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Afew years back my friends and I were pulling some shuttle laps at the local hill when something curious and striking happened. As I pulled the truck into the lot at the top a kid, about 10 years old, recognized the man in my passenger seat and flung his arms in our direction. He was reaching out as if drowning and my passenger was his lifeline. We parked, hopped out and started grabbing our bikes when the boy’s father approached to inform us that his now frozen son was a huge fan. My longtime friend turned around and extended his hand, “I’m Cameron, nice to meet you.” Cam made the time to chat, signed some stuff, took a few photos and we resumed our day of shuttling and riding.

 

My friend is Cameron Zink, a rider of great accomplishments and growing fame. I knew Cam was becoming a recognizable figure when our rides had become riddled with “Holy shit, you’re Cam Zink,” from people on the trails or in ticket offices. Bystanders began to snipe photos when they thought no one was looking. It is particularly wild because of all the people that are enamored with Cam Zink, he (Cam) is not among them. Cam is modest, friendly and eager to give back to the sport. What Cam recognizes is that he is not unique among a sea of other hard-working, talented athletes.

Professional mountain bikers are heroes to many, role models to some and cash cows to others. They are beloved by fans and exploited by industry. It is in the realm of competition that this exploitation is most prevalent. When racers and competitors cross the threshold of the start ramp, they lay it all on the line. They must do so for love because they certainly aren’t doing it for the prize money. An oft-discussed topic, the modest winnings of athletes was brought revealed once again with the arrival of a press release from an unlikely agent.

Top-level fandom abounds for Loic.

Vital was recently sent a press release from Cycligent Inc announcing a new game platform that allows players to compete against each other in real time, for real money. The prize purse at the CVR World Games totals $100,000 in cash prizes. This is a ton of money up for grabs for people that can either use a stationary trainer or a controller. A quick look into Cycligent Inc and we found (via Zoominfo.com) that company to be only 15 people with annual revenue of $3 million. Those with a business or sales background would see the cash prizes as part of the marketing budget and generally speaking, understand that this isn’t a massive amount of money to put out there. Let’s be clear here, nobody is dogging the video gamers for making some cake, rather, let’s evaluate the opposite. The winner of the women’s CVR World Cup event brought home a check for $10,000. That is double what the winner at a UCI World Cup will bring home.

Croatia crowds.

The UCI’s annual report gives a fantastic outline of the governing body’s structure, revenue stream and generally just how large a body it really is. While we may be a clever lot, we are not financial analysts, not leaving us with much room for speculation or interpretation. Here are the black and whites though: in 2017 the UCI posted a gross margin of $15.2 million Swiss Francs. That is profit after all expenses are reported. What is also clear is that the UCI pulls the majority of its income from competitions (those races we tune into) accounting for 70% of the UCI’s revenue stream in 2017. Certainly, the story is larger than these two numbers but let’s play along anyway and say this: the UCI makes the majority of its income (far more than Cycligent) from the races at which it gives the attending racers very little money. In fact, if a World Cup racer were to have zero sponsors, pay his/her own to way to a race, win that thing and go home; that racer would likely only break even. We were pumped to see an additional stop on the 2019 downhill World Cup calendar, but what are we raving about? A new revenue stream for the UCI while our racing heroes continue to make beans? While the UCI may deserve a bit of criticism, it is not alone in short sheeting racers.

Fort William World Cup DH and its massive crowd. The spectators have flocked to the highlands for years to watch great racing.

The United States is interesting in that this was the place that spawned the sport, yet seems to have trouble supporting a strong national series that actually pays out to its racers. At the 2018 National Championships, riders had to protest the race to get any sort of payout. At a time when the US is having a resurgence of talent at the global level, the national governing bodies reply with a resounding, “meh.” Per the 2019 USAC regulations, the minimum payout at a level A event (national champ) for road/cyclocross/track event is $10,000. For a mountain bike event of the same level, the minimum is $1,000. A ten-fold differential is ludicrous. Market research at the national level shows mountain bike sales growing and beginning to eclipse road bike sales. Sales may not directly translate to race entries but surely the market trends call into question such a disparity in payout. Dare we suggest trying to be a bit proactive in the support of the growing mountain bike realm? Once upon a time, the national circuit in the US was a global spectacle, nationally televised and attended by the masses. As NORBA dissolved there were those competitors that turned their eyes to a different medium of competition: judged events and a festival format, namely, Crankworx.

