Motocross Illustrated has a great feature they run every issue, the “Earnings Leaders”, a list of the top purse winners to date. This list shows who won how much over the course of the season, and it only counts prize money and points-fund money; sponsor payout, salaries and bonuses are not included. And what's striking about this list is, you guessed it, the fact that it truly represents a paltry sum of money.
Now don't get me wrong; if someone handed me $10 grand, I'd gratefully accept it and consider myself lucky. But when you consider the effort Grant Langston expended to win his regional 250F supercross championship, then his year-end prize money total of only $17,420 seems more than pitiful.
Seriously, a championship nets less than $20K? What year is this again?
Let's move to the top of the leader board, where we're not surprised to find James Stewart. Stew clocked $438,300... and more than a third of this was earned at just one race, the U.S. Open. Stewart's string of supercross victories and his World SX title made up the difference.
Same with the number two earner, Ricky Carmichael. Even though RC took home the 450F Outdoor crown, there's no doubt that his Supercross championship brought him the bulk of the dollars.
Here are a few things that bug me about this money index:
Only four guys in this entire country, in what is arguably the greatest motocross nation on earth and in the the richest and longest motocross/supercross series on the planet, were able to win more than $100,000 in prize money. The guy in fifth place on the leader board, Josh Grant, only made $93K.
It gets worse: only two racers were in the $90s, just one in the $80s, four made between $60 and $70... and NO ONE made $50K.
Four racers were in the $40s; five in the $30s (and one of them was 250F National Champion Ryan Villapoto!); EIGHT in the $20s; and seven racers made less than $20K, including the King of Supercross himself, Jeremy McGrath, who only took home $18,850 (which really isn't too bad considering the limited number of races he competed in... all supercrosses, of course).
The total amount prize money handed out to the top 35 Earnings Leaders comes to about $2.35 million. I'm not even going to begin to compare that figure to any other sport; I'll let you do that yourself.
So what's the verdict? That our sport is too stingy and cheap? That purses must be raised, or our sport will never be taken seriously? That our riders are under compensated for efforts they exert and the risks they take? Well, yeah. But there's a problem with those thoughts, and it mostly comes from the way our sport was formed and the REASON the whole thing got started in the first place.
Motocross was never meant to be a big money sport like the popular professional sports that dominate the nations airwaves and newspapers. Professional motocross in this country was developed as a means to sell motorcycles to enthusiasts, bottom line. And Supercross was developed to sell stadium seat tickets to casual fans. The men behind these endeavors never intended for racers to become millionaires; they wanted to get that money for themselves! The Japanese manufacturers didn't build big racing teams in this country so that fast kids could live lavish factory-supported lifestyles; they just wanted to get mini-dads to buy more bikes!
The truth of the matter is, while I'm bitching about the amount of prize money paid in 2006, I should really be thankful that these heroes were able to make as much as they did... because it was never in the play book for purses and earnings to be this high. For that, we have to thank the unsung visionaries who toiled in the background and made it happen. It's a long way from perfect, that's for sure, but it's a lot better than nothing, and it could be a whole lot worse. Here's hoping, though, that the far-sighted will continue to do what it takes to make sure our riders get paid what they're worth.