Interviews 7 Nov 2017

Industry Insight: AUS-X Open’s Ryan Sanderson

The commercial elements of Monster Energy AUS-X Open Sydney in 2017.

Monster Energy AUS-X Open Sydney returns to Qudos Bank Arena for its third installment this weekend on 11-12 November, once again featuring as the marquee event on the Australian Supercross Championship calendar. Event director and co-founder Ryan Sanderson (below, left) – business partner of former national-level racer Adam Bailey (below, right) at AME Management – has been instrumental in the commercial operations of AUS-X Open, working to attract and maintain a wide-range of partnerships that largely assist in the event’s extraordinary year on year growth. With near 85 percent of fans aged between 25-54, many of those relatively wealthy, with an exceptional recollection rate of sponsors and likely to purchase products or services as a direct result of their AUS-X Open association, you can see why this action sports spectacular is one of the most successful and respected dirt bike shows on the planet. And what’s more, in terms of digital interaction via online and social media channels, the AUS-X Open has the highest level of engagement in Australian sport, achieving over eight million video views last year alone! caught up with former Supercars sponsorship executive and manager Sanderson to discuss the commercial strengths of the event, three years in.

Image: AUS-X Open.

To begin with, how’s the 2017 Monster Energy AUS-X Open Sydney shaping up? Third year in and we’re as excited as ever, from a media standpoint.

Yeah, it’s awesome. Ticket sales are on par or ahead of last year, which is great. So we’ve seen attendances grow year on year, which is an achievement in itself in a pretty tough market in Sydney. We always sell out Saturday night – we’re sold out again – but Sunday proves to be a bit more difficult in Sydney. We don’t believe that’s necessarily a national issue, but with all the complications with travel and so many people coming from interstate, it’s very difficult to get out of Sydney on a Sunday night for example – it’s quite expensive. It is challenging for us to get two-day attendees, but we’ve achieved growth in our third year and we’re on-track to make the same or better in attendance, which is great. It shows growth in our event and our sport when to draw in comparison to Supercars, they considerably declined since their first year in Sydney Olympic Park until they eventually left. I think for three years of growth it is a good sign for us, albeit a lot smaller attendance, but it’s showing we’re able to attract attendees each year and still attracting over 40 percent of attendees from outside of New South Wales. Commercially we’re up again, so we’re seeing commercial interest grow year on year and we’re up considerably on year two, which is really exciting. Obviously the naming-rights sponsor in Monster Energy coming on-board is fantastic for the event, but we’ve signed on some awesome partners that are new to the event also – Boost Mobile from a telco perspective, X-Drive from a supplements perspective, Morris Finance from a finance perspective, Knobby Underwear as well – they’re more of an industry brand, but they’re a clothing and underwear brand, which is really exciting to have them on-board. We’ve got Polyflor, which is a flooring business coming on-board which haven’t really got involved before, and we’ve also got Tickford, who are an exciting performance brand and using their Tickford Ranger as the lead vehicle for the event. And we’ve got Husqvarna, KTM, Yamaha, Dunlop, Unit, Komatsu Rental, Thor, Shannons Insurance, Ladbrokes and the government, so it’s a pretty diverse portfolio this year, which we’re really excited about.

This year for the first time in the event’s running, it has a title sponsor in Monster Energy. There are a lot of positives not only financially, but also in having such a significant association with that type of brand, aren’t there?

Yeah, I think the most exciting thing for us with Monster Energy coming on-board is that we’re their first sort of main event, so not only are they coming on which is great for us, but it’s really exciting for them. They’ve got 150 staff or associates coming to the event per day from Monster Energy and Coca-Cola, which is huge, because you know, it’s opening their eyes and obviously Coca-Cola to a new style of event and sport, for a lot of those people they’ve never seen. We’re only going to see the benefit of that in years to come when they understand the sport and get excited by it. That’s the biggest thing for us, not just the financial benefit of bringing in new partners, but then all their marketing and leveraging their association with the event, broadening the appeal and awareness of the AUS-X Open, supercross and our event to a much larger audience. I think the biggest thing we’ve worked on this year and can continue to work on, is using everyone’s data-bases, using their marketing and social media platforms to broaden the awareness and use really credible promotions for those partners to leverage those associations. We’re really excited about that, there’s not one partner that doesn’t have a really cool association or really cool promotion – or both – associated with the event. That broadens the amount of people seeing it and broadens the amount of people coming to the event and experiencing it for the first time, which is only going to lead to more growth and future attendance incline.

There are a mixture of corporate, more mainstream partners, plus a number of sponsors from within the industry involved. Is it important to have that balance?

