Bike Race Budgeting: A Look Inside the Numbers
After a successful edition of the Grant’s Tomb Criterium back in March we received some interesting feedback about the supposed profitability associated with hosting bike races in New York City. While that particular feedback didn’t necessarily justify a thorough response, we have been highlighting some of the challenges facing New York City bike races as part of our new ‘Race Director Diaries’ series on the Journal. As such I thought it made sense for the next entry in that series to share insight into the budgeting exercises that we go through for each Open Race on the calendar.
As always, the starting point should be that these events are not easy to execute. While we would all prefer to have races like Grant’s Tomb happen mid-summer, I remain exceedingly thankful that we even have the opportunity to close down multiple city blocks to race around a national monument on one special day each year. In many ways, getting that permission use a given venue remains the biggest challenge facing New York City bike racing, as highlighted by recent issues at Floyd Bennett Field. In this sense, budgeting is just one small piece of the puzzle. But done well, our budgeting exercise, which has been developed over the eight or so years I have volunteered in some capacity to help with CRCA Open Racing, plays an important role in improving the stability of our open race calendar.
The numbers below are excerpted specifically from preparations for the 2019 edition of the CRCA Zach Koop Memorial Crit at Orchard Beach, an event that takes place on May 5th in the Bronx.
Part I: Setting the Race Schedule
The first part of the race budgeting process is setting the schedule in the leftmost section of the screenshot below. With a well established calendar of CRCA Open Races we are typically making only minor tweaks to the prior year’s schedule. For Orchard Beach the only meaningful change from last year’s event is splitting the Juniors into three separate races to mirror the successful juniors fields hosted a few weeks back at the Grant’s Tomb Criterium. Otherwise the rest of the schedule largely the same with very slight changes in field duration as we strive to stay within the constraints of our NYC Parks permit that features strict time limitations. To that point, as is typical for our criteriums, we run a tight schedule at Orchard Beach with only five minute gaps scheduled between races. This allows us to maximize the number of fields that we can run which in turn allows overlapping fields that enable participants multiple opportunities to race (e.g. Men 4/5, Men 4, Men 3/4). In fact, a M40+ Category 4 rider could technically race 4 times at Orchard Beach, though I don’t think anyone has ever attempted this feat.
Once the field schedule is finalized the registration fee schedule to the right more or less populates automatically. For all of our Open Races other than Bear Mountain we have a fixed $50 late registration fee that is reduced by $5 each week in advance all the way down to $30 for early registration. In contrast, Bear Mountain, our most expensive race to organize, uses a higher pricing structure that we wrote about in ‘The Bear Mountain Pricing Conundrum’.
Since we have been using the same Open Race budgeting spreadsheet since 2016 we also track how the average registration fee has trended over time. The fee mostly varies due to how early/late riders register for the event. Going back to 2016 the average fee has hovered in the $25-$29 context for Orchard Beach. The 2019 race budget is predicated on a similar figure for this year’s event, though at the moment the average registration fee paid is just $22.24 for reasons that we’ll get into below.
Part II: Prize Pools
This portion of the race budgeting was more complex years ago when CRCA paid prize pools for non-elite fields. The Club ended that practice for reasons touched on in ‘It’s Time to End Prize Money in Amateur Cycling’, choosing instead to invest in race amenities and broader development activity within the Club. As a result this portion of the spreadsheet is mostly a bunch of “$0.00” cells, though we still use it to calculate the splits for the Elite prize pools. For the Zach Koop Memorial Crit at Orchard Beach we are paying out equal $1,000 prize pools 10-deep for both Men and Women. If you’re uncertain as to why equal prize pools are important, we urge you to read ‘Ginger Boyd: Racing For All Women’
Part III: Budgeting Revenue
With that backdrop in place we get to the core of the race budget where we model expected registration revenue (orange columns in the screenshot below) and track current registration (green columns). For the former the starting point is to estimate 2019 registration based on data from prior years. Orchard Beach had great turnout in 2016 and 2017 with 649 and 620 registrants, respectively, before faltering a bit last year to 545 registrants. While our hope is certainly to get back to the turnout from 2016-2017 the reality is that, as we wrote about in ‘The Bear Mountain Pricing Conundrum’, late registration makes it all but impossible to forecast registration in advance. All it takes is a spell of bad weather and the registration numbers can drop significantly. As a result we generally model 85-95% of the prior year’s turnout with some adjustments if the prior year benefited from tailwinds like State Championship standing or suffered from bleak weather (neither of which applies to the 2018 edition of Orchard Beach). Modeled out on a field by field basis the 2019 Orchard Beach budget assumes 494 registrants, down slightly from last year’s 540 registrants.
