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Revitalizing American Bike Racing – A Talk with Michael Aisner

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article by Joe Harris and Steve Maxwell of The Outer Line

In the first article, Michael Eisner shared many fond and exciting memories from the old Coors Classic days. He also alluded to a number of important business lessons that can be learned from the success of that event. In fact, many of the innovative marketing approaches, organization-building tactics and operating methods that the “Classic” pioneered may be increasingly relevant today – as more and more American racing events struggle to achieve stability and profitability. In this article, we talk in more detail with Aisner about some of these key recommendations for stabilizing and revitalizing American cycling today.

Aisner firmly believes that cycling must be viewed as part of the broader entertainment business, and that sports are therefore in constant competition against all other forms of entertainment. There are now thousands of cable, satellite, and online channels available, with almost unlimited entertainment options. Hence, cycling has to find a way to become more exciting to people other than cyclists – so that sponsors can achieve wider exposure. “To survive and grow, we simply have to reach more people, and get them interested in our sport. We’ve got a lot to offer to new fans, but too often we end up just talking to ourselves,” says Aisner. “There are two basic places where we have to make cycling more interesting – live at the event on the side of the road, and on TV. Frankly, I don’t think we’ve progressed much on either count during the last couple decades.”

Aisner tells the story of when he was consulting to the Saturn Classic race in 2001, and trying to explain the basic marketing challenge to the General Motors executive team. “I went into this big corporate board room in Detroit, and I drew four concentric circles up on the blackboard. I often refer back to this, because it really encapsulates how we should look at the existing and potential cycling fan base.”

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Aisner’s “bulls-eye” chart shows the four key audiences for pro cycling. The innermost circle represents the cycling fanatic – the fan who will go to any length to watch cycling anywhere. “This is the diehard, the real saddle-sniffer,” says Aisner. They know the sport inside and out, and many of them are amateur racers themselves. (Some television executives have estimated that this circle – in the U.S. – may be as small as only about 100,000 people.) The next circle out represents the casual fan – someone interested in the sport but who may not always remember to watch an event – and who hence may be particularly responsive to cycling promotions. The next outer circle is what Aisner refers to as the “friend” – people who would try watching a cycling event with a friend, or if it was promoted in the right way, and who might follow an event once they formed a connection to it. Such friends might even come back and watch another event if and when they are reminded that one is occurring. Finally, in the outermost (and by far largest) circle is the “fringe” – people who don’t have any awareness or interest in pro cycling – even when they are specifically pitched on the idea.

To sum things up, says Aisner, “We’ve done a pretty good job of pitching pro cycling to the inner two circles – the fanatic and the fan – but outside of the “Lancedom” era and the Tour de France, we’ve largely failed to draft new fans from those outer two circles.” This is the crux of the challenge facing U.S. bike racing: how to move more people from those outer two rings towards the center of the bulls-eye.

In retrospect, the Coors Classic did a striking job of converting those outer rings and creating a generation of new fans for pro cycling. “You just have to figure out how to connect with those folks,” he says. For example, he put the late Robin Williams on the cover of the Saturn cycling magazine – a widely recognized celebrity who had a passion for recreational cycling. “Our message to that outer circle should be easily shareable content – the best we have to offer – videos that show massive attacks; how the human machine burns more calories than you can possibly ingest in a crazy mountain stage; dangerous descents at terminal velocity, on paper-thin tires that cost more than your Porsche’s tires; put these kind of gems out there on social media with a youthful narrative and hot music; ‘can’t-look-away,’ juicy, bite-size cycling stories.”

“We need durable, brash young American heroes – where are the Apolo Ohnos, the Shawn Whites?” continues Aisner in a passionate stream of thought. “Where is the diversity? We’re dreadfully low on the ‘cool’ spectrum. We have to dress the sport up, get more creative, to attract new fans and draw them in.”

In looking back more generally on the Classic’s formula for success, Aisner points to six key factors that he ranks as the most critical in building a successful and sustainable race – and for bringing in those critical new fans.