Zink at home.
Zink at work.

Crankworx is an awesome series that adds a blend of so many things that make mountain biking great. It is with a bit of irony that while their marketing team is sharing Crankworx’s contributions to women competitors, we call out the monetary contributions to all athletes. Equality isn’t so stunning when the payout is small. A particular rider/racer friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, gave up on the Crankworx series to focus solely on a different race series. An established racer, he did so because the risks associated with winning were not worth the paychecks being offered. His schedule is simpler and he rides a little happier. Fortunately, his backing sponsors are good with this. Beyond the slopestyle event, not much prize money is put up for competitors at Crankworx. Troy Brosnan snagged $7,500 for his DH win in Whistler. Better than a World Cup but still, short of his value.

Crankworx Slopestyle circa 2005, Gully over the massive crowd. Joyride (as it's now known) has been the one Crankworx event that has paid athletes reasonably well for the risk.

Readers may intuitively know that mountain biking is on the rise**, if you didn’t, now you do. The fact of the matter is that these are not lean times for the sport. Our governing bodies most likely know that mountain biking is spreading its seed. Crankworx has grown far beyond the one stop Whistler pilgrimage. There are rumors of even more stops being added to replace the recently dropped Les Gets venue. A simple look at the UCI revenue streams shows a 5% increase in shares by mountain biking. At least here in Americaland, demo stops and festivals are growing leaps and bounds as bike brands strategize on which ones to attend. Year over year, more viewers are tuning in to watch the World Cup races. This year the World Champs once again broke its own record with a cumulative of 46 million people tuning in from September 5th through the 9th. This does not include edits, recaps, and replays. According to Tubular Insights, Brandon Semenuk’s winning Rampage run from 2016 has 31.6 million views. By comparison, the Red Bull Stratos event, at the time the largest stream, had 9.5 million live viewers and is up to 41.2 million views. Keep in mind that Baumgartner’s historic jump has been out since 2012 and featured months of marketing and buildup. Rampage and the World Cup are transcending the sport and reaching audiences like never before. People that don’t ride are tuning in, much like the masses for pro ball sports. There may never be a more appropriate time than now to treat and pay our athletes like superstars to inspire more young people into the sport.

A long career isn't dependent on big prize purses as Greg Minnaar has proven. The small handful of successful athletes make their cheddar with their sponsorship arrangements. But, do you think any top performers would be bummed at an extra solid six-figures per year in legitimate prize purse money?

In commentaries of announcers or online reporting, Cameron would often say to me that these outlets are building the heroes of the sport, get it right. Cam was referencing proper facts and events but I would apply this sentiment to the bottom line. The first time I saw Shaun Palmer in real life, he was exiting the bathroom. It was a good thing I was on the way in because I nearly pooped my pants. My friends and I idolized him, one of us even had the limited edition Manitou Palmer fork. The point is, we rode harder, took chances and loved the sport a little bit more because of the Palm. Fact: the bike industry would make a whole lot less money without the athletes that have given their lives to it. The exploitation of the professional mountain biker needs to expire. We are building our sport on the backs of these women and men. Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate a rider’s worth.

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**Pulling data for earnings of bicycle manufacturers is challenging. Much of that information is not shared. Most of the key players are not publicly traded, or they are part of a conglomerate in which individual earnings are not reported. In this case, it would not be appropriate to call our favorite brands to task over rider salaries. The numbers just aren’t there, and we would just be that crazy person shouting at the sky. We do have some stats worth sharing though. According to the United States National Bicycle Dealers Association 2015 report, the specialty bicycle market (bikes sold in bike shops) is worth $4.72 billion in annual revenue and is growing. Also, while there are fewer shops year over year, those shops that remain are making more money each year, up 20% as of the 2015 report. The average bike shop in the United States pulls in $1,196,166 in annual gross revenue. Mountain bikes account for 20% of a shop’s bike sales, topped only by road bikes (21%) and hybrid/cross bikes (24.9%) The purpose and point of all this data only serves to build the point that our sport is far from struggling. Looking deeper into the racing aspect of our sport further validates the strength of mountain bikes at a global level.

