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The Greatest Sport on Dirt: Why Monster Jam Is Still Going Strong

Boardroom goes inside the biggest event on the Monster Jam circuit — the Monster Jam World Finals — and talks to the people who make it all happen.

I’m a basketball and baseball guy, in all their forms. From the NBA Finals to the College World Series, the women’s Final Four, and everything in between. It’s what I was raised on and that’s not changing.

So my family found it strange when I told them I jumped at the chance to cover the Monster Jam World Finals in Nashville this year. The truth is, I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to be thrown way out of my comfort zone to learn about something completely foreign to me.

A week later, I won’t sit here and tell you that I’m now a Monster Jam devotee and I’m going to dedicate my life to learning the ins and outs of every driver, truck, and track. But by diving head-first into a sport – that’s right, a sport – that has endured for 30 years, I can tell you I see the draw and that I really think they can keep this thing going and growing well into the future.

That optimistic outlook is the result of two things: First and foremost, the business. Feld Entertainment, which claims Monster Jam as well as Supercross, Disney on Ice, Ringling Brothers, and more as its properties, has learned exactly how to make a niche sport thrive.

Related to that: the families. The moms and dads – yes, moms too – grew up watching Monster Jam and now they’re bringing their children. The kids, which multiple people told me during the week were aged 6 to about 80, are just as passionate as their parents were and it’s easy to see them following in their footsteps.

Feld caters everything it does to nurturing those relationships, and the drivers themselves have bought in.

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A Family Affair

The first thing you notice about Monster Jam is how intensely personal it is for fans and drivers alike. On the Thursday before the 2023 World Finals, the drivers took the podium for a press conference, propelled not by the media but by fans who sent in their questions via Instagram. And almost to a person, each driver cited how important it was to them that the fans and families in the stands were just as engaged as they were in the whole process.

Linsey Read, who drives the Scooby Doo truck seen below, was able to bring all four of her daughters to this year’s Monster Jam for the first time, and the first thing she mentioned when she got behind the mic was how excited she was to share the experience with them.

“I feel like I have more pressure to prove to them that I can do this,” she said.

For every driver who brought family, there’s that same sentiment. Tristan England, who drives Earth Shaker, was not able to bring his son Crash this year, but Monster Jam is as much a family event for him as anyone.

Like so many fans, England got his Monster Jam start through his father. Unlike other fans, however, his father is Shane England, who drives Big Kahuna. If young Crash’s early interest in Monster Jam is any indication, he may follow close behind his father and grandfather.

It didn’t take long to see the generational bonds that the England family exemplifies throughout Nashville during Monster Jam week. At the kickoff parade, families lined up in front, little kids with Monster Jam earmuffs to protect them from the deafening noises. Some wore Grave Digger t-shirts, others supported Megalodon or Zombie, or another truck entirely.

As the trucks made their way down Broadway, drivers took time to point to individual fans, wave, and for just a second, make their day.

But those little moments paled in comparison to what came in the days that followed.

I had heard that the Pit Party would be a site to behold but did not begin to grasp it until Friday, the day of the qualifying race. With Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans, hosting the World Finals, Monster Jam made about 10,000 seats available for fans to watch the festivities the day before. That meant I’d get to see a Pit Party a day early, albeit on a smaller scale.

For the uninitiated (like myself until this week), you can think of the Pit Party like a massive tailgate, with food, games, and live music to entertain the fans. But instead of being limited to ticket-holding attendees, the drivers are right there with you.

Monster Jam is never going to compete with the Super Bowl or March Madness, but it will use the advantages it has over those events when it can. Patrick Mahomes can’t run out to the parking lot at Arrowhead Stadium and chop it up with the fans before he takes the field. But Colt Stephens, who went on to win the prestigious freestyle competition at this year’s Monster Jam, can.

The Golden State Warriors aren’t going to let fans get shots up on the court before a game, but Monster Jam can let its fans walk the track, giving kids a chance to see first-hand where their favorite drivers will jump, flip, and race in the hours ahead.

And make no mistake: those minutes before an event matter.