With the registration numbers modeled we calculate an estimated ‘net field revenue’ after taking into account the $4 insurance fee that we pay USAC for each rider and the aforementioned prize pools that we payout to the two elite fields. The right most column indicates the results — the elite fields are roughly breakeven due to the prize pools, we lose money on the juniors fields where we have moved to completely free registration, and other fields have a pretty direct correlation to registration: the bigger the field, the bigger the net field revenue that is available to cover event overhead.
In the green columns we track the actual registration to date straight from Bikereg, comparing these numbers to both our field limits and our original budget. Unsurprisingly it’s the Men 4/5 and Men 4 fields that are filling most rapidly from the initial 136 registrants the event had as of Sunday afternoon. These are the largest fields and their popularity is vital to covering event expenses. You’ll notice in the “net field revenue” column that the event as a whole is generating just $472.25 of net revenue after insurance and prize pools, meaning we have only just barely started to pay down the event overhead. You’ll also notice in the “CRCA Revenue Per Rider” column that at the moment, with free juniors fields, early registration discounts, and $15 multi-field entries, the club is collecting just $18.18 per registrant on average. This will trend higher as our registration fee schedule moves toward late registration prices, but I’d like to think that we’re providing compelling value for the money at that sort of price point (recognizing that the average cost per rider pre-USAC insurance is higher and Bikereg charges fees on top of that).
Part IV: Budgeting Expenses and Breakeven
As for race expenses, Orchard Beach is thankfully a far cry from the $30,000+ of expenses associated with the Bear Mountain Classic. Instead we’re looking at roughly $9,000 of expenses spread across staff (which includes officials, motos, race directors, and our photographers), equipment (including numbers/pins, vehicle rentals and the pizza that we provide to racers) and services (results, medical coverage, and other permitting and insurance). At our baseline budget of 494 registrants this expense structure points to a modest expected loss on the event of roughly $500 though we hope to do better on registration revenue and get to the point that we’re generating a modest profit on the event. As always, any profit on the event gets reinvested into the rest of CRCA’s Club programming including the Central Park Club Series and the free season-long coaching program.
Looking at the $472.25 of current net field revenue (in the green columns above) the event has only barely started to cover the overhead expenses so the race is technically operating at a ~$9,000 loss as of yesterday. But we’re at just 27.5% of our budgeted registrations so this isn’t exactly a surprise. That financial position will continue to improve as registration trickles in over the next few weeks - with any luck we’ll have a beautiful weather forecast and see strong last minute registration.
For now we’re watching the numbers but focused wholeheartedly on preparing for all of the logistical challenges associated with hosting a race for 500 registrants, give or take. This includes securing final event approvals from our stakeholder partners at NYC Parks and NYPD and coordinating all of the volunteer roles filled by CRCA Club Members at the race, including our course marshals and various team duties. The Club could never operate without the contributions that come from each and every member, from those volunteering to serve on the Board to those simply doing their 2x per year marshaling duty. So a big thank you to everyone who plays a role in making our races possible.
There is a lot of work yet to be done but we’re feeling optimistic about the event. If you’d like to partake in the fun head over to Bikereg to register: https://www.bikereg.com/crcaorchardbeachcrit