News 27 Oct 2020

Industry: Feld Entertainment's Dave Prater

Detailing the 2021 Monster Energy Supercross schedule in media roundtable.

Feld Entertainment has formally released the 2021 Monster Energy AMA Supercross, an FIM World Championship, schedule, which will feature a series of triple-header and mid-week events to suit reduced spectator capacities and sport in the current COVID-19 pandemic. Dave Prater, Feld Motor Sports director of operations – Supercross, spoke in detail within a Zoom-based media roundtable to field questions regarding the extraordinary concept and answers an assortment of questions that was directed to him this afternoon.

Image: Octopi Media.

Dave, so, obviously, Salt Lake City worked well and we saw the model of, basically, every team in a pod and everything else. This is the obvious question… We’re going to have fans, but the pits, are they going to be open, closed? Are there going to be pods, just like Salt Lake? Are they going to be a little bit more relaxed? What are the protocols, do you think, going ahead from here?

We’re continuing to develop it, but in a nutshell, today, the best way to think about this is our Salt Lake city model. So we are going to have functional groups. Every team will be its own functional group, we’ll have the Feld staff that is broken into different functional groups, the NBC television broadcast team, same functional groups. The easiest way for me to describe it today is that it’s a Salt Lake City model that we’re going to introduce fans into. And your other question about the pits being open, it is our intent to do FanFest and open the pits, as well as the activation area, to the fans. Obviously, that’ll be a modified experience. We want to keep the bubble that we’re working, in the back gate is working in, separate, but we are going to allow fans into the pits during that 12:00-6:00pm timeframe, yes.

Is it kind of the default to have the last five rounds in Salt Lake City, as we did last year, if we can’t find venues?

It could be the default. Honestly, we knew we needed to get a schedule out there. We needed to give everyone in the industry time to plan, along with ourselves, so we’ve been going back and forth. We’ve probably come within a day or maybe an hour from announcing it before and things were just dynamic and changing, not only with us, but with the venues. So at some point, maybe a month ago, we drew a line in the sand at easter, and said, ‘look, let’s work on these first 12 events prior to easter, knowing that things are still going to change, but that gives us those first 12 events that we have locked in. And then, let’s be hopeful that by the time April gets here, things have loosened up a bit, we’ve got a little more leeway as far as capacity within the stadium and areas in which we can race to work with, rather than lock ourselves into 17 rounds and then things open up and we’re at a loss’. I think that was the plan and, to your point, we haven’t really discussed it, but that would definitely be – assuming that Salt Lake city was open throughout April and with the PAC-12 pushing their football season later in the year, that could disrupt us a bit – but assuming there they were open and available, yeah, that could be a potential play if it comes to that. I think, from everything we’re seeing, I think things are going to start to get better. And at the very least, we’ll have multiple stadiums after easter. How many that is, I don’t know.

But you’re open to single event stadiums, those last several rounds then, the open rounds?

If it comes to that, and if there are stadiums where the capacity opens up enough to make that viable, then yes, we could do that, for sure.

What is that capacity number that would allow you guys to make that choice?

I think it depends on a lot of things, but just round numbers, you’re probably looking at 50 to 60 percent, because some venues are more expensive than others to go into, so you have to weigh all those variables. At present, the venues that we announced today, we’re at 20 to 25 percent depending on the venue, so that may change as we move into January, but at the moment, that’s what we’re planning, is 20 to 25 percent.

Would riders and teams still have to test each time for COVID when they come in and out, because that obviously made it tough on them to go back and test and train and things like that at their home base?

We’re still working through the testing protocol on exactly what that is. There will be testing. We’re just, at the moment, still working on what works, given the venues and the cities that we’re planning on racing in, and the timeframe in which we’ll be there. So still working through that with our epidemiologist and our testing group, but there’ll be more to come. I wish I had a more definitive answer, but as things change and things develop, we’ll get that, obviously, to this group as soon as we can, as well as all the race teams.

For the cities that you have announced so far, what were some of the factors that led to having three in Houston and two in Indianapolis and three in Glendale, three in Arlington, what was it about those stadiums or those states or those cities that you ultimately went with?

