When Chris Froome sets off from Puerto Banús on Saturday on his attempt to win a second Grand Tour in a row, he will do so wearing the colours of Sky, the satellite TV network which has backed Britain’s flagship professional team since their launch in 2009. But now the broadcaster has announced its decision to reduce its cycling activity, in terms that place a question mark against the nature of its involvement.
Even Rupert Murdoch’s fiercest enemies would admit that Sky’s contribution has played a role in cycling’s unprecedented rise in popularity throughout Britain over the past decade. The investment in the team with which Bradley Wiggins and Froome became the first British riders to win the Tour de France has consistently run at more than £20m a year and will probably exceed a quarter of a billion pounds by the time the current deal expires in 2020. The ruthless ambition and fanatical attention to detail that brought a knighthood for Dave Brailsford, the team principal, do not come cheap.
Sky’s secondary investment has been in the encouragement of mass participation, particularly by families. This is the arrangement that will finish in 2016, ending an eight-year association with British Cycling which began in 2008, after the Beijing Olympics, where the cyclists of Team GB, run by the national governing body, won eight gold medals. At an annual cost of around £2.5m, Sky helped fund the programme that secured another eight golds in London four years later.
But the sponsorship was also used to subsidise Sky Rides around the country, summer events at which parents and children were encouraged to ride on closed city-centre roads from Newcastle to Plymouth and from Liverpool to Hull.
Seemingly wanting to make its brand synonymous with an almost wholly beneficial and increasingly popular activity at a time when the reputation of Murdoch’s News International was darkened by the phone-hacking scandal, Sky also sponsored guided rides and set up a social network for those wanting to create their own groups.
Its involvement with British Cycling – whose campaigns advocate the inclusion of cycling safety in the driving test and the return of cycling proficiency training in schools – has resulted, it says, in 1.7m more people riding bikes recreationally for at least half an hour a week than were doing so before 2008. By the time the partnership finishes next year, it hopes the figure will be two million: a growth rate which makes it a bit of a mystery why Sky should pull out of a scheme costing not much more than a tenth of the investment in the professional team.
“It’s a natural conclusion – we’ve done everything we set out to do,” a Sky spokesperson told me this week. They would, he claimed, be helping British Cycling identify a new sponsor whose cash would augment the £30m the governing body is receiving from Sport England over the current four-year Olympic cycle and the additional income from members’ subscriptions and other activities, such as fees for use of the Manchester velodrome, where BC is based.
When Jeremy Darroch, Sky’s group chief executive, announced the decision last month, he stressed that “our long-term commitment to cycling continues”. Given that he failed to be more precise, it seems likely that he meant the continued commitment to fund Froome and his team-mates.
But in the light of the success of the participation project, why would an immensely wealthy company such as Sky, with operating profits running at more than £1bn a year, choose to save money by cutting out something that is not very costly and so clearly amounts to a public good?
Entry into the sport enabled Sky to take advantage of the work already done at British Cycling, where the Olympic programme had gone from the single gold medal for Chris Boardman in Barcelona in 1992 to the avalanche in Beijing 16 years later.
Devised by Peter Keen and executed by Brailsford, the strategy of concentrating on technical detail, academy development and coaching expertise laid the foundations on which Brailsford could build a team capable of winning the Tour de France.
Just as Team Sky could not have existed without the broadcaster’s investment – first in the start-up costs and then in the annual budget – so it could never have happened in the same way without the work done before its arrival, paid for by public money from the lottery and from those membership subscriptions.
At one point, indeed, it was deemed necessary to get Deloitte to look into a possible conflict of interest.
For half a century, British Cycling had trundled along on a modest membership of 15,000-20,000 core enthusiasts, mostly the sort of people who could be seen riding in time trials along windswept bypasses at ungodly hours of a Sunday morning.
The combination of Olympic success and the Tour de France exploits of Wiggins and Mark Cavendish created a new and very different aura, fuelling the years of a boom which shows no signs of ending. Up to 50,000 by 2012, BC’s membership has soared since the year of London’s Olympics and Wiggins’s Tour win to the present level of 113,000.
Some of those members are racers whose subscription provides them with a competition licence; others just enjoy being part of the phenomenon. All of them helped build the platform for Team Sky, and a continued investment in an organisation which promotes cycling as a way of improving public health seemed like a decent quid pro quo.
But perhaps the Murdoch organisation believes that the years when its reputation turned toxic are over, and that public displays of do-gooding are no longer necessary. The sponsorship of the professional team provides benefits in the harder currency of regular media exposure, and is being allowed to continue.
But Brailsford will have noted that James Murdoch, whose personal enthusiasm for the sport was behind Sky’s arrival in cycling, stood down from the chairmanship of BSkyB three years ago as a result of the hacking scandal. He will soon replace his father as chief executive of 21st Century Fox, and it seems likely that cycling is no longer at the top of his agenda.
Sponsors come and go in professional sport, blown in and out by the winds of commerce. In the public mind Sky’s identification with the cycling team is particularly close, given its role in the project’s creation, but it will not be there for ever.
It just seems a shame – although not remotely surprising – that, having served its purpose, its commitment to the sport’s less glamorous side is the first to be cast aside.