Motorcycle sales went into a skid in 2008 and have been sliding toward the guardrail ever since.
That slide began with the 2008 recession and has been hard to steer out of partly because of demographics: Almost 50 percent of motorcyclists are 50 and older — riders who don't necessarily have many bike purchases left in them.
Manufacturers have grasped that to increase sales, it was no longer enough to just create cool new motorcycles — they needed to create new motorcyclists. Now an industry that has long focused in large part on selling bigger, more expensive bikes to baby boomers is looking at new ways to get younger riders in the saddle.
The biggest effort started as an afterthought from a race producer but is now an ambitious outreach program called the Ride Initiative, intended to recruit a new generation of riders using the backdrop of monster truck rallies.
"They look at it as, 'We can lose a generation of riders,' " said Dave Prater, a senior director at Feld Entertainment, which created the program. "We need a collective effort to get kids back on bikes."
Motorcycle manufacturers have (mostly) united under the banner of the Motorcycle Industry Council, a manufacturers trade group, to produce the program, which is aimed at giving thousands of children their first motorcycle ride.
The council's efforts join other long-standing programs, like the riding academies held by Harley-Davidson, which makes up nearly half the domestic motorcycle market and isn't an industry council member. The American Motorcycle Association has backed the Plus 1 Initiative, which asks riders to encourage people to take up riding. And innovative dealerships, like Malcolm Smith Motorsports in Riverside, Calif., have held their own events to draw young newcomers.
They're all reacting to the same worrying numbers. Retail motorcycle sales peaked in the United States in 2007 at 1.1 million bikes, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. In 2009, after the recession, sales plummeted to 655,000. Sales continued to slide, to 538,000 bikes in 2017.
Feld Entertainment — which runs shows like Disney on Ice, Marvel Universe Live and Supercross motorcycle racing events — had heard the factory race teams it works with bemoan the lack of new riders for years. When Feld presented its Supercross five-year plan to the industry council's board of directors in August 2017, it showed a single slide that proposed a Ride Initiative, among other possible attractions.
Prater, one of the architects of the idea, had been inspired by his own experience, both as someone who had ridden as a boy and become a motocross competitor, and as a father who was introducing his two sons to the sport. After the presentation, one of the board members asked to look at the ride program.
The idea got unexpected traction, but there were two problems. First, the time to sell parents on motorcycling isn't necessarily right after watching racers jump motorcycles 30 feet in the air. The other was that Supercross fans already liked motorcycles. But, one board member suggested, what about using other shows that Feld puts on?
The result was a three-year outreach program to run at a touring monster truck event, the Monster Jam — the kind of place you could find motorsports fans who are not necessarily motorcyclists, but could be.
The Ride Initiative has completed its first year, using a 10,000-square-foot area with two riding ranges, where children ages 6 to 16 are outfitted in full safety gear, given basic instructions and then put aboard a minibike or all-terrain vehicle with restricted horsepower. Younger riders could put on the protective gear and take a straddle bike through an obstacle course, and those not up to riding could wear 3-D goggles to take a simulated ride, or just dress up for a photo.
"Ask any rider about their first ride, they know the bike they were on, the year, and who gave them the ride," said Tim Buche, president of the industry council. "Let's give kids that experience."
Matthew Levatich, president of Harley-Davidson, pointed to his company's roughly 250 Riding Academies in the United States as an easy way to get into riding — not only can prospective riders receive instruction on a Harley, he said, but they will be introduced to people who will keep them engaged in motorcycling.
"Ridership is more than training riders," Levatich said. "It's giving them people to ride with."
The trend toward an aging ridership has become clear. In its 2017 annual report, the Motorcycle Industry Council said 46 percent of riders were over 50, up from 38 percent just two years earlier. The median age had risen to 47 from 32 in 1990.
Robert Pandya, a motorcycle marketing consultant and founder of an ad hoc advisory group, Give a Shift, pointed to a lack of interest among millennials as a drag on sales.
"As an industry we failed to market to Generation X in order for it to be part of their lives to pass it on to the kids," said Pandya, whose group has held panel discussions and produced a state of the industry report with recommendations. "We skipped over that generation, now we are feeling the pain, because youth riding isn't what it used to be."
The industry council held its final 2018 Ride event in Nashville in June, and it drew more than 3,000 children who signed up to ride. The council collected their information to track whether they make a purchase, but it could be years before the organizers know if any of those children turn into riders. The initiative is evolving, having spotted an oversight: It didn't connect Ride attendees' parents with dealerships where they could buy the bikes their children rode at the event. The council plans to create partnerships with dealerships next year.
Alexander Smith, general manager of Malcolm Smith Motorsports, hadn't noticed increased interest from two Ride events held nearby in Anaheim, Calif. "I haven't seen or heard any anecdotal evidence of it driving traffic into the dealership," said Smith, the son of Malcolm Smith, an American Motorcycle Association hall of fame endurance rider.
But the dealership has made its own promotional efforts that point to the potential for success.