In the last 10 years, a lot of speculation has been tossed around about the so-called 'death of downhill'. With the emergence of 'enduro' and the surge of popularity in slopestyle and freeride events such as Red Bull Rampage, its impending death seems even more frequently mentioned, alongside words like 'outdated,' 'expensive,' and 'extreme.'
Every day, industry sponsors drop downhill-specific athletes over budgetary concerns, companies cut funding for races and downhill events, the entire mountain biking industry seems to greatly shift in consciousness towards being more of an 'every man' sport. With this overall shift, downhill becomes more and more scarce. Entire series are scrapped for more 'all mountain' or 'enduro' races, downhill events are cut back in time, funding, promotion and marketing, and more and more symptoms of an ever-decreasing audience appear. Even the downhill athletes themselves have opted to migrate towards more moderate styles of competition, citing jobs and families and injury-free weekends.
It seems as though we've all forgotten one thing: downhill mountain biking never was and never will be an 'every man' sport. It's not an activity taken up by the masses in an effort to feel good and enjoy their lives. It will never, ever be that. Downhilling is dangerous. It's technical, it's scary, and it's wild and risky. Downhill bikes have 8 inches of full-suspension travel to mitigate the risk that such tomfoolery presents, and it's still dangerous. Now put that all on a timer, in a competition...you have downhill racing. And gravity racing is, with the exception of its deranged participants, a spectator sport. However, that isn't a bad thing.
There are many extreme sports that garner billions of dollars a year on spectation alone. Snowboarding, skiing, motocross, surfing, skateboarding and even NASCAR are just a few of the ever-growing list. In the last seven years I've seen a distinct, noticeable change in what qualifies as a 'downhill race' event; not only have the trails changed to appeal to a wider, tamer demographic, but the promotional marketing and live or recorded broadcasts have been altered, too. In some cases, promotion has been a forgotten aspect, giving way to lackluster crowds and decreased profit.
So how do we save downhill, and create mountain biking as a mainstream sport? We monetize it. Monetize it? Yes. MONETIZE IT.
Instead of relying on disappearing participant fees and sponsor dollars to bear the fruit that defines an event's success, we need to create appeal to the general market of adrenaline sports, and get them to show up. To watch. I know, it sounds rather obvious, doesn't it? You would think so... But it's not. Increasingly, the downhill race events are dry. With the exception to a few select events and festivals, downhill racing is relatively boring for your average American consumer. Which is saying a LOT. The American consumer is someone who will not only want to watch stock cars make 500 left-hand turns, but someone who will pay for the privilege. In fact, American consumers shell out billions of dollars a year for entertainment alone. In that multi-billion dollar category, a few standout sports exist: Adrenaline sports (like the ones I suggested above), WWE wrestling, NASCAR, Ultimate Fighting... etc. And it pays big. REALLY big.
So what is downhill doing so wrong that we've missed the adrenaline sports market by so far? We have the intrigue. We have the adrenaline, the fear, the challenge, the death-defying and the timed-descent. We have crazy stunts and wild athletes. It's fun, it's easily broadcast (compared to other cycling disciplines [ahem, road cycling]), and it's something the entire family actually could watch. Every athlete is different. Every race course is different. It should be something that's widely accepted and loved across all of North America and the globe. But it isn't. Why? Because we've failed to engage the consumer. We've forgotten that while this may be a serious sport to most of us, to the spectator, it's entertainment. Can it be both? Absolutely.
As a racer, I understand the hesitation to 'sell out'. Believe me... The last thing I want is to have downhilling be made some sort of mainstream farce. But we live in a world of adaptation and survival, and downhill is dying in the age of mass appeal.
So how do we save downhill? We monetize it. We make it cool again. We look at its strengths, its weaknesses, and its uniqueness, and we market the shit out of it. We create something fun to watch, and we engage. We bring gravity racing and downhill and mountain biking into the homes of the everyday Joe. We show them just why DH racing is so fun, and why they need to buy a ticket to come watch it live.
When we can pull American audiences in because of the spectacle (and downhill is nothing if not a spectacle), then, and only then, will we have a financially sustainable sport.
The world wasn't ready for downhill in 1998 or 2002; extreme sports hadn't become a 'lifestyle' at that point. Hell, snowboarding was still a joke in '98, not even close to resembling what it is now: a multi-billion-dollar, mainstream, Olympic sport. However, the world is ready for downhill racing. It has been for a while now, but there's only one way to make it successful: we have to stop relying on the athletes and sponsors to create a cycling economy. That business model doesn't work.
We have to create a healthy, spectator sport to save gravity racing... But we'll have to do it together, and we have to do it soon.
It's time for a shift in another direction if we want to save downhill and downhill racing.