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.
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.
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.
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.
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.