Hunter steers Colorado cycling race
Shawn Hunter knows how to sell sports. During his 21-year career in sports business, Hunter has held the position of chief marketing officer and president at AEG Sports, chief executive officer at MLS Chivas USA, president of the Phoenix Coyotes and executive vice president of the Colorado Avalanche. His latest challenge is selling professional cycling, and in February Hunter became co-chairman of the Quiznos Pro Cycling Challenge race in Colorado (the race has since changed its name to the USA Pro Cycling Challenge), which hopes to become America’s second-largest bicycle race upon its debut in August. But American cycling has a long history of major events that promised greatness and quickly faded. Hunter caught up with staff writer Fred Dreier to discuss how he plans to make this event stick.
Hunter: It was all about timing. As I was ending my time with AEG at the end of 2010 these guys were in the midst of launching their race. I had done the commute from Denver to L.A. for six years and was ready for something new. Then (Denver) Mayor (John) Hickenlooper suggested to them that they talk to me because I had helped launch the Tour of California, and they asked if I would join the race advisory board. Two weeks later (Quiznos founder and race owner) Rick Schaden asked if I would take over the race. I liked his vision, so it was a pretty smooth transition.
■ How do you plan to sell cycling to the general consumer?
Hunter: Our goal is to find the crossover marketing approach to get the general sports audience to jump on board. It’s all about the pre-promotion. We’re building a big marketing campaign and a bandwagon to make people excited to come out in August. The real marketing heroes are in our local organizing committees, in towns like Golden, Aspen, Vail or Salida. They go out and stir up support. That’s how it worked [at the Tour of] California, and the locals generate the crowds of 60,000 at the finish line. The race is six years old and they’re starting to see great results. Last year they had like 2 million people come out to watch. The other part is TV coverage. Part of our agreement with NBC and Versus is promotion of our race during the Tour de France in July. It’s realistic to say that a podium finisher from the Tour de France will be at our race.
■ Why did the race rebrand itself away from the Quiznos Pro Challenge name?
Hunter: When I came on board we started to take a pretty hard look at the race’s vision, and from a branding standpoint the Quiznos Pro Challenge did not represent what our aspirations were, which is to become one of the biggest bike races in the world. You look at other great events, such as the U.S. Open or the Masters, and they don’t have corporate names. You look at the Tour de France, and the name references the country. It was a bold move, and I credit Quiznos for understanding and continuing to stay on as a founding partner. But our vision is to make the race relevant to international cycling.
■ The Tour de Georgia and San Francisco Grand Prix both drew huge spectators when Lance Armstrong took the starting line. Were you worried your race would suffer in attendance when Armstrong announced his retirement in February?
Hunter: I never thought [Armstrong] would race. I think he’ll still participate in some way, and his RadioShack team will participate, so I think he’ll be visible at the race, but I never thought he’d compete as an athlete. When we launched the Tour of California in 2006 [Armstrong] had just retired for the first time and a lot of people thought we were crazy launching it then. But you never want to build an event around one individual. I think the ultimate long-term success is if young people seize onto the race and see the bike as a lifelong sport.
■ What are the challenges in selling cycling compared to traditional spectator sports?
Hunter: Cycling has a small core audience, but it’s a really rich demographic in terms of household income and education. So it’s not that difficult [to sell it] because companies want to engage with this audience. Versus came out with their research numbers and said the Tour de France viewers are the most educated and highest household income of any sporting audience in the United States. And the fans watch for a long time: The average viewing time is 30 minutes.