We Make Mountain Bikers: The Benefits of Sponsoring a NICA Team
Partnering with your local NICA team isn’t just good for the community; it’s good for business
Words by Scott Chapin
Since joining the NICA Board, I’ve witnessed great synergy between existing NICA teams and their local bicycle retailers. Hearing so many positive things from both shops and teams, I decided to dig into how these partnerships “work” for a behind-the-scenes look at how you can find similar success with your shop.
NICA’s (National Interscholastic Cycling Association) roots go back to 1998, when Matt Fritzinger tried starting a road biking team at Berkeley High School, in California. Four kids showed up to the very first practice, all of them riding mountain bikes. Fritzinger took that as a sign, and decided it would become a mountain bike team, instead—the very first high school mountain bike team in the country. A couple of years later, Fritzinger created the NorCal League, and several other schools started teams to compete in the newly-formed league. By 2009, there was also a SoCal League, and it was decided to create NICA as the management organization of the leagues. Today, 24 states are represented, with 18,576 registered athletes on 916 teams, supported by 8,958 coaches. The participation rates continue to grow by 30-40% a year, an impressive growth rate that NICA is confident will continue into the foreseeable future.
While speaking with several bike shops around the country, it quickly became apparent that while there are multiple ways to sponsor/partner with your local NICA team, all of them are mutually beneficial to both team and sponsor shop, as they drive traffic to local shops, increase hard and soft good sales and, of course, generate service business. With an eye to the future, many retailers choose to partner with local high school teams, because they consider NICA a catalyst to future growth of the bicycle industry. Here are a few retailers around the country, and how they’re working with their local NICA teams
University Bicycles is a single-location retailer that works with Boulder High, a hugely successful team with more than 200 athletes. The shop doesn’t make a monetary donation to the local team, but rather offers a 15% discount on soft goods and parts, as well as 10-30% discounts on full bikes (many of which come down from the brands themselves). Of the bike lines sold at University, Niner offers student-athletes the steepest discounts, because it believes so strongly in NICA’s mission. Additionally, University provides free safety checks and next-day service turnaround for athletes. As part of establishing a strong relationship between athletes and the service department—and helping foster a culture of preventive maintenance—the coaches typically bring new riders into the shop to introduce them to service staff. University Bicycles believes that their sponsorship of the Boulder High team has helped fuel the shop’s growth, and about half of the student-athletes regularly patronize the shop. One of the hidden benefits has been sales to the athletes’ parents and siblings. Lastly, the shop usually employs between four and six of the Boulder High kids part-time, which has been a boon for the shop, given the current labor shortage.
Bicycle Sport Shop
The five-location retailer Bicycle Sport Shop partners with three Austin-area teams, the most prominent of which is the 160-strong Lake Travis High School Mountain Bike Team. That team works primarily with the Bee Cave store, where they host an annual fundraiser. BSS helps the team secure bike gear that’s auctioned off to the tune of $2,000-$4,000, all of which is donated directly to the team. The other programs Bicycle Sport Shop partners with are Austin High School and Camacho Recreation Center, a team from Austin’s east side whose members are, for the most part, economically disadvantaged. Their parents are generally not as active as those from other teams, and it’s the recreation center staff who takes the kids to races, and helps square away their equipment. Bicycle Sport Shop helps these athletes get equipment via the shop trade-in program, and by reaching out to its existing customers for financial support. BSS owner Hill Abell stresses how excited he is to have this opportunity. Not only do the kids show a lot of gratitude for the opportunities they’re being afforded, but it gives the shops access to a market that likely otherwise wouldn’t exist. As a bonus, 50% of these athletes are female.
Throughout the season, Bicycle Sport Shop provides all local NICA athletes discounts on bikes and accessories. Both Specialized and Trek help offset those discounts by providing the retailer discounted pricing, thus essentially splitting the discount. For each team they sponsor, BSS also provides two free service clinics—one on bicycle maintenance and the other on trail advocacy. By way of conclusion, Abell says that the NICA sponsorship is a big part of his shops’ mountain bike business and, that there’s absolutely no downside to working with the local teams.