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BHowell BHowell 2/24/2019 8:41 AM

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I think we have to carefully consider what we want from the sport. Increased revenue means increased viewers/exposure. That means making the courses more TV friendly, i.e. dumbing them down, with more motorway sections and bigger jumps, less tech and gnar. Most people who participate in these events do it for the love of it, not the money. It would be interesting to hear the racer's response if it was put to them that they could earn more, but the tracks would become more boring to ride and the chance of serious injury would rise due to the higher speeds. Also bike sales do not, and never have, related to viewing figures.

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Does anyone else doubt that techgnar (TM) is worse for TV? I do. I'm not sure where this sentiment comes from. I think you need jumps and some high speed, but that doesn't mean the best races to watch are *just* that.

Here is my big point in this argument...

Has any non F1 fan watched a race and gone "dang the speed they are going makes me an immediate fan"?
Has any non WC ski fan ever watched a race and gone "dang the speed they are going makes me an immediate fan"?
Has anyone watched a Nascar race and...wait a minute, I'm removing that analogy...

My point is, the reason you love a sport has very little to do with the "stunt" and more to do with the drama, the sport, the "who" behind the full face.

All out speed may catch your attention for a nanosecond. But if thats all we wanted to watch, the luge would be wildly popular on TV (its not).

As far as making racing closer or whatever, that too i don't buy.

The real issue with the sport isn't the coverage on the TV side, though that could be much better, as we're usually missing most of the run. The weak point is telling the story behind the sport.

I'd argue Vital is really responsible for a lot of this, as nobody tells that story better. Without it, its just a bunch of super athletic risk takers hurling themselves down a mountain. Its a yawnfest no matter what.

Tell the story in an engaging way...people will pay attention. Tell it in a way that most people can get into, whether they ride 7 times a year or 70, and you'll really start to grow the economics of racing...

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For more info. on the operating margins of the different disciplines within UCI:

https://www.uci.org/docs/default-source/publications/2017-uci-annual-report.pdf?sfvrsn=fa472489_4
P.114
III. FINANCIAL STATEMENT DISCLOSURE
1. REVENUES, EXPENSES & OPERATING MARGINS

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I think this is an interesting topic. Unfortunately, its a bit like yelling at a sofa to start speaking. No matter how loud you yell, its just going to sit there. Sit on it, lay on it, or don't use it. The Sofa doesn't care.

I get the feeling we are all wishing this was a bit more like golf, where the prize money from a tournament is so big it pays the way of the golfer, alone, so long as you make it to Sunday. Why shouldn't it be?! Well, the infrastructure isn't there, period.

The UCI is an event company, all things considered. They make money on running events. They seem to do a pretty good job running a fair, top quality event. Complain all you want, but they run a tight ship with respect to rules, regulations and consistency.

The problem is two fold. First, the audience isn't big enough. If it was, I'd make the argument free market economics would have long ago done "its thing". EG some other alternative comes to fruition with so much money on the line the UCI events stop being as relevant. Why put up all this money to run an event? Because you can sell sponsorships & commercials to make it worth it. Eyeballs. Unfortunately, ***we are nowhere near big enough for this type of risk to be worth it***. Its hard to sell tickets to a DH race (compared to something like moto). Its hard to communicate the sport to the masses. The culture isn't there yet like it is in ski racing. Its not an Olympic sport bla bla bla.

Second, the big problem is the way the rider ranking works. Its 100% leveraged to the UCI. I'd argue if there was a ranking system that actually mattered more than the UCI than other events become more viable. I'm borrowing this from golf actually, being most players don't attend the same exact events through a calendar year. This could make it more competitive from an event standpoint, and it'd be worth it to run US Open style events with big prize money to get the best riders to attend - and it wouldn't just matter from a $ and cents perspective, but from a world ranking as well.

In the end if things keep growing and we start to move away from a UCI-only approach to the top level of racing, (that doesn't mean we bury them) we'll see purses grow.

Otherwise, why would anyone change anything? Riders keep showing up...so what incentive is there?

On the grassroots/regional/national level - different conversation, but it all trickles down from the top IMO

PS - I didn't even get into the whole "gnarstagram has ruined the pie" part of the equation. But I think we all know that at this point.

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Not sure prize money is really that important when only 3 guys and girls will be taking anything worthwhile home in the best case scenario. I find this is a bit of a fallacy in the "esports" community, where video gaming tournaments have million $ prizes pools, but you have thousands of players hoping to compete, does that really help the sport/community?

