The Future of 24 Hour Racing and USA Cycling National Championships…is it really the Economy?
With all the online chatter and brouhaha about Granny Gear canceling the 24 Hour National Championships at Big Bear (VA WV), we wanted to find out if it really is the economy that’s hurting the race and what changes, if any, USA Cycling is making to stabilize future events.
First, a little background.Ã‚Â If you care about the race, you already know the championships have been moved to Moab, UT, later this year…which is another Granny Gear event, and the site of the 2009 championships.
Kelli Lusk, mountain bike communications manager for USA Cycling, told us they agreed to let Laird Knight (Granny Gear’s founder) move the event because Granny Gear told them they just couldn’t make the WV event happen this year due to the economy.Ã‚Â (NOTE: We’ve left two messages with Granny Gear seeking comment, but they have not returned our calls.Ã‚Â If they do, I’ll update this post.)
What you may not know is that USA Cycling typically awards the events to a promoter and site for a two-year run, so taking the event back to Moab isn’t necessarily an odd move.Ã‚Â Actually, moving it to WV for 2010 was a break from tradition. Before that, it had been held in Wisconsin at the famed 24 Hours of 9 Mile for three consecutive years.Ã‚Â Oh, and the 2009/2010 24 Hour National Championships were originally to be at the Payson Stampede 24 Hour in Tucson, AZ, but that event was cancelled after 2008 because their primary sponsor backed out.
But, if the economy’s to blame, it begs the question: What will happen to the event for 2011 and beyond?Ã‚Â How do the championships, and 24 hour races in general, need to evolve?
Read on and see…
ARE ENTRY FEES THE PROBLEM?
“(USA Cycling) takes into consideration the location, course quality, community support and racer experience,” Lusk said.Ã‚Â But they haven’t evaluated entry fees when considering who to award the National Championships too.
Based on reader and rider comments over the past week, entry fees are of growing importance to participants, and Granny Gear’s are the highest of all events we checked.Ã‚Â For 2009, a solo entry into 9 Mile, Moab or Big Bear was $310 to $340.Ã‚Â A four-person team entry was $480 to $600. Like most events, prices vary depending on how early you register.
24 Hours of Adrenalin, who used to have a nationwide series of events throughout the U.S. and Canada with over 10,000 participants in 2003, now offer only three events, including the Solo World Championships in Australia.Ã‚Â Their Hurkey Creek (SoCal) event entry fees are $240 to $300 for solo and $525 to $575 for a five-person team.
For comparison, I spoke with three smaller, grassroots race promoters to see what their entry fees and attendance are for similar events.
Terri Berger, co-owner of Gone Riding, the largest mountain bike race promoter in the Southeast and host of threeÃ‚Â 2010 US MTB Cup events, said their cross country numbers were up last year.
“Our 12 Hour of Santos attendance was up about 10% from the prior year,” Berger said.Ã‚Â “We had a little over 400 people entered in the 6- and 12-hour event, and we’re seeing more and more solo riders, especially in the 6-hour events.”
Gone Riding’s solo entry is $60 and a 4-person team entry is $140.Ã‚Â Regarding the cancellation, Berger says “I think (Granny Gear’s) price point is pretty high, which might be part of the problem.Ã‚Â We don’t do a 24 hour event, but with all of our events we try to keep our entry fees reasonable.Ã‚Â Our XC races are only $25, and we’ve only raised that price only once since we’ve started putting on events 16 years ago.”
Next, I spoke with Jason Bumgarner, president of the Brushy Mountain Cyclists Club, which puts on the BURN 24 Hour Challenge.Ã‚Â Now in it’s 10th year, the BURN 24 is the largest 24 hour mountain bike race in the Southeast.Ã‚Â This year’s entry fees are $80 to $130 for Solo and $300 to $435 for a 5-person team.
“Registration for this year’s BURN is on track to beat last year’s, and we’ve grown the event every year since we’ve run it,” Bumgarner said.Ã‚Â “Our club uses this event as a fundraiser, and each year we’re able to raise several thousand dollars that BMCC uses to build new trails and repair existing ones.Ã‚Â I think we’re proof that an event can offer a great experience, be priced fairly and be profitable.”
(Full Disclosure: I started the BURN 24 in 2001, but turned over ownership and management to BMCC in 2006.Ã‚Â Bikerumor is a sponsor of that event, but neither I nor our company gains financially from the event.Ã‚Â We sponsor it because we believe in the sport and BMCC’s mission.)
WHAT ABOUT THE RACER EXPERIENCE?
If you’re never been to a Granny Gear or Adrenalin event, it’s a massive production.Ã‚Â To their credit, they’ve invested a ton in their timing system, tents, stages and vendor city.Ã‚Â Smaller events, including the BURN 24 and Gone Riding’s events, don’t generally have much of an expo with sponsor tents or beer gardens, so perhaps that’s what the extra costs are paying for…the experience.