It all started seven months ago. So when all this happened, when we were in Indy, March 14th, and we had to cancel that first event, we’ve talked about it a lot, but we started going down parallel paths with multiple venues right then and ended up in Salt Lake City for the remainder of the 2020 season. But during those discussions, things were developing with other venues and then as soon as we were finished with Salt Lake City, we got back here and we continued those discussions. We had an original 2021 season, a schedule, built. And honestly, we were quite proud of it, it was going to be one of the earliest we’d ever gotten out and obviously, we got a real curve ball thrown at us. So we were talking to all of those venues that were on our original schedule, as well as venues we’ve raced before and even some venues that we had never raced that, just trying to give us as many options as possible. But it really came down to, full disclosure and full transparency, it came down to really the stadiums that were doing this first, which were NFL stadiums and the NFL stadiums that were allowing fans first. Like Indy for instance, Indy originally had planned to open up at 20 percent capacity with the first Colts game and then they got with the county and that was changed, and the first Colts game was in front of no fans and then they grew it from there. That was one of the hurdles we had, is we had locked in Indy knowing that they were going to go to 20 percent capacity from day one with the first NFL game and then, a week later, got word from Marion County, where Indianapolis is located, that, ‘wait a minute, we’re holding off. We’re going to step this up’. So we had to put the brakes on a bit there, but really I would say it’s been two things, NFL schedule and how that’s developed, and then the venues and them just being as proactive as we were – that’s really how we landed on these first four.

The Salt Lake City plan was so different from what the riders and teams were used to, but I think they ended up liking it, so I know you’ve probably had a lot of communication with them. Were they all saying, ‘could you please do the weekday races or the multiple things in one stadium’, because it seemed like a plan that, suddenly, they’ve all decided they liked, even though they were forced into it at first.

Right. I don’t know that anyone was begging for it or asking for it, but there was no pushback whatsoever. They all knew from day one. We had tried to keep our bi-weekly meetings going and we were pretty strict with that. There were a few that maybe went three weeks instead of two, but we kept them apprised of the situation the entire time. And everyone from jump street knew that that was probably going to be something we had to entertain and, so when we told them a week and a half or so ago, we didn’t get any questions whatsoever.

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Obviously we’re used to seeing California rounds at the beginning of the series and there’s a good concentration of them out there. Do we see any events there and is there hope for those guys?

I wish I could say. I don’t have my crystal ball. I know it’s interesting, it seems like in the last couple of weeks that California seems a little more optimistic than they were a few weeks ago, a month ago. Anaheim, obviously we love Anaheim and Angel Stadium’s been a great partner forever. They were disappointed, but they understand completely. And the other thing with it is, Anaheim, San Diego and Oakland are obviously all baseball stadiums. Well baseball, major league baseball had made… They were basically taking the stance that up until the post season, they weren’t going to entertain having fans at all, so up until recently, Angel Stadium, Petco and Oakland couldn’t really talk to us about what was going to happen because they didn’t know. Again, I’m optimistic, but who knows, California could slide into that April date if it opens up, but that remains to be seen.

This is one of the most unique schedules that we’ve ever seen for the sport for obvious reasons, with the SuperTuesday events and the blocks in the schedule, is that something that is interesting to you guys just to… I wouldn’t say trial because it’s a real season, but is it something that you’ll be taking into account and these types of things could be here to stay into the longer term?

Yeah, I think, although it’s a forced experiment, it’s an experiment all the same. So, I think we’ll definitely take whatever learnings we can and if it’s successful, build on it, potentially. Who’s to say? We haven’t introduced fans, we don’t know what these Tuesday events will end up with, especially a live event. But it’s definitely something that’s on our mind and something we’re going to watch closely.

Does the more limited capacity in terms of spectators make it more ideal to revisit the same location multiple times in a week? If it was a full stadium, it might be more difficult to do that a few times over.

Yeah. I think there’s a few reasons for that. One, it is the limited availability of stadiums and cities that will allow fans at the moment. And then with the limited capacity? To your point, if we could sell 50 percent or 100 percent – as many as we can – then that gives us a lot more options to go to different cities. However, those different cities aren’t always there and that’s what we found. Even some of the NFL stadiums, you see the guys, they’re playing games and kind of forget that because you hear the fan noise, the crowd noise that they’re pumping in, you kind of forget until they show the stands that they’re empty still, like Las Vegas and LA. So yeah, although like I said it was a forced experiment, it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out and see as things open up how many different venues you could potentially race at in ’21.

Today’s news for you guys also was that Supercross Futures wouldn’t be part of the 2021 program. A lot of people thought that this would be a mainstay thing, just because of the revenue that it brings in for you guys, so can you explain the decision to shelve it for 2021 and what you guys will do to help riders score their advancement points?