Camden Murphy (Bakugan Dragonoid) will tell you as much. Always one to remember a fan’s face, Murphy met a couple at a pit party a few years back. He encountered them again recently and not only did he recognize them immediately, he soon learned they named their first child after him because of that experience.

You could bet baby Camden will grow up a fan of his namesake. That’s because the youngest fans — kids just old enough to play with the toys — aren’t just accommodated, they’re catered to.

At the Pit Party, kids waited patiently to ride in a Megalodon truck, where a licensed driver took them across a makeshift course, doing donuts and surmounting a series of small hills.

The pro drivers themselves go even a step further. Tom Meents, on the short-list of Monster Jam GOAT candidates, knows this better than anyone else. His truck used to be known as Maximum Destruction before he rebranded it to Max-D. Why?

“All the little kids had a hard time saying Maximum Destruction,” he said. “So then we morphed the name to Max D because so many of our best fans could say Max D.”

The Devil’s in the Demographics

It’s easy to see why Monster Jam is so appealing to children – the trucks are, after all, life-sized versions of the Spin Master toys they play with.

The challenge, as Monster Jam senior director Jayme Dalsing has seen, has been to retain their interest once they age out of the toys. Granted, from my 33-year-old childlike point of view, the toys are still cool, even if I’m not running home to play with a collection.

Children under 12 and their parents have been easy to keep, and they made up much of the crowd that mostly filled Nissan Stadium – and those who show up at stadium and arena shows all over the world. That 12-18 demographic? A little tougher.

I had a few minutes one-on-one with Dalsing during a rain delay on the afternoon of the World Finals, and I was honest with him. I came into the weekend with one perspective on their target demographic and my time so far had only confused me. So I flat-out asked him: Who are you trying to target?

He smiled. “You’re not gonna get clarity,” he said. “It is everybody. I’ll tell you the hardest demographic that we have hit. The 12 to 18 [age range] is typically where we will lose a kid’s interest, but they’ll come back to us maybe when they grow older and have a kid.”

Part of it is trying to remind – or convince – people that this is a sport and not a show. In fact, Dalsing has started his version of a “swear jar” and every time he catches a Feld employee referring to Monster Jam as a show, one dollar goes in, to be donated to St. Jude, with whom Monster Jam has partnered.

Based on my limited experience, St. Jude must love this arrangement. Walking the Pit Party with Kristen Lundy, assistant manager of global communications with Feld and our personal guide for the week, she made the mistake herself when I asked her a question about merch sales (Kristen, if Jayme reads this and charges you, I’ll Venmo you a dollar). It’s also right there in the Monster Jam theme song, whose lyrics call it the “greatest show on dirt.”

“If it was a show, it’d be rigged and I’d write the script and who’s gonna win,” Dalsing said. “That’s not what happens. It’s really an event and it’s competitive.”

Making Monster Jam A Sport

While I remain skeptical about some things related to Monster Jam (like when one driver told me he thinks it’s bigger than NASCAR), here’s where I’m all-in: This is, unmistakably, a sport. Strategy, technique, and physical fitness all play a role here and that is evident immediately. And as long as Monster Jam can continue to lean into that, they should be able to keep growing. Kids might age out of the toys, but they won’t age out of rooting for their favorite driver. Dalsing has made overtures to ESPN, SI, and other traditional sports outlets as well, to cover it as such, with varying levels of success.

Perhaps another Feld executive put it best when I asked her what sort of media presence Monster Jam has during its typical events. She told me that it’s easy to get the local news crews to cover the setup – to say Monster Jam is taking over (insert local arena/stadium here) and here’s all the dirt and the big trucks, and the drivers, and the pomp and circumstance.

But once the actual event starts? Crickets. They’re not interested in the results. To me, it felt like covering batting practice and leaving before first pitch.

But this is about more than keeping fans interested in rooting for their favorite drivers or trucks – yes, Monster Jam has to market both, and that’s a wrinkle other sports don’t have to deal with. You can be a fan of Grave Digger’s Krysten Anderson, but there’s no guarantee she’s driving the truck when they come through your town. If you’re in Fresno, she might be in Allentown that weekend, leaving you with Weston Anderson, a great driver in his own right, but not the one you pull for.

