x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

To attract younger bikers, Harley-Davidson turns to UFC

Ultimate Fighting Championship is playing a part in the recession-battered motorcycle maker's bid to appeal to a younger generation.

As if I needed further reminding that I'm old and hopelessly out of step with modern sensibilities, I attended UFC 129 in Toronto, Canada, a few weeks ago. My ears were pounded by loud, what-I'm-assuming-was-heavy metal music, I was cramped and sweaty in a stadium best reserved for baseball and, more importantly, I was bored to tears by the fights. Boxing, as has been chronicled ad nauseam in recent years, is on the wane and mixed martial arts (MMA) ascendant. Ironic then that the only fight that provided sustained excitement was the featherweight title match between Brazilian champion Jose Aldo and Ontario, Canada's truly heroic Mark Hominick; it was more exciting than the rest of the snooze-fests simply because it better emulated a boxing match. The main event - between the UFC's most famous athlete, a Quebecker named Georges St Pierre, and Jake Shields, of the US - only served to prove that neither combatant could punch their way out of a wet paper bag.

But it matters not one iota that it wasn't my cup o' tea. For the 55,000 screaming MMA fans - the biggest crowd in UFC history - that filled Toronto's Rogers Stadium to the rafters, it was pure, unadulterated delirium. And even if their enthusiasm was fuelled by just a tad too much Red Bull, it was genuine; what a spectacle UFC 129 turned out to be.

Anyone deriding the UFC as mindless violence is only right on one count. There is absolutely nothing at all mindless about the UFC marketing machine, and its president, Dana White, may well be a genius. Whether it's the fast-paced timing between the numerous bouts that never lets the adrenaline of the attention-deficited generation dwindle or the way that all of the athletes, no matter how rich or famous, acquiesce to each and every fan's request for a hug/picture/autograph, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is a well-oiled marketing machine that has completely enthralled the 18 to 34-year-old demographic.

Which is exactly why Harley-Davidson is a title sponsor of the championship (full disclosure here, Harley took me to the event, but considering what I wrote above, one could hardly consider it a bribe). Harley, like virtually every other motorcycle manufacturer, is facing one huge, looming crisis; the ageing of its core clientele. Like every other market they touch, Boomers dominate the motorcycle industry, especially for those expensive road kings that generate so much profit for corporate coffers.

The problem is that, depending on whose study you're attributing, the average age for a North American motorcyclist is between 40 and 50 years old. The American Motorcycle Association, for instance, says the average age of its members is 48, while the American Motorcycle Industry Council's most recent survey, in 2008, had the average age at 43 years old, up five years from 1998 and a whopping 19 years older than the average biker was in the 1980s. JD Power and Harley-Davidson peg the average age for an American motorcyclist at 49. Even in Europe, traditionally more bike mad than North America, motorcycling is no longer a young man's sport.

Essentially, the industry has failed to attract new customers and has relied almost entirely on the same - albeit more aged - clientele for the past quarter of a century. Perhaps even more troubling is that we ageing motorcyclists seem particularly prone to injury, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, recently found a 145 per cent increase in fatalities among motorcyclists age 65 and over. Anyway you cut it, we're an ageing bunch, perilously close to trading in our bikes for RVs, and that has motorcycle manufacturers scrambling for a new, and younger, clientele.

Hence, Harley-Davidson's association with UFC. As loud and testosterone-fuelled as the audience may have been, they are definitely Milwaukee's new target market. Every time Harley was announced as a title sponsor, it was cheered. The whole time the cameras were looking down on the combatants in the octagon, there again was the Harley-Davidson logo. And although Harley officials would never admit it out loud, I'm sure that both MMA and Milwaukee enjoying reputations as hardcore rebels only adds to the mating.

It's all part of a plan, say company officials, to lure the young and freewheeling. Indeed, after a few misfires (does anyone remember the Buell Blast? More importantly, does anyone want to?), the motorcycle company has been quite effective in attracting a younger audience. New products such as the Iron 883, Cross Bones and the 48 are mixing the right proportions of retro sentimentality with modernistic aggressiveness and then selling them at prices North America's young (that should be read poor) can afford.

It seems to be working. Despite its image as catering to balding dentists and corporate CEOs, Harley-Davidson claims it is also No 1 in the all-important 18 to 34-year-old demographic in the over-650cc category. According to Paul James, Harley USA's communications manager, it's all part of a Facebook and UFC-led onslaught to woo Generation Y.

Perhaps the most novel programme, however, is Harley's new "Jumpstart" demonstration. Realising that both its image and its motorcycles can be intimidating to neophytes, the company has set up demonstration booths in selected dealerships - including in Dubai, as detailed in last week's Motoring - that sees a working motorcycle strapped down in a stationary frame allowing customers to start the engine, run through the gears and gun the throttle (for enthusiasts, imagine a "dyno" without the horsepower measurement) until their heart's content.

Personally, I don't care what encourages the young to ride. If social media and Ultimate Fighting Championships convince youngsters that swinging a leg over a motorcycle is a good thing, then personal antipathies be damned. The young, after all, are the future of motorcycling. And, it seems, boxing-loving, magazine-reading old fogies like Yours Truly are its past.