Between the Motos: Ken Hudgens

Between the Motos Ken Hudgens

May 29, 2014 9:45am

We last talked to Feld Motor Sports COO Ken Hudgens back in November, when Monster Energy Supercross announced a new TV deal. With a strong (record-breaking!) season in the rearview, we arranged for another interview with Ken to see how it all went.

Racer X: Last time I talked to you was before you had the new TV package kick in. It sounded like it was a success. How did it go from your perspective?
Ken Hudgens: It was great from several perspectives. Number one, more of the events live and so that was good. We probably had a couple more on FOX Sports 2 as opposed to FOX Sports 1 than we would have liked, but I think that we’ll take care of that in 2015. The network’s getting its feet under it, and it did a couple of things that we were really looking for which was more live races and then to get younger. I think that the research that Fox did said that the median age of people watching supercross went from 45 years old to 40 years old, so it dropped five years which is good. We’ve got to keep it young and keep it vibrant. All in all we’re very happy and I think that 2015 will look even better.

I know the fans of the sport, and obviously I see the same thing on the motocross side, they see it in a vacuum and they just want every hour of everything to be live on the best channel possible, but you have to fight against other sports and we have to admit that this is not the largest sport in the world.
It’s interesting. I think we’ll get mighty close next year, but it’s interesting because you’re competing for shelf space, so to speak, with college basketball and UFC, Major League Baseball—the list goes on. For example, college basketball, if you look at some of the ratings that the Big East games are doing, a Georgetown/whoever game wasn’t doing the ratings that supercross is. So I think there’s a perception sometimes that stick-and-ball sports are where it’s at, but the ratings would tell you differently. I think we’ll be in better shape on FOX Sports 1 this coming year. The idea is for FOX Sports 2 to continue to grow and add households. I think we’re pretty darn happy with where we’re at. Just got to keep pushing.

Correct me if I’m wrong, this was actually the largest year ever for supercross attendance, right?
Yeah, we went from 848,000 to 876,000, so an all-time attendance record.

Monster Energy Supercross saw the biggest crowds in history this season.
Monster Energy Supercross saw the biggest crowds in history this season. Photo: Simon Cudby

That’s pretty awesome. But at the same time in this day and age, are the TV ratings and digital footprint actually getting to the point where that’s just as important or even more important? Do you have to think about it that way too?
That’s a good question. It’s becoming more and more important. Just like any other sport, supercross, through its lifespan, has been more of a live event than a television property, so to speak. We’re doing everything we can do to change that. That’s one of the reasons why the FS1 deal was so important. But the landscape has changed so we have digital numbers between what we’re doing on our streaming practice, etc., you can watch the races on Fox Sports To Go now, and our social media footprint between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube videos, website views, on and on and on. All of that adds up. I don’t think that it’s necessarily more important than the live event numbers but it’s certainly becoming more important. I’m old enough to remember when we had 1-900-PRO-RACE. You’d have to listen to Terry Boyd give a two-minute update on the main event and that’s how you found out who won, and then Virtual Grandstand on Cycle News to where we are today. The sport’s got to evolve in the way that things are measured, so it’s gone from just live event attendance to everything.

At the basics I know the races always start at 7:00 and it’s always on Saturday night. It’s been that way forever. But to accommodate live TV, have you actually had to make changes to adapt the property? It looks similar on the surface but is it the same?
Oh, sure. I think you’ll continue to see some of that. We’ve had to adapt the times of the pit party and the opening ceremonies. I would suspect that sometime in our near future we’ll have to be more flexible on starting times to accommodate a great live TV window. So it’s all give and take but again it’s all done with the fans, wherever they’re at, in mind to give them the best access to the product, for sure.

What I thought was also cool this year, it seemed like there was a real effort to get privateers in there and other teams like that into the TV show. Was that just because you had more time or is that a conscious effort you guys were trying to make to help everybody out?
I think it’s both. The semis certainly helped that. You get a lot more face time for everyone that way, and it keeps the television program moving. I think that in the past you had your four heats and then it was sort of an hour of not a whole lot happening, so there’s certainly more activity. But there’s been a concerted effort both from a live event standpoint and from television to cover more of a breadth of everyone. As Todd Jendro always preaches to me, it’s an ecosystem out there. Everybody’s got to eat, everybody needs exposure, they need what they can to keep their programs going. It’s kind of a push-pull and we’re always trying to do the best thing for everyone.

