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Prize Purse Strings: Drawn Too Tight?

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 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.


**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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