SBJ/November 6 - 12, 2006/This Weeks News

Olympics newcomer BMX faces an uphill climb

In a dark theater in Colorado Springs, visitors to the U.S. Olympic Committee are being treated to a four-minute video promoting the 2008 Olympics. Against a crescendo of traditional Chinese music a narrator promotes a new event debuting at the Beijing Games — BMX cycling. As he speaks, a BMX rider flies across the screen, high above a vert ramp.

BMX racing (right) will be in
Beijing; BMX freestyle won’t.

There’s only one problem: BMX racing is the one making its debut in Beijing, not BMX freestyle. It’s the equivalent of making “h-o-r-s-e” representative of the game of basketball.

The USOC recognizes the error and says it plans to fix it in the future. But the image highlights the confusion around one of the most anticipated and arguably most misunderstood additions to the 2008 Olympics — a confusion created by placing an under-the-radar, counterculture sport within the Olympic movement, and fed by longtime infighting among BMX’s own traditional governing bodies.

The racing version of BMX features riders pedaling across dirt tracks and over hills to a finish line, not stunt performers swirling through the air and doing tricks, as the freestyle rider does in the video. Similar to snowboarding’s inclusion in the Winter Olympics, BMX was included in the 2008 Olympic program to appeal to a younger audience — and, no doubt, the sponsors and TV networks looking to reach that audience. Most recreational BMX participants are between ages 7 and 19.

But just how big of a splash BMX will make in 2008 will largely be determined by its ability to educate people about the sport and its differences from its more mainstream, flashier cousin.

“When you say BMX, people think freestyle,” said Kevin O’Brien, marketing and communications director at the National Bicycle League, a BMX race organizer. “You have to explain it’s racing, and they wonder: How can it be so exciting if I’ve never heard of it before?”

BMX’s ability to change that over the next two years, and in turn attract sponsors and viewers, will be determined by its three domestic organizers — USA Cycling, the NBL and the American Bicycle Association — and the odds don’t look good. To date, the groups have been locked in a power struggle that has hindered the sport’s ability to build momentum before Beijing.

BMX’s allure for the Olympics, like snowboarding,
was its appeal to young people.

“Here’s a sport that’s ready to go, and these organizations can’t sit in a room,” said Gary Ream, president of Camp Woodward, an action sports camp in Pennsylvania, and a longtime authority on the action sports industry. “The reason they’re not ready is they’re not getting together.”

‘Like Ford and GM’

The strife predates the International Olympic Committee’s 2003 decision to add BMX racing. While Colorado Springs-based USA Cycling is BMX’s national governing body, the Arizona-based ABA and Ohio-based NBL have been the organizations hosting BMX events in the U.S. during the last three decades. Combined, the two organizations have close to 100,000 members and they host more than 50 national events.

But they also compete for riders and sponsors, and they have a history of not getting along.

“They’re like Ford and GM,” pro BMX racer Jason Richardson said. “They don’t work together.”

That has affected their ability to sell the sport to potential sponsors, particularly non-endemic brands with the marketing muscle to put the sport in front of the mainstream.

None of the groups have successfully sold the sport to date. Currently, the NBL and ABA only work with endemic sponsors, such as Mongoose Bicycles and Fly Racing, and USA Cycling says it hasn’t been proactive in selling the BMX racing property because it’s been wrapped up in organizing an effort to accommodate both groups.

“Right now there are three organizations trying to get the same sponsorship dollars,” said pro rider and Olympic hopeful Donny Robinson. “I don’t see how companies would know who to go to because they all have pros and cons.”

Issa Sawabini, an executive with Fuse, a youth marketing agency that works on Mountain Dew’s action sports account, agreed. “It’s definitely a little tricky,” he said.

The rift between the groups goes back more than a decade.

The NBL, a nonprofit, helped create the first international governing body for the sport, the International BMX Foundation, in 1981. When the international group merged with Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s international federation required that all national BMX bodies affiliate with their country’s national governing body.

Sponsorship in BMX has largely been
limited to endemic brands so far.

As a result, USA Cycling adopted the NBL. But when USA Cycling chief executive Gerard Bisceglia tried to sell the NBL to the for-profit ABA in the mid-1990s, a distrust was born that remains today. “That killed the relationship,” acknowledged Bob Tedesco, the NBL’s executive director.

The ABA did not return multiple calls requesting comment for this story.

Under pressure from UCI, USA Cycling kept the NBL and gave it exclusive licensing rights to all USA Cycling-sanctioned BMX races, Tedesco said. The deal made the NBL a shadow national governing body for BMX racing in the U.S., according to Sean Petty, USA Cycling’s chief operating officer. It also became the source of conflict when BMX racing was named to the Olympic program in 2003.

The ABA wanted a role in Olympic qualifying events and went to the USOC to protest USA Cycling’s exclusive arrangement with the NBL. The three groups met with the USOC in June 2005, at which time the exclusivity clause in the NBL contract was ruled invalid by USOC lawyers, Petty said.

Since then, a BMX governance structure that incorporates all parties has begun to take shape at USA Cycling, which includes the ABA forming a nonprofit division called USA BMX to abide by USOC rules. A three-member BMX board was formed last month, and though the groups are still struggling to work together, Petty believes they’ve turned a corner.

“Everyone’s on the same page now,” he said. “We have models moving forward.”

The success of those models — and whether everyone truly is on the same page, as many in the industry have disputed — will determine how much BMX can grow and how much corporate support it can attract before Beijing.

‘Ready to skyrocket’

Visa is the only non-endemic sponsor to get involved in BMX racing so far. The USOC partner added rider Bubba Harris, the 2005 world champion, to its gold-medal athlete program in early 2006. The payment-card company believes affiliating with the sport by making Harris one of 15 endorsed athletes for 2008 will help it connect with young adults.

“We believe it’s an enormously hot sport that’s primed to grow dramatically in the coming years,” said Michael Lynch, Visa’s senior vice president of event and sponsorship marketing.

The company has a track record of attaching itself to athletes in new, cutting-edge sports. Visa-backed boardercross racers Lindsey Jacobellis and Seth Wescott both won medals when their sport debuted earlier this year in the Torino Winter Olympics, and Jacobellis was the centerpiece of a lengthy ad campaign leading up to the Games.

BMX racing supporters say it will be the next big
thing when Olympic medals go to the winners.

Visa also backed Wescott on a promotional tour after he won gold, which in turn promoted the entire sport. Lynch did not rule out eventually doing the same thing for Harris and BMX racing should he win.

“There’s a vested interest in growing this sport,” Lynch said. “This is a sport that, in my mind, is just ready to skyrocket.”

Not everyone agrees. Skeptics point to the TV challenge of featuring a sport whose races only last 40 seconds and to the double-digit percentage declines in participation that BMX sees among racers in their late teens, or soon after kids get their driver’s license.

“It’s not a lifestyle sport,” said Fuse’s Sawabini. “It would be a tough thing for a sponsor to leverage.”

NBL’s O’Brien agreed.

“It’ll take someone who wants to be a pioneer,” he said. “They’re going to have to gamble that because it’s in the Olympics, racing will be the next big thing.”

USA Cycling’s Petty is optimistic that BMX racing is the next big thing. He admits, though, that getting all of the competing organizations to work together must happen first.

“It’s very important,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity on the medal side for our country, and one we need to make the most of.”

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