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How Cross Vegas survived the jump to the World Cup

The jump into the World Cup raised Cross Vegas's overhead costs to around a half-million dollars. To make it work, Brook Watts had to get creative.

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For the second consecutive year, Cross Vegas will kick off cyclocross’s World Cup series with a fast, twisting course at Las Vegas’s Desert Breeze soccer complex. And for the second consecutive year, Cross Vegas’s promoter Brook Watts will see the bill for his event approach the half-million dollar mark.

Cross Vegas’s jump into the World Cup last year raised its overhead costs by 30 percent. To cover those costs, Watts had to get creative.

“I like to say that I now run a hospitality and food/beverage operation that’s also attached to a bicycle race,” Watts says. “I’ve found ways to slice and dice Cross Vegas and sell sponsorships and [VIP packages] to as many people as possible.”

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Thus far, Watts’s business plan has worked. Unlike the other major international cycling races in the U.S., which hemorrhage money and often require a wealthy backer to cover costs, Cross Vegas pays for itself — in fact, it turns a small profit.

That’s because Watts long ago adopted a walk-before-you-run approach with his race, growing it incrementally each year, instead of reaching beyond his means.

“We’ve always turned a profit — some years it was barely enough to buy dinner, but it was profit,” Watts says. “It’s because I have the bike industry here.”

Indeed, the race has always drawn spectators and sponsors from the Interbike bicycle show since its inception in 2007. In it’s first year, the race drew thousands of spectators, the country’s fastest male and female cross racers, and enough sponsorship cash to pay for the entire thing.

By year two, Watts said, officials from the UCI were asking whether he’d consider bumping up to the World Cup level.

“They kept needling me — I was like, we’ll get there someday,” Watts says. “We weren’t ready at that point.”

Watts visited World Cup races in Belgium and the Netherlands to see the enormous grandstands, fixed television cameras, jumbotrons, huge flyovers and other expensive amenities. He saw how those events generate huge sums through a variety of revenue streams: food and beverage sales, ticket sales, VIP packages, and sponsorship.

His event, by contrast, allowed fans to watch for free, and paid its overhead predominantly with sponsorship.

In the lead-up to the 2009 event, Watts says the Las Vegas Parks Department informed him that the surrounding businesses had begun to complain about the event’s size. The department told him he needed to find a way to control crowd size, or risk losing his permit. To comply, Watts raised a fence around the event, and began charging admission.

“There was definitely grumbling and people telling us we were killing the sport,” Watts says. “The resistance was pretty small.”

The ticket sales created a new revenue stream for the event. Watts was able to increase the food and beverage offerings along the course, which also bumped up the income. He also paid to rent a jumbotron and offered live streaming of the event.

But the new income still wasn’t enough to pay for a World Cup, Watts says. In 2009 Watts told the UCI he wasn’t ready. He repeated the message for the next three years as the race steadily grew its bottom line. After the 2012 event, Watts says he began to treat each year’s race as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup.

When Watts was finally ready to make the jump, he saw huge additional costs looming. Watts has to pay for the increased prize list, the television production, additional staffing and security, media and marketing contractors and parking attendants. He also needed four jumbotrons.

To cover costs, Watts began to dream up new sponsorship and VIP offerings. He beefed up Cross Vegas’s VIP and hospitality offerings, and built out nine exclusive VIP suites alongside the course, where companies could entertain clients and employees. He then built a larger public VIP area.

Watts sold the race’s three largest VIP suites to Shimano, TRP brakes, and Clif Bar.

Watts then began selling every feature along the Cross Vegas course to interested sponsors. For instance, the course’s infamous wooden ramp is now sponsored by bicycle manufacturer Raleigh. Helmet brand Kask owns the flyover, while bike brand Focus sponsors the stairs. Diamond Legal group sponsors the sand pit.

The added sponsor inventory and accoutrements have made Watts’s job substantially more challenging. It used to take him and his crew several hours to tear down the event. Now, crews work for days to remove it from the soccer complex.

Watts agreed to bring Cross Vegas to the World Cup level for 2015 and 2016. After this year’s race, he says he’ll meet with his team to evaluate the event’s place on the series. At this point, Watts says, he likes Cross Vegas’s World Cup status.

“If I can put on my tombstone that I was the guy to bring the World Cup to the U.S., then I’ve accomplished my goal,” he says.