On Monday, Feld Entertainment announced extensive changes to the racing format of Monster Energy Supercross for 2018, including tweaks to the points structure and individual event schedules. When looked at individually, the changes aren’t earth-shattering (and the much-talked-about chase or playoff format hasn’t happened). The larger takeaway is that supercross finally is able to make changes at all—this is an industry that’s usually very adverse to such things.
Why have the race teams and industry become more open minded? After Monday’s announcement, we spoke with Dave Prater, Feld’s senior director of two-wheeled operations, and Todd Jendro Feld’s vice president operations, two-wheeled division.
Racer X: How hard has it been to change this? I know how this industry works and change doesn’t come easy.
Dave Prater: You know, it is difficult, because there are a lot of players involved. You’ve got the AMA and the FIM and the OEMs and the race teams. But I can honestly say, this time it was fairly easy. Everyone knew we needed to change and everyone worked together. It was really enjoyable, to be honest with you. We started these discussions two years ago, and we’ve had multiple discussions over those two years. At first, people don’t necessarily like change. So, at first we got some push back. But the AMA and the FIM have been great to work with, and the OEMs, and in June of this year we met with everyone and basically all of us decided in the room, “Let’s do this.”
Todd Jendro: I think there was a general consensus between the American motorcycle distributors and our company and the stakeholders in this sport that there is a definite need for change. The motorcycling industry has struggled over the years, and this just felt right between the stakeholders, the fans, and the producers of this motorsports series that we make changes.
So, you changed some things, but I’m sure you had many, many ideas that were discussed over a two-year process.
Prater: Yes, definitely. There were other ideas on the table and they’re still on the table. Just, not everyone was comfortable with the amount of changes, and rightfully so. We had other changes that we thought about implementing this year, but I think everyone agreed that, look, this was quite a bit for one year. Let’s go with this and see how it works and see what happens in the future.
Yes, so you broke some ice here. You now have a culture of “We can try stuff.”
Prater: Yes, that’s been nice, so, like I said, it’s been a pleasure working with everyone over these last six months, and everyone is coming around. Everyone is extremely open minded and excited.
Jendro: It was also the first time we’ve really gotten all of the teams together in a room, and we’ve put our thoughts and efforts in a singular direction to move the sport the way it needs to be moved. I think that was the biggest goal, just getting everyone in a room. Maybe we agree to disagree at times, but eventually we can find one direction to move the sport in for benefit of everyone.
Yes, obviously you’ve tried that and talked to these teams before?
Jendro: Oh yeah, but now we can get everyone to agree. Our sport is selfishly self-interested in a lot of cases. The race teams race to win! Everybody has strategic plans to beat each other, so to get everyone to agree on one thing is hard. Everyone has their own little things they want to do to accomplish their mission. We’re very pleased the American distributors, the private race teams, the AMA the FIM and the stakeholders have come together in one direction.
Look, as soon as you announced you’d be making huge changes today, you know what people expected: “Oh my God, they’re going to do a chase format! A playoff format!” You already have it in Arenacross. I’m sure that was at some point part of these discussions. Can you comment on it?
Prater: I’ll just be honest with you: I ended the last meeting letting these guys know that I’m probably never going to let it go. But I understand, they’re not ready for it. I think these points changes, while they are small when you put it up against our previous points structure, it’s significant. It doesn’t penalize a guy so badly when he has a seventh or eighth place finish. Like Ricky [Carmichael] said, if we had run these points in 2017, Eli Tomac would have been the champion. Now, it’s hard to say that because obviously maybe Ryan Dungey would have had a different strategy with a different points system. But it just goes to show you that Eli, Arlington and the other race where he had a poor performance, it wouldn’t have been so detrimental. We’re awarding the podium positions. It bumps everyone else up one point or even two points in some cases.
So, it’s that combination between a first place finish and a seventh place finish that will have a bigger impact.
Prater: Exactly. And the other thing is that it’s 26 points to win a race, instead of 25. So it you back it up, you needed 50 points to wrap a title up early, instead of 52, like it will be now.
The three main event format. We’ve seen it at Monster Cup. We know that it keeps the riders out there in front of the fans longer. Did you study TV ratings? Did you poll fans? Did you just use logic? What made you decide to do this?
Jendro: I think it was all three of those.
Prater: I think we’ve heard from an incredible number of fans who say this is the best format for supercross. They get to see the superstars racing all night long. Television as well, you don’t get a drop in ratings halfway through the show.
Jendro: It would be like Kobe Bryant on the court. Imagine if fans just knew he wasn’t even coming out until after halftime.
Prater: The way it is now, it would be like Kobe plays the first quarter, then sits out the second quarter. Now, without the semis, there’s a smaller gap between seeing the Cooper Webbs, the Eli Tomacs, the stars, and then seeing them in the main event. And at the Triple Crown, you see them out there all night. I’m excited about that.
Jendro: There has been discussion about doing every round like that, throughout our two years of talking about this. But this is a way to try it out in a World Championship atmosphere. It helps with skewing the points and keeping the title closer, especially when combined with our new points structure.
