Does this sound familiar?
You’ve decided to put on a mountain bike race.
You’ve named your event, figured out the course, and have a permit for a park that lots of mountain bike riders enjoy riding at.
You went down to the big box store and filled your garage with tables, chairs, coolers, cones, pop-tents, and tape.
Being a bit tech savvy, you bought a couple of laptops, paid for a website, purchased the latest timing software, and built a free-ish online registration account.
Then you stopped by your local insurance agent and picked up a comfortable policy that will cover just about any issue.
You’re excited when the box containing the medals arrives, allowing you to go 3-deep in each of your 15-categories.
You are now out about $5,000, but ready to sell out your race and recoup all your costs! At $40/per rider, you should break even after you get about 125 riders to pre-reg.
But you’re sure that your event will bring twice that many by race day!
Because you’re awesome or course, and so is your race!
Once everyone gets a look at your website and registration listing, you are certain the money will start rolling in.
Then registration opens…
And no one signs up…
You panic and start sending all sorts of Facebook posts out to all your friends. Maybe that will generate some registrations.
But when your online registration closes, only 5 people have pre-registered. And only 30 new racers show up on race day.
At the end of the day, you make a total of $1,400.
That’s bad. But the park gets 15-percent cut off the top. So minus another $210 for the park.
Now your at $1,190.
You have just worked 120-hours over the past 3-months (all on your free time) planning, clearing trail, marking the course, setting up, running the race, doing results, and tearing down; all for what?
For the pain of having to eat a $3,810 loss. That’s a loss of over 75-percent of what you put in (not including all of your “free” labor).
For most people, this is where their dream of being a race promoter ends.
If this is you, then you understand the hard reality or race promotion. Especially if you fronted all the race startup money yourself. Now you’re left holding the empty bag.
Some people cause themselves this pain because they live in a fantasy world of the “reality distortion field”.
This is a simple concept to illustrate: You are a racer. You go to plenty of races and see all the other racers.
You think to yourself, “Wow, they all paid the same registration fee as me, so this race made a ton of money!”
This puts an idea in your head about how much money you could make if you promoted a race too.
“How hard could it be?”, you say to yourself.
The truth? It’s very hard. You’ve been caught in the same field that distorts reality for many novice race promoters.
What you don’t see is that a race is a product.
When you are experiencing the finished product — the race you are participating in — it’s the end result of a lot of other factors that took place long before you showed up.
The time, effort, and assets that go into building a successful race are all hidden from you on race day.
All you see is a race promoter executing their plan, lots of people having fun, and a bucket of cash at the registration table.
When caught in the reality distortion field, all you can think of is, “I can do that too!” You only see the small patch of ice on the surface, with no view of the massive iceberg hiding below.
How do you escape from this field and know you really want to take on this challenge?
Follow the Path
This is the right question to ask yourself before going down the race promoters path.
Building a race, and building a race right, are two very different things.
Anyone with a few bucks and some planning can build a race.
The so-called fictional person at the beginning of this article isn’t wrong.
Most of those things do go into building a race.
However, if you plan on making money and creating value building good races, you will need a much different approach.
However, before we get into the heavier stuff, we will start at the beginning (which is always the best place to start) by sharing my core race promotion principles with you.
These first three principles — the Core Reckoneering Principles™ — set the stage for how you should approach any race promotion challenge.
Even after your events get established and well attended, these principles will remain true to your continued success.
Think of them as rules to how you approach every race you build.
Let’s go through them:
Principle #1: Start Small
There is not a single race promoter out there that jumped into racing with a large venue, fat budget, or amazing turnout on day one.
All of them — and I mean ALL OF THEM — started out somewhere small.
From running a local 5K fun run or organizing group riders to volunteering for someone else’s race or coaching after school, all promoters have some exposure to a small event!
Your race promoter’s bio needs this sort of event management origin story too.
You need to get you hands dirty early on so that you can see how a race works behind the scenes.
I recommend volunteering for an established race promoter.
But you can always try running your own mini-event using a local club, or a small group of friends, as your test subjects.
The point is to not overwhelm yourself with too many race promotion processes without having experienced the basics in a safe, learning environment.
The reason for this is obvious. Small allows you to make mistakes you can recover from.
When your event only cost $100 to produce, you can take a $100 loss much easier than a $5,000 one.
Small is great for learning because when the numbers are easy to manage and you don’t need to worry about things getting out of hand.
Leave the need for professional timers or cash purses for when you are ready.
Principle #2: Stay Simple
You need to quit overthinking everything and just keep it simple.
You don’t need food tables at your first race, you don’t need to go 5-deep on awards, and you don’t need 15 categories.
Just make it a simple race. Stick to the areas of the park that everyone enjoys.
Downgrade expectations with simple prizes that you can get at the dollar store, or bulk at the big box store.
Your racers will appreciate the award, especially if it’s quirky enough to become a tradition later on (stuffed things are perfect for this).
When you get rid of all the distractions, and just create a good backyard race, you begin to build your reputation as a race promoter that can deliver.
Additionally, staying simple provides you with an easy-to-manage event that you can keep control of throughout the day.
Complexity only complicates your efforts and takes your focus away from what you should be caring about: your customers!
Worry about their enjoyment, not your next trick.
Staying simple comes complete with the fringe benefit of keeping costs down.
If you don’t have a need for including a petting zoo, radio frequency identification capable timing system, or 100 free pizzas, then the savings is all yours.
Principle #3: Show Value
The cost of entry into your race should be equal to the amount of value you are delivering to your customer.
If you are putting together a small, simple, backyard race, with the expectation of 30-40 racers showing up, don’t charge them $50/per person.
But don’t charge them $5/per person either.
You need to carefully understand that although your race holds some level of value for your customer, your time and effort in building that race needs to be considered too.
Most racers will pay more than you think, providing that you give them a worthwhile experience in return.
This means that you have to give them your best effort based on the kind of race you’ve created.
What does this mean?
Be nice and connect with them by smiling and talking with your racers, even if you don’t want to.
Take an active interest in who they are, why they came to your event, and how they did during the race.
Be active in their experience by getting to know them as people, not just bib numbers or dollar signs.
Part of the job of race promotion is acting as the host by making sure everyone is having a good time.
How will you know this if you are distracted or overwhelmed by costs?
You will be surprised how important your active interest is to a racer’s overall experience — especially in a small race.
Some racers find the personal touch of the race promoter to be the number one thing that brings them back to you.
You show value by learning about the experience you provide your racers.
You cannot be a race promoter if you don’t like talking to people, so get out there enjoy what you are building.
Your First Steps
I have been there time and time again, struggling with each of these principles in my own way.
One of my first races was way too big, and it devoured me both physically and financially.
My next race was much smaller and easier to manage but became overly complex in its execution.
Once I figured out how to start small and stay simple, showing value became a natural part of running the race.
Have you tried to build something that was too big to manage, or too complex to control? Do you find it difficult to engage with your racers?