Should cycling emulate football and develop a ‘season-long narrative’? – The Guardian

Cycling is living in interesting times. Once the pariah of world sport, the spotlight has finally shifted elsewhere thanks to the ongoing doping crisis in athletics. Stories of corruption outlined in the CIRC report look like small potatoes alongside the antics of Fifa. Bucking the trend of falling participation in sport as a whole and the woeful failure of the London Olympic legacy, cycling has seen the inexorable rise of the Mamil (middle-aged man in lycra). It has become the “new golf” and, if certain pressure groups within the professional sport have their way, cycling will soon be on its way to being the new NFL.

It is, for some, an irresistible way forward. The behemoth of sporting leagues is the richest in the world, with revenues that would make any cycling team faint with envy. The economy of professional cycling is, after all, a fragile one – dependent on the whims of sponsors or very rich donors to stump up the budget for a team that may not produce the desired results or, worse, fall victim to a doping scandal. But with a calculated return of $5.4 for each dollar invested, it seems to be a risk worth taking – until there’s a doping scandal, or the bang for buck diminishes and a sponsorship runs its natural course. Then there are jobs at risk – not just the stable of riders but the support crew from soigneurs to mechanics to back room staff.

The solution to the endless chase for sponsorship is simple, according to Jonathan Vaughters, the former racer and current manager of the Cannondale-Garmin team. Cycling needs to take a leaf out of the NFL’s book and look to a closed franchise model that makes teams partners in a corporate enterprise based on the answers to two simple questions: who is the best rider in the world? And what is the best team? This model offers new fans a simple season-long narrative, with a considerably streamlined calendar.

The scent of those franchise riches are powerful and, with the backing of the recently minted Velon group, who are led by Graham Bartlett – formerly of Liverpool, Uefa and Nike – there is a potentially powerful lobby group of 11 World Tour teams who are eager to see the sport move in that direction.

So what does a cycling team – that moving billboard of riders and support vehicles, who spend up to six hours at a time on the open roads – have in common with an NFL franchise? Virtually nothing. An American football game is a time-limited exercise, broken into a series of neat televisually friendly chunks where action is guaranteed. Even the hardiest cycling fan will admit that any given race – however exciting the finale – will have its longueurs.

Then there’s the question of team names. American football and baseball franchises may change their geographical location, but the Red Sox are still the Red Sox. Even the longest running teams, and those that are tied to a particular location, have never traded under a consistent name. Vaughters own team, Cannondale-Garmin, has had 11 name changes since it started in 2003.

And there’s the fans, who turn out on the roadside in huge numbers for the showpiece events of the sport and pay nothing for the privilege. Unlike football supporters, they’re not used to paying £52 a ticket to watch their favourite riders flash. But there are ways to monetise that fleeting, glorious experience. Trek Factory Racing set up fanzones at major events to give fans the opportunity to watch the race on a big screen before snatching that all-important live glimpse. Most major teams have fanclubs that encourage a deeper engagement with the team through exclusive content and merchandising. Surely it’s not too great a stretch for major teams to establish a permanent base that sells everything from team-branded beverages to the latest kit and bikes?

The major argument for the franchise system – that it puts teams on a more secure financial system – might seem an irresistible one. And money has a way of bending what it wants to do its bidding. But the financial outlook for a closed franchise isn’t always rosy. Remember the 2011 NBA lockout? Owners argued for a hard salary cap, saying 22 of the 30 franchises were loss makers. The players fought back but no games were played throughout November and December. Now imagine a cycling season where there’s no Classics season, no Giro and no Tour, because of a dispute over under-performing franchises.

Of course, the NBA lacks the lucrative rights-sharing deals the NFL enjoys, with individual teams cutting their own TV deals. But, crucially, cycling lacks any kind of rights-sharing deals at all with race organisers, notably the mighty ASO, who own the jewel in the crown, the Tour de France. RCS, the organisers of the Giro d’Italia, have made all the right noises – but the pie may not be big enough to sustain the 18 teams in the men’s World Tour. So, how to bake a bigger pie?

Rewind to 2012 and the World Series Cycling project. The so-called “breakaway league” crashed and burned, despite apparently having buy-in from RCS and a huge investment from Zdenek Bakala, the Czech mining magnate and team owner of Etixx-Quickstep. The proposal – for a simplified calendar of three Grand Tours, six Classics and 10 generic Grand Prix races – was supposed to rid the sport of the complexity that new fans neither need nor want. The solution? To tear down the sport and simplify it, to attract those all-important new fans and grow the audience. The approach was another case of forcing a model from one sport directly on to another and ignoring cycling’s rich history, its diversity and, above all, its USP.

WSC’s ambitions fit snugly with Velon’s buzz phrase – the “season-long narrative” – three words that make many fans grind their collective teeth like Tyler Hamilton at the 2003 Tour de France. What’s wrong, they wonder, with a sport having complexity? Often dubbed “chess on wheels”, cycling can take some head-scratching moments before its tactics start to coalesce into an understandable form and shape. Unlike football in all its forms, the objective is not simply to score more goals or touchdowns than the opposition, but for a team to deliver one leader across the finishing line in first place. To those of us who have watched the peloton fly over the cobbles or through the mountains, those ever-shifting challenges, the on-the-hoof recalibrations, the unexpected incidents and the races within a race are what make cycling unlike any other sport. To impose a simple “championship” narrative borrowed from an alien sport to satisfy new fans who may still only say “meh” and turn away is, for cycling’s diehard fanbase, too high a price to pay.