Those last few races last year, when it was close, they were unbelievable. Now, there’s only so much you can control and you can’t guarantee a great battle like that, but do you have numbers on the impact that it actually has when it does happen?
Prater: It’s huge, it’s absolutely huge. Because in every way we can measure it, attendance, ratings, social media numbers, it all improves.
So you have this two-year journey to get here. I would think people expect that you don’t have to do it that way. It’s your series! You can just do whatever you want!
Prater: No, you can’t do that. There’s too many players involved, and they all have huge investments, too. We don’t want to do that, nor could we just snap our fingers and say, “This is what’s going to happen.”
But if you say, “Hey look, we have TV ratings as proof right here,” that’s not necessary what it takes?
Prater: It hasn’t [helped] in the past. I think everyone is starting to come around now.
Jendro: Specifically, when it’s a time when everyone in the industry needs help. I think the cross between change and needing help has helped break the wall so we can work together for a common goal.
Yes, we’ve heard the teams and industry don’t have the bike sales and budgets that they used to. So, are there other things you can do, or other ways they have reached out?
Prater: There’s a ton of different ways, and we continue to talk about ways we can make it better, or how we can keep their costs down. We’ve always been cognizant of the schedule, for example, so we set it up geographically as best we can so they don’t have to send their trucks crisscrossing the country. Things like that, and even things to help these teams secure partners. We’re not going to go out and necessarily do it for them, but even getting them the TV numbers and the attendance numbers so they have an arsenal they can arm themselves with when they do go to sponsors. Just working a lot more closely with the teams and manufacturers.
I noticed a conscious effort today to acknowledge local tracks and dealerships. In the past, we never heard much about that in supercross. It was like the process just took care of itself automatically. You held the race, people bought bikes, it all worked out.
Prater: So we’ve been working with the OEMs for a few years to figure out how to get kids on motorcycles. We came up with the RIDE Initiative, in concert with the Motorcycle Industry Council. It’s an activation area we’ll be setting up at Monster Jam events this year. The Motorcycle Industry Council is extremely excited about it, the six OEMs that participate in supercross are extremely excited about it, and we’re extremely excited about it. It will give kids the opportunity to ride. From three and four years old on little Stryder balance bikes, all the way up to age 16 on real motorcycles. They’ll be a Stryder area, and even a virtual reality area, where kids can strap on a headset and feel like they’re riding down a trail—and we want them to feel like they’re on a trail, because supercross is obviously a little intense when you’re first getting on a motorcycle. Along with that, we’ll have two areas in the back, one where you can ride a minibike and another where you can ride a four-wheeler.
Jendro: We want to expose motorcycling to new consumers. These are people who won’t necessarily go to a supercross event, but they do go to a Monster Jam event. This is a chance to cross-pollinate a new audience with motorcycles.
Prater: At supercross, we’re just preaching to the choir. We love it and we’ll still have Honda Learn to Ride events in the pits at three markets, and Kawasaki Learn to Ride in four markets. So seven of the 17 markets in supercross, and maybe more in the future, will have Learn to Ride events. But by incorporating it into Monster Jam, we might find someone who is not a motorcyclist at this time.
You’re working with dealers, too?
Jendro: It’s grassroots.
Prater: Yeah we’re working with the dealers to see how we can promote them when supercross is in town. Most dealers do a great job with marketing but when an event of this magnitude comes to town, they should see a lift from it, and we should as well. So we’re working on that with them.
You’re trying to help the manufacturers sell motorcycles. Does it make it easier for them to accept making some changes on your end?
Prater: Most definitely, and that’s kind of the whole vibe right now. Everyone wants to work together to grow the sport, not just supercross but motorcycling in general. Theoretically, the better supercross is doing, the better the motorcycle industry is doing, and vice-versa.
Now that you have this atmosphere, can we expect changes more often?
Jendro: We can tell you that within these private meetings with these partners, more changes will be coming.
You’re not saying that you hope to have more changes, but there will be more changes?
Jendro: Will be.
Prater: There will be more change. We don’t want to do too much, too fast, and we don’t want to confuse the core fan. But you’ll see some new stuff coming in the near future.
Jendro: Changes that positively affect the sport.
So maybe today’s biggest announcement isn’t the actual changes you announced today, but just the fact that there’s now a culture of change within the industry?
Last thing. Nets in the corners. Nets outside of the bowl berms. Is this happening?
Prater: Yes, nets in the corners! We had them at Monster Cup. We’ve been testing them at our office here in Ellington, Florida. I can’t tell you exactly how you test that but I can say you can only ghost ride a 450 into a net so many times.
[Laughs] Can you confirm or deny that you ghost rode 450s into nets?
Prater: There was some ghost riding. [Laughs] We’ve developed the nets and we put a portion of it up at Monster Energy Cup just to see what it looked like. We expect to do more soon.
Jendro: Obviously the number-one factor is making sure that if a rider does get off the course that he’s safer. Two, it allows us to build up the bowl berms in corners so we can have more passing. And three, it keeps the bikes out of the grandstands. Checks all three boxes.
Prototypes are working. We’re going to see it?
Prater: We’re beta testing it throughout the season. You’re not going to see it at every round but you should see it when we need it.