I think you should be looking at the athletes' wages, and more specifically how these drop off further down the pecking list. Because to be top 20, if not top 40, already requires you to devote most of your time to training.

More specifically, I am still blown away that Gwin managed to rake in the contracts he has, and good for him, but that doesn't mean I would suddenly consider an MTB racing career as a viable choice. It seems like DH is pretty good, even guys outside the top 20 have a salary, so long as they do a bit marketing for their sponsors, although I wonder if any top racers are still getting screwed like Nathan Rennie alluded to in his podcast (referring to 20 years ago). In enduro, I know consistent dudes ranking in the world series top ten are racing for free: they just get bikes, hotels and plane tickets. Taking into account the preparation time, the risks and the short duration of the careers, it seems pretty crazy.

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Solid points all around, much like T-Rex pointed out. Payouts should go deeper. If you read the footnote, you'll see why we didn't take a look at rider's salaries: we have some gut feelings at who is/isn't making what kind of money but no hard data to back it. With regard to esports, the jump off for this article is the direct, first place payout being double that of a UCI race winner.

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Tracks are getting faster and more dangerous by the year and these guys and girls definitely deserve better salaries. That said, no one is living off prize money alone. It's a nice bonus but the real money is made in sponsorship and endorsement deals, which placing well in races provides access to.

Bike companies and major sponsors (RB etc) should be paying their athletes more. Listening to the Rennie podcast on here a few months back, it was disappointing to hear how little the Aussies were paid to ride in the early to mid 2000s. Perhaps if the pro riders were more transparent about their salaries (at least among themselves), then they could secure better deals.

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Start new series, grab every sponsor known to man, jack up ticket prices, ADVERTISE, and pay our heroes what they deserve. Obviously there are massive holes in what I said but it is what it is, something has to give. Great article

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I suggest lobbying you local uci rep. And for them to listen you'll need uci membership anduse your vote!

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Some uncomfortable counter arguments:
*Firstly, the UCI only care about road&track because it accounts for >95% of its revenue.
Mtb is a pain in the ass for the UCI - relative to R&T, Mtb is the same effort for a tiny amount of reward.
You said yourself that the UCI made 15 million Swiss Francs in '17. Man, that is fucq all for the size of that organisation. You think they're gonna spend some of that on prize money for a Mtb event? Wake up - no chance!
That's barely the wage of a decent World Tour Cyclist.
*There simply isn't more money available in gravity cycling sports. No one involved is creaming a ton of cash from it - not the brands, the events or the UCI. There just aren't that many people participating in it.
The only reason brands have DH riders/teams is either to market their brand name in general, not to sell DH bikes; or because the owners are riders.
*Gravity cycling struggles to get ANY sponsorship from outside of cycling, only Redbull is the obvious one (plus Merc threw a few coppers in to park a car under the occasional jump). How many teams are sponsored by banks, insurance companies, beer brands, car companies etc - pretty much none. There's no Carling Premiership or Team Sky in Mtb. Even GoPro can only be bothered to make a token effort with Mtb.
*Mtb is a bubble - one that feels massive when you're in it, but to the general public, it's about as important as rollor blading.
*There are more BC licence holders that identify as a BMXer than a Gravity rider in the UK and I suspect that's fairly typical. It's probably also relevant to point out that the BC is officially registered as a charity, not a corporation.
* And finally, I very much doubt that Mtb is "growing" as described in this article. Individual events may be increasing, but general participation I suspect is plateauing or declining. There's too much supply and not enough demand.

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I hear where you are headed but there are some key elements missing here:
Road and Track do not make up 95% of the UCI revenue, I wrote that in black and white and we provided a link to the financials. That is the old thought, MTB is growing, eclipsing other avenues in the sport. That 15 million Francs is AFTER all expenses, that is their final profit. I agree, that is not very much but definitely enough to share some more with the riders that draw the audiences.

Also, while this site may be gravity skewed, I am drawing a point for all of mountain biking, not just gravity.

As for the "growing" that was referenced, read the footnote. There are real, documented market figures to justify the claim. Mountain biking is growing in size and profits as well as media influence.

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Some good points there.

Are you sure about the World Tour Cyclist wage? 15million CHF is £11.5 million.
The current pro men's minimum salary is around £33k. That's quite a difference.

I just Googled and Chris Froome's salary is around £3million.

