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As Sturgis attendance and revenue stagnates, rally planners look to attract a younger audience

Since a high water mark of attendance in 2015, attendance at the rally, a key driver of summer tourism in South Dakota, has stagnated around a half-million total attendees. Sturgis's city manager says attracting more first-time attendees is a major focus of the city's rally and events department.

Motorcycles and visitors packed Main Street in Sturgis for the 75th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally three years ago when 739,000 people attended. Forum News Service file photo
Motorcycles and visitors packed Main Street in Sturgis for the 75th Sturgis Motorcycle in 2015 when 739,000 people attended.
Forum News Service file
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STURGIS, S.D. — With the dust settled on the 2022 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the final tallies of total traffic and vendor tax revenue tell a story of relative stagnation in the rally’s growth since the climactic 75th anniversary.

The total attendance numbers during the 10 rally days came out to 497,835, a 5.5% decrease from 2021 but relatively in line with the average attendance since 2016, the year after the 75th anniversary drew a record crowd of nearly 750,000 people.

One small business owner in the Black Hills area partially blamed the stagnation in attendance on an aging crowd.

“For the last several years it’s kind of been winding down. I've been around for 23 years, so I've seen when it was low, and then there was the 75th anniversary, which was unbelievable,” Nancy Gellerman, the owner of Sage Creek Grille in Custer, told Forum News Service. “And now the crowd is just so much older. Which, after so many years, I guess they get older. I saw somebody saying that the younger crowd was coming, but I didn't really see that.”

Attracting a younger crowd has been top of mind for the rally planners for the past several years, says Daniel Ainslie, the city manager in Sturgis. The city first purchased digital advertisements for the rally in 2017, and the investment in online promotion has increased from $100,000 in city and state digital spending that year to more than $200,000 in 2022.

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Ainslie says that, although he didn’t have exact numbers, the average age of attendees peaked in the high 50s during the 75th anniversary in 2015, but has since lowered into the 40s. One important area he pointed to is the focus on a wider range of musical acts, bringing Sturgis “among the largest music festivals” in the region, a draw he says can attract people who may not be passionate about bikes.

At the same time, he conceded there is only so much the rally can do.

“It’s still an older demographic. Motorcycle riders do tend to be older simply because it's an expensive hobby. You know, it can be hard for a 32-year-old to afford some of the lifestyle,” Ainslie said. “Though, with that being said after the 75th, we did a significant job to make sure that it was attracting people. We actually had more first-time attendees in the last three years than ever before.”

Whether or not attracting a younger crowd is in the cards, Ainslie pointed to the wide economic impact of the rally as reason enough to continue the tradition as long as possible. As of the end of August, the Department of Revenue estimated vendor tax collections at over $1.5 million, a 14% decrease from last year.

Ainslie says this widely-reported figure, drawn from the rally’s temporary vendors, only represents around “3 to 4%” of the total revenue generated from the rally, and says a number factoring in increased fuel consumption and demand for services over the rally’s nearly month-long footprint will be released in late October.

Even so, Gellerman is unconvinced that the rally tradeoffs are worth it.

“You're going along really strong with your tourism, and then the rally comes and they close the streets. It used to be that there were so many bikers that it didn't matter, but that's not the case anymore,” Gellerman said. “And so I think we lose a lot of tourism because of the focus on this motorcycle rally, rather than having a rally but still having other opportunities during it so families can come in during this peak time, too. The bikes are here all summer long, anyway.”

Ainslie told Forum News Service that a “significant number of changes” and new rally initiatives aiming to widen the event's appeal are set to be discussed at the post-rally summit scheduled for Oct. 25.

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MORE BY JASON HARWARD
On Nov. 8, South Dakotans rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized marijuana in the state among anyone 21 years and over. Now, the more than 100 businesses clamoring for a piece of this industry will have to attempt to sustain themselves on a few thousand medical patients.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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