Why is There Prize Money in Amateur Cycling?

Why is There Prize Money in Amateur Cycling?

Just over one year ago we touched on the increasingly challenged economics of bike racing in a blog post titled "Are Bike Races Broken." Since then it's hard to say the outlook for categorized racing in the area has improved significantly, particularly with the near cancellation of the White Plains Downtown Criterium - an event that was serving as the state criterium championship but which was only saved by a huge last gasp publicity and sponsorship push. 

While some local events are thriving - this past weekend's Dave Jordan Central Park Classic was nearly sold out across the board - there are a number of significant regional races like the White Plains Downtown Criterium that seemingly face an uphill battle. Races where the margin for error is thin enough that bad luck with weather or an unfortunate schedule conflict is apparently sufficient to threaten race viability. 

Category Racing is Dead, Long Live Category Racing

Against this backdrop it has become increasingly apparent that cycling as a sport is diversifying. Gravel grinders and gran fondos continue to grow at a time when USAC membership - one proxy for categorized racing - has declined 17% since 2012. Indeed in his recent blog the USAC CEO spoke to the fact that the sanctioning body needs to increase their focus on enthusiasts and mass participation events, as exemplified in their recent "Ride With US" video short:

On a local level I have often made the point that New York City cyclists are blessed with perhaps the most vibrant categorized race calendar of any city in the country. From weekends in the parks to Tuesday and Thursday at FBF/Rockleigh and Wednesday at Kissena there are enough race days during the summer to satiate even the most active cyclist. But that doesn't mean the city is immune to broader trends - CRCA membership peaked in 2012 and and has largely mirrored the declines seen at USAC since then. 

What is notable is that despite obvious challenges for categorized racing CRCA has still charted a course for success over the past five years - at least as measured by financial stability and race turnout. With regard to the latter there are an array of factors driving the success of CRCA racing but three key items come to mind:

  • Optimizing field structures for the local population - for criteriums this means overlapping field structures (ie M3/4, M2/3, M123) that allow riders to race in multiple fields, giving racers more bang for their buck while maximizing participation from the available pool of local/regional cyclists. Some of these fields (ie M2/3) were only introduced in recent years in response to local population shifts between USAC categories and have proven extremely popular. 
  • Heavy digital marketing - it's easier said than done but in the last five years CRCA has built a strong digital presence for its races, including hiring photographers to create marketing material for future years, writing high quality technical guides and remaining in constant communication with racers via social networks/Bikereg.com e-mails. 
  • Race day execution - perhaps most importantly the club has established a strong track record of race day execution. From simple measures like running on schedule to investing in SRAM neutral support, hiring the best officials possible, and allocating funds for additional race day staff the club has committed to providing the best race experience possible, which should hopefully pay dividends for years to come. 

As a result CRCA is largely operating from a position of strength and absent surprises from NYPD or NYC Parks races like Grant's Tomb and Orchard Beach appear safe for now. But using that position of strength I believe the club has the opportunity to continue to lead the way when it comes to ensuring continued viability for categorized racing in New York City. Which brings me to the central question of this piece: 

Why is there prize money in Amateur cycling?

I mean this in all sincerity: why is there prize money in amateur cycling?

Using rough numbers CRCA paid out over $20,000 in prize money last year. By any measure that is a significant sum, equivalent to approximately 15% of total event registrations. This means that, assuming no change in registration levels, eliminating prize pools would allow a reduction in registration fees by as much as 15% with no impact on race financials. Alternatively, if the savings from eliminating prize pools were passed on exclusively to CRCA racing members the cost of membership could be cut by over 30% (CRCA season pass membership, which includes registration for the 12-race club series starts at just $100).

Put in this context I can't help but wonder (a) whether the events in question are improved by the current payout structure and (b) whether prize pools best use of funds. Just as the club focused on innovation with field structures and marketing efforts over the past decade, perhaps it's time to have a serious conversation about the purpose and efficacy of prize pools? 

do prize pools make races better?

In the post-race daze there are few things more satisfying than the coffee/lunch/dinner bought by a teammate from their winnings after you delivered them across the line for a win. And no doubt, putting a bit of cash in your pocket at the end of the day is a nice reward and a reasonable goal on the start line. But stepping back from that satiation do those prize pools - going 5, 8 or 10 deep - make for a better overall event for the full spectrum of participants?

There are instances where sponsorship funds are allocated specifically to prize pools in order to draw in elite out-of-town racers. This is the case with the nearly $5,000 prize pool for the Dave Jordan Central Park Classic for example. But at least locally the available pool of sponsorship dollars is paltry as funding increasingly flows into high growth events like GFNY and RHC (I'll save diatribes on the challenges of the categorized racing sponsorship model for another day).

As a result most grassroots prize pools are funded in large part from registration fees from the lower category men's fields: for a typical CRCA race Cat 3-5 men will represent half to two-thirds of total registrants. Which begs the question: as a M4 or M5 racer is your decision on registering for a local grassroots race significantly impacted by whether a regional powerhouse from NJ/PA finds the prize pool sufficient to make the drive and be on the start line for the Elite field? That's a sincere question and "yes" is an entirely valid answer, in which case my second question below can be ignored. 

