Motorcycling State of the Nation

Look at the past, peer into the future of motorcycling.

Look at the past, peer into the future of motorcycling
Look at the past, peer into the future of motorcycling.©Motorcyclist

For more than a decade, it was all fun times and rocketing growth in the riding community. Total sales of motorcycles and ATVs steadily ramped up to a peak of more than 2 million units in 2005 and 2006. With great machines up for grabs thanks to easy financing, entire families taking to the hills for weekend off-road adventures, and riders seizing the opportunity to finally climb aboard the bike of their dreams, it seemed that at long last riding had really entered the mainstream as a certified, fun-for-all, great American pastime.

Then things took a dump. Make that a huge, steaming dump. Although the US National Bureau of Economic Research claims the Great Recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, an entirely different story played out in the motorcycle business. During calendar year 2009, US motorcycle sales hurtled off a cliff, plummeting 40.7 percent compared to the prior year. In 2010, sales fell another 14.5 percent, dropping year-end figures to less than half of what they had been only four years before. Miserable, depressing times created a huge fallout throughout the industry for a long, painful while.

Now, a half-decade later, we’re finally seeing daylight again. After basically holding steady for three years, total motorcycle sales show growth for 2014 and 2015—modest, single-digit increases, but it’s growth all the same. That’s cause for hope and good cheer, and that’s not just whistling in the dark; visit your local motorcycle dealer and check out the huge array of new and super-cool bikes gracing the showroom floor. If you’re hunting for the bike that’s the perfect match for you, there are more choices and better options than ever before.

So where are we headed as a sport and an industry? What does the future hold for manufacturers, riders, and all the other motorcycling-related sectors? Can we build sales back to the levels we all once enjoyed? Who are the riders of tomorrow? To try to answer these questions, the first stop we made was at the Motorcycle Industry Council, a nonprofit association dedicated to supporting motorcyclists and the industry as a whole. MIC president and CEO Tim Buche gave us his views on the current state of the motorcycling nation, and he offered up plenty of good news.

Graphing motorcycle sales by year reinforces the prominence of the global economic turndown in 2008. A slow recovery is in our future. (Motorcycle/scooter sales x1000.)
Graphing motorcycle sales by year reinforces the prominence of the global economic turndown in 2008. A slow recovery is in our future. (Motorcycle/scooter sales x1000.)©Motorcyclist

Responding to a Global Financial Crisis
"We were all overtaken by a global financial crisis," Buche said. "But I'm proud that no manufacturer tried to take advantage of the others. Everyone stayed conservative and did not get overly aggressive with imports. And now we're in a growing market once more.

"We're part of a global motorcycle marketplace, but the US market is still the most highly desired in the world," Buche continued. "The US establishes manufacturing priorities, and that traditionally favors bikes with large displacement and big horsepower. But we've also seen a rise in models that bring strong value to buyers starting with 250cc and 300cc bikes, up through 500cc and 700cc models, and even bikes like Yamaha's FJ-09. These are great overall packages, and they raise the question of how much bike is really necessary to have a good time out on the open road. If the goal is to get newcomers to buy bikes, ride them, enjoy the experience, and share their stories with their friends, then this is a great way to do just that."

Young woman riding a motorcycle.
Younger riders, and especially women, are on the radar of every manufacturer as our hope for the future.©Motorcyclist

Targeting a New Generation of Riders
Lee Edmunds, manager of motorcycle marketing communications at American Honda, echoed that thought, explaining that the value theme plays a key role in Honda's overall marketing plan these days. "Over the past three to five years, Honda has made a big push to expand our lineup with a broad range of models that are affordable and fun," Edmunds said. "We're targeting a new generation of riders, with plans to introduce them to riding and help them grow through the market. They might start with the Grom or CBR/CB300 then step up to our family of 500s, 650s, and 700s.

“These newer machines reach a broad mix of riders, but they’ve proven especially popular with millennials/Gen-Y riders,” Edmunds continued. “We’re seeing about 40 percent to 50 percent of our sales of these bikes coming from that group. Millennials are typically harder to motivate by traditional sales methods. There are so many interests that are vying for their attention that it is tough to be relevant. They care less about the specifications of a product and more about the experience that it can provide.

“Luckily for us, motorcycles provide an awesome experience and we can spark their interests, inspire them, and sell them a dream,” Edmunds went on to say. “They want fun, adventure, freedom, and a way to connect with their peers. In that regard they are buying motorcycles for exactly the same reason their parents did. Getting the word out in a meaningful way becomes the challenge.”

