Money Talks

There are many incentives for participating in a bike race, but probably one of the top incentives is the cash prize. Cash puts stars in the eyes of people who might otherwise just go out of their way each weekend to prep their bikes, bellies, family, chamois, and plans; travel; slap money on the registration table; suffer enteric crisis in Port-o-Lets; brutalize themselves on the course; risk broken bodies and bike parts; share a beer with tapped, incoherent peers; clean it all up, and pack it all in. Aside from bragging that they’ve placed 56th out of 117 racers and wincing while palpating this week’s hematoma, I can see no better reward than: cash. In bike racing, cash reward is called payout.

I’m going to jump right in and talk about the fact that women aren’t typically rewarded equal payout to men in bike racing (or any sport). It’s very rare to find a race where promoters have figured out a way to offer equal payout to the fastest men — and women — racers. This weekend, Olympian Lea Davidson participated in a race she helped create equal payout in by negotiating with a main sponsor. This seems like a great thing, but it can make race promoters, and some racers, grumble. Why? Because as I’ve been told:

Women don’t show up in the numbers men do, so don’t pay as much entry fee.
So why should they earn equal payout?

Fair enough. Not!

This excuse might seem “fair enough,” but it isn’t enough when so many people are working for progress in equality. Women — along with people of color, the elderly, the disabled, the non-heterosexual, the non-English-speakers, and others — are still fighting for basic rights that middle-aged white men (MAWM) have been enjoying for centuries. MAWM can easily forget that. Race promoters (mostly MAWM) need to realize that they can help make the world more fun for everyone by enticing everyone to their races. They can make the races better attended by attracting more top names to their races — women racers included — by equalizing payouts. If they can’t find the cash to do this, there will be cool sponsors willing to step up (as evidenced by Lea Davidson’s experiment in Providence).

Excuses (I’ve only elucidated one of them) perpetuate the problem. The only way to improve the situation is to put energy into changing it. The status quo is not working for half the audience.

In Portland, Oregon we have a flourishing cyclo-cross race scene. One prominent race series is called the “Cross Crusade.” This monolith has been around practically since the medieval times (mid-80s). I have raced it. I raced my way into the top Women’s category and won a pair of tires by lottery for all my efforts. Had cash prizes been higher and gone deeper, I might have won… maybe 25 bucks. Heh. I wasn’t that good. Had I thought there was ever even a remote chance of earning cash on par with my efforts or at least making my money back, I might have kept racing. That’s not why I quit racing, but the thought did cross my mind. I like the Cross Crusade and I like its promoters, so I’m definitely not trying to demonize them. I am calling them out as industry leaders, because racing is an industry and with their numbers they clearly show that they are leaders. I’d like them to look at this data and improve payouts for future seasons (if not this one).

I have put together some numbers from 2010 and 2011, from the Cross Crusade’s publicly available race data. Take a look (2010) (2011).

To quickly summarize:

  • Club Vivo (operator of Cross Crusade) took in approximately $259,445 in 2010 and $287,305 in 2011 directly from racers. This doesn’t include other sources of income, such as gear sales and sponsorships.
  • Overall women’s participation was 24.8% in 2010 and 26.4% in 2011
  • Payout (crude data) to women was 36.8% of the men’s payout both years
  • Payout was 4.5% of Club Vivo’s 2011 fee income, and 5% of their 2010 fee income


Does it look like Club Vivo is being generous giving approximately 36.8% payout to women, despite women only paying ~25% of entry fees?

Thinking yes? I’m afraid I might not be reaching you. Are you on another planet?

Could Club Vivo afford to pay out a few more percent of their income to raise payouts and entice more people to race?

For example, if in 2011, Club Vivo had paid equal payouts to Women’s A, B, and Masters 35+ categories, they would still only pay out 5.7% of their fee income. That’s only bringing women’s payouts to almost three-quarters (73.7%) of what men’s payouts are. Considering categories straight across (striking men’s categories off the board that don’t exist for women), it would bring EQUAL PAYOUT to men and women. And it doesn’t seem to cost Club Vivo much (approximately 0.7-1.2% more of their fee income). If they can’t afford it, I’m sure a sponsor would be willing to pay up.

My theory, simplistic conclusion

Participation IS directly related to payout rate. Therefore: limit payout rates = limit racer and audience turnout.

So, Cross Crusade, I dare you: try raising your women’s payout from 36.8% to 73.7%. Sure it’s a bit of a “charity” on the behalf of the huge MCWM population showing up at your races, but just like they can drop for a new electronic gruppo, they can probably swing this. Without much complaint. Why? Because who takes care of the kids while they race? Who drives them to the races? Who cheers for them to go for that 55th place spot? Who hands off water bottles and prepares recovery food? Who drives them home? Who probably does the laundry? That’s right… the ladies. (Daughters are watching, too.) And maybe a lot of them would like to give racing a go themselves, if not just once*. It’s time to try bringing female participation in cyclo-cross racing above 25%. Other than reversing the roles I just mentioned (such as child care, food preparation, and laundry), one other ingredient to add would be C.A.S.H. to the women’s prize pot. With more cash incentive, they just might really go for it.

And speaking of going for it, there are numerous elite-level female bicycle racers looking to fill their race calendars with races that offer decent payouts. Just so they can afford to continue racing. It’s a career. They need to be paid, just like the men. Draw in these well-known ladies, promote the heck out of them just like you do when the big-name men show up, and inspire everybody.

* I see a little possible evidence of women’s eagerness to race when I look at data from races held far outside the Portland area. Where families are forced to camp or stay at hotels and day-to-day gender roles are set on end, perhaps the women feel more free to “kick back” and “adventure,” give it a try themselves. There is perhaps nothing else for her to do when she is captive audience. Race promoters have so many instances like this where they could market and capture new audiences!

Further Homework:

Read down this eye-opening, sobering list of comments by women about what it’s like to race cyclo-cross — specifically as a woman.