I imagine there is also an argument to be made that prize pools are an important source of income for elite amateur racers working their way to a professional contract. And that with the right financial support these riders could go on to be competitive on the national or international stage. That's likewise entirely valid justification but from my perspective I just wonder whether prize pools from grassroots races run without significant sponsorship revenue are the most effective means of supporting developing riders (a grant system, development teams, etc seem more viable). Which gets to my next question.

HOW would you SPEND $20,000?

So if CRCA were to eliminate the $20,000+ of prize pools paid last year where should those freed up funds go? A valid answer for some promoters would be to establish a financial reserve such that events can survive a weather scare and down registration year (as White Plains experienced this year). But as discussed CRCA is fortunate in that it already enjoys a position of relative financial stability. Instead going on the notion that racers would want to see a more tangible benefit from eliminating prize pools I think there are a couple of options worthy of consideration.

  • Reduce registration fees - this one is pretty straightforward: put the prize pool savings back in the pockets of racers by reducing registration fees. Average registration fees are actually down year-over-year for every CRCA race in 2017 thanks to the early registration discounts offered by the club but they could likely be cut by another ~10%-20% if prize pools were eliminated (assuming racer counts remain constant). Is a $5 or $10 cut in registration fees appropriate justification to eliminate prize pools?
  • Increase amenities - I actually find this to be an intriguing route as the value proposition for Orchard Beach at $25 per race (the average price paid this year) or Dave Jordan at $45 per race doesn't appear unreasonable and turnout has been strong for several years. Orchard Beach already features free pizza and DJCPC provided coffee and bagels but perhaps there are additional amenities that could be thrown in from prize pool savings - from hiring race photographers to organizing early number pick-up the night before races. $20,000 could go a long way if put toward amenities. 
  • Reinvest in the club and grassroots cycling in New York City - this is perhaps too intangible to offset the 'pain' some riders would feel at losing prize pools but there may be long-term investments that have a larger impact on cycling in New York City than offering $30 to the 8th place finisher in an M3 field. Investments that either ease logistics for CRCA or target the trends driving the 17% decline in USAC membership. From the top of my head potential options include hiring additional paid staff to help carry the workload of organizing races or the club as a whole (since the club still relies heavily on heavily overtaxed volunteers), getting the CRCA trailer up and running to ease the transportation burden of non-Central Park races, continuing to invest in development organizations like the Century Road Club Development Foundation (which for full disclosure I volunteer to help run) or perhaps allocating funds to a cohesive effort at NYSBRA to draw new riders into categorized racing. And over the long-term perhaps investing back in the CRCA Board via reasonable compensation for board members would increase the resources available to chase sponsorship dollars, which would in turn make prize pools more economically viable?

There is no two ways about it - in the context of grassroots amateur cycling $20,000 is A LOT of money that could be allocated to A LOT of causes, of which prize pools are just one. In the end prize pools very may well be the best possible use of those funds. But in the decade or so I have been racing and organizing races in New York City I haven't seen much earnest public discussion on the topic so I figured now - after nearly witnessing the cancellation of the New York State Criterium Championship for the second time this year - was as good of a time as any to ask the question.

I don't have the answer, I just have questions

Thankfully for CRCA the status quo seems reasonably safe near-term. Absent some concerns around Bear Mountain Classic registration trends the CRCA race calendar appears likely to continuing performing well from a participation and financial perspective. So perhaps any discussion of eliminating prize pools is unnecessarily rocking the boat. Indeed if cutting prize pools reduces event participation that's not an outcome anyone is going to be happy with - racers or promoters. 

But remember: USAC membership is in the midst of a multi-year decline and categorized racing events are clearly under financial strain (see White Plains and Are Bike Races Broken?). And while CRCA enjoys a position of relative stability if category racing continues to decline there is a tipping point in race participation and club membership where the current structure of the club no longer works due to the minimum marshaling requirements and the fixed cost structure of maintaining the race calendar (nevermind the fact that the club still relies too heavily on volunteers who so generously donate untold hours of their time to the race community). With this backdrop for grassroots categorized racing in mind I am genuinely interested in responses to these questions:

  • Why is there prize money in amateur cycling? 
  • Do prize pools make amateur categorized racing events better? Should prize money only exist for 'Elite' fields? Should prize pools be eliminated altogether?
  • Is there a better use of prize pool funds? Perhaps to help support the health and sustainability of categorized racing? To reduce registration fees? To improve the race experience?

If you have 2 minutes, answer these questions in this survey. I'll share a summary of whatever the result say in a follow-up post:

SurveyMonkey ==> Cycling and Prize Pools 

And just to reiterate: I sincerely think "I want to keep prize pools" is an entirely valid answer - I love the tradition of teammates buying coffee following a good result as much as anyone. I just want to understand the full logic/justification for maintaining payouts even as challenges mount for categorized racing.  



Matthew Vandivort is a New York City based cyclist and sometimes photographer who was also a founding member of To Be Determined. You can follow him online at @photorhetoric or http://photo-rhetoric.com/