I know it’s hard in a racing series because there are so many entities involved. It’s not like you’re just one league and the athletes play in the league and that’s it. This New Jersey race, it looked like the teams were on board. They sent their riders up early and maybe they skipped a few days of training to help promote it, but that’s a pretty good sign that you got everybody to sign off and say, “We need everybody’s help in this event. We’ve all got to pitch in together to make this work.”
I think that we’re going to all have to start looking at things a bit differently, like we did at MetLife Stadium. Certain concessions, on everyone’s part, including ours, to do things a bit differently for everyone’s benefit. For example, we moved into the place ten days in advance, first to get out in front of the weather but really to maximize all of the PR opportunities on the racetrack that we normally wouldn’t have time for with our regular move in schedule. I think Denny [Hartwig, SX PR Director] put some kind of number in front of me that said we had over 500 local and national print features and 175 local and national TV segments. That was a cooperative effort between our folks working their asses off and the teams and riders making some time that they normally maybe wouldn’t have or couldn’t have or whatever. And I think that if we’re going to continue to grow the sport, everybody’s pulling on the same rope, we’ll have to do more of that.

I grew up in New Jersey and I know that everything there is difficult and expensive. There’s got to be a risk involved with trying to pull off a race there. It looked good in the end, but there was no guarantee a year ago when you announced it.
It is a staggering undertaking both from a scope of the work and a financial aspect, but one that’s required to take the sport up a notch. So all of those factors made the risk worth it and it turned out great. We’re really tickled. We did 30-something thousand people in the pits. The vibe that surrounded that event was sort of like a Vegas finals where the points series was going down to the end. It made it really special and we’re always looking for those kind of growth opportunities. We’ll keep pushing, that’s for sure.

Hudgens hopes this year's success on FOX Sports 1 will lead to greater things down the road. 
Hudgens hopes this year's success on FOX Sports 1 will lead to greater things down the road.  Photo: Simon Cudby

When we talked to you at the beginning of the year you said there was only one year left on the CBS deal and you had a pretty cool package this year with Troy Adamitis’ reality-type shows. Can you announce anything yet of where that’s going to go in the future? Will CBS or a network be back, or too early for all this?
It’s a little too early. I can tell you that we’re committed to bridge programming, whatever you want to call it. Programming that surrounds the series, that develops personalities, focuses on the stars and puts names and stories with faces. I think that what we did with “Behind the Dream” on CBS was a great start. The plan is to continue that kind of thing, and that includes more pre-race shows.

It’s interesting you just mentioned that you were even there back in the 1-900-PRO-RACE days. The company’s gone through different ownerships and TV networks, but it’s really a lot of the same people that have seen this thing through, yourself, Todd Jendro who you mentioned, and some others. As I said to you last time, you’ve got to be pretty proud to be seeing this thing through. It’s been a long process I’m sure.
We’re not a bunch of folks that generally spend a whole lot of time looking in the rear-view mirror. I think it’s the nature of promoters to grind. In some respects we learn more from our failures than we do get great satisfaction from our wins. I am immensely proud of everyone here and where the sport has gone, but we spend more time worrying about where it’s going to go. If you ask me look back on some of the memories over the years, there’s a lot of great ones, like when we were trying to decide where to go in 1997, I think, and we ended up at Sun Devil Stadium in Phoenix and did 60 or 70,000. That was a huge source of pride. But I can also remember, as Davey [Coombs] and I talk about a lot, a race at Cleveland Municipal Stadium where there were so few people there that they were spelling out bad words with the seats in the upper deck! There’s a lot of pride about where it’s at, but we’re way more focused on where it needs to go. I’ve been around for 20 plus years and plan to be around for another 20 plus years and there’s a lot left to do, that’s for sure.