Governor Kristi Noem has adopted the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as an emblem of her campaign to capitalize (on) Freedom, but she won’t be citing early attendance figures as proxy poll numbers. The Department of Transportation reports that, from Friday, August 4 through Monday, August 7, 194,851 vehicles entered Sturgis. That’s 16% below the five-year average of 232,353 vehicles for the first four days of the Rally.
In the last six years, rally attendance has peaked on the first Saturday twice, Monday three times, and Wednesday once. From 2017 to 2022, the first four days contributed 46.5% of the Rally’s total vehicle count. Thus, this year’s first four days would predict a total Rally vehicle count of about 419,000, down 15% from the six-year average.
South Dakota Searchlight suggests we could blame the cool, wet weather for the significant decline in attendance, but come on: freedom-loving people don’t let a little rain keep them from parading outside for Dusty Johnson and other things they love, right?
Rapid City businessman and writer John Tsitrian warned us two weeks ago that Sturgis would continue to roll downhill due to broader market forces:
After last year, when rally numbers declined a bit from the previous year’s by 5.5% and sales tax revenues declined by 14%, we’re aware that a trend might be setting in, one that probably has as much to do with demographics as it does industry fundamentals.
Looking specifically at Harley-Davidson, numbers for 2023 are not encouraging. Though the company reported an increase in revenues for the first quarter of the year, the most telling figure is its decline in North American sales from the first quarter of ‘22. H-D during the ‘23 quarter sold 26,000 bikes. In ‘22, that number was 31,200, which is a year-to-year decline of 17%. Little wonder that stock traders are ignoring the revenue numbers and have been dumping this company steadily since the first of the year.
And it isn’t just Harley. The Motorcycle Industry Council reports that overall bike sales were down 2.1% for the quarter, which is not so bad, but, more notably, were down 10.3% during March, when the selling season usually starts picking up.
Why the dropoff? I think the answer comes as much from the sociologists as it does the market analysts, and it probably has to do with the aging demographics of the biker culture. The Mitchell Daily Republic did a piece on this last year at the conclusion of the ‘22 rally. MDR noted that the aging crowd was a factor in the “relative stagnation” of the event since it peaked in 2015, when the doors were blown off by attendance at the rally’s 75th anniversary [John Tsitrian, “Last Tango in Sturgis? Not Yet, but the Biker Culture and Industry Are in a Stall, and Maybe an Outright Decline,” South Dakota Standard, 2023.07.26].
One would think that, with 16% fewer vehicles, we’d see 16% less trouble—fewer bikes to crash, fewer riders to ticket. But while Rally attendance is down so far, Rally trouble is not. The Highway Patrol reports that, compared to the first four days of the 2022 Rally, accidents, drug arrests, and citations are up. Drunk-driving arrests and warnings are down.
But hey, Kristi was at the Harley store yesterday and is doing Fox News live from Sturgis today, so surely we’ll see those Rally vehicle counts swing back up and trouble swing back down… since surely all those Freedom-loving Noem followers would never partake of the demon weed.