Crucially, the idea of a “season-long narrative” ignores the way the modern sport is ridden. For it to work, cycling would have to turn back the clock to the 1980s, the last decade where the general classification riders were willing to ride the Classics in anger and compete in the season-long Super Prestige Pernod competition. For the modernisers to have their way, the calendar will have to be stripped back to its barest essentials and the Classics neutered to be made attractive to the Grand Tour contenders.

Riders such as Alberto Contador and Chris Froome would not risk their chance at the Yellow Jersey, the richest prize in the sport in both monetary and sporting terms, to spend a Sunday afternoon in the hell of Paris-Roubaix. When Oleg Tinkoff put up a €1m prize to any of the top four GC riders – Contador, Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana – who were willing to compete in all three Grand Tours, he was roundly ignored. In a sport desperate to clean up its act, the challenge is simply too tough without invoking the spectre of doping.

And there it is, the elephant in the room. If cycling is to move from its current amateurish, club-based model to a professional, entertainment-based one as Vaughters urges then it must finally confront its doping demons – as the Garmin-Cannondale boss is being forced to do in the wake of Tom Danielson’s recent positive test for synthetic testosterone.

The NFL has a drug testing policy, of course, but compared to cycling it’s a joke. The question for a closed franchise system in cycling is whether a franchise will be able to survive a doping scandal, the major cause of sponsorship withdrawal from the sport. More worryingly, in an attempt to sell cycling as entertainment, will doping simply be swept under the carpet and ignored?

After all, whatever you think of Lance Armstrong’s doping, he presented – for many of the new fans he brought to the sport – maximum entertainment value. The relationship between entertaining performances and doping is an uncomfortable one and an issue that the reformers will need to address fully and honestly. As fans, it’s a question we also need to ask ourselves – are we willing to once again turn a blind eye? The outcry over the Astana licence suggests not – but under a closed franchise system what would have happened to that team, assuming their licence was locked in for five years?

If cycling is to reform – and reform it must according to the UCI – why isn’t it seeking cycling-related solutions to cycling-related problems? Scott O’Raw of the Velocast podcast calls the current thinking around the sport “laziness”. If a team wants to see itself as a business, he argues, then it needs to stop seeing ASO as customer to whose income it is entitled. The team’s product, he says, is “not a bike race, or the coverage of that race, but the team itself”. O’Raw sees a potential solution in a cycling team monetising that product and investing in the customer’s ability to consume that product in more inventive ways.

This season has seen a massive growth in the use of real-time data and on-bike footage to enrich fan experience. But there are questions around the control of those data streams and their conversion to hard cash. Jérémy Roy, the French rider who describes himself as “a professional cyclist, engineer, genius and mechanic” on his Twitter profile, prefers to release his own videos to “bring the race alive from the rider’s perspective, showing the fans what it’s like from the saddle”. ASO used Dimension Data to provide real-time data and rider analytics during this year’s Tour. Enhancing the fan experience has real potential to generate revenue for teams but how long before the pie is sufficiently large to give everyone a piece? With tensions rising between ASO and Velon, the sport may have its answer sooner rather than later.

Cycling has always been a sport in flux. Ever since Henri Desgrange sat down with Geo Lefevre and dreamed up the Tour de France in 1902 and effectively created the sport of modern stage racing it has been, in Desgrange’s words “the greatest scientific experiment that the sport of cycling has ever given us”. Sponsors and teams have come and gone; national teams have disputed the great races; season-long formats have been devised, tweaked, abandoned and reborn. The “sports science” approach so favoured at Sky has been around for years – the method was pioneered by the likes of Bernard Tapie and Peter Post over 30 years ago. There is nothing new on two wheels. And for anyone seeking a “narrative”, cycling is dripping with them.

There is a solid argument to be made for breaking down the barrier between men’s and women’s cycling to grow and enhance the sport as a whole – an argument that Velon and the men who dominate the administration of the sport seem happy to resist. The twin spectres of doping and financial instability could be addressed by the wider use of full-scale team audits and probationary periods for both potential investors and those returning after a ban. There are issues around people who have simply bought their way into the sport by personally financing teams with overwhelming budgets – a budget cap might place the sport on a more egalitarian footing.

Ultimately, it’s a question of value – the value that is placed on a rider and the value the market places on the sport as a whole. Cycling enjoys immense popularity as a participatory sport but there is no automatic overlap between those who ride and those who spectate. Coverage remains niche beyond the bigger races and national success. Elite cyclists may now earn millions for riding a season that stretches from January to October and regularly involves six or seven hours in the saddle a day, but it’s small beer compared to the average Premier League footballer’s salary. But that’s where the value falls in professionalised sports that are prey to market forces.

Describing the 1988 Tour de France in a piece in Winning magazine nearly 30 years ago, race director Jean-Marie Leblanc said: “Too much emphasis was placed on the commercial aspects and the publicity – so much so that the sport itself was not the principal event.” The same dilemma still faces cycling: the balance between its many faces and the market forces that seek to monetise its newfound popularity. The modernisers who ignore cycling’s USP and rich history may do better to learn from the past before dreaming about the future.

This article is from 100 Tours 100 Tales
Follow Suze Clemitson on Twitter

Comments

Write a Reply or Comment:

You must be logged in to post a comment.