Yeah, so it was unfortunate, and this was one that was bounced back and forth probably more times than the venues that we were trying to lock down. But it all came down to just the protocol, and the different restrictions that we’re going to have. While it’s frustrating to have a stadium sitting there in between and not use it for Supercross Futures, once we spoke to the local health department, the venues, just everyone involved, we thought it was the best to shelve it for ’21. It’ll definitely be back in 2022, but we’re working with the AMA and then MX Sports for ’21 to allow different ways to get your Supercross points, so that will be a part of that, thanks to MX Sports as well as some other major events. There’ll be ample opportunities for riders to get their Supercross license and then in ’22, like I said, we’re going to bring it back. The plan was to bring it back just as it was in ’20, so before everything got shut down.

About the breaks they’re a little bit longer than normal and the schedule has always known to be a grind, with so much of it compacted in there. What was the theory behind where you place the breaks and making them a little bit longer this year?

We did our best with the abbreviated schedule, meaning that we were going to be racing three times in eight days most of the year with the exception of Indy and Daytona,” Prater added. “We knew that we were going to go into this and doing that many events, three races in eight days consecutively for five-six weeks was going to be extremely challenging. We went into it hopeful that it would play out like it did, but there were a lot of different variables coming out of different venues with the NFL. Everything’s kind of shifting around and we were hoping to announce this a couple of weeks ago, but that caused us to pump the brakes. Luckily, as of last Friday, everything solidified and we were able to get it in. It was a little bit of luck as well.

Can we all assume that tracks will be changed between Saturday, Tuesday and again this Saturday? And based on what you learned in Salt Lake in making those switches, can you be more aggressive with those changes in between race days than you were or do you think you have a good solid pattern for how to do that?

Yeah, no, we definitely have a better pattern for how to do that. We actually got our first look at all of those just the other day and, to be honest, my first impression was, that those are some aggressive changes. But I think with what we’ve learned in Salt Lake City, what Dirt Works learned in Salt Lake City, they’re comfortable with that, so fans can rest assured that if they come to Saturday’s race and then they come back to Tuesday’s, it’s going to be a completely different track, even more so than what you saw in Salt Lake City. I’m excited about that, it’s going to definitely feel like a normal Supercross season – as normal as it can.

Can you tell us more about the Triple Crown races and Showdown?

We’re still working through that. The challenge with doing these… Call them mini residencies or whatever you want to call them, these three race home stands, is where we put those. We’re hoping and we’re going to have to announce some Triple Crown rounds and a few east-west Showdowns soon, but we’re hoping we can get a little bit better idea of what that schedule looks like after easter before we start locking those in place. That’s why you didn’t see those today and if you guys obviously see east and west out there, this is the first time we’ve started on the east coast in a lot of years, maybe 25, so we’ll have the East regional 250 championship as opposed to the west. That’s a little different. And then, depending on what venue or venues we race at after easter, we’re trying to keep those numbers of east and west somewhat similar, so it’s a lot that goes into it and we don’t want to just pull the trigger prematurely and lock ourselves into something that doesn’t really make sense.

You’re getting a little bit of a taste of these mid-week races. Obviously you’re forced to do it, but it seems to be working pretty good, so are you developing a real interest in maybe carrying that over to when things come back to ‘normal’? It gives you an opportunity to maybe squeeze in a couple extra rounds and also maybe give the riders more of a break here, too, as we’re seeing with this ’21 schedule.

I think anything’s on the table. Anything and everything’s on the table, and it remains to be seen how these Tuesday events will do, now that we’ve got other sports back up and running. Because our Wednesday rounds in Salt Lake City we did, they did extremely well, but at the same time, we were the only sport back so we’ll have to wait and see. We’re going to be watching that closely, like I said earlier, and nothing’s off the table. It’s a forced experiment that we’re going to utilize and see where it goes.

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The television schedule, which we know will be coming later in the year and, more than likely, after the first of the year. Can you talk about the television schedule a little bit, with the Tuesday races and how they will factor in?

Yeah, we’re continuing to work with NBC. We obviously have a working schedule that we’re going back and forth with, with NBC, but other than trying to get those weekday races kind of primetime for live event fans, more than anything else, just to give them an opportunity to get home from work and make it to the stadium, that’s really all there is locked in at the moment. Obviously, not only us, but there are a lot of other sporting events that are vying for time and looking for ways to get their season in, so it’s a big puzzle at the moment, but we’ve been working with NBC weekly on that schedule and hope to get it out as soon as we can.