Maybe, but there are two faults with that logic.Ã‚Â First, sponsors and exhibitors generally pay (sometimes more than $1,000) to set up shop and hawk their wares at larger events like Granny Gear, Sea Otter, etc. In theory, those sponsorship and expo fees should subsidize the entry fees.
Second, for solo racers, the race is the experience.Ã‚Â Assuming they’re in it to win it, there’s no time to walk around an expo, hang out with friends or check out vendors, and from talking to various promoters, more and more people are trying their hand at Solo racing.Ã‚Â Combined, this makes it almost nonsensical to charge a comparatively high entry fee to solo racers…right?
Some promoters may say that it costs just as much to set up and manage a solo racer as it does a team, so they need to charge more.Ã‚Â In business, small clients and customers do generally take just as much time and energy to manage as larger, more profitable ones, but does this translate to racing?
“Solo riders need to appreciate that the opportunity to race solo, with all of the medical and sag support throughout the event, is on the back of (ie. subsidized by) team riders,” says Stuart Dorland, founder of 24 Hours of Adrenalin.Ã‚Â He said the 24 Hour Solo Championships never make money…not that they’re not important, they’re just not a money making event.
In contrast, Charlotte Sports Cycling founder Neal Boyd, who puts on the Treeshaker 12 Hour and several 6-hour and 50 mile events every year, says there’s no need for the per-person fees to differ.
“It doesn’t make sense to me when some events charge more per person for solo than for someone on a team.Ã‚Â We charge the same $60 per participant fee – same for solo, duo or team,” says Boyd.Ã‚Â “We’re profitable on all of our events, and I’d put my events up against any other event in terms of value for what each participant gets.”
So, what about the experience?Ã‚Â Well, that depends on what you want to get out of the event.Ã‚Â For some, the team camaraderie, expo, vendors and getting to see and talk to the brands’ reps is an important part of the experience.Ã‚Â For others, solo racers in particular, they’re either out racing or hunkered down in their pit area resting, staying warm or eating, drinking and sleeping.
WHY THE PRICE DISCREPANCY BETWEEN ‘GRASSROOTS’ AND ‘NATIONAL’ EVENTS?
Adrenalin rolls onto a race venue early in the week in a full size tractor trailer, and the transformation begins.
The difference between a grassroots 24 hour race and a national one is course tape strung between survey sticks versus metal barricades.Ã‚Â It’s banners hung between trees versus 30-flags lining the transition chute.Ã‚Â It’s a soapbox versus an elevated stage.Ã‚Â It’s a single-speaker microphone versus a mega-wattage PA sound system.
“People look at the cost of events, and I would challenge them to consider that a 24 hour race is a Friday, Saturday, Sunday event, and for a promoter like us, we’re bringing the event to the biggest, best trails,” says Dorland. “Smaller promoters are working with trails in their backyards and don’t have the same costs associated with putting them on.”
“People want to keep driving the price point down, and I’m not trying to say ‘oh poor us promoters’ but you look at the price per person for a weekend event, and people on a team are only paying about $130 each for a three day festival…that’s not too bad.
“There are a lot of great small races like the BURN, Great Glen and others…anywhere there’s a great trail, there should be a 24 hour race.Ã‚Â But I believe there needs to be someone out there driving the sport, bringing attention to (24 hour racing) the way the Ironman events do for triathlon.Ã‚Â 90% of the racers in these events are non-licensed racers; the weekend warriors that are buying the $1,500 bikes that are the bread and butter of local bike shops.Ã‚Â So the larger events are important for the industry, too, because they drive interest in the 24 hour category overall.
“At present, there’s only one ‘grassroots’ event that draws more than 1,000 people, and that’s the 24 Hours of Old Pueblo.Ã‚Â I think it’s a shame that there isn’t a quality national series that creates all the major hoopla of a ‘circus coming to town’ in order to raise the bar for these types of events. Additionally, as a large event, we’re able to do more for the industry…we’re the number one IMBA supporter in Canada (excluding major corporations), and we’re able to raise a lot of money for other charities.Ã‚Â These are the things we do, but people continually bash us for being ‘greedy’ because of entry fees.”
Race entries at Hurkey Creek have been down for three years, which Dorland says is somewhat due to the economy.Ã‚Â He added that it’s also directly related to the amount of marketing that supports the event to get the word out and build excitement, for which his budget has dropped considerably in recent years in part because overall sponsorship dollars have dropped (and other factors).
I asked Dorland if an event like Hurkey Creek could be put on if the only income were race entries, to which he replied:
“To be able to put on an event of the magnitude that we want, we rely on sponsorship income to be able to do this for a living.Ã‚Â One of the guys behind Ironman used to say, ‘whatever fees you get from racers need to go back into the event, whatever you get from sponsors is how you can put food on your plate,’ and that’s what I believe.”
