Arsenal Crit Cancellation

Though very unfortunate, the cancellation of this year’s Arsenal Criterium is a good opportunity to think about how amateur cycling races in our area are put on.

Notably, no one is more disappointed than Charles and I, the organizers on behalf of QCW. A lot of effort, especially on Charles’ part, has already been sunk, and costs incurred. Instead of spending a day hanging out at a cool race, we’ll spend a lot of time in the coming days writing refund checks and reading Internet comments.

Beyond that, it’s inarguable that Charles and I are unreasonably dedicated to making races happen and this is a large disappointment to us. For this year’s Philly Phlyer—without question the most ambitious and substantial amateur cycling race in the Philly area—we personally staked over $12,000 on the event, and were relieved to come out having only lost a few hundred each. Even as a student I regularly risked $10,000+ on the Phlyer. Now, as director of the ECCC, I volunteer 1,500 to 2,000 hours a year—essentially a full time but completely uncompensated job—to ensure collegiate races from Delaware to Maine happen and happen well.  Anyone pushing at us the commitment of race promotion or demands that promoters take the hit on losses had better be making similarly extraordinary personal commitments of time and money, or stop talking real fast.

Causes

Unfortunately, this cancellation is just about money rather than weather or other act of god. Watching registration trickle in, the QCW general leadership and us become duly concerned about the looming financial loss. Even under very optimistic, unrealistic models for day-of registration, QCW was going to incur a loss amounting to a substantial portion of the 2013 club budget. At that point we decided to pull the plug somewhat early so that racers would have at least some opportunity to replan.

Part of the calculus here, especially for Charles and I, is that this just isn’t that big a deal. It’s unfortunate for all the racers, particularly the women who do not have ample opportunities to just go do another race or group ride instead. But, this just isn’t an event people are traveling to, peaking their training plans for, etc. In contrast, I hold ECCC races to a much higher standard—we simply don’t cancel races if at all humanly possible—precisely because hundreds of riders each weekend are making exactly those commitments. This disruption is annoying and unfortunate, but not the end of the world or a financial loss to any racers.

Similarly, the Arsenal is a great race but ultimately a business park crit. Burning the club budget and crippling QCW’s ability to operate and support other activities in return for a great, ambitious road race or a well attended but expensive major event crit would be one thing. Taking a huge loss to enable fields of ~20 riders quietly spinning around is another.

Risk

To that point, it’s just not reasonable to ask promoters of these kinds of small time races to simply absorb extravagant losses. In the business world—notably including promoters putting on races on a business footing—you can reasonably place that expectation. Sometimes you make a profit, sometimes you lose, and as long as you keep the former ahead of the latter you’ll gain in the long run.

But events like Arsenal and other small cycling races simply aren’t businesses. There is no profit, everyone’s just hoping to break even. They either lose or they lose, without the large gains to offset bad years. Absolutely no one has the right to simply ask individuals and clubs to just accept losses, because the promoters don’t stand to gain anything if it does work out. They’re doing it purely for the community. Further, it’s simply not sustainable to ask promoters to take on nothing but risk—since there’s no gain worth speaking of—and not cut their losses when that risk becomes too large. That only guarantees eventual destruction of an event or even a club, and you can see that over the years in the loss of many great, traditional Philadelphia races that simply don’t exist anymore.

Sponsorship

The usual response to this, especially from armchair promoters, is that you need to cover the difference with sponsorship. Extra cash and other support is of course great and it’s important to try, but sponsorship is not an efficient or sustainable mechanism to enable these kinds of races.

It takes an extensive investment of time to procure any amount sponsorship. Worse, hunting sponorship is absolutely one of the least enjoyable, most miserable tasks entailed in promoting a race (or running a club). Put those two facts together and it’s incredibly difficult to have volunteers work that angle successfully.

Further, no matter how much effort you do sink, sponsorship isn’t reliable. Ultimately there just isn’t a strong business case for cycling sponsorship even in the professional leagues, and none whatsoever at the amateur grassroots. Without such an objective rational, sponsorship is reliant on personal whims and interests, and corporations being flush with cash. Your patron benefactor moves to a different company, the market goes down half a point, almost anything will cause that critical support for an event to drop out and not be there next year.

Between that difficulty in procuring it and the unpredictability in retaining it, sponsorship of individual small events isn’t a viable foundation for long term sustainability. That core financial support has to come from within the participants and the community.

