Being Good at Riding Bikes isn’t Enough Anymore
Why athletes need more than just results to land contracts
Aaron Lutze is the creator of Super Rider, a YouTube channel dedicated to helping mountain bikers improve safely and confidently. He has over two decades of experience working with companies, athletes, and events - most notably with Red Bull for twelve years as an Athlete Marketing Manager and as one of the original producers from Freecaster, the company that brought the first World Cup livestream to the public in the mid-2000s.
The best trick or fastest time isn’t enough:
After months of athletes being cut from brands and race teams shuttering, it’s time to take a step back and give some serious thought to what really happened.
Over the past few years, there have been some obvious and non-obvious factors that have put us in this situation. On the surface, it seems like we could blame the entire thing on a few overenthusiastic product managers ordering warehouses full of extra bikes and parts to meet the increased demand that we saw during the pandemic.
But this certainly isn’t the first time we’ve experienced bumps in the road economically in the bike industry. Something else is happening in addition to that, which is going to shake up the core foundation of sponsored athletes.
My previous job was the Athlete Marketing Manager at Red Bull for the majority of their bike athletes (and a bunch of other sports, too). For twelve years, I sat through thousands of athlete proposals and watched sponsorship programs develop across the entire landscape of sports.
Here’s what I think is happening:
The mountain bike industry has gotten a lot of attention over the past five years for a variety of factors. As interest in the sport surged, interest in the industry did as well. Walking around Sea Otter last April, I saw more than a few of my old coworkers from Red Bull manning booths. Professionals who hadn’t previously been into bikes were joining the industry and bringing their depth of knowledge along with them. These people are good at what they do, but they’re new to our sport, and they don’t rely on relationships to make decisions - they rely on tried and tested business models for marketing and media. That’s what they’ve learned at these larger companies outside of the bike world, and for better or worse, they’re bringing it here.
The other development that has happened in the past few years is that racing has been put behind a paywall, and multiple print media outlets have called it quits. It’s harder to get access to racing livestreams and media than it ever has been, which I would assume is driving viewership of things like the UCI World Cup to much lower levels than before.
It’s no secret that Red Bull put a lot of resources into the UCI World Cup to help make it accessible to the widest possible audience (for free). Not only were they livestreaming all the races, but they put effort into building up the supplemental content around the races. That element helped connect fans to the personalities of the racers, which made a substantial impact on their visibility and value to sponsors. When the UCI sold the media rights away from Red Bull and allowed it to become paywalled, I think made a subtle shift that contributed to the situation we now find ourselves in.
The bottom line is that whether it is inventory or investment in race teams, bike companies have overextended themselves, and now they have to make some extremely difficult decisions. When times get tough and those hard discussions come around, these companies have to look at their business plan and connect dots to identify the things that are giving them an actual return on their investment. They cut everything that isn’t returning immediate demonstrable value to the business.
Where things get tricky:
Most marketing organizations operate off some version of a “PESO” media model. PESO stands for:
Paid: Media that a brand pays to promote.
Earned: Media that is written about a brand or athlete.
Shared: Media that results from a collaboration between a combination of brand, athlete and media outlet.
Owned: Media that a brand creates themselves.
The PESO model is a great framework, provided you have a large audience. But what happens to the value of this model when a large input (live racing) goes down? The entire model softens up, and now something that was providing great value to a brand needs to be reevaluated.
Compounding this, athlete race results fall squarely in the “Earned” category when media write about their results. If they’re not winning - or the media isn’t writing about them - they’re not delivering a meaningful return on investment to the companies that support them.
The issue is that many athletes are so focused on only the results, they can’t participate in the rest of the elements in that media model, and they certainly can’t create it on their own. The brand is forced to shoulder all the work to promote the athlete and to activate that PESO model. Companies are essentially paying the athlete and then paying to promote the athlete, which effectively makes them both the casino and the gambler.
If you’ve ever heard mountain bike racing compared to F1, remember that just a few years ago F1 was in a funk prior to that big Netflix show. What made the Netflix show great had nothing to do with race results and everything to do with the personalities of the drivers and team principals. But ultimately it was all an effort to increase the visibility of their sport to a wider audience through a new form of media content. Do you know what your favorite racer’s voice sounds like?
I’m not saying that racing is going to die, but I am saying that I think things are going to change dramatically in the next few years. There will always be some level of support, and there are enough people out there that will pay $20 per month to watch it. There are brands that align themselves around racing, and the UCI isn’t going anywhere. But if you look at most of the largest bike companies out there - aside from Specialized - they’ve already backed off on racing. Downhill bikes are disappearing from lineups. Interest is evolving to a different style of riding - and rider. If Minnaar can get cut from Santa Cruz after 17 years, then nothing is a guarantee when it comes to the future of racing.
Beyond competition on track, the competition between riders is only going to heat up. The table stakes have gotten higher between the riders, it’s not just about going fast anymore. With the industry in this condition, riders are going to have to put stronger programs together to offer the maximum value to their sponsors - and if a rider is only relying on their race results to bring in deals, they are going to find themselves in a tight spot.
What you will likely see happen next will be the most savvy athletes begin to make their own long-form content and build audiences independent of brands and mountain bike media outlets. Some have already begun, others will learn the hard way.
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