Tuesday, January 05, 2010

From the Archives: What makes cycling grow?

What makes cycling grow? By Les Earnest

Originally published in Cyclops USA, August 1988
Republished by Pappillon with the permission of Les Earnest,
whose Cyclops website is available here.



The number of cyclists is cyclic. The reasons are enigmatic.

Success in developing the sport of cycling depends in large part on the number of people who choose to participate. Knowledge of the factors that influence their choices can be used to develop better marketing plans. [Some explanatory comments have been added in August 2004 and appear below in bracketed italics, like this.]

Table 1 shows some relevant data covering the last 16 years. As indicated in the columns on the right, the number of USCF [United States Cycling Federation] riders increased rapidly in the early '70s, then fell back through 1979, but has been growing rapidly and steadily ever since. Andy Bohlmann [USCF Technical Director] reports that there were 30,720 licensed riders in mid-July 1988, compared with 24,660 the same time last year, so this will clearly be another year of record growth.

Table 1.  Possible Growth Factors
Year
Bikes sold in
USCF License Fee*
# of USCF Riders

U.S. (millions)
Actual
Adjusted
(thousands)
% Change
1972
13.9
$5.00
$13.58
5.0

1973
15.2
5.00
12.79
8.6
72%
1974
14.1
5.00
11.52
10.6
23
1975
7.3
8.00
16.89
10.7
1
1976
8.1
8.00
15.97
10.7
0
1977
9.4
12.00
22.51
9.9
-7
1978
9.4
12.00
20.90
8.8
-11
1979
10.8
15.00
23.49
7.5
-16
1980
9.0
15.00
20.67
9.1
23
1981
8.9
15.00
18.74
11.6
27
1982
6.7
25.00
32.97
13.4
16
1983
9.0
25.00
28.51
15.4
15
1984
10.1
25.00
27.35
16.7
8
1985
11.4
28.00
30.64
19.3
16
1986

28.00
29.02
23.3
21
1987

32.00
32.00
28.2
21
* Senior men's license fee is shown. Women's licenses cost less than the men's through 1974. Adjusted values are in 1987 dollars based on the National CPI-U Price Index.

It is reasonable to ask, “Is this growth the result of the policies of the USCF or external forces?” Let's look at some plausible theories.

Bicycle Sales
There appears to have been a connection between the huge bicycle sales in the early 1970s and the abrupt increase in bike racing then. Indeed, the collapse of the market in 1975 coincided with the beginning of the decline in rider population.

Unfortunately, bicycle sales do not appear to be a reliable predictor of rider population. For example, sales increased steadily in the late '70s as the number of racers steadily declined. In the early '80s, bicycle sales declined as rider population increased.

Licensing Fee
Changes in the rider licensing fee appear to have a short term effect. For example, the mean growth rate in years of the last decade when the licensing fee was held constant was 14%, while the growth rate in years when the fee was increased averaged just 9%. On the other hand, the overall cost of a license is clearly much less important than other factors -- though the current licensing fee is over six times what it was in the early '70s, the rider population has not declined. In fact, it has increased by about a factor of six in this period and continues to grow! The lack of influence of the licensing fee on rider population is not surprising in view of the fact that it represents a very small part of the total cost of racing.

The column showing inflation-adjusted licensing fees shows that the Federation has been raising fees substantially faster than inflation -- the current fee is almost three times what it was in the early '70s in terms of purchasing power. Note that in these terms, the largest licensing fee to date was in 1982 ($32.97).

It is worth noting that the large increase in the number of full time staff members since 1983 has not been accompanied by a substantial increase in the licensing fees. Improvements in sponsorship support appear to be the main reason.

Age Distribution
Another plausible factor controlling growth is age distribution. For example, there was a baby boom from the end of World War 2 through the 1950s. Given that racing is most popular among people in the 18-30 year range and that the proportion who participate declines with increasing age, most of the “baby boomers” are now leaving the sport, which should lead to a decline in rider population. In fact, the opposite is happening, so this factor is clearly less important than something else.

Image
Another plausible theory is that participation is influenced by the popular image of the sport. For example, the very popular film ``Breaking Away'' was release in 1979, just before the current strong growth began. It is plausible that this film was a factor in the turnaround.

On the other hand, if image is important, we would expect 1984 to have been a banner year, given that the Olympics were being held in the U.S. for the first time in 52 years and that cycling was very visible both before and during that event. Instead, that was the lowest growth year so far in the '80s. Thus, another plausible theory bites the dust.

Conclusions
Given that none of the theories reviewed above provides an explanation for the recent growth of our sport, my answer so far to the question, “What makes cycling grow?” is ”Damned if I know.” Even if we do not understand the growth, we might as well try to make the most of it, remembering that it is a cyclic phenomenon that will turn around again some day.

We should not necessarily be embarrassed about being unable to predict the bike racing market. After all, enormous efforts have been expended on predicting the stock market, which somehow continues to fool investors.

Possible Future Studies
Turnover in rider population is rather high -- about one-third of the USCF licenses issued each year are to riders who did not
hold a license the preceding year. Thus, membership is the volatile net result of the numbers of licensees who renew, withdraw, or join. I believe that it would be a good idea to do a survey of each of these three populations in order to assess the factors that influenced their decisions.

It would probably also be worthwhile to survey some cyclists who have never joined the Federation, to see what might change their minds, and to review historic trends in rider population according to age group and the turnover rates in each age class, to see if any lessons can be learned there.

For those who are content with current registrations, let me point out that the number of members in the League of American Wheelmen in 1897, scaled to current U.S. population, would be 410,000. Do you think that the sport would be different if we had 14 times as many licensed riders as we do now? You betcha!

Epilogue, November 2005

The number of USCF licensees continued to fluctuate after this was written, as shown in Table 2. There was a major decline in the late 1990s and UCF stopped reporting licensing data in its Rulebook beginning in 1998. Note that the cost of a license in constant dollars rose sharply in 1982 (to cover the cost of an ongoing legal battle with USPRO) but remained fairly stable through the late 1990s. However, it has risen sharply since then and now stands at $60.00 per year.

Table 2 Later Rider Data
Year
USCF License Fee
# of USCF Riders

Actual
Adjusted*
(thousands)
% Change
1988
$32.00
$30.73
31.8
13
1989
32.00
29.32
33.2
4
1990
32.00
27.81
34.5
4
1991
32.00
26.67
34.0
-1
1992
32.00
25.91
35.0
2
1993
32.00
25.16
34.0
-2
1994
32.00
24.53
31.7
-7
1995
30.00
22.36
34.6**
9
1996
30.00
21.72
33.4**
-3
1997
35.00
24.77
29.9**
-10
* Based on 1987 dollars.
** Estimates based on reported total number of licensees – riders were not reported separately.

●    ●    ●

Quick Quiz Questions (from 1988)
Here are some questions whose answers might be found at the Finish Line [a biker bar located outside the fence and across the street from the running track at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs].

1.  Did Subaru give the USCF enough cars so that staff members could take some home for their families?

2.  How did it happen that the wife of a staff member who resigned from the USCF was still driving one of the Federation Subarus weeks later when she became involved in a serious accident? (Hint: her hubby, who was a good buddy of USCF Executive Director Jerry Lace, has a last name that rhymes with “Rant”).

3.  Was the car totaled?

4.  What effect will that have on the Federation's automobile insurance rates?

1 comment:

  1. Nice picture! Northwestern University Cycling, 2007

    ReplyDelete

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