I have meet numerous race promoters who have failed to build a successful race promotion business.
Over and over again, I hear them talk to me about their struggles.
All too often, they found out that race promotion is not a job that magically creates that well-orchestrated event most racers get to experience on race day.
Instead, they find out that the real race promotion takes place long before any of their races ever started.
Most were unprepared for all the planning, preparation, and high-risk choices they never saw coming.
In the last minute panic to deal with all the boring business parts, they crushed their business under an avalanche of financial hardship.
The end result is often a quick flirtation with off-road racing that produced little to no financial reward.
All that creativity and drive snuffed out due to a lack of business skills
What a waste.
However, the race promoters that have faded away from this industry have left you with a huge advantage.
They have identified the key reasons their businesses did not work.
I have summed up the top five of these key reasons to hopefully help you learn what not to do when it comes to building a successful race promotion business.
#1 – Lack of Training
There is a serious lack of training, schools, or resources that teach race direction with any success.
I know, I’ve checked!
Don’t believe me?
Did you check?
Yup, there is a whole lot of nothing out there for the novice race director.
And if you do find something, it’s most likely not even for your sport.
I found that most race direction resources are geared towards either massive sporting events or running.
Yup, just running.
I’ve worked through the lessons learned from other race directors, sat through webinars from Active Endurance, and have my Race Directors certification from USA Cycling.
However, no once through all that training did I feel confident about my race direction skills, nor did any of these teach me how to build a business around race promotion.
Additionally, none of these training opportunities teach you about the long game, that planning cycle that you need to put yourself through months before your race day.
Without any effective race direction training or education, most wing it like I did.
But doing it the hard way is not a good way to learn this business, and why many end up giving up.
This is what I did.
I learned from the ground up, watching other directors, doing a ton of volunteering, and then trying to do it myself.
It took a long time to find out that having a small amount of focused training can go a long way to improving your chances at being successful.
Building off-road races are not difficult if you have a good way to learn the business without years of trial and error.
#2 – Planning Everything Last Minute
Race promoters do not lack initiative.
In fact, they tend to be the kind of people that do not take “No” for an answer, and push forward when everyone else has quit.
However, if you’re like me, you tend to come up with race ideas at the weirdest times.
While out for a run, or while riding in a particular park, you suddenly are inspired to come up with a cool event concept.
But when you come to your senses, you realize it’s May.
The current race calendar is full of other promoter’s events, and if you wanted to slip a race into a June date, you have less than 5-weeks to finance, plan, and promote it.
What are the chances of your success when you build a race this way?
The number “zero” comes to mind.
I’ve built races this way.
Many race promoters starting out go through this stage too.
It’s a kind of race promotion seizure where you think you can pull off the impossible in only a few shorts weeks.
Unfortunately, only a few of my last minute races ever worked that why I wanted them to.
With no runway for marketing efforts to get the word out, you never get the turnout you hoped for.
Do yourself a favor by giving your races more time to mature.
Most of your customers will plan their race calendar out 6-months in advance.
This makes last minute events poor investments if you need a large turnout to break even.
A last minute race only works if you’re trying an experiment that does not require many customers to show up.
This could include a training event like a clinic or diet.
You could also make a “just for the fun of it” race with no intention of getting your money back.
Just know that last minute events are a poor business model if you want to have your race promotion business succeed.
#3 – No Respect for Risk
Mr. Murphy strikes you when you are the least prepared.
Usually at the worst possible moment, in the worst possible way.
New race promoters that ignore this truth, or think that it will not happen to them, go out of business faster than any other.
Why does this happen?
Because they have no respect for the kinds of risk that is inherent in off-road racing.
Possibly due to never getting hurt during a race, or never being at a race where someone was seriously hurt.
But if you consider the risks of different off-road racing disciplines, do they all have the same risk?
Each sport has its particular dangers.
Is a mountain bike race the same as running?
Or even a trail run?
Some parts are.
But the parts that do not make a huge difference between your success or failure.
Nobody is teaching new and established race promoters how to navigate these differences.
Ever consider how different an injury in a pavement 5K is compared to an injury on a remote trail section?
It could mean the difference between life and death.
Endurance races have heat exhaustion, falls, and heart attacks.
Trail runs have trips, sticks, and twisted ankles.
Mountain bike races have high-speed crashes, wipeouts, and over the handlebars fun times.
Adventure racing has briar patches, mental fatigue, and lost people.
The risks on and on!
The point is that it’s hard to stay in business when your event directly contributes to hurting one of your customers.
And it’s not easy to bounce back when everything goes wrong.
Many don’t bounce back.
They just go out of business.