Age defines interest, so says the graph. From left, Gen Y, Gen X, boomers, mature, and total. Cruisers continue to dominate.
Age defines interest, so says the graph. From left, Gen Y, Gen X, boomers, mature, and total. Cruisers continue to dominate.©Motorcyclist

Growing the Right Way
Harley-Davidson, number one in market share in the 601cc-plus segment in the US for 2015, worked for the past six years or so to broaden its market reach with the Street 750 and Street 500 series. Preparation began with Harley-Davidson reps talking with more than 3,000 customers, riders, and dealers in more than 10 countries during 100 focus groups and 1,600 one-on-one interviews to understand what riders were looking for in a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. As a result, these new, smaller-displacement models focus on urban environments calling for a more agile package, one that's also extremely affordable and therefore a natural fit for attracting new, younger buyers—in the US and around the world.

Harley-Davidson media relations manager Jennifer Hoyer told us, “The market for the new Street 750 and Street 500 already exists. Today, Harley-Davidson sells its motorcycles in more than 85 countries around the world. More than half our dealers are outside the US and about one-third of all new Harley-Davidson motorcycle sales are through international dealers. And so our growth is getting deeper and broader at the same time around the world. We are not seeking radical artificial growth. We want to make sure the experiences, the relationships with dealers, and the rallies all grow in the right way.”

Vehicles like the Can-Am Spyder and the Polaris Slingshot work to keep riders in the powersports 
mix and even tempt “never beens.”
Vehicles like the Can-Am Spyder and the Polaris Slingshot work to keep riders in the powersports 
mix and even tempt “never beens.”©Motorcyclist

New Tech
Building manageable, affordable motorcycles surely opens the door to new riders, but we also asked manufacturers about other technical features and advantages they've developed to bring more riders into the fold.

Kawasaki media relations supervisor Brad Puetz told us, "We've introduced new models that are more attractive to a wider range of riders. Recently we launched the Vulcan S with an ergo-fit concept. This is a great bike for the new rider because it helps them to quickly and easily customize the fit so they can feel more comfortable on the motorcycle. This is especially important for new riders who might feel intimidated when sitting on a bike on the showroom floor.

“Female riders are also a growing demographic, and this is a great feature to help match their physical dimensions,” Puetz continued. “It’s also important that we speak more to this audience directly, so we have incorporated more females into our advertising materials and messaging to reflect this change, and we look at their feedback when designing new motorcycles. Also, we’re seeing more specialization of models and micro categories. There truly is a motorcycle for each and every type of rider depending on the riding you are looking to do.”

Edmunds points to Honda’s development of the dual-clutch transmission, or DCT, which gives motorcycle riders the option of twist-and-go simplicity. “DCT allows much easier accessibility to many of our motorcycles for those who are brand new to riding,” Edmunds said. “When you consider that the overwhelming majority of automobiles and light trucks sold in the USA come equipped with automatic transmissions, a DCT option just makes sense. And that’s borne out by our sales figures. Look at Hondas offered in a DCT version and a manual version, and 46 percent have been sold with DCT. But DCT is not just for beginners. Our new Africa Twin is a larger, flagship model built for experienced enthusiasts, and it can be had with a performance-oriented DCT tuned for high-level off-road function.”

In addition, Hoyer of Harley-Davidson pointed out that while H-D’s LiveWire battery-powered motorcycle is not yet on the market, Harley’s big push behind this prototype has generated huge amounts of media coverage and a great deal of interest from motorcyclists and non-riders alike. This push intentionally targets a new generation of younger riders that Harley hopes to bring into the fold in the coming years. Equally important, this move clearly demonstrates that even with a history of motorcycle production that spans more than 100 years, Harley-Davidson is actively working to reinvent itself in a number of ways in order to meet future demands.

Thinking Outside the Box
Is there another way to increase the number of riders in our sport? Marc Lacroix, director of global product management at BRP and the guiding hand behind its series of three-wheeled bikes, certainly thinks so. "Last year we produced our 100,000th Can-Am Spyder, a big milestone for BRP and our sport," Lacroix said. "Consider the fact that we're bringing new riders into the sport, not robbing other brands, and it's a very significant achievement. We want everyone to enjoy the exhilaration and freedom of the open road, and the Spyder offers riders all of the same emotional rewards, through a different alternative.

“Spyder buyers generally fall into three categories: former motorcyclists returning to riding; existing motorcyclists prolonging their riding career; and entry-level open-air enthusiasts,” Lacroix explained. “We’re seeing a substantial number of Gen-Y riders in this last category, riders who are more open and not brand focused or concerned about what a ride ‘should look like’ and instead just want to get out on the road.

“With some of our models we’re seeing as many as 35 percent of purchasers who are brand new to riding; 30 to 35 percent female purchasers; and many females who are transitioning from the back seat to the rider’s seat,” he continued. “We hear from customers who ride their Spyders in groups along with motorcycles as they share the adventure, camaraderie, and freedom of riding and enjoy their connections and connectivity through virtual sharing on Facebook and more. They’re excited about riding, and our Spyder owners are serving as brand ambassadors, going out and finding new riders to join in on the experience.”