(1) Don’t spend more than you bring in – always balance the costs and revenue. “This is a no-brainer,” says Aisner, “but sometimes it’s tempting for a promoter to overspend, if you have deep pockets behind you. If you need more money to put on your event, then you have to go out and find more sponsors, or figure out other ways of generating revenue. Or else you cut your costs. Period.” Aisner says that some of the more successful regional races like Redlands and Northstar understand this better. They have focused on balancing their budgets, and have creatively utilized volunteers and experienced staff to extend their successful runs. “The results speak for themselves.”

Aisner suggests that some races have developed an “upside-down” financial model. “A budget is established first and then some often-inexperienced sponsor acquisition guys try to go out and raise the funds on a compressed timetable.” Too often, we have this backwards, says Aisner. “You can’t say – we have $12 million in costs, so go raise the money. You have to say – we have $4 million to spend – now use that to go make a great race.” Another factor is that there is a competitive ceiling for the value of a title sponsorship. “The big cycling races can rival the biggest star-studded tennis or golf tourneys, in terms of title sponsorship fees,” he says. “And they’re just not comparable. We have to get reasonable, and stop promising owners a profit in a sport that has rarely ever shown one.”

Aisner also highlights the trend toward separation of race ownership and race management, and speculates that this split may have complicated the incentives and the economics of major events. He believes it can cause the race owner to lose focus on the critical importance of controlling costs – and that this factor may have led to the premature demise of some major American race events. Aisner says that if organizers own their equipment, fencing, radios, cars and logistical personnel etc., that they are more likely to keep a laser focus on expenses. Plus, you can rent that equipment out to other lesser events during the off-season. Says Aisner, “Contract firms like Medalist Sports and G4 Productions have definitely filled a niche, and they do an excellent job. “But let’s face it, they’re independent companies looking to make money for their own shareholders. If you do hire an outside contractor, you just have to make sure you can afford it.”

(2) Perseverance – don’t take no for an answer. Aisner is a veritable poster child for pushing, pestering, even “brow-beating” various parties – to get them on board and contributing to the success of the race. He cites numerous examples from the Classic days where he had to “stick with it to get what I wanted – reason, negotiate, cajole, whatever it takes,” he says, laughing. “You’re basically dealing with a hundred different parties,” he says. “Suppliers, sponsors, local communities, public agencies, and so on – not to mention the teams themselves, the riders, the UCI, USA Cycling, and whoever.” You have to walk a careful line – to balance the individual wants and needs of the various stakeholders, while maintaining the overall vision and budget of the race. “But don’t promise anything you can’t deliver,” he stresses.

“You even have to treat each town differently,” he emphasizes. “Vail and Aspen were very happy to be included in the Classic, because it helped them promote their summer activities. But I had to kiss ass with Boulder and with San Francisco. And I did it, because I needed them – for the crowds, the media, and the sponsors!

In every town they worked with, Aisner talked first with the police, with the fire departments, the churches, and the local transport system, to address their needs and get their buy-in. “Don’t make up excuses and try to figure out why something won’t work – figure things out so that it will work. Don’t run your race on assumptions – run it on vision and dreams.” Aisner believes that many of today’s promoters give up too easily, or don’t push hard enough for the things they need for a successful event.

(3) Listen – and welcome input. Aisner reminds us that the event is there for the public, and stresses the importance of carefully listening to and cooperating with the public – treating them with the same respect as the race’s other important stakeholders. “We made sure that we had advisory committees and forums for input in all of the start and finish towns, and we tried to get the right people on those committees – people that could drive the local interest. We also sought input from the media.” The organizing committee people, local authorities and the media can all be advocates, and a valued part of the effort to grow the fan base and build greater cooperation.

(4) Maximize the assets you have. In addition to making sure that every aspect of the race is thought through in detail, Aisner says you have to think how to utilize and exploit every asset to the maximum degree. “We tried to figure out ways to make the race more of a year-round event; it’s important for the race communities and the sponsors to see that the event has a scale and scope beyond just ‘race week.’” Each spring, the Coors Classic created race magazines, calendars, and other print media products that built up and maintained a level of excitement about the race, and continued the media blitz into the fall, well after the actual event. The organization sold race merchandise year-round. “You must have an on-going presence, remain relevant, and build a ‘personality’ for the race – and it has to be bigger than any individual athlete” says Aisner.

