London messengers to bid for CMWC 2009?
30.06.07 by Buffalo Bill
Sitting in the gutter in Soho last night, I heard that certain London messengers are seriously considering bidding to bring the Cycle Messenger World Championships back to London in 2 years time. Having been intimately involved in the first and second Messenger Championships held in London, CMWC ’94 and 2003 ECMC, this news left me with mixed feelings.
A Messenger Championships is a completely different organisational undertaking than an Alleycat, or even a Pre-event. New York City’s messengers organised what is widely agreed to be the best pre-event for a CMWC, Metropoloco, in 2000. They went on to organise the biggest and probably best ever Alleycat, Warriors. 3 years later, they brought the CMWC to NYC, ending a wait of 9 years. I know that, despite possibly being the most prestigious CMWC ever, several messengers were disappointed by the NYC CMWC. In part, the Messenguerilla movement was started in response to what was felt to be the over-commercialisation of the NYC CMWC.
I wasn’t in NYC for the CMWC, so I can’t really comment on whether or not the NYBMA sold their souls for rock’n‘roll. But I would hesitate to criticise any Messenger Championships organiser for accepting money in return for endorsements. The fact of the matter is that a Messenger Championships costs a lot of money, far more than any other type of messenger event.
And it’s also true that most Messenger Championship organisers have ended up out of pocket. At least one finished up legally bankrupt (but went on to organise many other fantastic messenger events, including another Championship). So I don’t believe that, whatever the faults of CMWC NYC, the organisers made any kind of personal financial gain from the event.
Losing money in 1994
In 1994, the Moving Target Productions crew spent £34 000 on the CMWC. The company that ran the bar (not MTP, thankfully!) lost nearly £6 000. Overall, the event lost £4 000. We tried every avenue that we could think of to raise money, approaching Coca Cola and Virgin Atlantic Airways amongst others. In all honesty, I am not sure that we would not have taken money off Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, such was our concern to raise the money we needed to make the event happen.
In the end, the only sponsors we got were the Bike Mag (£2 000), Cook Bros Racing (£1000) and around £5 000 from various London courier companies (Creative Couriers, Cyclone Couriers, Security Despatch, Moving Parcel Company in descending order of contributions). Oh, and I should mention that the often criticised Copenhagen courier company, De Gronne Bude, saved our bacon by sending £1 500 in entrance fees early. Without this money, we would not have been able to pay the deposit on the site, and the event would not have happened. Achim Beier of Messenger, Berlin, was also very supportive to us, and got the Germans to send their entry fees early as well.
In retrospect, I am glad that we received almost no sponsorship money from outside the cycling and messenger world. The event had a real grass-roots feel, which came from thousands of hours of volunteer labour. Would we have been able to mobilise that labour had there been PR people running around with big laminated passes telling people what to do? I doubt it.
Why do people do so much for so little?
After Raphapaluza, I became more convinced that, whereas people will do anything for their friends, an event that they believe in and a free t-shirt, they will not feel the same way if they think that someone else is profitting from their hard work. Therese was able to get many people to work on Raphapaluza for next to nothing, because she is the sort of person that enthuses people and inspires their loyalty, but there were significant noises from London messengers that Rapha had ‘stolen’ ‘our’ event.
This was paradoxical. ‘We’ would never have been able to afford Shoreditch Town Hall. Rapha’s money (and Therese’s vision – I would never have dared to imagine Rollapaluza at such a prestigious venue) enabled Rollapaluza to move on to the next level, bringing the joys of rock’n‘roller racing to the masses. In my view, getting more people into bicycle events is a major contribution to global peace and understanding. I would much rather see people getting into cycle sport, especially participatory cycle sport like Rollapaluza, where you can get actually get up there and do it yourself, than sitting on the couch in front of Formula W*nker or the Premiersh*t.
But some people felt that Rapha, whose name was plastered all over the event (rightly: they put up the money, and would have been responsible for any losses incurred), were ripping ‘us’ off. This was a refrain familiar to me from the early messenger championships.
Timbuk2: the perfect messenger event sponsor?
Timbuk2, the messenger bag manufacturer, spent a huge chunk of change on Messenger Championships, starting in 95 when Brennan Mulligan, the CEO of T2, drove across country from SF with Markus Cook and other messengers to Toronto, through 96, 97 and 98 CMWCs, and including ECMCs as well. In total, T2 probably spent something in the order of 50 000 US $ in cash, perhaps even as much as 100 000, and contributed a vast number of free bags. When I was working at T2 in 97/98, I personally gave away hundreds of T2 bags to messengers.
But was the messenger community grateful? Was it f***! There were constant complaints that T2 were taking over the Messenger Champs, that they were doing too much, or not enough, getting something for almost nothing, or not doing what they said they would or doing something they said they wouldn’t and in any case their bags weren’t ‘real’ messenger bags, all the hip couriers were using Pac, Cocotte, Zo which were the real thing, Timbuk2 bags were lame, faux, for rich commuters with more money than sense, T2 were cashing in on the ‘cool’ messenger image, they were raping the messenger community.
And so on and so forth.
