Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Get Smart

Dear god. My brain is... On fire. Yeah. The pot is boiling over.

A late interaction here on the World Wide Web has the hamsters thundering as the wheels are turning... What is mountain biking doing right now? Where are we, as an industry, going? 

More specifically, what does the financial picture that we're painting show us? For athletes, it's tenuous at best. For companies supporting athletes, it's unpredictable. For promoters and event managers, it's a shirt-losing probability. But why? Why does there seem to be so much bad juju in the MTB economy? 

Economic studies across the globe have all shown one thing: equal pay and a scalable economic financial grade is the hallmark of a stable community. Job-appropriate wages, individual income growth that matches inflation and equal wages all point to communities with less crime, better health, improved education and increased development in both the public and private sectors. 

So why can't MTB wrap it's head around equal payout for pros? All signs point to awesome, as they say, but we seem to be bumbling down that particular road. You could say we're slowly hanging ourselves with our own brake lines. 


Below is a recent payout breakdown from the organizers of the upcoming Crafts and Cranks event at Snow Summit on July 9th of this year. Notice the disparity between Pro Men and Pro Women in both DH and Enduro? [Edit: as of 10am PST and in response to multiple efforts from pro ladies in SoCal, Crafts & Cranks organizers have committed to equal payout between the pro men and women categories. However, this is a larger problem than just one race, and the image will be kept here as a reminder that equal payout should be the default decision in 2016.)

To the best of my knowledge, I don't get a 'woman card' that has enabled me to pay half price for anything. My bikes, my transportation, my lodging, my license, my entry fees, my equipment costs and my food are ALL the same price as the male racers' costs. Interestingly enough, I also ride the same courses. I practice the same days, I ride most of the same obstacles (depending on how fast I am that particular weekend) and put my personal best foot forward. 

As I write this, I know that all of the other pros do as well, regardless of gender. 

And yet, that very thing (gender) makes women half as valuable to a race promoter (unless you're the second place pro woman, and you sit at 1/3 as valuable). Some opponents of equal payout have suggested that the size of the field and their total paid entries influence payout, which is a totally understandable assumption. 

Except that it's not logical. If a race promotion business is solely basing payouts around rider entry fees, they're doing it wrong. And any MTB race promoter who won't pay the women who do attend equal to the men because of 'size of field' is cutting off their nose to spite their face. Congratulations, you've just undermined any remaining interest in returning next year from the women who DID show up. If you don't value the pros who came out, why they hell would they come back? 

And so it goes -- race promoters who won't do their jobs (promoting races) and would rather base payout on rider contribution than outside investment, and who wonder why they see dwindling race numbers year after year. And let's be honest: the 'there are less women!' payout argument is the only one that even resembles something akin to holding water. The rest of them ('the women are boring/slow/uninteresting') are just plain nonsense. Refusing to offer equal payout is a classic 'be grateful for what you get' move from promoters and sponsors, and in the end, if women can't actually make a living at pro racing, they won't race and try to become professional racers, thus whittling all of the female fields down to tiny numbers. Gratitude doesn't pay the bills. If an athlete is winning races on pro courses, they should be earning enough to cover their race expenses and a little more -- after all, it has to be able to pay for itself if it's truly a 'profession'. Currently, women and girls who see little to no reward for their work as they climb the ladder and upgrade to pro have almost zero incentive to continue progressing... Outside of personal fulfillment or a larger, lofty 'change the world' goal. 

We cannot ignore half of a market and expect it to grow. We cannot fail to plant seeds, then expect a harvest that will give you money to plant seeds. That isn't how things work.

Nobody in their right mind expects to get something from nothing. Even stock brokers know that they have to have money to play. And you can't win unless you play. 
So why does the entire MTB industry seem wholly ignorant to this fact? 

From clothing companies to race promoters to bike companies and beyond, the largely-ignored segment of the industry hasn't shown up on their own, so there's absolutely no reason to explore or invest in potential growth... Right? No. That's some crap. And brands/promoters/event managers have continued to ignore women or targeted promotion with the expectation that we'll just... Show up. 

This strategy has worked well until the last few years, when women have just started showing up because of the awesomeness of MTB, and until corporate companies have started seeing the number of women buying outdoor products, taking outdoor trips, participating in outdoor sports. And just not one sport. Not usually even two. But THREE or more, according to Outdoor Industries of America. The average 'outdoorswoman' is a multi-sport participant. 

So why now is there suddenly a plethora of female-specific products? Is it because women have, in the last five years, starting flocking outside as a whole gender? Was there a mass migration or a watershed event where every female brain on planet earth suddenly lightbulb-ed into epiphany about the existence of an outdoor world? 