Young, cool, willing to break out of categories: This describes the target customer for most manufacturers today.
Young, cool, willing to break out of categories: This describes the target customer for most manufacturers today.©Motorcyclist

Female Ridership Grows to Record Numbers
The MIC's most recent Motorcycle Owner Survey revealed that female motorcycle ownership is at an all-time high. Women account for 14 percent of all US motorcycle owners, well up from the 8 percent reported in 1998. And that's certainly a good thing.

“Women continue to embrace motorcycling like never before,” said Sarah Schilke, national marketing manager of BMW Motorrad USA and chair of PowerLily, a group consisting of female motorcycle industry professionals. “Of the 9.2 million owners, more of them are women than we’ve ever recorded. In fact, the number of female owners better than doubled from 2003 to 2014. And, among the more than 30 million Americans who swung a leg over a motorcycle and rode at least one time in 2014, a quarter of these riders were women.”

Among younger generations of owners, the percentage of women is even higher. Slightly more than 17 percent of Gen-X owners and 17.6 percent of Gen-Y owners are women. Among boomer owners, women make up 9 percent.

The MIC Owner Survey also revealed the types of bikes women prefer. Cruisers are the choice of 34 percent of female riders. Scooters rank a close second at 33 percent, followed by sportbikes at 10 percent. In the survey of some 48,000 American households, women were also asked to share their top three reasons for riding motorcycles. They answered “fun and recreation,” followed by “sense of freedom” and “enjoy outdoors/nature.” When it comes to purchasing a motorcycle, women rate “fuel economy” and “test rides” as the most important decision-making factors.

The study revealed that female riders are safety-conscious. While 60 percent of women took a motorcycle-safety course, only 42 percent of men had any formal training. In some state motorcycle-safety training programs, women make up 30 percent of the student population.

Other key survey results:

  • The median age for female motorcyclists is 39 versus 48 for males
  • More than 49 percent of women motorcyclists perform their own maintenance or have a friend or relative do it, instead of taking their bikes to a shop
  • New bikes are preferred over used by 57 percent of female riders
  • 49 percent of female motorcyclists are married
  • 47 percent of female motorcyclists have a college or post-graduate degree
Time’s up, old guy. While boomers will continue to be a big part of the marketplace, they’re already starting to “age out” while the Gen-Y riders are just getting started.
Time’s up, old guy. While boomers will continue to be a big part of the marketplace, they’re already starting to “age out” while the Gen-Y riders are just getting started.©Motorcyclist

Increasing the Market
Buche pointed to these stats and other MIC data as proof that the motorcycle industry is back on the rise once more. "More than ever, people in the US hold a positive attitude toward motorcycles: 94 percent positive, versus 89 percent back in 1998. That's a great start toward increasing the market."

Furthermore, MIC studies show that in 2014, nearly 7 percent of households in America own one or more motorcycles, and that figure is growing. That’s about 10.5 million bikes spread through 8.5 million homes, accounting for about 9.2 million unique owners. The really good news is that motorcyclists often share their passion for riding, resulting in about 30.7 million people who swung a leg over a bike and went out for a ride. This means there are 21.7 million prospective new buyers who, with some guidance and encouragement, could join our ranks.

Buche said, “The best way to get more riders into the sport is to have current owners share their rides with a friend. We understand fully that the huge majority of these people will respond with something like, ‘God, that was fun!’ after their first taste of riding. Plainly stated, riders sell the sport best, thanks to their love of motorcycling. This is the kind of zealous, grass-roots, one-on-one effort that will bring new riders on board. Every existing rider holds a wealth of information; share that knowledge with others along with the excitement you feel when you’re out for a ride. In all likelihood you had a friend or relative who first introduced you to riding, so return the favor and pay it forward with someone else you know.”

Moreover, Buche stressed the importance of having new riders start off in the right direction by wearing proper safety gear and taking a rider-education course such as the RiderCourses offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Similarly, Hoyer proudly pointed to Harley-Davidson's Riding Academy, an in-house program designed to teach and mentor new riders and help grow the sport of motorcycling. H-D plans to increase new Riding Academy US dealer points by 18 percent en route to its goal to grow the number of graduates to 65,000 in 2016, a 35 percent increase from 2015. Also, Harley-Davidson has recently extended its highly successful Learn to Ride for Free program to current and former members of the US military and first responders through all of 2016.

With this bare snapshot of what’s happening in the world of motorcycling, we can see that the future looks bright—or at least brighter than it’s looked in quite a while. Sales are growing. Manufacturers have plans that are working, and they’re investing money, brainpower, and cutting-edge technology into more new models than ever before. Indeed, there truly is a motorcycle for each and every type of rider. And that alone is cause for celebration.