Foundation

Small tweaks could be made to address some of these risk concerns, e.g., moving pre-registration dates earlier to have more commitment from riders to match commitment from promoters, or substantially raising entry fees to generate actual profit in good years and enable a business-styled boom/bust amortization. Neither of these or similar ideas are appealing or likely to address root issues though.

An idea myself, Charles, and other ECCC and Philly-area cycling leadership have been kicking around is to work toward a substantially different model for these kind of small, amateur races.

The predominant current structure is races backed by particular clubs or even individual people. As discussed above, that entails them taking on a lot of financial risk for something for which there is essentially no possibility of gain. It’s not reasonable to peg all of the cost and risk on one entity when the only value is to the community as a whole simply in having a great event. Long term sustainability and reliability would be much better if those costs, risks, and the effort, were better diffused throughout the community rather than focused on individual organizations and people.

The basic proposal then is to establish a non-profit association or foundation specifically for organizing and promoting races, in this case in the Philadelphia area. The organization would promote multiple races, both enabling new events and moving existing races out from under their individual promoters and into this umbrella. The Phlyer would be a great flagship, the Arsenal another good candidate member, and then other races as promoters are interested.

Each race would of course be run to break even plus some safety margin, but losses would be backed by the foundation. Money for that in turn would come from invested clubs, the community as a whole, and sponsors. An umbrella like this would enable all area clubs to contribute large or small amounts to ensuring good races happen. That’s opposed to the current model requiring that single promoting clubs be able to take on the entirety of the risk, something none can sustain through a catastrophic loss or for years on end. We also believe, and have seen in experiments with the Phlyer, that a fair amount of funding could potentially be crowdsourced from the community; there are even many people who do not race themselves but are eager to support good cycling events. Finally, by enabling multiple events, it becomes more rational for businesses to provide, and more efficient for organizers to seek, meaningful sponsorship.

Beyond that financial support, this organization could also provide the structure to address other issues. Basics include coordinating race dates in the immediate Philly area, and drawing volunteers from all clubs as well as the larger community, thus addressing another critical issue in race promotion: People power. Additional frills could also easily embellish this scheme, e.g., standings and awards across a series made of the foundation’s races.

In sum, there are built-in, structural, completely valid reasons why great traditional events like the Philly 2-Day or Lemon Hill crit have ceased, and cancellations like this year’s Arsenal happen. But it’s possible we shift the underlying model to address those issues and work together as a community to ensure important events continue or even restart. We have some more detailed ideas than the above and would be eager to talk with any interested parties about getting this off the ground.  Of course we’re also eager to hear any other ideas as well as positive or negative comments.  Finally, obviously, we also deeply regret this particular cancellation and hope to see everyone out on the roads, trails, and at other events in the future.

Thanks!

  • Darco

    What you fail to mention is what I call the bikereg effect, which has caused many races over the last couple of years to cancel. With online registration and under pressure from riders, promoters are pushing registration deadlines closer and closer to the race date (and often too close for comfort in case of needing to cancel and notify people). One race, attempted to address this, putting the registration deadline two weeks out. This was a high profile race that had historically drawn 400+ racers. Problem was, most racers don’t even look to register two weeks in advance anymore. I would guess that in a large majority of cases, day of registration would have been enough to cover promoter costs, but like you said, the downside often appears to difficult.
    I’m not sure if crowd sourcing is the answer, I don’t think there is enough to build the financial base. The idea of a single entity to manage multiple races sounds good, but there again, I’m unsure you could get enough support from all the clubs needed. If that was possible, that would be the best chance I think. Another idea would be to have promoters “buy” into some kind of fund which would then guarantee some formula of financial support if their attendance is low – kind of like insurance. Maybe a certain amount of coverage if say, they get fewer than 200 riders, and based on some formula. Anyway, great to get the conversation started!

    • tjkopena

      Yeah, I actually deleted some text about the bikereg effect. I have mixed feelings about it. I’m all about flexibility, but to me “pre-reg” has become an almost meaningless concept with deadlines so close to race time. One thing that’s occurred to me recently is that, a bit like some of what I was getting at above, the implicit, or potentially explicit, social contract could quite reasonably and perhaps should vary for different kinds of races. For example, the Phlyer’s going to happen, whether or not pre-reg is low, so maybe pre-reg can run real late (pre-reg does have more meaning in the ECCC, with much more substantial day-of time savings for riders). For a low key race like Arsenal or a weekly training series, especially ones where the upfront cost commitments are low, maybe you do have pre-reg deadlines farther out and run it on a real, explicit pre-order type model: “We’ll run this race if and only if we get at least X registrations.”

