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Five Things Hurting Pro BMX in America

January 10, 2017 by  

Five Things Hurting Pro BMX in America

As the days tick down to the USA BMX 2017 pro Opener in Phoenix, on February 17, we are starting to learn more about how things will be structured for the top classes in the new year. A big piece of that puzzle was fitted into place last Friday, as USA BMX sent an email to pros entitled “2017 USA BMX Pro Series Information.”

There were some routine housekeeping items, plus official word that all national races not carrying the “Pro Series” designation would be Pro Open on Saturday and Sunday—allowing pros of any designation to race (AA Pro Pro Women, A-Pro, Vet Pro).

There was also a bullet point that confirmed USA BMX would be funding the USA Cycling BMX Elite World Championship Team, AND contributing $120,000+ per year to USA Cycling in order to fund the BMX program’s international team.

But the big news was in the payout table. In 2016, the Elite Men purse money was based on the number of riders signed up (from 16 and fewer, with a $2000 purse; to 31-over riders with a $10,000 purse). That meant $3500 for the Elite Men’s win at big races like the Winter Nationals. The women were scheduled the same. They would get the same money as the men and, like the men, it would be according to rider count.

For 2017, however, UCI rules require that men and women be paid the SAME, no matter what—whether women have 8 and the men have 38, the pay needs to be the same.

The “equal pay” rule isn’t the only thing ruffling feathers. The amount of the purses has dropped considerably for 2017, from $10,000 at the big races ($3500 for the win) to $3,500 total ($1000 for the win). North American Supercross Series went from $20,000 for men and $10,000 for women, to $10,000 each.

This touched off a social media tsunami over the weekend, with a flurry of posts, often hundreds of comments deep, decrying the pay cut, and foretelling all kinds of “what happens next” scenarios. Some calling for a walkout, as happened in Nashville three years ago, and others prophesizing the end of the pro classes as we know them.

For every set of fingers tapping out comments, there is an opinion on how this “should” go down, and what factors are contributing to the recent downward momentum of the pro classes, and their relevence to the future of BMX Racing.

We took a few mins (ok, a few days) to ponder that as well, and came up with the following list of five things that are, in our opinion, hurting the potency of pros in the modern era.

This list is mostly centered around the pros as a marketing vehicle for brands, since sponsorship is almost-exclusively where their money comes from, whether via USA BMX or via their own direct sponsors. So things that impact the visibility or exposure time of the pros to consumers are large on this list.

5. Friday Night Elite Racing.
Friday at the 2016 Winter Nationals
BMX pros are a group of exceptional people—they do the hard things most of us can’t (or won’t) do, physically and mentally. But in this one thing, they’re just like the rest of us.

Most working stiffs, if given the option, would choose to NOT get up at 5:30AM that one day, every few weeks, when it’s “necessary.” Instead, we’ll try to shift that work to a day when we’re going to be at the office anyway. Human nature, right?

Rewind to 2015 (and earlier), the pros, understandably, did not relish the idea of getting up at 5:30AM on Sunday to be at the track for a 7:30 warmup and an 8AM-sharp first moto— only to sit around for two or three hours til they race again. Then try to make it out of town in time to get home Sunday night.

The story goes, the pros lobbied USA BMX to change the schedule, because of the “oh-dark-thirty” effect. Not sure if that’s true or not, but somehow we ended up with the Friday Night Elite race.

Anyone who has been to a Pro Series national in the past year can tell you that the Friday Night “pro show” is pretty much a non-event. Shifting day one of pro racing to Friday makes all the sense in the world, from a convenience point of view. But it makes no sense at all from a “keeping the pros relevant” point of view. Race, race, race. Podium in the pitch dark, out behind the trailer, where nobody’s watching, and see ya tomorrow.

4. “Hero” Status is Tougher Today.
Hero Status is Tougher
There was a time when we would look up to the BMX pros we saw in BMX Action or BMX Plus! as near-literal gods. You’d see Stompin’ Stu in the hotel coffee shop eating an omelette, and you’d be so stoked, and so nervous, you couldn’t eat your own ham & cheese. It was because you only saw Stu at that race, or in the magazine, two months later— at least if you were a kid from any other place that wasn’t So. Cal.

Today, we know everything there is to know about our pros. Social media has removed all “mystique” between the fans and the Elites. As with many of these points, on the surface, that sounds like a good thing…but, in reality, not so much.

Kids don’t hold heroes in the same regard as earlier generations did (or maybe it’s just different). Many can’t even name a favorite pro (we have asked). That’s a problem for the long-term viability of the pro class, if it is to remain something more than a few quick laps on the track, then a race back to rental car return.

3. The Every-Hour-On-the-Hour Running Order*
On the hour running order
Again, we bump up against what’s efficient and gets the pros done as quickly as possible, versus what’s important for keeping professional BMX Racing interesting to BMX families, and the brands who love them.

