Last week I wrote a bit of a diatribe on prize money and amateur cycling. If you haven't read it take a look here and make sure to complete a quick two minute survey on that subject. We'll come back to prize money in amateur cycling in a week or two. But in the interim that diatribe launched another personal project - a deep dive into the demographics and trends in CRCA membership.
As one of the largest USA Cycling clubs in the country I'd argue that CRCA serves as a reasonable proxy for the trends impacting categorized racing. Indeed as touched on in my prize money diatribe, CRCA Membership has mirrored the declines seen at USAC over the last five years. So I spent a potentially unfortunate amount of time in Excel digging through the numbers, constructing formulas to simplify an at times overwhelming data set and then building charts to express that data in a more consumption friendly format.
Even after nearly a decade in the club and a half decade as a board member most of this analysis was entirely new to me so hopefully it breaks some new ground, underscores some of the challenges for the sport and opens the floor to a discussion of potential solutions.
the demographics of nyc racing
I started with the easy stuff: a breakdown of current members by age. Looking at CRCA membership the vast majority of racers fall in a broad range from 26-52 years of age. This twenty-six year range represents 79.6% of the current population of members. Looking at a narrower distribution 27-40 year-old racers represent approximately half of the club today (49.3% to be precise).
Double-clicking on the Master's portion of the club 45+ year old members represent just under one-third of the current membership (though this figure receives a slight bump from a number of lifetime members who are not actively racing). On the opposite end of the chart it's apparent that despite U23 membership improving modestly in recent years with the expansion of the Century Road Club Development Foundation youth cyclists remain quite rare in the CRCA ranks.
From constructing this chart I was curious whether the median age of the club has changed in recent years. However comparing the distribution of ages for the club in 2010 with current membership indicates that there has been almost no change: 39.4 in 2010 and 39.3 in 2017. So despite the lack of young up and coming racers the club has not been aging significantly.
Taking this age-focused analysis to the next step I drilled down on the age of new members at the time they joined the club. This once again emphasizes the very limited influx of racers under the age of 23 (and how improvement in this area could spur dramatic growth for the club and the sport). Indeed the average age for new members is actually several years older than I would have expected: 33.7 years old.
Moving from age distribution to category distribution the results are probably about what you would expect: category three and below riders represent the vast majority of the club at 82% of current members (chart below left). Certainly this chart suggests that lower category riders and racers should be an important priority but if you turn to the chart on the right - "Non-Renewing Members: Distribution by Category" - this suggestion takes on increased urgency by breaking down the category of riders who leave the club. Fully 70% of non-renewing members were Category 4 or Category 5, emphasizing the high level of churn at the lower category levels of the sport. This is a topic I'll come back to shortly.
On the gender front the numbers are similarly about what you would likely expect - heavily biased toward men. That said some of the club's recent efforts on women's cycling do appear to be having an impact as the percentage of new members who are female has improved from the low teens in 2011 and most years prior to as high as 24% in 2015. This progress has leveled off slightly in 2016 and 2017 but remains in the mid-to-high teens.
CRCA sub-teams in many way dominate the experience of being a club member with two thirds of current CRCA members identifying as a member of one of the club's more than twenty sub-teams. Indeed the three largest sub-teams (Foundation, NYCC and Dave Jordan) have more than forty members each which would make them, on a standalone basis, larger than many USAC clubs. But this still leaves fully one-third of the club unattached - which can be a very different racing and community experience. Just like the continued push for gender equality in cycling, insuring that the club is inclusive to these unattached members appears to be a worthwhile priority based on these figures (particularly given the previously noted churn in the lower categories).
A High Level look at crca membership trends
Shifting away from CRCA member demographics to focus on broader trends impacting the club it is apparent that some of the broader shifts observed at USAC, particularly a 17% decline in membership since 2012, are being mirrored in New York City. As the two charts below indicate 2012 was the peak year for club membership following three years of strong growth. Post-2012 membership declined in three of the next four years. Membership does appear to have stabilized in 2017 with modest growth, likely supported by several new sub-teams that have driven an influx in new members.
Interestingly the ratio of racing (i.e. can compete in the 12-race Club Series in Central Park in exchange for a slightly higher membership fee and marshaling obligations) to non-racing members has varied quite a bit over the past twelve years with significant declines in 2012/2013/2014. That said this metric can vary quite a bit based on the sub-team composition of the Club as a number of Elite teams will use non-racing Associate Memberships, pushing the ratio down. In addition active enforcement of club regulations (that all CRCA sub-team members must at least maintain an associate membership) likely pushed this ratio down 2012-2014.
Zeroing in on annual new member trends we see that intake into the club has been reasonably strong since 2012 with most years seeing at least 175 new members join. Indeed 2017 is the third strongest year on record for new membership though it is worth noting that the new NYCC-sub-team represents a very significant portion of this intake. Absent NYCC's entry into the club CRCA membership would likely be down year-over-year in 2017.