Aisner tried to make each edition of the race fresh by adding something completely novel, whether that was a new stage, a new city, a new geographic region, or new teams. Each episode of the Classic had its own unique twist “to keep the fans and the media coming back, and make them more engaged,” he says. The event pioneered the concept of the VIP cycling tour group – customized tours that allowed citizens to ride the race course as well watch the race – a value-added product which has become wildly popular in Europe for the Grand Tours today.

(5) Maximize your TV coverage. One of the Coors Classic’s greatest successes – and perhaps the biggest contrast with today’s major races – was its ability to generate the kind of broad fan interest which led broadcasters to actually pay for the rights to televise the race – a huge economic advantage, and something basically unheard of in U.S. racing today.
To develop and build this television demand, Aisner and his staff developed an imaginative and very broad-based marketing effort to expose pro cycling to the right audiences. “We had two different media elements – inbound and outbound. Inbound paid careful attention to the reporters who came to cover the race; outbound was basically us busting out stories to the entire mainstream print and broadcast media in every way we could think of. We created human interest side stories in addition to the daily race coverage, which ended up getting us more ink and airtime.”

To Aisner, media meant anything that ended up in front of the public. For example, Frontier Airlines was a sponsor for several years, and the race got major coverage in various airline magazines. “You know all those little napkins that you get with your drink on an airplane?” asks Aisner. “We had the Coors Classic logo and dates on every one of those napkins on Frontier Airlines – millions of people learned about the event through that little trick.” And of course, the Coors Company itself loved all the attention and name recognition it was receiving.

Aisner takes a radically different conceptual approach to television that speaks directly to some of the declining viewership, “cord-cutting” and selective viewing that we have discussed previously: focus less on live coverage, and more on the human interest and emotional side of the sport, trying to turn it into a “docu-drama,” or almost what we might today call reality television. “I know it sounds kind of heretical,” says Aisner, “but I really see little reason to have much live coverage in cycling. We’re just cheating our fans – and a whole world of sports junkies out there – out of some of our best dramas.”

As many observers have pointed out, even in the Tour de France – clearly the most popular and widely watched cycling event in the world – much of the coverage can be pretty boring. Many people, and particularly younger fans, just stream the last three minutes of the race on their phones – totally bypassing the first several hours of coverage. “Four hours of crank-by-crank coverage, with Phil and Paul – as great as they are – talking about 13th century cathedrals?” asks Aisner. “It’s just not the best way to showcase cycling. We need to emphasize the more dramatic and attractive elements of the sport.”

As an example, Aisner cites an event in the 1985 Tour de France, when Greg LeMond was ready to attack and win a stage, but his coaches instructed him to wait for Bernard Hinault, who later went on to win the race. At the end of the dramatic Pyrenees stage, LeMond was caught on television, weeping with rage and frustration at his coaches’ orders. “That’s the kind of drama and human story that fans love. This sport is saturated with enticing moments that we too often leave unseen.”

Aisner says that U.S. races should “turn the etch-a-sketch upside-down” and rewrite their whole approach to television. “This sport is exciting – it’s edgy, unpredictable, loaded with personality, flavor, color, and controversy. I want to see more clips like that one from 1985 – in prime time. We have to bottle up that excitement and emotion, and then figure out how to unpack all of those attributes into more interesting and digestible programming for today’s TV viewer. That’s the best way to bullet-proof ourselves against the evil DVR! Skip these kinds of stories and you lose the context,” he warns.

Another thing Aisner did was to always make sure the race occurred in the right high-visibility places, and at the right times. “You don’t run a race on Wall Street on Sunday morning; you run it Friday during the 5 o’clock news, to get it carried live on local TV,” he says.

