A 65-year-old sports league that’s fallen into obscurity is funneling millions of dollars into rebuilding its loyal and lucrative fan following.
American Flat Track, the series that features competitors sliding their motorcycles upwards of 140 mph around a dirt oval, opened its third season in Daytona, Fla., on Thursday with hopes of creating a household name.
“We will do whatever we need to do to expand the footprint, to expand the reach, of the sport,” CEO Michael Lock told Fortune.
Interest the series, which began in 1954 under the name AMA Pro Racing, waned over the last several decades with the rise of other styles of motorcycle racing.
Lock, a former Ducati chief executive, rebranded the series as American Flat Track in 2016 and began implementing measures to resurrect the sport, from raising ticket prices to providing a play area for children.
The efforts seem to be working: revenue from ticket sales has increased at a double-digit clip since the rebranding project began. In 2017, 9,500 people turned out for a single race, more than the roughly 4,000 anticipated. Last year, crowds surpassed 10,000-strong twice.
Meanwhile, Lock is playing up the sport’s grassroots appeal, emphasizing flat track’s drama and the skill and bravado of its competitors. One flat track racer, Johnny Lewis, compared the bikes’ thrilling lack of grip and balance to “ballet on dirt.”
“There’s not enough money in the sport yet for the athletes to become cynical,” Lock said. “They run like old-fashioned athletes.”
To build an audience, American Flat Track is going upscale, peddling perks including reserved seating, preferred parking and concessions delivered to the stands. “The early adopters buy the most expensive tickets,” he said.
The competition for consumers’ attention and wallets is fierce, especially for a single-day event.
“It’s not that difficult to convince people to do something that’s short and finite for a couple of hours, or longer like a two- or three-day music festival,” Lock said, “but to say ‘Come and do something for a day, or three-quarters of a day,’ is to get murdered.”
Meanwhile, the series must also figure out how to attract home viewers who could livestream the races.
“There’s a compelling case to do that,” Lock said. “Sometimes more compelling than to go to an event two, three, four hours away.”
American Flat Track also began airing tape-delayed broadcasts on NBC but needs at least half a million viewers to sign blue chip sponsors like Coke or M&M’s. “I don’t think we can get there on a tape-delayed show,” he said. Reaching an audience 500,000-strong would “change our world.”
He also considered putting the series’ content behind a paywall, but “everyone I’ve spoken to who’s done that says you will lose 75% of your audience.”
Meanwhile, Lock is exploring how to raise the sport’s profile internationally, where he thinks it could resonate with viewers and sponsors such as American motorcycle-makers looking to grow beyond the U.S.
“Motorcycles are universal, whether you’re in Bangkok or London,” he said. “We’ve got a product that is quite packageable.”
Lock said American Flat Track could employ a strategy similar to the NFL, which hosted exhibitions in London before adding regular-season games that may test the climate for a local franchise.
Said Lock, “They’re developing a fan base for something that 20 or 30 years ago was inconceivable.”