Don’t be unprepared for the risk that is “built in” to off-road racing.
That lack of preparation could cause your entire company to go under after only one race.
#4 – Not Understanding the Importance of Reputation
Your reputation is judged during every race you build.
Once upon a time, I had racers get washed downstream into a concrete pipe.
It is not something I ever want to repeat.
Nor is it a way to win fans.
This lurking danger was created when new construction rerouted rain runoff into the park in a poorly thought out way.
Where normal Summer rains would cause a creek to rise 6-inches, the new hydraulics caused the creek to rise 5-feet in less than 10-minutes.
If you want to know what that looks like, here’s a video of the unintended consequences poorly thought out construction can have on a local race.
They have since rebuild the streambed and rerouted the water to account for the heavy run-off.
But all those changes were after-the-fact.
During this event, it took several minutes before anyone realized the creek was experiencing a flash flood in a place that had never had a flash flood before.
Nobody could have predicted this.
However, the fallout after the fact was where things got messy.
Monday Morning quarterbacks — primarily from those not even there — started bad mouthing my race decisions online.
Community forums and social media exploded with “should of’s” and “could of’s” with most being negative opinions of what happened.
Although I weathered the online storm (no pun intended), the damage to my reputation would still continue for several weeks.
Even after I adapted to this new risk and put plans into place on how I would deal with bad weather in the future, some were still upset.
Fortunately, the racing community — in the case mountain bikers — came to my defense.
They started pushing back on the critics and many started to realize that the flash flood was a bizarre, unexpected occurrence.
The community rallied to my side of the event, and the voices that claimed they would never race with me again dwindled away.
The point of this story is that most race directors do not survive this kind of event.
They have thin skin or an inability to take on the critics and quit.
Or worse, they don’t care what they’re customers think and make no changes.
Indifference or arrogance are both sure ways to drive racers away from your next race.
I dealt with the freak flash flood by buying walkie-talkies to replace our mobile phones, changing the rain policy, and placing course marshals at that creek.
These changes were all in response to the critics.
Those changes alone renewed my customer’s faith in my race direction.
If I had done nothing and not acted to protect racers from future flash floods, I’m not sure so many would have come back.
You cannot take that chance.
If you have an incident, you have to protect your reputation and your race’s reputation by letting racers know how you are dealing with it.
Never keep everyone in the dark or ignore your customers.
Trust goes both ways.
#5 – No Path to Profit
Going broke most certainly takes out the most race promoters.
Sure, risk and reputation problems either directly or indirectly contributing to this result.
But running out of money or having nobody interested in coming to your races is a sure way to end your race promotion career.
There are a large number of race promoters that claim they do this for the “love of the sport”.
I believe some of them.
I’ve met a few retired racers who really enjoy breaking even if they can deliver a good race.
However, you cannot grow a race promotion business by ONLY breaking even.
You need to have a plan and a path to profit if you want to grow any business.
Race promotion is no different.
Seasonal events require that you make some extra money so that you can work and plan during the months where nothing is happening — unless you enjoy working for free.
I am of the opinion that race promotion is a business.
And like every business, the point of business is to provide a good product, grow the business, and make money.
You can try to build a race promotion business as a charity, but few survive the first few years because they misunderstand the term “non-profit” to mean “no profits” or “broke”.
Non-profit’s are not suppose to be broke.
Charity businesses that are non-profit organizations (claiming 503(c) status) have expenses, staff, overhead, and just about every other issue a “for profit” business has.
The only difference is where the profit goes.
A for-profit business puts its money back into the company (usually for growth projects), or divides the extra revenue (after expenses) among the owners.
A non-profit has a limited list of areas it can put its extra revenue.
Usually, it includes education programs, grants, or donations to other nonprofits that benefit the community.
The problem arises when BOTH types of companies build races with no plan for growth.
If you do not grow, you stagnate.
Stagnation can be prolonged for a time — sometimes for years.
Any one-trick-pony race company that does not make more money than it takes in is called a special word in the business world: a hobby.
If you race company is a hobby, that’s ok.
You just need to ADMIT that your organization is a hobby company, and not racing company.
Hobby companies do not grow, only companies that profit from their efforts grows.
That’s why there is a difference with a very important distinction.
No matter if you’re trying to build a for-profit or not-for-profit company, lack of revenue equals a lack of growth.
If your races do not make money, you days are numbered.
So take a long hard look at what you are building.
Are you building a hobby or a company?
Many of those race promoters that build hobbies do enjoy their work.
But when they stop working, so does their hobby.
A company is a self-sufficient machine that can promote races with or without you.
Know what you are building.
And now you know.