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Watershed Now: Pro Motocross CEO Carrie Coombs-Russell reflects on the SMX World Championship

As Motocross is set to return with the conclusion of the Loretta Lynn Amateur Nationals break, riders and fans alike have a much clearer picture of how much the inaugural SuperMotocross World Championship (SMX) is reshaping the sport. The 2023 season is as much a watershed moment as any that have preceded it.

From attracting international riders to increased purses and expanded coverage, the collaboration between the Monster Energy Supercross and Pro Motocross series has done what it set out to do: redefine the sport in substantial ways and to secure its dynasty among major league sports franchises.

Both disciplines sat at the table to negotiate for the greater good of their shared riders, manufacturers, sponsors and fans. They knew that if the companies could learn to work together, they had a chance to grow their respective series in ways not seen in generations.

The amalgamation of Supercross and Motocross has been a long time coming and the 2023 season is the first concrete result onlookers have the chance to evaluate.

“This is a watershed moment for our sport,” Carrie Coombs-Russell, CEO of Pro Motocross told NBC Sports. “By combining our two series for television, it enabled this purse and why wouldn’t you want to participate in that? I hope they do.”

Combining the points and reworking the series seasons to create the SMX playoffs was mutually beneficial to both governing parties. The decision to commit to this massive change while also starting a new joint television deal was a bold one.

Series have put their differences aside and joined forces in the past. Consider when the NFL and AFL merged in the late 1960s or when CART and USAC fought for dominance in open wheel racing before finally deciding they were better together than alone.

The difference with dirt track motorcycle racing is the strength of the relationship between the two parties throughout their histories. They have always been friendly rivals.

Supercross and Motocross have been working towards each other mutual success for a while.

“There were two different TV crews,” Coombs said. “Supercross had their team and their package had a look and a feel for their programming. Then when Motocross came around our crew had a different look and feel. A lot of the staff was the same, but it was different. Now it’s consistent and we can continue the storylines from Supercross to Motocross. We’ve never been able to do that.”

The two camps blended their expertise around every aspect of the sport, from broadcast to scheduling, to graphics and marketing. Unification and a common thread have been the most important themes this season. The combined television package gave the broadcast crew the chance to continue stories from Supercross to Motocross knowing the fans were getting every possible chance to follow along.

Concessions had to be made on both sides, Motocross lost a round and the popular Monster Cup to make room for the playoffs.

SuperMotocross Power Rankings Tampa

Fresh Faces

One upside of the playoff system is the pull it’s creating for the outdoor season. Riders that for one reason or another were not originally scheduled to compete during the summer are borrowing bikes, spending money to travel cross country and compete in hopes of staying inside the top 20 - or better still, sneak up a position or two when they see a close competitor fall in the standings.

Injured riders are working hard to come back for the final few rounds to protect their playoff positions. In the past few days, Justin Barcia announced he would return to the Unadilla Nationals in an effort to protect his top-10 seeding in SMX points.

This didn’t happen before as riders focused on recovery without the extra incentive.

International riders are flocking to the series to try to win motos because they know if they win just one, they can race in the playoffs and have a shot at a share of the $10 million purse.

“The way that we have structured with points is if you get within the top 20 you’re seeded (into the features),” Coombs explained. “But then you have those positions that you can race in through the Last Chance Qualifiers. You make it into the playoffs if you win a Moto.

“These international riders don’t have to come for the whole season, they can just come for a race and if they win a moto, they are into the LCQ. I think that is attracting a lot of people.”

Last summer MX only had to apply for eight FIM licenses so international riders could compete. One week before the Loretta Lynn break, the series had already had 46 international riders racing. The financial incentive of the playoff system is working.

“I think we truly have the best riders in the world,” Coombs said. “We have that caliber of rider and that much international talent. We have the best riders in the world and hopefully, they’ll come back more often next year,

“Maybe we’ll see them more at Supercross and Motocross because it’s all about the SMX. The television package has just been phenomenal being on Peacock and having that steady consistent viewership and broadcasting available. We have our SMX Video Pass where we’re available internationally now in all countries. The access to the series has never been better than it is right now domestically and internationally.