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Yeah point taken, but I never said average wage.
Plus I'm sure Froome will be close to £11m by the time you include other endorsements - it's ball park anyway and I doubt Froome is the highest paid cyclist either (Sagan? I dunno)

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Hate to be a pedant but...wage means how much you get paid by your employer. It doesn't include endorsements. I know you didn't say average, but you used the word 'decent'. I'd say most of the guys on the World Tour are decent.

Peter Sagans current salary is €6million or £5.2million.

It would be misleading to say a decent World Cup downhiller earns in excess of a $1million a year when actually you are talking about Aaron Gwin.

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The article asks if the purse strings are too tight event promoters pay the riders-not really sure the question was answered here, but, I think you need someone with the insights from UCI and key race promoters to chime in on what it takes to get a top tier series/race off the ground-it's not just some course tape and a timing system.....and lets not forget about what it costs to stream this LIVE all over the f-ing world! (Redbull World Cup DH, Crankworx, Redbull Rampage).

Your UCI margin number doesnt get into the weeds of MTB specific finances either-I don't think? I am not trying to prove a point or pick a side. I'd love to see athletes make more money from prize money AND their sponsors, i've done the best I could at the company I work at to up the ante, as have many others.

If I look to our sister sport-motocross, think Monster Cup in Vegas, where they give away one million dollars to the winner of all 3 races, does that change the game, make the sport better? who puts that money up? insurance monster takes out? I dont know. rambling now because of too much cold meds. Thanks for posting this, always good to get thinking about this topic.

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one of my big takeaways on this is the discrepancy on payouts re: road vs mtb, and that its time to start correcting this.

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The point here was to point out the low prize money and chide the governing bodies to put up some money for our heroes. Our sport (all elements) is on the rise and I foresee a tipping point where the riders/companies/promotors will have to sort out which one is the key player. Crowds fill hills and tune in online to watch the riders. No riders, no show. If the media outlets don't cover the race, nobody can watch and we all lose. If there are no events, how will we know who is best?

It is all connected and I know that much like myself, you are for the riders but can also see the other sides. Always appreciate hearing your two-cents.

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The organizers and their sponsors provide the prize money for an mtb event, not the UCI. I agree that riders should get more, but if raising the amount of prize money would not be financially viable for organizers then you will see a lot less races on the calendar.

It doesn't have anything to do with viewership or bike sales or likes+engagement on social media. A race event is isolated from that. Marketing helps, sure, but a million likes on Insta or Facebook doesn't necessarily translate to a profitable race event. A city may have ten thousand mountain bikes sold in a year but it doesn't necessarily mean that you get 1000 participants in a nearby DH race.

Fact is, outside of the World Cup or World Championships, most mtb race organizers (from club to Class 3 and even Class 1 and Hors Classe races) make very little profit on events on the UCI calendar. If it weren't for sponsorship, races would not survive on registration fees alone, particularly if you wanted a high quality event.

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I wholeheartedly agree with you. And to your point, I state that the UCI should shell out for the riders. Also, broaden your scope, I am not just talking about gravity events. But, since you mentioned it, why would any company have a gravity team anyway?

I know first hand (and you may know as well) that DH bike sales are down. Why should a company spend so much to have a gravity team? Answer: because DH races sell trail bikes. It is marketing and it moves units. Again, I say this as someone from inside the industry with first hand experience.

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Real changes need to have a coordinated effort from the top most officials. Problem is- they don’t see anything as a problem. Their perspective is: we just coordinating an event for athletes to display their talent ......and their current or future sponsors can splash the cash. They figure: You don't like the prize money.......? Then stay home and make a YouTube video of your bike race (or whatever you do).
It’s kinda like the Health Care industry - everybody knows it’s whole corrupt but what else can you do as a consumer? Corruption and greed is the standard and the people that *could* change it don’t see any problems with the current system.

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For me, this article highlights the fact that there should be a better payout to at least share a bit of the profit from the races, and those payouts should go a bit deeper in the field. Lets say you make the cut in the world cup, race in the top 20 or 25 qualifiers, and get RedBull TV coverage. You end up 11th, the payout is exactly $0 according to this. Even more insulting might be the 200 Euros for a tenth place finish:

https://www.uci.org/docs/default-source/financial-obligations/ucifinancialobligations-mtb18-multi_neutral.pdf?sfvrsn=5e611d8a_12

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