If you're paying close attention to these last few charts you may have noticed that they club typically brings in ~175-200 new members each year and yet somehow only floats in the 700-800 member range. How is that possible? Well that gets into the final and perhaps most worrisome set of analysis...
Houston We have a problem: membership retention
The implication from the new members vs. total club members data is that churn for the club is extremely high - that a very significant portion of the club leaves CRCA (which we're using as a proxy for competitive categorized racing) each year. Playing out this thought process I wanted to use the available data set to layout a typical 'New Racer lifecycle.' That is I wanted to answer the question of how long does the typical racer stay in the sport.
Using "New Members" as a proxy for a new racer (an imperfect assumption but one that seems to be the best option given the available data set) I mapped out the progress of the 'Class of 2010' - that is all racers who joined CRCA for the first time in calendar year 2010 - and tracking how many members of that class remained in the club over time:
I was quite surprised by the rapid rate of decay in membership retention for the 'Class of 2010.' Particularly striking was the fact that the majority of those ~250 racers who joined the club in 2010 didn't even make it past two seasons of racing. Certainly racing isn't for everyone but that level of churn in new members was significantly worse than I anticipated.
The data was bleak enough that I wondered whether 2010 may have been an outlier given that timeframe coincided with the boom years for CRCA as a whole. To pull on that thread I ran a similar membership retention analysis for each year from 2009 through 2014. The chart follows below and in many ways it only emphasizes some of the concerns raised by the data for the class of 2010.
As the chart highlights 2010 (red line) is not an outlier by any means. In fact the rate of membership decay is very similar in 2009 (blue line) and 2011 (green line). Worryingly the rate of decay has actually worsened over time: whereas in 2009 roughly half of new members raced at least three seasons by 2013 the average cyclist was only making it through two seasons and only one-in-four were making it to four seasons. On the longer end of things of the members that joined the club the same year as me - 2009 - only one-in-ten are still racing today despite the fact that the club made huge strides in improving the quality of the membership experience over that timeframe.
So clearly the typical CRCA member has a very short lifecycle in the club - as the chart above highlights the average new racer barely makes it through two seasons of racing and it's only gotten shorter in recent years. With local races already struggling to break even (see White Plains) if the lifecycle of a categorized racer continues to shorten the outlook for the sport is only going to get dimmer and dimmer as the regional pool of active racers will continue to shrink. As a race director and former board member I often put a great deal of thought into recruiting new racers into the sport, but in hindsight it seems that we, as a community, are not doing enough to keep these new riders in the sport for any significant period of time.
UPDATE: As a few people pointed out the transient nature of New York City likely plays a role in some of CRCA's new member churn due to NYC residents relocating out of the area. Access to data from the USAC membership database is limited (particularly for historical data) but to pull on this thread I compared the historical CRCA membership database to the current (ie 2017) USAC racer database. Weak historical data quality introduces some noise into this analysis but of the 3,642 racers who have left CRCA (2004-2016) 336 racers or 9.22% appear to have a current USAC license. The figure is higher for more recent departures from the club but given limited data availability I haven't done a deeper dive into the subject matter.
Numbers are well and good but what does it all mean?
Even as a retired CRCA Board Member and Race Director this analysis broke a lot of new ground and aided my understanding of the sport as it exists in NYC. With that said I think the data raises just as many questions as answers. Some of these questions have been under discussion for years but seeing just how weak new racer retention trends are certainly shined a harsh light on how the sport is welcoming new racers. But rather than pitch my personal conclusions from the data I'll raise a few (pointed) questions....
- What can be done to improve the introduction process to competitive racing? We have all heard of or experienced first hand the elitism and harshness that can unfortunately be part of the categorized racing community. But on a local level in New York City are there specific actions that can be taken to improve new member retention?
- What are the key hurdles to bringing additional U23 riders into the sport in a manner that is conducive to long-term participation in categorized cycling? Is cost the primary hurdle? Or are there other topics to consider like limited junior racing opportunities? The age analysis clearly points to youth cycling as one potentially significant area for improvement.
- What can be done to insure women's racing maintains momentum? CRCA has made great strides in supporting Women's racing but surprisingly some of the progress in new member recruitment trends has leveled off in recent years. This is my personal opinion but I seriously question the long-term viability of a sport like categorized cycling if it is to remain ~80% male so like youth cycling this seems like an area with huge potential for improvement.
- Do Gran Fondos, Zwift, Gravel Grinders and all of the other latest and greatest trends in cycling exacerbate the declines in membership retention? Or can they help categorized racing by encouraging continued participation in competitive cycling more broadly? Related: To insure long-term viability and relevance should CRCA (and other categorized racing organizations) start to think about increased focus on non-categorized racing activities? The club already has an impressive (and FREE to members) coaching program but organized group rides and other race formats could have a role in the club's future in this scenario.
I'll close this out by noting that on the 'glass half full' side of things the data does emphasize that there is a very large pool of riders that have tried categorized racing but for one reason or another stepped away from it. If it's possible to draw some of them back into the sport they could move the participation numbers quite dramatically (on top of any progress in recruiting new U23 and female riders to the sport).