Trek Bicycle Berkeley
Trek Bicycle Berkeley is a company-owned store that opened last year (2017) in an area saturated with road-centric bike shops. Store manager Carl Gauger says Trek Berkeley sponsors a number of East Bay teams to help grow its service department. “Preventative maintenance education is a huge opportunity for bike shops working with their local teams,” he points out, and that education extends beyond athletes to their parents and coaches, and provides great value to everyone. “Our area is very hilly, and often athletes wear through pads, rotors and chains as quickly as one and a half months, because they’re riding so much.” The service department helps athletes plan when specific parts need to be replaced, so parents have clear expectations of the annual costs of maintaining a bike. TBB provides discounts on Trek bikes sold, 25% discounts on comprehensive services, and 15% off parts and accessories. This helps entice athletes to stay on top of proper repairs, rather than resorting to short-term fixes. Additionally, at the start of each season, the shop gives each athlete a free bike safety check, after which it provides a recommendation of what should be repaired/replaced, and how much it will cost. That information is shared with the coaches to help them assess whether their athletes’ bicycles are safe to ride.
TBB is working on tracking the ROI of their partnership, but already see about two major services per week as a result. Increasing its service customer count is key to the success of this retailer, and Gauger believes that the NICA partnership is an efficient means to that end. “NICA is the future of the sport,” he says, and “kids are riding so much that their bikes need way more service than the average customer.”
Mike’s Bikes is a 12-location retailer that’s been involved with NICA since its inception, and half of its stores sponsor those teams in closest proximity. There are a couple of ways that Mike’s sponsors NICA. First of all, it makes a significant annual monetary donation directly to the NorCal League. Second, it pays for Brian Popplewell, the company’s Community Engagement Manager, to assist with all four of the league’s camps and provide neutral support at races and events. At the team level, Mike’s offers discounts on bikes and accessories, some of which are upwards of 25-30% off MSRP, depending on the manufacturer (though most of those pricing accommodations are provided by the manufacturers, particularly Specialized and Santa Cruz). They also offer a bundled NICA athlete-specific service program that allows for unlimited tuneups during the season.
Mike’s Berkeley store has seen the greatest return on its team sponsorship, and one of the reasons is that its tech manager, Nick Hoeper-Tomich, is the head coach of the Berkeley High School team. “We sell hundreds of bikes per year across our 12 stores due directly to our support of the NorCal League, with our best example being our Berkeley store,” says Mike’s Bikes co-owner Matt Adams. “Our current tech manager began working for us back when he was a Berkeley High MTB racer, and he’s now the team’s head coach. We sell between 40 and 70 bikes per year to members of the team and their families, and many of the student-athletes gain real world experience working part-time at the shop.”
There’s a tiny bit less margin for us on high school team sales, but it’s worth it for me, because the parents also buy bikes. One family came in and bought three bikes—one for their high school-age son, one for their other child, and one for the father. They jumped in with both feet. Often these are families that would not be cycling families. In general, my entire staff and I are very excited about the high school league here.”
—Pat Sorenson, Penn Cycle, Minnesota
We’ve seen there are many ways that a bicycle retailer can sponsor/partner with their local NICA team (indeed, many customize sponsorship to their team’s specific needs), and that both parties can realize myriad benefits. To summarize the some of the more consistent sponsorship components:
Discounted Bikes—Most manufacturers absorb the brunt of the discount, and some retailers sweeten the pot by contributing for an even steeper discount.
Service Packages—NICA athletes typically ride much more than the average shop customer, so many shops are providing annualized service cost estimates to the athletes and parents, as well as providing service/maintenance clinics that help to curb the overall costs. Helping determine service intervals and expectations is important, too, so parents don’t get “sticker shock” from routine service costs.
Discounted Soft Goods and Accessories
Neutral Support at Local Races and Events
Directly Helping the Local Team—While some teams have an abundance of volunteer coaches, others simply need help. Directly helping the local team—either as a coach or mechanic or chaperone—creates a strong relationship between team and shop, and seems to drive business to the local retailer in a very straightforward, quantifiable way.
To learn how you can partner with a local NICA team, start here, at the NICA website.
Scott Chapin is an accomplished mountain bike racer, and a bicycle industry risk specialist with Marsh & McLennan Agency.