Words: James Smurthwaite
Throughout Silly Season I've been spending a lot of time on social media trying to spot new sponsors for riders and maybe some new bikes too... but that's not all I've seen. One meme that has been doing the rounds and simply refuses to die is the above image pitting 'YouTubers' and 'Dudes who actually shred' against each other.
The implication is that the bike industry is ignoring the best riders out there and instead spending all its money sponsoring riders who simply have a large following on the video-sharing site and no riding ability. I've seen it shared by both sizeable YouTubers and, more frequently, by talented riders with a chip on their shoulders. Oh, and definitely some local dude-bros.
I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of what happens on YouTube is pretty lame. It's understandable when some experienced riders roll their eyes at those ‘Epic Backcountry Rides’ or videos about how ‘sick’ the bike park is, or being told how to bunny hop for the 40th time, but clearly there’s an audience that cares. Those channels can rack up millions of views a month. But, is this new generation of content creators hoarding all the sponsorship money at the expense of fast riders? Well, it's time to wade into the mire of shit slinging too...The Premise is Flawed
For a start, this is a bit of a false comparison. Some of the most talented riders on the planet have got their start on YouTube and continue to use it as their main outlet such as Danny MacAskill
, Fabio Wibmer
and Tomomi Nishikubo
. Outside the trials world, former pros have also turned to Youtube to continue their careers such as 2013 FMB overall winner Sam Pilgrim
, 2015 Rampage Best Trick Winner Sam Reynolds
and slopestyle legend Cam McCaul
. The boundaries are more blurred than ever between the two categories as even current racers and freeriders such as Bernard Kerr, Rachel Atherton, Danny Hart, and Finn Iles have begun to put more effort into their YouTube channels too.
Of course, this meme probably isn't targeting the YouTubers I've mentioned above but the like-and-subscribe-ring-the-bell-all-caps-wheelie-tutorial-glowing-thumbnail-I-just-hit-my-first-double-and-you-won't-believe-what-happened brigade. There's definitely a drop-off when it comes to the riding ability of YouTubers and the majority of mountain bike videos, even from some of the bigger creators, on the site are nowhere near the levels of the riders listed above but to say it's all Joeys on there is definitely hyperbolic.Brands Spend a Lot on Sponsored Riders Beyond Just Their Salaries
Secondly, there's no small amount of money going to sponsored riders, both men and women, who aren't on Youtube. To put it simply, racing and competition ain't cheap. Sure, only the cream of the crop riders earn a large wage but bike companies support lots of "B" riders as well as the teams they ride for too. The flights, hotels, bikes, mechanics, team trucks and everything else that goes into a sports marketing program is a sizeable investment for a bike brand. Add on top of that all the freeriders, brand ambassadors and legacy riders who also get a slice of the pie and there are plenty of people out there getting paid to ride without a YouTube channel.
Money might be moving around these days, but it's hardly that brands aren't spending a lot on talented riders.The Reality is More Complex than the Meme Suggests
I don't need to tell you that bike companies don't sponsor anyone just because they're fast, it's because they help to sell bikes. Previously, racing and competing was one of the best ways to do this as it got blanket coverage in all the magazines, produced content for advertising and was a way to show the speed of your bikes against the competition. Another way to do it was through photos, films or videos where, again, the fastest riders profited as they usually looked the best.
In 2021 however, there are so many other ways to get your bikes in front of potential customers. Social media, along with cheaper and more available cameras, means that anyone can create content and share it with the world. It's no longer the fastest riders that carry the most capital but those who can get the most engagement.
Racers have maybe 10 or 15 opportunities a year to show their pace against the competition but for YouTubers, every new video is a chance to show off the product they're paid to promote. Even if they only produce one video a week, that's significantly more than a racer can hope to compete with.
On top of that, the value of a race result (especially a mid-pack one) is hard to calculate, but the analytical tools that the internet provides can very easily tell a marketing manager exactly how many eyeballs a YouTuber has reached. Each impression has a cash value attached to it and the marketing dollars spent on an influencer much easier to justify. The proof here is in the pudding with racers now pumping out riding content on their Instagram profiles or YouTube channels to bolster what they can offer to sponsors.The Pandemic is Accelerating Current Trends
But YouTube is 15 years old now, so why has this meme become so popular this winter? Well, as with most things at the moment, the COVID-19 pandemic has probably had something to do with it. A changing global situation has left brands re-thinking where they spend their money. If you've sold out of bikes and you're on a waiting list to get your next batch of frames, that product/sports marketing budget is going to be one of the first things on the chopping block.
It's still unclear exactly what racing is going to happen this year and with racing falling under the marketing banner, racers are likely to be one of the first victims of these cuts. I know that some entire racing programs are being disbanded for 2021 and others are definitely shrinking the number of riders they support.
As Matt Wragg alluded to in his predictions article
, the way that sponsored athletes to interact with brands will have to change over the course of the next 12 months too. If a racer can't provide a return to their sponsor through a strong race result, they are going to have to think of other ways to show that they are worth the money that is spent on them. Don't be surprised for them to turn to social media, especially a YouTube channel, to be one of those ways. They will have to be savvy about it though as we've also seen some prominent YouTubers have their sponsorships reduced this year too as the market starts to get saturated.
The pandemic has also introduced a new wave of riders to the sport. Mountain biking offers the ability to exercise alone or in a family bubble, to escape the home office and it offers great mental health benefits. These new riders aren't going to be hunting down content from riders sending 100-foot gaps or smashing bike park berms. Instead, they'll be looking for content that opens their eyes to the variety of trails they can ride, coaches them through the confusing world of trail etiquette, encourages them to progress their skills and tells them which products they should upgrade their new bikes with. It's far less intimidating for these riders to see someone talking through the ups and downs of a ride on their local trails compared to a shreddit full of hucking and shralping. Being a shredder could potentially make you less relatable to potential buyers and therefore less valuable to a potential sponsor. (On that note, I suspect several "beginner" channels are downplaying their skills on the bike to be more relatable. Gross.)It's Mostly Jealousy
The popularity of this meme probably tells us one thing, the balance is shifting and some riders are being left behind. It's adapt or die time for riders and those who don't embrace the added reach of social media are likely to be the ones that are on the wrong side of that bargain. If all you offer to a brand is the ability to ride a bike fast and you can't back it up with anything on social media, there aren't many ticks in your column when budget meetings come around.
Of course, all of this has been happening for years but it has been seriously accelerated by the fallout from COVID-19. This probably means some 'Dudes (or women) who shred' are looking pretty enviously at those YouTubers while they have struggled to find as much support this year. But ironically, a salty meme probably isn't the kind of social media content their sponsors will be looking for...