Was Tuesday something NBC/Feld wanted to do? Why not Wednesday? Why not Thursday? Or, really, was it just a random pick for the specific Tuesday day?

Everyone seemed to be okay and almost enjoy the cadence of Salt Lake City. As you’re racing more, you race that first event and you get a two-day break, you race again and, obviously now you’ve raced twice, so you get an extra day of rest before the third race. That was the only thought process behind it. And NBC explained to use that as far as viewership, the Tuesday-Wednesday wasn’t really going to move the needle – either one would be the same.

Are you guys shooting for a final date? You don’t want the series to drag on a little bit longer than usual.

Yeah, so I think motocross is scheduled to start that third weekend of May. Really, our drop-dead date for the final would be May 8th. Again, that could change, but that’s as far as we can push it at this point, unless something happens and we have to adjust again, but that’s really where we’re at, as far as that goes. As far as announcing that second portion of the schedule after easter, is really, probably, mid-February, so we want to give people at least five or six weeks to plan for that, if it takes that long. Hopefully, we can get something out prior to that, but that’s our deadline, is mid-February, to get that those 13, 14, 15, 16, those rounds out.

Do you know if there could be some day races? Or do you know, for sure, they’re already going to be back to a typical Supercross time, at night?

We don’t. I can tell you there are a couple of day races on the preliminary schedule that NBC sent over, now, where that ends up? I can’t say. I don’t know if they’ll hold, but at the moment, out of the 12, there are two that are scheduled a little or, at least, preliminarily scheduled a little earlier in the day. But again, that could change.

Was there ever a fear that you wouldn’t even be able to get a 2021 season going at all?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think we ever had that fear. We knew it was going to be a challenge. We knew it was going to be a challenge, but we knew we had finished a championship in the middle of a pandemic. We had been the first championship to finish a season that I know of during the pandemic, so that gave us the confidence to move forward. I know it never entered my mind and I’m pretty sure it never entered anyone’s mind here. I never heard anyone even contemplate that.

What can you say to families that are thinking about taking their kids to Supercross and how it’s going to be just as normal as it can be and safely?

We’re holding ourselves to a new standard. We’ve always held ourselves to a high standard and we’ve got to raise that standard. That goes with everything from the race teams all the way up to, like you said, the family that’s coming in to watch Supercross live. So, we’re working with each venue. They’ve obviously had their challenges and their victories with introducing fans into NFL games, but, it’ll be a pod seating environment, similar to what you guys see at most NFL stadiums, most NFL games. There have been a few colleges that have gone away from that, try a different approach, but, we’re going into it with that pod seating so you can buy a pod of four and you come with your family or your group of friends. You know that you’ll be sitting there and you’ll be socially distanced from all other groups. They can rest assure that we’re doing everything and anything that we can to keep them safe. We’re going to step up and the venues have all stepped up their sanitation processes. Face masks will be required for everyone inside the venue, depending on local laws and mandates, but our standard is face mask for anyone over two years old, Multiple levels of safety protocol are going in to do it, like I said before, we’re working with an epidemiologist and she’s on staff right now walking us through this, so learning as we go, but rest assured we’re going to set the standard for the industry.

How does this work financially for you guys? Are you getting breaks from the stadiums? Will you guys be taking a major hit financially this year because of the way the schedules would play out?

I think there’s really no way around it – we’re definitely going to be taking a hit financially just with limited capacity. Yes, stadiums are working with us, we have great relationships across the board with all the stadiums that we’re racing at as well as all the stadiums we’ve historically raced at, but, they’re challenged as well because although we’re at 20 to 25 percent capacity, we’re still opening the entire stadium because we’re spreading those fans out. So, their staffing numbers are going to be the same, if not greater than normal, to deal with the different safety protocols. We’re definitely working with them, definitely going to be a challenge financially, but something we’re obviously aware of and doing our best to make the best of the situation.

In terms of the teams and their financial commitment to the series, is this schedule, does it make it easier for the teams financially or is it about the same?

Right. I think just anecdotally, we haven’t spoken specifically to teams in how this affects them financially. I can tell you that working through Salt Lake City, obviously it was to their benefit financially. We were at one place for seven rounds. Even though they were there in the state for three and a half weeks, it definitely helped them financially. It’s obvious that their transportation costs are going to be quite low, considering we’re only going to call it six events, six venues at the moment. So, I don’t know and I can’t speak to all of their different financial models. But like I said, anecdotally, at least it appears on paper that it’s going to benefit them for sure.