent expert, and we felt confident we were positioned to satisfy and increase our audience. There was not a pro in sight; we had prizes galore and all the bells and whistles imaginable.
We also decided that traditional race flyers and entry forms had become obsolete. We replaced them with the 112-page, Chevrolet Wild Rockies handbook. the book contained maps, times, sponsors, class and rule descriptions, and entry forms. We printed and mailed tens of thousands of the books to racers all over the West. We knew that we'd have to spend an enormous amount of money on the books but we were certain that it would be a wise investment.
Even with some pretty serious sponsors dollars in hand, we had to take a second mortgage out on our house to start the 1998 season. We decided to move the business out of the house and into a real office. We hired a receptionist, a webmaster, and an assistant who would travel with us to each event and oversee venue set-up and tear-down. I wasn't worried though; we were sharp, we were experienced, and our events had been growing for 10 years.
Things actually started out okay. Conversations with NORBA were upbeat and everyone was excited by the record turnout at the Sea Otter. Our first event, held at the end of March, pulled just over 400 riders, even with bad weather. I felt that we were on track. To my horror, however, our numbers dropped several weeks later at Seattle Rocks. This event was supposed to be another Sea Otter and we felt that it could be, since it was the first mountain bike race ever held at Seattle International Raceway. Although I was concerned about the $6,000 track rental fee, we were located 25 minutes from downtown Seattle and I was sure that the event would draw over 500 riders. When just over 300 showed up, I felt the first wave of nausea hit me.
The next weekend we held the annual Finley Hills event in Central Washington. The weather was picture perfect and....attendance dropped nearly 100 riders from the previous year. A few days later we ran our first $8 Wednesday night, non-NORBA weekly race in Spokane. I grinded my teeth when only 19 riders came out. Then days later, at the Coeur d' Alene Challenge in Northern Idaho, we were down nearly 100 riders compared to the 1997 event. I just didn't get it; in '97 it rained all weekend, yet the '98 race was sunny and warm. I was frustrated and puzzled and scared stiff.
I tried not to take it personally. As the year wore on I discovered that it wasn't just our Wild Rockies Series that was hurting, Mammoth was down, Big Bear was down, the NORBA Nationals were down and the Nike New England Series tipped precipitously.
Rider turnouts continued to plummet for us. Week after week, our cross country race turnouts limped along, and downhill event turnouts shriveled up like an old prune. We spent thousands and thousands of dollars gearing up for dual slalom events, thinking that surely riders would flock to watch and ride. It was a disaster; the biggest slalom field that we had all year was 55. By the time that the '98 season was over we had spiraled down to average just 249 riders per event.
After 12 years of doing just fine,we lost over $74,000 in 1998 and declared bankruptcy in December, 1998. The dream was over. One afternoon, this past fall, as I skulked around my house in defeat, the following letter arrived:
"I didn't race my bike last month. I stood in line, ready to pay an exorbitant $30, plus $5 late fee to ride two, eight-mile loops at Big Mountain. I wrote out my check, while trying to justify this expenditure....I cannot write the thoughts that ran through my head while I wrote the check....I decided to void the check, and then went for a nice hike with my family...I competed in this race for the last two years and had just as much fun racing for $15 ad I did for $20, but I can't say that I would enjoy racing my bike after being reamed for $35. "
What The Hell Happened?
First, there were way too many events to support the current rider base. Since the number of new riders coming into mountain bike racing has slowed to a trickle, event supply simply out-raced demand. Second, too many races also pushed event value down. Mountain bike races used to be much less common and each event was unique. those traits helped them to hold their perceived and actual value. Third, mountain bike racing was no longer "the fresh new kid on the block." People have always looked for new thrills such as Ultimate Frisbee and off-road roller-blading. People are fickle, always have been, always will be.
You're Race Is How Much?
Mountain bike racers aren't comfortable paying entry fees over $20. That isn't to say that they won't, (1,200 people semi-happily paid $100 each at the 24-Hours of Moab recently), however they have clearly demonstrated to me that they just don't want to go there. That isn't to say that mountain bike racers don't have the money, because many of them do; they just don't want to spend it on racing. Many times I've had a racer show up at one of my events driving a $60,000 Range Rover and the leave the venue because $30 was too high of a fee for them to tolerate. They'll spend it on tattoos, but they won't spend much money on race fees, even when the fee includes all kinds of cool stuff.
I Don't Wanna Join NORBA!
I don't think that most bicycle racers care about NORBA, or IMBA, either, (where NORBA sends some substantial money each year). They want to ride and race, not join things. Perhaps they should care, perhaps they should join, but they don't want to. We just barely managed to convince riders to go with NORBA until 1998. When beginner, one-day licenses rose from $3 to $5, ( a 60 percent increase) that was the breaking point for our beginner turnouts. In 1997, our beginner riders comprised 55 percent of our racer numbers. In 1998, that number dropped to 35 percent.
Unplugging The Sport
I'm no longer a professional promoter; the bankruptcy, ( and my concerned family) saw to that but I am going to host some events in 1999 just for fun. I've decided to return to the good old days of 1987-1995, before the races got to be so big., complicated and expensive. My new series of events called "Wild Rockies Unplugged." We won't offer t-shirts, bands, race packets, swim passes, or free food. We won't have sponsors, (expect for the local bike shops) nor will we offer prizes to the top three in each class. We will, however, offer world-class courses accurate timing and results, beautiful, custom medals, and nice prize raffle drawings. Entry fee will drop to around $15.
Mountain bike racing is here to stay. It will survive with or without me and with or without NORBA. It will go up and down a number of times. I've been involved with motorcycle racing since 1971 and it has gone through some high highs and some low lows. But motorcycle racing has reached a certain level of maturity and stability that mountain bike racing is still years away from attaining. But the AMA has learned some though lessons from its members, the kind of lessons NORBA is going to have to learn in 1999.
Not all of the problems with mountain bike racing are NORBA's fault, of course. My Wednesday night, non-NORBA series, which flopped miserably, proves that. We won't ever have the sheer numbers, for instance, of a sport like running. The Sea Otter, the crown jewel, top-dog event in the U.S. , pulled 4,000 racers. How many foot races pulled that many last year? A lot. The Bloomsday Run, in Spokane, Washington had 49,000 last year and they were depressed about their draw. I don't care what anyone does; the big numbers simply aren't there for mountain racing, at least no in this country. Period. No one is going to become a "Don King" or "Donald Trump" in this sport, no matter which side of the equation they're on.
I made a terrible mistake. I allowed my ego, (and boy, do promoters have egos) to lead me around. I catered to my sponsor's whims too heavily and lost sight of why racers came out to race every weekend in the first place. They deserted me in droves. Let my story serve as a warning to those who assume that they have all the answers. If you lose sight of your customers, they'll desert you.
After talking to dozens of riders, from beginner to pro, I'm convinced that I'm on to something here. Mountain biking started out as a cheap, grass-roots, no nonsense sport and I should have kept my events that way. Not one person has complained that I'm doing away with t-shirts, or prizes, or NORBA. Not one. Let the good times roll.