US national racing calendar problems persist

In theory the NRC status should give an event stature and recognition as the top event on a given...

News feature, August 18, 2008

There are only so many weekends in a year, and even fewer dates with ideal cycling weather for much of the US. So when trying to plan an event, race promoters have a limited window in which to work. Combine that with all of the extra variables promoters have to consider or contend with: city, county and state officials and police; other local events; purchasing and approval of permits; and the headaches grow. Oh yeah, and throw in the 2,500 other cycling events trying to fit together and the challenges grow exponentially. At the top of the list are a select group of races that go further and bid to become part of the USA Cycling National Racing Calendar (NRC). With the bid process for the 2009 season underway, Cyclingnews' North American Editor Mark Zalewski looks at what is working and what is not.

In theory the NRC status should give an event stature and recognition as the top event on a given date, and thus should garner a majority of teams and riders from around the country. To get NRC status, a race needs to jump through many additional hoops, such as meeting prize money minimums (raised for 2008,) ensure quality infrastructure and show a proven track record of running high-end events. However, for many promoters the system just is not working as intended, with events crossing paths and canceling each other out, as well as little in terms of specialized support from USA Cycling.

Such was the case recently with the Presbyterian Health Care Invitational in Charlotte, North Carolina and the Tour of Elk Grove near Chicago, both on the same weekend. While the Charlotte race had the NRC status the Tour of Elk Grove did not, due to a paperwork error last fall. As such it was run in the same category a plain-as-vanilla parking lot criterium – albeit the world's richest parking lot criterium. The two races featured the richest prize purses of the year, with Charlotte at US$100,000 and Elk Grove at $275,000, making it the richest three-stage race in the world.

While the US domestic scene has evolved to the point where most of the men's peloton can split its talent across two events, having nearly $400,000 of prize money on one weekend was to many a poor allocation of resources. "It's unfair to the athletes too because this taken off a huge payday for them," said Thad Fischer, director of the Charlotte race. "They need that potential income." As well, the entire field in Elk Grove (though limited to pro teams only) was only 63 riders – hardly worthy of the six-figure prize list on offer.

"In a perfect world we would scale down the NRC series and not have 40 races. Just have 15 premier events. " -Thad Fischer, Director of thePresbyterian Health Care Invitational in Charlotte, North Carolina

USA Cycling's man in charge of the NRC, Justin Rogers, said that problems like this are being addressed, particularly with a major fix to the bid process. "The most prevalent one is that [the bid application] is out earlier," he said. "Previously we followed the model of the UCI and gave promoters 30 days to submit their information. That doesn't give them a lot of time to get everything together so we've moved the process farther out to July 15 until September 15. We then hope to announce the calendar around Interbike."

Rogers said that the narrow window was part of the reason for the Charlotte/Elk Grove debacle. "Last year when the bid process took place, we received a bid from the Charlotte criterium but nothing from Elk Grove. At that point we moved forward with the calendar. Then we were notified that Elk Grove was on the same date and there were a number of conversations with the promoters to work out a solution. Both had their dates secured and had to move forward. So we were stuck with a weekend of nearly $400,000 of prize money. It's not ideal and would love to see those events move off each other, but it's scheduling."

Again the variables in race promoting reared their ugly heads. Both Charlotte and Elk Grove said that weekend was the only weekend on which they could hold their races – Charlotte because the coveted city center location was booked every other weekend and Elk Grove because they were adding a road stage and a nearby major event would have made it impossible on the previous date, a week later than the two years before. Unfortunately, the date move by Elk Grove was not communicated.

"We applied for the date that we needed and didn't hear back from USAC," said Fischer. "We assumed everything was fine and when the schedule was released we had our date. But we did not see Elk Grove listed and I made a few calls and found out it was on our date. I called the guys in Chicago and they said they were in the same boat and said they did not know we were on that date. Our situation is that we have this date or no date, because [the location] is booked every weekend."

"USAC's response is that they are not an NRC event and that it isn't a conflict with you," Fischer continued. "I responded with that we are all using the same athlete pool. We are a six-figure event and having to share the athletes with another six-figure event."

Communication lacking

As for the reason Elk Grove was not NRC as it had been the previous year, Elk Grove's promoter Hank Zemola, whose company also promotes the US criterium championships in Downers Grove, Illinois, said it was a lack of communication from USA Cycling. Every promoter contacted regarding this story cited a severe lack of communication from USAC as one of his or her biggest challenges.

"It affects us all equally," said Zemola. "[Elk Grove was] an NRC race last year and the day after Downers Grove last year I emailed everyone and said, 'Here are our dates.' I kept calling and never got anything until I got a note saying you missed the application deadline. For me as a promoter to go back to our funders and say, 'You did a really great job but you're off the calendar now.' is tough."

