The idea of raising the minimum age limit for Pro Motocross is being discussed a lot in the media and by the fans, particularly since an underage Jason Lawrence got into a bit of legal trouble. New outdoor MX director Davey Coombs has publicly stated his opinion that an 18-year-old age limit would be a good thing. Much of the discussion is focused on the idea that riders need to mature before being given the money and pressure of big pro contracts, which is true. But there is another aspect that needs to be considered.
The problem is relevance and the Olympics give us an interesting case study. It’s been nice to have some sports distractions — the Olympics and the NFL preseason — during this two-week break in the Pro Motocross schedule. While the Olympics have some compelling stories — Michael Phelps, 41-year-old Dara Torres, the Redeem Team — I don’t want to talk about them. I want to look at one of the least compelling sports in the Olympics — women’s gymnastics.
We only care about women’s gymnastics once every four years, and then only a little bit. Fans are mostly Mommies with little daughters, and pubescent boys. Beyond that no one cares. Why? Because “women’s” gymnastics is a girls sport — literally. No adult woman can compete. Period. Ever. By the time a girl reaches puberty and develops boobs and a butt her polar moment and center of gravity change to make it impossible to be a gymnast any more. I remember reading an interview once (which I cannot document now) where I believe 1984 Gold Medalist Mary Lou Retton (who was 16 at the time) noted that she didn’t actually enter puberty until she was nearly 19 years old because of her rigorous training schedule.
So little girls practice and train for years. Between the ages of 14-18 they get one shot at being a star. At 19 they are done. Kaput. Over. Move on, nothing to see here.
There’s no career path, no adult challenges to conquer, no compelling story about hard work and perseverance. Basically it’s a crap shoot — a few rare kids have the discipline and early maturity to reach the top of their pursuit, they get a shot at a medal, and they’re gone. It’s not that the sport doesn’t require athletic ability, skills, talent, etc. It does. It’s just there is nothing in women’s gymnastics to attract adult fans of either gender. The sport is as irrelevant as wiffle ball.
Unfortunately, this scenario sounds an awful lot like modern professional motocross in America. We spend an inordinate amount of time, energy, money, and media space on 15-16 year old riders. They come out at 16, many with factory contracts already signed. They get 1-2 years to prove themselves. If they don’t make the cut — for whatever reason — they are considered a failure by 18. By 20 they are done. Gone. Off to be a carpenter or a plumber or something.
As grownups we can’t relate to that. It’s dumb. Makes no sense. It’s not even an effective way to find the best talent. The human body doesn’t reach it’s physical or mental peak until the early 20s. Yet we judge the ultimate potential of someone in a sport as physically and mentally demanding as motocross and toss them out by 18.
Over the July 4 weekend I had an old friend come and stay at the house. We used to race MX together back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He hasn’t paid any mind to the sport for years so I got him to sit down and watch the live webcast of the Red Bud National. His first comment after seeing some of the pre-race interviews? “They’re just kids. I don’t want to watch this.”
This guy is a race fan. He spends money on race tickets. He goes to events. He watches on TV. But children riding motorcycles doesn’t get his attention. He can’t relate. And he’s not alone. According to the US Census Bureau there are 33 million males in the 18-34 age bracket. But there are 45 million males in the 35-60 bracket – the bracket that includes all the vet and vintage racers.
You can relate to a 16-year-old up to about age 30. Beyond that the gap gets too big and your life experience plays a much bigger role in your view. You start to see them as children. Once you have your own kids it gets worse. You don’t want to watch a bunch of teenagers do anything as a spectator sport, it doesn’t matter what it is.
These young riders are fast. Very fast. A few of them are mature beyond their years. But it doesn’t matter if a huge portion of the potential adult audience can’t relate. It’s not as if at 22 you suddenly can’t go fast anymore.
If we really want to grow MX as a mainstream sport, how can we ignore 60% of the mainstream population of potential fans? The mind-numbing sameness of the sterile, technologically perfect motorcycles has killed any mechanical interest older fans may have had. All that’s left is the riders’ personality. And when the majority of focus is on personalities 18 and under, that’s a problem. Even the NBA — that paragon of bad planning, bad pr, bad management, and gangsta-hoopster street thug mentality — waits until kids are out of high school to put them in the pros.
If the goal is to achieve more mainstream acceptance we need to look at the long-term mainstream sports — both motorized and stick-and-ball — and emulate those things that make sense. We need to look at “fan life” – how long a typical fan stays with a sport.
Long-term success means we need long-term fans. Alienating people over 35 is not a good plan. Pretty much every successful fan-sport in America focuses the bulk of it’s players in the mid- to late-20s. The 18 or 19 year-old phenom is an exception, not the rule. Veterans of the sport are in their early- to mid-30s.
This always occurs as a result of planning and management on the part of the sanctioning body or league. The teams and players are universally incapable of maintaining any such discipline.
But this 22 to 34 age period corresponds to the human body’s physical and mental peak. It’s when athletes are truly at their best. It’s when their personalities are complex enough to be interesting to the broadest group of fans, and when the largest number of fans can identify with them.
Want a little anecdotal evidence? Who are the most popular riders on the tour, outside of the two dominant racers? 33-year-old Timmy Ferry and 30-year-old Kevin Windham. Who’s one of the hottest up-and-coming riders? 29-year-old Michael Byrne of Australia. We don’t need a sport dominated by 30-year-old+ riders, but we really, really need to get past the 16-18 focus and build the sport around adults, unless we want pro motocross to be the motorized version of women’s gymnastics. Moving the minimum Pro age to 18 is a great first step.