“It’s solid; it’s reliable, it is consistent - and we’ve never had that before.”

Nichols Craig Supercross

Seeing is Believing

During the Supercross season there were questions about how the points would work. After all, the format of a Supercross race is significantly different than in Motocross.

In Supercross, heat races include approximately 40 riders and they set the lineup for the features. Points are paid only for the main event.

Motocross runs two motos each week with 40 riders competing. Only the top-20 earn points, but those points are earned in each moto, essentially doubling the opportunity to score in the outdoor series.

How that balance would play out wasn’t black and white until riders started to see the score sheet and watch their positions rise and fall depending on if they raced or stayed home.

“I think until they saw it and they started paying attention (it was hard to follow),” Coombs said in response to the suggestion some riders had about their lack of understanding for the points system. “Looking at the results tab where we show the combined points, it became a visual thing.

“Once you see it visually, you see that one chart, which is the SMX combined points, and you see riders drop out and riders that are riding motos increase their points. Once they saw it visually, they started to understand it. It was just an education process.”

Next year riders, fans, and the media will have more to go on than hypotheticals. There will be one year of historical data to inform opinions. Teams will have an idea of the threshold needed at the end of Supercross and how that will work with their summer plans.

It’s not just the Supercross-only riders that have to pay attention to these playoff spots.

Barcia, who has been off the bike since the injury-heavy Nashville round, is typically at his best in the summer season. After missing the first eight rounds, he needed an opportunity to return before playoffs.

Fredrik Noren and Grant Harlen were hoping to pass him and make their way into the top 10.

“There are a lot of guys that are not Supercross-only,” Coombs said. “Hopefully, this will encourage them to come back sooner because they want the opportunity to get their points up.

“I can’t wait for Barcia to come back. It’s going to be wonderful to have him back. He was one of those guys. He was in there before injury. He’s still up in the points and he still wants to make more points. He wants to be seeded as high as possible. If we didn’t have the playoffs, we would have no reason for these guys to come back.”

That lack of urgency to complete the outdoor season has always been part of the sport.

NBC Sports’ lead announcer for the Pro Motocross series Jason Weigandt shared a story when he detailed some of the production changes earlier this week.

“I can tell you a story I remember from 2012,” Weigandt said. “Ryan Villopoto tore his ACL in Supercross. He was the defending motocross champion. He did not race (in outdoors). We’re at the last race of the year and he was back on a motorcycle at that point (in training).

“Some videos came out of him riding. And it’s Ryan Villopoto, he’s a multi time champ, he was riding very well. I remember we had one of the NBC executives (at the race). We used to get a lot of them in at the end of our season because the NFL season hadn’t started yet. So they’d come and check out what we do.

“And I remember him asking me, ‘Why isn’t Villopoto racing?’ I could see that he could ride. I was like, this is the last race of the year. He has nothing to gain. ‘What do you mean, nothing to gain?’ It’s just how the sport works; if you can’t win the title, you can’t win races, you’re not 100%, why race?”

That question has now been answered.

Motocross Rankings Fox

Welcome to the Show

Who has the best chance of winning once the playoffs begin?

In 450s, Jett Lawrence has been running away from the field in his quest for a perfect season in his rookie year. But Lawrence raced in the 250 class in Supercross, winning the 250 West championship.

Coombs believes that the winner will be someone that ran the entire series to the best of their ability.

“Wow, it’s going to be somebody that has been riding the whole series,” Coombs said, “The Moto guys that have been training all summer long are going to have a distinct advantage coming into those three rounds.

“They are going to be ready physically, ready mentally and those are the guys that I think you’re going to see really excel.”

Other dirt track motorcycle series have all but completely blacked out the month of September knowing that they can’t compete with the package and purse being offered by the SMX playoffs.

The hype for the playoffs is real as the series prepares to run their three most significant events ever, three weekends in a row. The SuperMotocross Playoffs begin on September 9 at Zmax Dragway in Concord, North Carolina, and run through September 23rd at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

How the SuperMotocross series is changing the sport
Jason Weigandt on the changes to broadcast production
How a conversation about media rights created SMX