Two rather extraordinary statistics came to light on Thursday. The first was encapsulated in the latest Active People Survey by Sport England, the body that monitors the number of participants in different sports and makes grants funded by the National Lottery. This, for me, was the key sentence in the report:
Success stories in sport include cycling, which has overtaken football, with just over two million people taking part once a week.
—Report from Sport England, December 12, 2013
The same day, British Cycling, the sport’s national governing body reported that its membership has topped 85,000 for the first time—and even more eye-raising was the fact that 33,000 new members have joined the organization since Brad Wiggins won the Tour de France last year. That a 63-percent increase in membership in just 18 months!
But, first, let’s look at that initial fact. England is the home of football (a.k.a. soccer) and by far its most popular televised sport, while cycling has traditionally been an orphan child among mainstream sports in the UK. On Thursday, Sport England reported that the number of people playing soccer once a week has dropped to 1.8 million (in a national population of 56 million) and that the Football Association might be asked to forfeit 20 percent of its current £30 million ($49 million) funding from the lottery.
At the same time, the number of active cyclists in England has climbed to 2.1 million, guaranteeing that British Cycling will receive £32 million ($52.5 million) in the current four-year Olympic cycle, mainly aimed at grassroots participation in cycling. That’s approximately $13 million a year, a substantial part of BC’s annual revenue of about $34 million—which compares with USA Cycling’s current income of $14 million a year.
As for the 85,000 Brits now paying dues to British Cycling, this is the first time that BC’s membership has exceeded that of USA Cycling—whose total at the end of 2012 was 74,516. With an estimated annual growth of 5 percent, USAC’s total would be about 78,000 by the end of this year. To put these numbers in perspective, Great Britain’s national population is about one-fifth of the United States’—so, on a per capita basis, BC’s 85,000 membership is equivalent to 425,000 Americans joining USA Cycling! And if we do the same math with the federations’ respective revenues, USAC would be operating on an annual budget of $170 million!
By comparison, the National Football League, which is the world’s most profitable league in pro sports, last year earned $44 million on revenues of $293 million. That’s the amount the NFL keeps after it distributes television revenues to its 32 teams, which have yearly revenues of between $229 million (the Oakland Raiders) and $589 million (Dallas Cowboys).
So if USA Cycling were to bring in $170 million a year, it would mean that our sport could receive a much larger share of media and public interest in this country. So how could USAC aspire to equaling the performance of British Cycling and dramatically increasing the sport’s profile in America?
It may not be as tough as it sounds.
For starters, the latest report of the Physical Activity Council found that about one third of Americans (almost 100 million) participate in active sports, and that cycling scores very well. Swimming for fitness is the overall No. 1 activity for all age groups except one: For the 45- to 54-year-old generation, the No. 1 activity is bicycling! And cycling is No. 2 (behind swimming) in three other age groups: 25-34, 35-44 and 55-64.
That’s a great base of participants from which to expand the sport by not only getting people to ride more often but also to increase the scope of their cycling activities: from casual riding to commuting to mass-participation events to competition. That’s what has been happening in Great Britain, helped, admittedly, by the multi-million handouts from the National Lottery, increased government funding for cycling facilities, and sponsorships from corporations such as Sky.
Since it began receiving extra income from Sport England in 1997, the national cycling federation has been on a steadily accelerating success curve. It has been headed, of course, by BC’s investment in their athletes to find incredible success at the past four Olympic Games, and now at the Tour de France, but that’s the window-dressing. The organization has also worked tirelessly at the grassroots.
With a goal “to reposition British Cycling as an organization for everyone who rides a bike,” it has worked closely with Sport England and Sky to encourage mass participation at several different levels. These include the by-now famous Sky Rides, which take place on traffic-free roads in major cities and last year attracted 147,500 people to 16 events. Then there is the Go-Ride developmental program that gave opportunities to 106,00 under-16s to take part in a range of coaching session, competitive cycling and volunteering activities, and resulted in a major boost to the number of under-18 racing-license holders.
Remember, the U.S. has a population five times that of Great Britain, and that means USA Cycling could envision getting half a million under-16s into its programs and three-quarters of a million taking part in Sky-type rides. By encouraging and educating people to ride bikes responsibly in safe environments, and with a goal of getting more and more of them to become licensed competitors, USA Cycling can aim much higher.
It has taken British Cycling 15 years to pump up its numbers since receiving that first grant from the National Lottery. So can USA Cycling envision making that 425,000-membership goal by the 2028? I think so. How about you?
You can follow John on twitter.com @johnwilcockson