For the sake of balance, I should point out that most of the complaints came from a vocal, but nonetheless small, minority. Most participants were happy with T2’s contributions. Even if some would even be slagging Brennan in between swigs from beer that he had paid for, most were more than delighted to accept whatever swag was put in front of them.
Did Timbuk2 try and take over the Messenger Championships?
This was not true as far as I remember – I wasn’t that involved in SF 96, but in 97 and 98 I acted for T2 in negotiations with the organsiers. All Brennan really wanted was their logo on all the event literature. Beyond that, he didn’t really have any clear idea of what he wanted.
T2 didn’t even really get it together to have banners on the course at either event, or podium girls in little T2 outfits or anything resembling a hard-sell. Of course, I am sure that Brennan would have loved to have at least some of those things, but he really wasn’t that focussed on them. He much more into those damn T2 bottle openers that wouldn’t even open a letter properly.
Did Timbuk2 get more from the Messenger Champs than they put in?
From a strictly business point of view, Brennan would have been better off spending the money on adverts in the cycling and outdoor specialist press. In terms of informing what was then a pretty ignorant consuming public about their product, these would have been more likely to sell more of their bags.
But spending money on ads isn’t nearly as much fun as getting involved in a Messenger Championships, and Brennan loved being involved, even if he was seen as the big bad sponsor, constantly scheming to ‘take over the event’ and ‘get loads of publicity for next to nothing’. In many ways, T2 was the perfect sponsor for the early Mess Champs. T2 and Brennan were way too chaotic to ‘take advantage of’ or ‘rip off’ the messenger community, in any systematic manner.
Brennan liked to think of himself as the sugar-daddy of the messenger community and he kept writing the cheques. But was he getting satisfaction? Not the kind he could earn interest on deposit at his local financial institution, that’s for sure.
Timbuk2 and Puma
If we compare T2 with the NYC principal sponsor, Puma, we can see how lucky the early Mess Champs were by comparison. Ok, Brennan would say one thing in a bar with a load of messengers, and then back-track in the cold light of day (which led to many an hour spent getting my ear bent by this, that or the other aggrieved messenger organiser – get it in writing!), but at least this flakiness left these organisers with a freer hand than they might have otherwise have had, if Brennan had been able or willing to exercise more control over how the T2 dollars were utitilised.
And here’s something else to consider: when T2 was sponsoring messenger events, they were making all their bags, pads, purses and holders in San Francisco, in possibly the best working environment in the textile industry. Of all of the accusations that one could make of T2 back then, the one that would never ever stick was that they treated their workers poorly. Just about anyone, even Erik Zo, could walk into their factory and see exactly by whom, how and where T2 bags were made. This transparency was rare, and commendable, in the garment/textile industry.
T2 also didn’t have a corporate Hummer!
Of course, Timbuk2 is a completely different animal now. Brennan Mulligan and Rob Honeycutt left T2 years ago, and their commitment to best practice in their production line is likewise long gone. Significant parts of T2 production is now in anonymous contract factories, where routine monitoring of working conditions is not possible.
The danger of endorsements: blowback.
By contrast with T2 back then, there are very credible accusations of unethical working practices that are made of Puma’s manufacturers. These accusations taint any event that endorses Puma products in return for sponsorship cash. Likewise, Rapha and Rollapaluza. In Rapha’s defense, I know that they try and get as much stuff as they can made in the UK or the EU as they can. They are also sensitive to the issue of worker’s rights, even if they don’t prioritise them in the way that T2 did. Perhaps there is something to be said for engaging sponsors in a debate about workers rights and other corporate responsibilty issues. But can a bunch of messengers have an impact on a global corporation like Puma? Probably not as much as on Rapha, with whose bosses I have had several conversations on these topics.
So what am I trying to say here?
I am not sure. I guess that although we in London fell into the grass-roots messenger event thing by accident, rather than design, in 94, I know that it made the event better and stronger. ‘Organised by messengers, for messengers’. Add ‘and paid for by messengers’. I suppose that I am trying to say that it’s our event, your event, I should say, and that it’s important to think over how much money it will cost to mount a third Messenger Championships in London, and where that money will come from.
The biggest expense is always the venue that is used for the main event. Street closures cost a fortune. In 94 and 2003, we were lucky, and were able to hire a venue for the whole weekend that was off public roads. Neither of those venues, (Royal Victoria Dock and Eastway Cycle Circuit) will be available to an organising committee in 2009. So an alternative will need to be found, and costed before any bid should be considered. Although saying that, it’s worth remembering that I never thought either 94 or 2003 Messenger Champs should have been in London in the first place. It had been up to me, both CMWC 94 and 2003 ECMC would have been anywhere but here! So be cautious about committing yourselves, but remember that most obstacles can be overcome, including the opposition of older and ‘wiser’ counsels!
I would like to finish by adding that I respect the work of the New York Bicycle Messenger Association very much indeed, and Squid’s contribution in particular. He, in conjunction with his wife Amy, was rightly honoured with the Markus Cook Award last year. This essay on Messenger Champs and sponsors is in no way meant as a criticism of what the NYBMA had to do get their event to the finishing line. Life is full of compromises, and sometimes you have to accept the little evil for the bigger good.