By Jason Norman
GILBERT, AZ—One organization is based in the West; the other is based in the East. One is for-profit; the other is a nonprofit.
Two longtime rivals that date back to the 1970s—the American Bicycle Association (ABA) and National Bicycle League (NBL)—differ on a variety of fronts, but the common denominator has always been BMX racing.
Now that the two organizations that have shaped the sport over the years will act as one, the BMX racing community—both riders and industry brands—seemingly stand to benefit.
“The energy wasted on the feud can be better served to promote the sport,” said Michael Gamstetter, marketing manager at VSI Products, who started racing BMX in the late 1970s in Ohio.
“When I came here (to VSI last year), I was surprised that stupid war was still going on,” he added. “I always thought it was stupid. It’s really divided the sport. Now this war is over.”
The ABA purchased the NBL for an undisclosed amount in June, after years of proposing a unified BMX race-sanctioning group.
“Ever since BMX was announced as an Olympic sport, the ABA has been attempting to make one sanction a reality,” said Bernie Anderson, chief operating officer and chairman of the board of the ABA. “We have made several attempts over the last eight years to approach the NBL board with proposals for one sanction.”
In the end, it was simple economics that sparked the asset purchase of the Ohio-based NBL, Anderson said. Due to a series of setbacks, the NBL had come to a failing point.
“When we were made aware of the situation, rather than idly watch the NBL’s nearly 100 sanctioned tracks and its membership pay the price—something that would have cost all of us in BMX racing—we approached the NBL with an offer,” Anderson said.
The new organization—now called USA BMX with headquarters in Gilbert, Arizona—could help spark newfound growth in BMX beyond what it has seen over the last several years.
ABA’s membership growth doubled from 6 percent in 2008 to 12 percent in 2010. Now the combined USA BMX organization will have a total of 66,000 members, making BMX racing one of the largest groups of competitive cyclists in the United States.
By 2016 Anderson would like to see membership grow to 100,000 and the number of tracks to exceed 500. More racers and more tracks should equate to more demand for bikes and parts and translate to an increase in sales of related products.
But aside from additional tracks and members, the unification of both groups bears significant financial implications for riders and BMX brands.
For example, instead of purchasing two separate licenses at $45 each, now racers only need one.
“The money saved by the manufacturers who were chasing two separate teams, pro and amateur titles, as well as advertising to two different membership groups, can potentially cut their budgets in half or enable them to step up their involvement,” Anderson said.
Race participation should also surge as riders won’t have to select one event over another, something that has plagued the sport since its early days.
“For far too long, scheduling conflicts between the sanctions forced the riders to essentially pick sides. ‘Do I attend the ABA national in Reno or do I race the NBL Grands?’” said James Ayres, sales manager for Haro. Ayres, who has a long history in BMX publishing and racing, thinks the merger is a positive move.
“There’s only one Super Bowl winner, one World Series winner, but for the last 30 or so years there’s been an ABA #1 Pro and an NBL #1 Pro—so who’s the best? One sanctioning body should mean simplicity,” he added.
Ayers said that while the merger could deliver an increase in race participation, suppliers still need to bring a certain level of authenticity to racing to fuel overall growth.
“You have to be embedded in it—team riders, truck and trailer support at all the key races, an aggressive advertising budget…” Ayres said. “Much like the other segments of the BMX market, it’s simply one you can’t fake your way through. You have to be dedicated to see results.”
The unification of the two organizations couldn’t come at a better time as BMX racing returns to the Olympics in London next year. Anderson said he hopes to build on BMX’s Olympic debut four years ago.
“What having BMX racing in the Olympics has done, most of all, is legitimize the sport as the true cycling discipline that we in BMX racing have known it as,” Anderson said.
He expects the interest in BMX racing to be much greater at the 2012 Olympics due, in large part, to the fact that Manchester, England is home to the first permanent BMX race facility in the world.
“What USA BMX plans to do is a better job of playing off of the Olympic hype, and translating that into getting more kids and adults from age 4 to 50 to choose BMX racing over the more standard team sports,” he said.