“The challenge is we can have five Grave Diggers in five different cities,” Dalsing said. “I can’t have five Krysten [Andersons]. You always run into the struggle that you can use a lot of marketing dollars, let people know about drivers, but they might not be coming.”

Marketing for the Masses

Marketing the individuals has been key to diversifying Monster Jam’s audience. One of Monster Jam’s greatest successes over the past few years has been increasing its fan representation among women. Dalsing doesn’t know exactly what the breakdown is but believes that while the fanbase is still mostly men, males make up less than 60% of the fandom.

Unofficially, my own observations did little to disprove that. While there were clearly more young boys than girls and more dads than moms, women were certainly well-represented.

Dalsing says the presence and success of the event’s female drivers have done more to increase interest among young girls than anything.

Those drivers aren’t just there as a gimmick either. They can drive. Cynthia Gauthier, who drives Lucas Stabilizer, is among the best in the business. Her claim to fame came in 2019 when she won the inaugural Monster Jam High Jump world championship. This year, she came in second in that competition, just barely falling to Ryan Anderson.

Despite Monster Jam’s success among women, there was still one unavoidable truth: The World Finals had a very white audience.

Dalsing is right to point out that location has something to do with that; Nashville is over 50% white and Tennessee itself is over 70%. He mentioned events in Baltimore with a predominately Black audience as proof of Monster Jam’s broad appeal. But he knows there’s still work to do.

There isn’t quite as much representation among drivers of color, but that’s starting to change. Bari Musawwir is the first African American driver for Monster Jam under the Feld umbrella, driving the immensely popular Zombie – a truck outfitted with two outstretched arms on either side that mimic your stereotypical zombie. When he came out for the freestyle competition to conclude Monster Jam, he started with a lap around the track, coasting by to let fans serenade him with the trademark Zombie hand motion.

Then there’s El Toro Loco, Monster Jam’s raging bull, driven at Monster Jam this year by Armando Castro. Known for its bull-like design with horns and the ability to blow smoke, the truck is a fan favorite and gives everyone — including Hispanic fans — an easy truck to root for.

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily in the marketing, but I think we’ve done a really good job there to make sure it’s inclusive for all,” Dalsing said. “That’s important to us.”

Part of the inclusive representation that Monster Jam craves can come through Monster Jam University, Monster Jam’s training program, led by the legend Meents, and created to cultivate the next generation of talent. Those who come through the university hail from a variety of backgrounds, with Meents’ self-proclaimed greatest success story being a woman.

That woman? Krysten Anderson, daughter of Hall of Famer Dennis Anderson — Meents’ long-time rival.

“She’s been a lot of fun to work with and she’s really gotten great,” Meents said. “She came back for some additional training. She’s a star.”

The Business of Monster Jam

The Monster Jam World Finals isn’t meant to turn a profit. Dalsing volunteered as much, without anyone asking. Instead, it’s a celebration of the fans. Monster Jam’s arena and stadium series are where they make their money, drawing millions of fans at events around the world.

In a given weekend, Monster Jam hosts multiple events, sending different editions of its trucks — many, but not all of which Feld owns — to all its stops. The weekend of July 22, for example, Monster Jam will have arena shows in Charlotte and Edmonton as well as a stadium show in Frankfurt, Germany.

Monster Jam staples Grave Digger and Megalodon will be at all three. El Toro Loco and Monster Mutt will also appear at two shows apiece that weekend.

Seeing Frankfurt and Charlotte in the same sentence related to Monster Jam took me by surprise. I understood the draw in the United States but had no idea just how popular this thing was internationally. This year alone, Monster Jam will visit Canada, the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands. In total, Monster Jam has visited 32 countries on six continents, including such far-flung locations as Australia and Mongolia. Dalsing says the best crowds actually came in South Africa, of all places.

When I asked Tristan England why he thought his sport can succeed anywhere, he spoke to its relatability.