Again Rogers said this was a priority for his office, and that a redesigned method of using regional coordinators should improve this. "We have increased the communication, using our regional coordinators and local associations. We don't want to miss a promoter so that when we are scheduling we can avoid scheduling conflicts like this. Also in the 30 day window we ran into conflicts more."

But for promoters like Fischer, and especially for the non-six figure events, the benefits of being an NRC seem to be small and getting smaller with so many events on the calendar. "We had a Bank of America board member that questioned it, asking what services we get compared to a smaller event?"

In response to this USA Cycling made strides to pare down the calendar, not be merely picking and choosing events, but by raising the minimum prize payouts – $15,000 for men and $7,500 for women. While this did shrink the size of the calendar down, certain well-known and historically significant events, such as Superweek, were no longer part of the NRC.

"It was mixed," Rogers said about the reaction. "Those that had the budgets did it and didn't say anything. For the smaller events it thinned out the herd, which was part of the intent. We didn't want to burden anyone too much but with the number of bids we were receiving each year we needed to limit it to around 30-35 events, but were receiving 65 bids!"

But Fischer thinks 30 are still too many. "In a perfect world we would scale down the NRC series and not have 40 races. Just have 15 premier events. There are so many events that it isn't much value, especially when an Elk Grove can spend $200,000 and not even be NRC. There needs to be better criteria."

One idea is to increase the amount of value by being NRC, since the bid process is so grueling and expensive. "Maybe pay a higher fee to be part of that exclusivity," said Fischer. "Then USAC should be obligated to protect those events and not give out a permit to a major competitor to an event in their series."

"I think a big part of this is that if you look at the math, the more events USAC sanctions the more revenue they take in. And the fee scale is based on the prize lists. So in a way, events like ours are penalized because of our prize lists."

"We don't want to get in the habit of deterring prize lists," said Rogers. "If a promoter is out there and not on the NRC it essentially becomes a regional race... even if it has a national level prize purse. We don't believe in date protection because there are 52 weekends and over 2,500 events. We would be out of business!"

Another example of this comes with another of Zemola's races, the first annual Chicago Criterium. The date chosen for this was the same as the conclusion of Superweek. With $40,000 on the line, the result was a mass exodus of cars with road bikes on the roof south across the Illinois/Wisconsin border, leaving the final day of Superweek looking like it was in its first year, not 40th.

"Chicago has been trying to do this race for the past few years and it's hard to close down roads in a major city like this," said Zemola. "And when they chose their date they chose it on what was available – it was this date in July or the end of September.

I know there are some hard feelings and I think USA Cycling does work very hard, but there are other factors. When you get an opportunity for a major metropolitan area like Chicago or a major money event like Elk Grove, do you say not to do the event because it may affect the schedule? It's a good thing for cycling in some ways. People would always say you can't do anything the weekend of Downers Grove, but I think there are enough athletes now."

Unintended outcomes

With any change comes the law of unintended consequences. Forced to adhere to a significantly larger prize minimum, some NRC promoters chopped the women's prize list and moved it into the men's – or sometimes vice versa. ""The increase in minimum prize requirements forced us to make a decision," said Shari Clark, director of the Sequoia Cycling Classic. "Last year we had equal payout for men and women and we wanted to maintain that equity. The main issue is that we have an early race, so when we put our bid applications in the fall, we have to think about if we can raise the extra funds. And we didn't want to make a commitment that we wouldn't be able to fulfill."

"We are going to look at this," said Rogers. "But if you look at the calendar there were more women's races on the NRC than men's. That's the first time for that, and there was more prize money than before. There were some events that pulled the money out of the men and gave it to the women. Granted we would like to see racing equality and we think this was a step in the right direction. It was an unintended outcome, and it sort of worked and sort of didn't."

Trying to improve

Moving forward with the 2009 season, Rogers acknowledged that there are problems with the system but that they will be fixed. "We have worked on it in the five years I have been here!"

And it all begins with open communication. "It's hard to talk to every promoter in the country, but I have a regional coordinator and they have local associations – I am trying to plug into them more and more to get a calendar that works for everybody."

"We are starting a NRC promoters summit this November trying to get as many of the promoters together to start dialogue of how the NRC calendar looks, what we should be doing better and getting more feedback to improve the communication. We also just started looking for input from the teams, asking two teams from every NRC event for their feedback. That has been good as well, as we have more information from a variety of sources."

There are many opinions about what to do with the NRC but there are also some common agreements. It is not working like it should and having two major money events on the same weekend is an example of that. And with the US economy fluctuating as much as it is, ensuring that the existing events succeed should be USA Cycling's priority.

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