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(6) Be wildly inventive and creative. Maybe it’s easy for him to say, but Aisner insists that you have to think big and “throw out the box,” particularly from the marketing perspective. This is where his passion for bike racing really shines through. For example, “we need more exciting uniforms, we need the rider’s names on their jerseys so that fans can more easily follow their favorites, we need more celebrities involved.” He refers frequently to the need to rejuvenate the sport with a hipper, edgier persona – “We need to be a ‘Red Bull’ sport!” Aisner could seemingly go on forever, throwing out many marketing angles or pitches that could enliven existing races today.

He tried especially hard to emotionally engage that outer-circle “fringe” population, not just the diehard fans. He recounts one heart-warming story from the early days when he brought in the country’s oldest registered rider – an 86-year-old gentleman from Georgia – to go for a new national 25-mile time trial record for his age group. “The helicopters were following this old fellow,” says Aisner, describing this added finish-line drama. “We had the music stoked and the announcers were bellowing as he came into town behind a full police motorcycle escort. A misty Greg LeMond later hung a medal around his neck; this guy was so excited ….. I’m telling you, there was not a dry eye in the whole place, me included.”

Among the other ideas that Aisner believes are under-utilized: various spectator maps and guides, apps to trace the status of the race from the roadside, interactive texts and app-based radio, focus on meaningful daily “standings,” and pre-recorded video and audio pieces. He also has volumes of ideas for making better use of the volunteer labor force – how to get them more excited and engaged, and how to solicit constant improvement from them, how to turn them into promoters of the event.

Aisner frequently returns to the critical need to view cycling in the broader entertainment context, and he cites a lot of anecdotal examples. “We need more stats on the TV, like NASCAR has done.

We need to get to know the individual athletes better. Figure ways to let the fans get closer to the athletes – so that they can touch them, see the sweat and dirt on their faces. We made our winners walk through a marshal-lined corridor of amped-up fans to get their awards, and we had them stay afterwards to sign autographs and take snaps with kids – there are your future fans! We need that kind of controlled mob scene, that kind of fervor, and that kind of intimacy.”

Aisner once marched the whole peloton into Folsom Field for the July 4th celebrations, holding their own country’s flags – like a mini-Olympics. “That created about 30,000 potential new fans right there,” he says. “Cycling has been sort of devoid of big personalities lately – we need more Lance Armstrongs. The sport needs a personality, its own sense of fashion, a specific ‘soundtrack.’” Aisner actually had a specific song commissioned as the race‘s musical theme that was played before every stage for a decade.

Some observers have suggested the American racing has fallen into a trap by trying to mimic the European model. “Not so,” says Aisner. “We should copy them – we should do more city center criteriums, like they do in Europe. We seem to have a shorter attention span in this country – shorter, punchier events might fit our Twitter mentality better.” Stage races are too hard to track and understand for your average sports fan, and they should definitely be Americanized, he says. “I think we had a good formula at the Classic, with nationally-branded country teams that people could connect with, and circuits and crits mixed in with the stages and time trials.” The UCI dictates professional race formats, but Aisner says, “Sometimes we just need to get out of the way of our own progress!”

Finally, one of the main takeaways from Aisner is the clear sense that someone needs to be the “carrier of the torch,” or the “orchestra director.” Someone needs to “love” the race, says Aisner, and be its heart and soul. “It can’t really be the sponsor, the hired logistics company, the committee, or the governor. There has to be someone who is the heart, soul and vision of the race. He goes on, “Utah works because the torch is carried by Steve Miller. Minnesota works because of Dave Laporte.” Every race has to have that kind of leadership and passion. Surprisingly, says Aisner, “That seems to be what a lot of events are missing today.”

Times have obviously changed a lot in the 30 years since the Coors Classic started to wind down. The circumstances then and the personalities driving that race were clearly different from today. So it’s hard to do a side-by-side comparison with today’s events. But one thing is clear – there are some important lessons to be learned from the Classic’s rich history. Although Aisner professes no interest to return to cycling as an occupation, he clearly has a dedication and love for the sport and would like to help explore ways for cycling to become more successful in the future. “I don’t want to call it a post-mortem,” says Aisner. “Let’s just say it’s time for cycling’s major stakeholders and business leaders to sit down together and really think hard about how we manage and promote the sport.”

 

The Outer Line

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