Definitely. I think the best thing that we’ve seen and that we’re proud of is continued partnerships. And you know, partners that have been on-board from the start and are still with us now, seeing the event as a great platform for them and a great opportunity to leverage their association with the sport and our event. We feel like each year we do better as a team or partnership, so the likes of Dunlop have been there since the start, same as Unit, Thor coming on board year on year, and Monster Energy have been there since the start. Shannons Insurance were InsureMyRide prior in 2015, but now they’re Shannons Insurance in 2016 and 2017. Those sort of brands extending their association with us has been really exciting and Yamaha have been there since the start, now with Husqvarna and KTM. They’ve been integral to some of the new initiatives, like the KTM Junior Supercross Challenge, even bringing over Dean Wilson and Jason Anderson, Husqvarna have been hugely helpful with some of those elements, whether it’s bikes and preparation, or just assisting with those guys so that they can feel comfortable being here to race, and being looked after. That’s been something we’ve been really proud of. Ladbrokes came on last year and they set betting markets for the first time ever – they were overwhelmed with the amount of interest they had. Some people are obviously opposed to gambling and it’s got its own sensitivities, but it’s important for us that we have these mainstream brands involved, because if we didn’t have them, we couldn’t do this event – there’s no doubt. Our event costs over $2.5-million, if we didn’t have commercial support, we wouldn’t be able to run this event at all. We’re very proud of those partnerships and we’re really proud in the way which we work with them and the way they work with us. It’s fun, it’s a really good time together.

And one thing that is extremely visible is that aside from the branding, you activate and leverage a lot of these partnerships in relation to aspects of the event and also their services. I’d imagine the corporate experience-type opportunities must be pretty immense as well?

For sure and I think our biggest barrier is you know, ‘oh, it’s just a dirt bike event’. Some people – we have to face reality – have had some experiences of dirt bike events where it’s wet, muddy and dirty, or it’s not really appropriate for their wives, mothers or kids to come along. I think by putting it in a multi-million dollar facility, producing a fantastic world-class venue to host this event where you can come in and have as good a corporate experience as you would going to Rod Laver Arena for the Australian Open tennis, it’s really important because it broadens the commercial interest and broadens the corporates and diversity of families, friends and associates that are willing to come along. Obviously they have a great time, go home happy and come back next year and it all keeps growing.

Image: AUS-X Open.

How big of a role does social media play these days, when it comes to promoting the event and marketing to the enthusiasts of the sport? You guys are the absolute masters of it when it comes to supercross in Australia and even internationally in terms of producing engaging content.

It’s huge – it’s everything for us. I think more and more we’re learning that its importance is stronger and stronger for each year. We have the highest digital interaction and engagement of any sport in Australia and we really pride ourselves on that. We feel that’s not only our team producing fantastic content and our focus being on content and social media, but also the appeal of the content itself and the riders – what they’re capable of doing and how cool the sport is, whether it’s racing or freestyle motocross. It’s something that we really enjoy broadcasting to everyone and we love seeing the engagement, so we’re proud of the sport and stoked to get out there. For us, I think if weren’t doing that properly, we don’t think we would be selling enough tickets to make it happen. It’s been something that’s really important for us, because not many people are aware of the scale of the event and the type of entertainment that’s there – until you see it and feel it yourself, you don’t really quite understand it. We found getting it out there on social media is probably the best way of appealing to new audiences, so they can sort of see that ‘oh, that looks like an impressive event, it looks like a bit of fun, maybe I’ll go check it out’.

A million dollars is up for grabs this weekend, but for the fans rather than the guys on-track, which is huge! How’s that been received and do you believe that the entire amount or a portion of it could realistically be won?

Yeah, definitely. We’re really excited and pumped to see everyone engage with it. We feel definitely for the Sunday, the opportunity to see how everything unfolds on the Saturday to select your riders before qualifying begins on Sunday is an amazing opportunity of winning $500,000. But also, there’s not an event offering a million dollars to ticket holders who are going for the weekend – they’re there anyway, all you have to do is take five minutes out of your time and select 12 riders you think will finish the final on each day if you’re going Saturday and Sunday to have the opportunity to win a million dollars. I don’t see why you wouldn’t be pumped if you’re going anyway, or if you’re going Saturday or Sunday, it just adds another element to the whole event really. It makes it more exciting and allows the fans to understand more about the riders, hopefully they maybe researching them or seeing how they’ve gone in the Australian championship leading up to the event or how they’ve gone overseas and they get to know the riders better. It’s a big part of why we did it, we want people engaging with the riders and the sport of supercross. We certainly hope it goes off, we would love to see a winner or multiple winners celebrating because they’ve won 500-grand or a million dollars. It’s something Adam and I would be super-excited to see, and yeah, it’s something that hasn’t really been done before and something we realise that we need to keep doing these initiatives to broaden the appeal of the event. We’re really excited about how it’s going to go this weekend.

Well thanks a lot, as always, for your time and we definitely look forward to what I’m sure will be a mega event once again!

Yeah, awesome man. We’re as pumped as everyone else and we really do feel like this year is going to be the biggest and best year yet. We’re really excited about the future as well.