I don't think so. Women have always been outside, whether acknowledged by corporate or not. I think that outdoor industry companies are big, sluggish and slow-moving behemoths that are too resistant to change... And that's the general outdoor companies. If you look at the bike industry patterns, we're five to seven years behind the outdoor industry trends... So companies JUST realized that women are leaving their kitchens? Congrats, guys. Really. It's only taken about fifty years, eh? No. Women have BEEN here, but not in the numbers that marketing executives can quantify until now. And quantify they are. There are more numbers about female involvement than ever before, but they didn't come from the brands and promoters who have ignored women -- they came from women inside of MTB who are driving outside attraction to MTB. These women have pulled themselves up, started brands and clinics and have created products they would want to ride. For a lot of women across the globe in many different walks of life, desperation breeds innovation. And so we create. Look at all of the female-driven companies in MTB. Look at what they're creating and giving back. This is driven by their deep sense of loyalty and honor -- when they get somewhere, they create a ladder. 

But someone else is desperate, too.

I believe that companies were desperate. They still are. After the wild growth of the late 90s and the economic blows of the mid 00's, growth inside of MTB stagnated and MTB had no Lance Armstrong to lean on. The dudes in MTB weren't buying. Companies tried everything -- from sexy nurses to Ken Block, the mountain bike economy was crumbling, and there wasn't enough cash in the world to stop the constant hemorrhage.

But somewhere, out of the dark mid-2000s, there was this quiet group. We were a rare sight, but we were there... In ski towns and on hiking trails. Old and young, retired racers and newbies; we seemed to emerge from the woodwork with our bright colors and ridiculous grins. The women who remembered Giove and Streb, even some who had raced alongside them, were telling stories that a new generation was listening to, and creating the products they wanted that no one would make them. From embrocation creams to hand-made jerseys and shorts, it was fed-up innovation at its finest. These women were also leaders; they began leading a new generation -- the generation that grew up watching these crazy adults on those weird bikes. And it was these children of the fat skis and RedBull, or the Dew Tour and snowboarding that began taking cues from the women out there crushing it without regard to getting 'permission' from the men. And this new, tenacious generation of women, in all of its fearless excess, grabbed on. They suddenly remembered the 'mountain' bikes from their childhoods, those clunky 21-speeders, and they remembered the weird feeling. But it wasn't called mountain biking then, to them. Now it was. So they tried this other outdoor thing again. This 'adults on bikes' thing... And they were hooked. From 2008-ish, the faucet slowly opened. 'What began as a trickle', right?

But companies ignored these women, because the older ladies had learned to make do with too-big Moto jerseys and too-big armor that bumbled around, and companies assumed it was another flash in the pan. They assumed that the women innovating would just give up and go away. Can't you see we're too busy here doing man work?! It was just one more bubble of false growth (because they'd seen so many, thanks to their marketing strategies). Brands couldn't actually see that the outside culture had changed, until one day, the women were everywhere, new and old. And we WANTED things to happen with our ideas. At first it was our jerseys, but then it was shoes and seats and grips. Then all of a sudden, these crazy women wanted things that weren't just things, but things that made sense to us! We wanted the fruition of our ideas. We wanted a reivestment into the work we'd put in while everyone was ignoring us.

And while the companies were sighing in relief that people were buying things, they didn't know quite what to do with this new demographic of women who wouldn't buy something that didn't work, and who wanted to see more business growth in their segment. After all -- we had the rest of the outdoor industry catering to us as they all woke up to the simple fact that we were humans who needed gear. From Oakley and Roxy and Burton to Osprey, Patagonia and Prana, we had companies who recognized our economic value and wanted to meet our needs. Why settle for shitty MTB gear when the ski and snowboard and backpack and climbing industries had all made room? And we didn't. We couldn't.

So MTB brands started throwing together products, and they threw it together fast (where did all of these women come from?!). They had to capitalize on it! LOOK AT ALL OF THIS MONEY! But the products and offerings were still subpar, because it was a half-assed attempt to exploit a massively growing market. Hell. Look around you -- much of it still has been until the last year. And women bought these products because FINALLY, there was something for them. And we wanted to support companies who supported us. 

Except... The companies we supported didn't always give it back. While this heavily-spending and massively-investing generation of women have been jumping in head first, that's largely been the extent of the commitment. Companies didn't know how to identify with this weird flock of birds. They didn't hire many women as consultants on gear creation, so we ended up with crazy bad stuff. And event management? Brand sponsorship? HA! What do women know about any of that man stuff?! How do you 'give back' when you don't know who or what or where to 'give back' to? 

So companies just tried to muddle along, claiming 'women specific' in the grab for the almighty dollar (because women outspend men 6:1), but without thought or plan or strategy, and they didn't invest the new cash in attracting more women to the sport. 