“It’s the thought of seeing somebody just like you driving one of these trucks and saying ‘I can do that,'” he said. “Anybody can do it, you just need the right grit. You gotta be tough, you gotta have passion and you have to have patience.”

The ability to bring dozens of drivers together in one weekend adds a little extra importance to the World Finals, which has 24 trucks — twice the number in a typical stadium event and three times more than an arena event. That means different versions of the same truck; this year, the world finals unveiled five different Grave Digger trucks, each with its own color scheme, as a way to differentiate.

The Monster Jam World Finals exist as a celebration for the fans. Yes, they charge admission. Yes, sponsor logos lined the first few rows of Nissan Stadium, blocked off for the safety of the viewers. And, yes, there was plenty of merch to go around. That’s just to account for the cost of renting out the stadium for over a week – the track takes days to set up and dismantle – as well as taking care of the 400-plus Feld employees on-site for the event.

Oh, and the more than half-a-million dollars it costs to lay down 10,000 cubic yards of dirt atop a pro football field — $200,000 of that just in trucking it all to Nissan Stadium, according to Feld’s senior director of track construction Dan Allen.

For those who couldn’t get to Nashville or the myriad other cities Monster Jam traveled to this year, there’s always MavTV, Monster Jam’s television partner and the only linear TV network dedicated solely to motorsports. It’s a niche network, for sure, and a far cry from the now-defunct NBC Sports Network, which used to carry the circuit. With that NBC deal also came dozens of re-airs, exponentially increasing Monster Jam’s reach.

And while Monster Jam is constantly assessing its media partners, Dalsing says the majority of the company’s business is in-venue.

Knowing this, it puts plenty of pressure on Allen and his team to ensure a high quality of play. That was especially difficult at the World Finals this year when rain tormented the crew, turning the track into a swimming pool multiple times.

But that’s what they’re trained to do and they work around the clock to get it done. What they can’t predict is exactly what sort of destruction drivers will find, particularly in their two-minutes of freestyle competition — undoubtedly the highlight of the entire event.

“Coming out to get to a broken truck, even if it’s two minutes, two minutes sounds so little, but by the time we decipher the truck is broken to the point of radioing down to the different teams, the team comes out, secures the driver, makes sure there’s no fire, the truck is safe…two minutes seems so fast, right?” Allen said. “But if you do it 10 times, just 10 through racing and freestyle, 20 minutes is in my opinion, downtime that the fans are paying for.”

Watching it live, I had to admit — it was impressive how fast they cleaned up a wreck to get the track ready for the next competitor. To a person, whether I was speaking to Allen, Dalsing, drivers, executives, or the people who work on the trucks themselves, safety was the top priority. During freestyle, cars flipped, caught on fire, and left half of themselves behind as they soared through the air. Allen’s team was out in a heartbeat each time, securing the driver and making it appear like nothing had happened so the next daredevil behind the wheel could have their turn.

As the night wore on and each of the 24 drivers competed in freestyle, I’ll admit it got a little old for me. Maybe there are only so many times I can see a truck execute a backflip before I lose interest. But credit goes to Allen’s team because they kept it moving enough that the crowd at Nissan Stadium did not thin one bit as the night wore on. Those who care enough to pay for the product found it worthwhile to stay to the end. As someone who has attended his share of blowout sporting events, that doesn’t happen unless the product is constantly captivating.

It also wasn’t the least bit surprising. Everything I’d learned that week tied back to the themes of fan engagement and loyalty. Perhaps Tristan England put it best when asked why he is part of Monster Jam.

“I feel like I was here for the purpose of driving a monster truck, whether it be winning a bunch of championships or just hanging out with the fans and being remembered,” he said. “And man, I’m here doing what I love to do and I wouldn’t change anything.”

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About The Author
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg is an editor and writer at Boardroom. He came to the brand in 2021 with a decade of experience in sports journalism, primarily covering college basketball at SB Nation as a writer, reporter, and blog manager. In a previous life, he worked as a social media strategist and copywriter, handling accounts ranging from sports retail to luxury hotels and financial technology. Though he has mastered the subtweet, he kindly requests you @ him next time.