      That is an interesting idea about promoters buying into an insurance fund. One of the things I’m struggling with is how to scale the idea of a promoter’s foundation or association, i.e., how to mitigate the risk of supporting races that the association directors aren’t intimately involved with, or how to decide whether or not to take on a new race. For me there’s closely related deep questions about how to apply this kind of financial model across the ECCC. An insurance type construct is a pretty good possibility on how to approach that.

      • Max Knee

        Joe,

        Team Independence took over a cross race last year since the original promoter was tired of losing a lot of money and dwindling interest and also attempted to keep it relevant in a demanding series. We downgraded the race and pulled its UCI status and actually had a better turnout than in 2 previous years.

        Most categories got paid and everyone was happy except for a few UCI riders (since it was no longer UCI).
        If it takes making things more grassroots to keep the whole model sustainable, that is very important and also creates more interest and repeat customers to keep the event alive for a few more years.

        The tricky part of pre-reg is always weather. Racers don’t want to pre-reg if the weather is going to be bad since they don’t want to lose money, which is understandable but at the same time, cycling, running, et al are all outdoor sports so ideal conditions should never be expected. Higher day of fees help push riders towards pre-reg but again, there is no guarantee.

        The thing that I feel is most important is, first year events, keep as low key as possible, minimize cost, so next year or the next event, word of mouth and excitement grows, increasing numbers, allowing the promoter to put more money into the next event.

        Its stressful as a promoter to try to do everything as big as possible and the only way to have an event be successful is to have 75 degrees, and sunny, and no other events, at the right spot in the year, which will never happen.

        It sucks when you check your pre-reg numbers as the date gets closer. Monday 5 days before the event, 150. Tuesday 150, Wednesday 151, Thursday (reg closes at 9pm) 160. Friday morning, your inbox is filled with, “I forgot to register, can you let it slide?”.
        We should work to change that, where people WANT to come to an event instead of viewing it as, “I guess I’ll do it” attitude.

        • tjkopena

          Hey Max,

          I would also say that Team Independence’s early season South Jersey series seems pretty successful, and something from which to draw similar lessons about being grassroots and low key. Unfortunately I’m always tied up at ECCC races during it so haven’t done it myself, but everything I’ve heard is very positive. Personally I am all about that attitude to things, where payout is downplayed and it’s just about solid racing and good community, and keeping things low key and sustainable to ensure viability over the years.

      • hughes

        Applies less to ECCC where you have a relatively constant population showing up (unless the race is in the middle of nowhere) but for USAC races I think a sliding scale for registration would work really well. CRCA did this recently –

        May 5 – May 11: $20
        May 12 – May 18: $25
        May 19 – May 25: $30
        May 26 – May 29: $35

        Last year Fitchburg got cancelled a few weeks before the race because they didn’t like their reg numbers, and the only motivation they gave anyone for early prereg was staging order for the mass start hill climb and a free t-shirt. I registered for the Wilderness 101 months ago because of an impending series of $20 price increases – it works.

  • Brian Kall

    I absolutely believe in a city wide series of race co promoted by all the local team. There would be a leaders jersey or overall winner type award for those that placed in all races which would help promote attendance at each event. There should be a 1/2/3, 3/4, 4/5, W1/2, W3/4, and 35+ at each race, enough races but simple to do 6 races. If you had a 5 or 6 series event, getting sponsors wouldn’t be as big a deal, because you’d be able to offer a bigger ROI for them. I think if you invited every team in the city, even those that haven’t historically put on a race, to a brain storm meeting, we could make something very cool happen next year.

    Rather than crowd funding, put together a budget for holding a season long event, that started in April and went to August or September (5-6 races). Project your racer revenue break even, with worst case,and best case attendance. Then shore this up with a sponsorship package from a couple big name city brands. Each team also has sponsor liaisons, having a race series to add value to the team sponsor would be very strong on the sales side for the team.

    This is a brain dump but I think something could really happen with this and I’d be very happy to help out.

    • tjkopena

      Hey Brian,

      Yeah, I think organizing a series around the event could do a lot to draw in attendance through the summer. There’s also closely related ideas about potentially eventually having an organized weekly training race in the city, etc.

      I think the plan right now is to work the next couple weeks to organize our notes and post them up, collect and post ideas and comments from others, and aim toward a brainstorming meeting like you’re talking about sometime like late July or early August, while people are winding down their season but still thinking about race ideas. It’d be great to have you involved!

      Thx