One example: on Friday of the Derby City Nationals in Louisville, the pros were finished with their total race day by early in second round.

There was a time when everyone knew to head for the fenceline at the start of each round of racing to watch the pros. We all know that, in BMX Racing, the participants (and their families) ARE the spectators.

With the every-hour-on-the-hour schedule, the fans are in staging, in the pits, out at the camper, at concessions, or otherwise concerned about their own race day. If the goal is to make pro racing an “event,” the every-hour-on-the-hour running order only serves to make pro racing just another series of gate drops, among the hundreds of others throughout a weekend. Some folks watch, but many miss out on seeing them.

* Note: sometimes it’s every 45 mins, or other than every-hour-on-the-hour…but pros don’t run at the top of the order anymore, which is our point here.

2. Counting on the Sanction, Exclusively, for Prize Money.
The Imaginary USA BMX Vault
It’s the way it’s always been done, we realize. And, if memory serves, it has NEVER been enough. Granted, I was out of the sport for the whole of the 90s and early-mid 00s, so maybe there was a time when those pros were like “Man, we got it GOOD at the payout window!” But I had not seen that from 78-88 or from 08-16.

In the 80s, when ABA awarded a Trans-Am to the #1 Pro, people complained it wasn’t a Porsche. When it was a Mustang, they wanted a Trans-Am (or a Porsche).

There’s an argument to be made that, without big-brand sponsor money dedicated—exclusively—to pro purses, and year-end awards, pro-specific money is a losing proposition for the sanction. Afterall, we don’t hear of hoards of amateur families deciding to travel to a race because it’s a $20,000 payout versus a $5,000 payout. USA BMX funds it because they feel a sense of responsibility to make a career in BMX Racing possible—albeit a hardscrabble existence at times.

Lots of keyboard warriors imagine there’s a USA BMX vault filled with cash, from wall to wall. The reality is that it’s a family business, subject to the peaks and valleys of the market just like any other enterprise.

The pro classes are waiting at the window for the pay to come to them. Maybe the time is coming when they go looking for the pay.

Could the pros band-together and go find an outside-the-industry sponsor for their series, using their own initiative? Of course they could— which is something we may see sooner rather than later, out of pure necessity. Will they work together to develop some ancillary revenue streams that are not exclusively prize money? We will soon find out.

1. UCI Influence

UCI Influence
BMX in the United States developed organically, with many of its rules and customs reflecting the sport’s motorcycle roots, as well as influences from all facets of American life.

In as much as BMX in the US had its uniquely-American influences, UCI BMX influences are more in the European tradition of road and track cycling.

Over the past eight years, it has been quite a “cultural adjustment” to align the American flavor of Pro BMX Racing with the UCI’s version (a harsh critic might say BMX in the US “sold its soul” for the Olympic dream).

UCI influence has all-but “bred-out” the American roots of the pro class in USA BMX racing and, in doing so, has weakened the DNA that keeps the pro class relevant in our country.

One big part of this is the trend away from pros/Elite champions running their #1 plate. Partly due to UCI rules that prohibit any #1 other than UCI W1 from appearing at UCI races, and partially due to riders wanting to stick with their UCI Career Number. So the story goes, at least.

Whatever the reason, rank and file BMXers don’t know who the champs are any longer, and that’s an under-appreciated problem for pros who rely on recognition as part of their worth to sponsors.

A 10 Inter should know who the #1 pros are (male and female). Ask five random kids at your local track (without leading the witness) and you’ll see how many can actually tell you who our reigning champs are. If it’s 1 in 5, I’d be surprised.

Conclusion
Take the BMX pro class down to its most basic element…the thing that tells us why it exists, in the first place. Industry-folk might say “to allow manufacturers a vehicle to showcase products and influence buying decisions.” Fans would have a different answer, riders, themselves would have their own answer.

I have deep respect and affection for all of our heroes in the pro class, and I badly want to see them succeed.

The pro classes must not end up like Pro Cruiser. Once a vibrant class, which ultimately devolved into one “cruise lap” stuck in at the end of 10 Novice, followed by a race lap, then done. Everyone gets to the airport before noon on Sunday (or Saturday, to use the current format).

Next time, fewer show up, until one day, almost-nobody shows up, and BMX, as a sport, moves on— as we did from Pro Cruiser. Today, almost no current rider under 16 remembers it. Make no mistake: it can happen.

Looking at the five points above with an open mind, it’s tough to come to any conclusion other than the very-underpinnings of the pro classes are being eroded.

Who’s at fault for that? No one firm or factor, by itself. Society, as a whole, is changing. How people purchase goods and services is changing. BMX Racing is changing.

The BMX pro classes may-just be next for a makeover, if they are to remain viable for the long-haul.

—Mike Carruth

Wrist watch image by: F Delventhal, via Flickr (edited by BMX news)
Facebook Like by Katie Sayer, via FLickr

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