It's Time to End Prize Money In Amateur Cycling
The headline might have already given the message of this piece away but in favor of being upfront with my conclusion I'll say it again: it is time to end prize money in amateur cycling.
This is a viewpoint that has it's roots in two pieces that previously featured on the TBD Journal: "Are Bike Races Broken?" and "Why is there Prize Money in Amateur Cycling?" Following those posts, a lot of thinking on the subject, various discussions on social media and most recently a survey on the topic, I am striking the question mark from my online ramblings and declaring that it's time for change. If the survey we conducted as part of "Why is there Prize Money in Amateur Cycling?" is any indication, a significant portion of the racing community agrees.
The Survey Says...
An online survey seemed to be the most straightforward means for anonymously collecting feedback to my original inquiry. So a big thank you to all of the nearly 200 respondents, a surprising number of whom responded to the 'fill in the blank' sections with thoughtful comments. As promised a summary of the results, complete with pretty charts, follows:
If you read our recent piece 'The Demographics of Cycling' you probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that survey results were ~85% male as the sport continues to struggle with gender equality. Indeed in many regards survey participants mirrored the broader distributions discussed in that demographics piece. The exception is USAC category breakdown (below left) where the survey appears to have gained particular traction with P/1/2 riders (30% of responses compared to just 18% of CRCA membership).
What Participants Said
On the core question of what should be done about prize pools the results were overwhelmingly supporting a change from the status quo: 81% participants indicated that prize pools should either exist for elite fields only or be eliminated altogether. That leaves just one in five respondents voicing support for the continuance of non-elite prize pools.
While there is certainly some risk of selection bias in survey respondents I was surprised that the survey pointed so strongly toward change away from the current status quo. Drilling down into survey responses here is a look at responses divided up by USAC category (left) and age (right):
Focusing on the breakdown by category (left) it's perhaps unsurprising that P/1/2 riders are most in favor of maintaining prize pools for elite fields with 84% of M P/1/2 respondents wanting to keep Elite prize pools in some fashion. In comparison M 3/4/5 respondents, who represent the vast majority of race participants (and thus registration fees) showed somewhat stronger support for eliminating prize pools altogether (orange bars).
Continuing this trend of voting with at least a partial eye for self-interest, in the age distribution chart to the above right M45+ racers showed the greatest support by far for eliminating prize pools altogether (orange bar).
But overall - regardless of USAC category and age - popular opinion definitively supports changing the current payout structure for races.
With Such Strong Support for Change, Why do Prize Pools STILL Exist?
So if not just a majority but an overwhelming majority support changing the current structure of prize pools then why do amateur prize pools still exist? In the survey's 'fill in the blank' responses one word rang out time and time again: Tradition.
From a M4/5 survey participant who suggested prize pools should only exist for Elite Fields:
Tradition. Prize money chased by young domestic pros who live a hand to mouth lifestyle and race bikes full time makes sense. Prizes for middle aged hedge funders on $12k aero road bikes... not so much
And a similar response from another M4/5 participant who in this case voted to eliminate prize pools altogether:
It's a tradition we have failed to change. It's unnecessary. We need to look at what successful athletic events are doing. A donated prize would be fine at best.
At the same time there were some honest and thoughtful answers on why prize money, elite or otherwise, is important to some people. From a M3 respondent who suggested prize pools should exist for Elite Fields only:
I think primarily tradition. People like to win things, I don't know about other people, but I have a lot of trophies and medals, very few of them mean anything at all to me, I would rather get $5 than a fancy trophy, because it's useful. I know that at least for me, so far this year I have been able to almost break even with prize money and entry fees, that has made it so that I can afford to race on my very tight budget.
And from a M P/1/2 rider who sees prize pools as a potentially important source of income on the path to a professional contract:
I race in Southern California. There are plenty of people whom use these races to supplement their income, allowing them to train more to move up in the ranks and earn a contract. The local monthly series changed to money only for P12 and W123 races only, with prizes for all other races and it seems to be working. However, with respect to why there's money at all, it's hard to say why or even see where it started. Some people just need that extra motivation?