So are the smaller events better because they’re cheaper?Ã‚Â Or, are the larger events better because they help further the sport and bring the show?Ã‚Â Actually, they’re both good, they’re just different.Ã‚Â Ultimately, people (myself included) like to bitch and moan about high prices, but in the end we need to vote with our dollars.Ã‚Â Do you want Disney World, or a carnival? If we think an experience is worth the money and we believe in the people behind it, then by all means, we should go for it.
“People are going to choose a few important things to do each year,” Dorland said, “and if we’re going to ask people to spend one of the weekends with us, we better provide the best experience we can…and that’s what we strive to do.”
In 2003, Adrenalin was sued by Granny Gear (that’s a whole ‘nother story), and both promoters have since dwindled to only one U.S. 24 hour event in 2010.Ã‚Â Lawsuits and related factors not withstanding, it’s worth pointing out that while you can find gripes about the entry fees dating back as far as you care to search online, both series were at one point growing.
While it’s easy to immediately pin the blame on the economy for their decline, it’s worth considering that over the past decade, a lot of grassroots 12- and 24 hour races popped up that not only provide a quality experience, but one that’s closer to home and offers lower entry fees and lower overall cost of participation due to decreased travel.Ã‚Â So, while the economy may be partially to blame, perhaps more people are choosing to participate in the smaller events out of convenience as much as cost.Ã‚Â Or, maybe they’ve done the big ones and want to try something new.Ã‚Â Variety, after all, is the spice of life.Ã‚Â Either way, it’s taken a bite out of Adrenalin and Granny Gear.
A RANDOM POINT WORTH MAKING
A common misconception among racers, and one I used to share, was that race promoters were making mad money off their events.Ã‚Â Having started and run the BURN 24 Hour Challenge for the first five years before turning it over to BMCC, I can tell you first hand that there are a lot of expenses involved in putting on a race, and that folks who only put one or two on per year and absolutely, positively NOT making a living off of it.
For those that put on a complete annual schedule, though, they can make a living. Dave and Terri Berger at Gone Riding have been doing it for 16 years.Ã‚Â Neal Boyd at Charlotte Sports Cycling for 11.Ã‚Â But both parties put on in excess of 30 events every year, and some promoters are on the road for a good portion of the year.
Costs typically include portable toilets, property rental or fees, staffing, advertising, travel and whatever cash purse and trophies the promoter provides.Ã‚Â USA Cycling-sanctioned events also require an official, and some events use third party timing services, which can sometimes hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Hotels, travel, gas, meals, etc., all add up.Ã‚Â While it’s not my place to disclose, I know approximately what the BMCC clears after expenses for the BURN 24 Hour, and when you consider the hours worked by all of the club members,Ã‚Â the people involved would earn less than minimum wage.
SO WHAT ABOUT THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS?
Regardless of whether it’s the economy, a revolt against perceived too-high prices or just the abundance of endurance racing options, there is growing interest in what’s going to happen to the 24 Hour National Championships in 2011 and beyond.
Lusk says they’ve received a lot of inquiries from a number of great promoters since we posted about Big Bear being cancelled.
“We’ll be accepting proposals for 2011 and 2012, and we’ll be sending out the RFP in the next three or four weeks,” said Lusk. “Promoters that are interested should submit a proposal based on the guidelines within that RFP.”
(You can download the 2009/2010 RFP here if you’re interested)
I asked her if being a National Championship event inflated the entry price, if perhaps that’s why fees were so high:
“The promoter sets the entry fees, and USA Cycling charges a $15 fee per rider on top of that to cover the costs,” said Lusk.Ã‚Â “It’s only added if you’re entering into the national championships events and there are separate awards presentations.”
So you could race 24 Hours of Moab this year alongside people competing for the National Championship, but you’re not necessarily in contention for that honor unless you’ve paid the additional fee.
For promoters that are interested, Lusk said they’re looking for what kind of package promoters can bring to the table, which in some cases means financial consideration, but could also be other forms of partnership.Ã‚Â In return, USA Cycling brings the intrinsic value of increased interest (and presumably increased participation) in the event, a commitment of two years and promotion of the event on their National Championship calendar.Ã‚Â They’ll also bring in some of their series sponsors (Gatorade, Shimano, etc.) and provide the National Championship medals.
The promoter is responsible for any cash purse and the prize pool for the event, but they don’t need to provide separate prizes for the championships…that’s what the medals are for.
So what would’ve happened if Moab hadn’t been a viable backup this year?
Lusk said they didn’t have a backup plan, but they always have the option of putting on the event themselves without the assistance of a third party promoter.
Hopefully, smaller promoters will be able to bring compelling packages to the table.Ã‚Â The “weekend warriors” that are filling these events have shown that they’re not keen on paying exorbitant prices, but like Contador and Armstrong’s 2009 performances pushed each other to up their game for 2010, we need big events with the resources to raise the bar so that the sport continues to grow.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Have you done a smaller, regional race as well as a larger one?Ã‚Â Which did you prefer?Ã‚Â Which 24 hour race would you nominate for the National Championship?