So then racing became more stagnant than ever and everyone scratched their heads -- after all, look at all of these women! Everyone was buying, but races were dead. Why were races dead?! Racing is fascinating! The competition! The skill! The RUSH! The animal instinct! Few members of this new audience were coming around to the events... Well, to the events that were left after the economic meltdown. And all of these companies are STILL failing to get women to races, and still failing to engage women in competitive events. These promoters have no understanding of the motivations behind why women race, and so they cannot capitalize on those motivations and build something... But they often won't hire women to help them. They don't look outside the bro culture box to find the answers to questions that have already been answered by SweetLines and Lindsey Voreis and Vida, all of which are women-owned and run companies who are getting MASSIVE turnouts... From women. 

And that's the problem: nobody knew how to sell bikes to women. A lot of people still struggle with it -- as I write this, I'm sitting in Angelfire, NM and reflecting on the interaction I had with another lady MTBer at the shop today. The guys were thrilled about her enthusiasm, but they were... Lost. I was delighted to sell her a DH bike, and I didn't even work there. I walked in, she took one look at me in my gear and laser-beamed her way into a conversation. SO WHY AREN'T SHOPS HIRING MORE WOMEN?! Perhaps it's because women get treated so terribly by shop customers? Or maybe it's even worse -- shop owners (and the majority of the bike industry) see very little value in women at all. 

And this problem, this inability to connect, the failure to communicate or identify or see the different, unique and EQUAL value women have as athletes, customers, employees, business owners, coaches, mentors, and industry heads... That's a huge problem. We have to connect with our audience, but we cannot connect with an audience we have no reflection of inside the industry. To get women in, we, as MTBers, also have to INVEST in women. 

That means we have to invest in women who know their shit. Instead of passing them off as 'overly passionate' or 'a woman', we need to look at their education, their experience, their qualifications. We need to VALUE women for the unique and amazing assets they are... And not just tits and ass. 

We have to invest in advertising, in good, solid marketing, in racers and teams and events. We have to invest in juniors and little tiny groms and parents and families. We have to stop selling and start engaging with people -- we have to share why mountain biking is so cool and we need to do it from a large variety of perspectives. We have to talk about why racing is amazing, whether you're watching or competing, and we have to draw our audiences who identify with the athletes and the event. We've never lived in any sort of world that has made it as easy to project ideas and get information as the one we live in now, but we're failing to engage people more than ever. 

As an entire sport, we are failing to attract  audiences and buyers and viewers who drive sales through advertising to increase event sponsorship that will support equal payout, and we are failing to present more than one facet of lifestyle. At EVERY point of that equation, there is a failure within MTB. And for what reason? Certainly not because it's not an exciting sport or a highly-engaging one. Despite the prohibitively expensive entrance costs, people are still picking it up. So what's the excuse?

I know this is long and I ramble. BUT STICK WITH ME. 

We're failing because we can only attract  one type of buyer: the white male between 14-45. Why? Because the MTB industry is 99.9% white males with white male ideas. That's not a bad thing! BUT... you cannot diversify revenue streams without diversifying hiring practices, promotional practices and advertising and investment practices... And when the old stream of revenue has trickled out, you have to diversify to stay alive. We have to bring those people with different perspectives inside so that they know who to engage on the outside.

Go ahead -- call your economic advisor. They'll tell you that I'm right. And they'll tell you that failing to diversify is the big killer of any industry in any walk of life. 

Adapt or die. 

So. Long and short of it -- stop shorting women. Stop exploiting the sales and economic boost, but failing to give back or reinvest. STOP ASSUMING THAT YOU DON'T HAVE TO INVEST. Don't believe that 'women aren't the target market'. Stop selling bullshit women's products that fall short of technical needs, stop passing off the craaaaaaaazy bullshit because you have some weird gendered bias and you think women are dumb (we're not), and stop acting as though bikes and races and support and advertising only belong under those who are white, male, and between 14-45. Give us role models. Support racers and ambassadors who DO SOMETHING, not just act as another useless salesperson with a social media account. Invest in and give the public athletes to respect; people who inspire or challenge or encourage. Support those people. Help events grow and support local economies by engaging in your own community, and helping other communities. Hire women. Hire people of color. HIRE PEOPLE OF EVERY WALK OF LIFE WHO KNOW BIKES. Open your eyes and reach your 'target market' through genuine interaction with genuine people who understand the value of genuine connection... And no, I'm not talking about social media. For god's sake, get over the bullshit of 'social influencers' who are cookie-cutter molded athletes and personalities. Find people who have struck out on their own and who aren't afraid to speak out, try new things or even fail. Those are the people who will give you the growth. Those are the people who know very important things.

At the end of the day, we're a growing sport based around two wheels. EVERYONE is our target market. From the baby just learning to walk her strider around to the 95-year old dude cruising around on his recumbent and EVERYONE in between, everyone is our target market. Stop targeting, start engaging. 

Please. For the love of God, please. Help the women help you. Help our sport become a viable, sustainable economic force to be reckoned with, not just another trendy flash-in-the-pan. Help us. 


(Oh, and don't tell us you need our wheels present to install a bottom bracket and a crankset. We will call you on that. Whew.)

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