The Time For Change is Now
It's clear that survey respondents support change but for those of you still leaning toward the status quo let's walk through perhaps the biggest race in New York City - the Grant's Tomb Criterium - and see what it suggests about prize pools in amateur cycling.
An example: Grant's Tomb Criterium and CRCA
It's been a few years since Grant's Tomb has had cash sponsorship so in addition to relying extremely heavily on the hard work of a few (unpaid) volunteers the race also relies entirely on registration fees to cover all expenses including prize pools. Even for historically successful races this is an anxiety-inducing model thanks to late registration trends and the potential impact of weather (See "Are Bike Races Broken?").
Despite this volunteer heavy and sponsorship-lite model Grant's Tomb paid out $3,700 in prizes in 2016. But because Grant's Tomb offers 13 fields (!) of racing with even modest $100-$300 prizes for the non-championship fields the total non-championship prizes tally up to the majority of the prize pool (chart below left). On a season long basis (below right) the distribution of CRCA Open Racing prize pools is slightly different but non-championship prize pools still tally up to a fairly staggering $9,205.
In the context of the overall expense structure prize pools don't come close to the biggest line item (insurance and police/race vehicles are generally some of the biggest expenses) but we're still talking about nearly $10,000 in prizes that go to non-championship fields during the course of the CRCA season.
Dollars (9,205 of them) and (common) Sense
So eliminating non-championship prize pools from the CRCA calendar, as supported by 81% of survey respondents, frees up $10,000 in the CRCA budget. This seems like a no brainer. Whether you're focused on the sustainability of categorized racing and want to re-invest those funds in the sport or just think amateur sports shouldn't feature cash prize pools I think there are a plethora of justifications for allocating those funds elsewhere.
Indeed that $10,000 could more than cover the entire annual budget of the Century Road Club Development Foundation, the nonprofit U23 program that is attempting to grow amateur-level youth cycling in New York City (full disclosure: I volunteer my time with CRCDF).
Reinvestment Starts here
To some (including approximately 19% of survey respondents) eliminating amateur prize pools may sound dramatic but I would argue that it's the only means to find the resources to reinvest in the sport at a time when the sport desperately needs reinvigoration. In a perfect world this sort of reinvestment would help return the sport to growth and help draw the sort of cash sponsorship that makes investing in prize pools and other amenities feasible. So with that in mind here is how I would spend the money saved by eliminating non-championship field prize money:
Strengthen the sport by making event promotion economically sustainable: as I touch on shortly, race promotion at the grassroots level is largely a labor of love. Which is a kind way of saying that the pay sucks. For CRCA Board Members and race directors there isn't even any cash compensation - it's an entirely volunteer gig. Which in my view has contributed to a high rate of turnover, poor transfer of institutional knowledge and at times a surprising amount of instability for an organization that has been around since 1898. First and foremost it's time to change this - to ensure race directors and organizers are well enough compensated to keep putting on the races we love. In the long-run providing additional economic incentive for race organizers is important if we want to keep the best race directors not just in the sport but innovating. And by keeping the best race directors in the sport not only will there be more high quality events available to racers but those events will be better equipped to chase sponsorship dollars that can be used to grow the events beyond what is possible on registration fees alone. For CRCA this may mean introducing paid roles while for other races this may mean race directors make a bit more profit on their labor of love. In the long run it's worth it.
Reinvest in the sport with juniors fields and race clinics: race time costs money (police/medical/staff) which can make it hard to include small junior fields or race clinics in race schedules. But if we want to fix the age gap detailed in The Demographics of Cycling then races need to offer both junior / U23 fields and we need to provide skills sessions to ease new racers into the sport. In New York City CRCA has done a great job with this (including in particular the Women's New Racer Clinic) by not just offering these opportunities but also making the juniors fields completely free. It's time for other race directors to take the savings from eliminating prize pools and invest it in free junior fields, skills clinics and other offerings targeted at new riders.
Improve the race experience: I think this comes part and parcel with compensating and retaining the best promoters but it's time to move past 'tradition' when it comes to prize pools, field structures and race directing more broadly. A lesson I have taken from the realm of gravel grinding is that it's time to focus on providing the best customer experience possible. Easy event registration and check-in, races that run on schedule, basic rider amenities are no longer optional for races to be successful - they are the bare minimum. I also think this extends to being thoughtful on non-cash prizes - for example even if non-championship cash prizes are eliminated, race directors could still offer Bikereg vouchers for free entry to future events which helps promote loyalty to race directors/series.
Notice that I didn't include 'lower registration fees' in that list. With or without prize pools each race has to determine it's value proposition. In New York City we have seen time and time again that racers will turn out in droves for the races with the best value proposition - which in my experience has far more to do with the race and the organization around it than simple math around registration fees and prize pools. With no prize pools certain races may have to cut registration fees to attract riders but I consider the three investments cited above to be far higher priorities for the health of the sport.
Unfortunately returning again to the example of CRCA I worry that the $10,000 freed up from eliminating non-championship prize pools may not be enough to move the needle on all three of those investments...
Why it May Not Be Enough
Focusing on CRCA, the reality is that with a nearly 20-race calendar $10,000 of savings on non-championship field prize pools only goes so far. As a result, for some events I think it is time to eliminate prize pools altogether - championship and non-championship alike.
As I have experienced the sport of cycling there are essentially two categories of races. On the high-end there are impressive, big budget affairs like Gateway Cup in Saint Louis or Intelligentsia Cup in Chicago. I absolutely love these races and have traveled halfway across the country to participate in them (#999milestoGateway).
But here in New York City, on the local level, the cycling community survives and thrives on something altogether different. I have often called it grassroots racing but for the sake of this discussion we could also call it amateur racing. This is the sort of racing that requires getting up at 4:30AM to do a few loops in Central Park, or bombing out of the office in the afternoon to go ride on an abandoned airfield in Brooklyn with a handful of friends and family representing the only spectators.
These races benefit from a few businesses that sponsor cycling on a local level (Lucarelli & Castaldi chief among them) but registration fees are the primary revenue driver and in terms of workload they rely on the dedication of a small number of individuals that sustain the sport in New York City. Whether it's the CRCA Board of Directors, Charlie in Brooklyn and his crew, the Rockleigh Crit team or the Kissena crew, to call out just a few, so much of the local race calendar exists only through the unpaid or underpaid efforts of a small number of passionate individuals. Not only are these individuals not getting any younger but turnover in some of their ranks - the CRCA Board of Directors in particular - is extremely high and great promoters like Aki Sato have 'retired' altogether.
While categorized racing in the United States is fragile at just every level it is this amateur level that concerns me most given it is the foundation of what remains a participation driven sport in the United States. Without clubs like CRCA and Kissena drawing in new riders, providing educational sessions and race opportunities, the sport as we know it in New York City would no longer exist. So for these grassroots races where sponsorship is marginal at best and prize pools have to be funded on the back of race registration fees and underpaid (in the case of CRCA - unpaid) staff I think it's time to end prize pools altogether and instead focus all possible resources in those three investments cited above to guarantee that we're driving the sport back to a more sustainable place (where prize pools are eventually feasible).
Expanding on this point consider the breakdown of racers at Grant's Tomb in the pie chart below - 86% of participants were in non-championship fields. If that race benefited from cash sponsorship I would have zero issue with paying out cash prize pools for the championship fields. But before we pay out championship prize pools for a very small portion of race participants let's ensure that the of individuals that have kept a race like Grant's Tomb alive are being compensated, however modestly, for their time and that investments in junior racing, race clinics and the like are being made.
This opinion puts me in the minority of survey participants - just 22% supported eliminating all prize pools. But I think we're at a point where the structure of racing, at least in New York City, needs to change if it's to survive.
So with a particular eye toward the CRCA calendar I propose a simple formula: eliminate non-championship prize pools. Reinvest those savings in ensuring the CRCA Board and CRCA race directors are at least modestly compensated for putting on some of the best races in the area, keep investing in FREE juniors races and skills sessions and keep raising the bar on the race experience (the post race coffee and bagels are a nice touch). For races with cash sponsorship keep the championship prize pools BUT for races where revenue relies entirely on registration fees the prize pools should be eliminated altogether to focus resources on getting the sport back into a sustainable growth mode.