The World Cup

As some of you might be aware, there are sports other than cycling. One of those sports is soccer/football/futbol/futebol/voetbal/fußbal/calcio, and in this other sport with its many names, there is a big tournament coming. They call it the World Cup. This international tournament, which takes place every four years, is, by all accounts, the biggest sporting event in the world.

I know. I know. With the Tour de France on the horizon, who can be bothered?

Well, as I think I’ve mentioned here before, my other area of quasi-expertise is in the aforementioned sport, and here on the verge of the quadrennial explosion of the “beautiful game” it has me thinking about what the future of cycling could be, both here in the United States and in the rest of the world.

I cast my mind back 20 years. I didn’t own my own computer then, and following soccer (excuse, temporarily the American terminology) meant tuning into a one hour highlights show late on a Friday night. Of course, for a man of passion, that was never going to be enough, so I bought a computer and a short wave radio (seriously) and began following matches by live text update and by tuning into local stations in Manchester, London, Derby and Ipswich. It was like trying to quench your thirst by catching rain drops on your tongue.

Over time, the situation improved. Games were available by satellite TV at the pub. ESPN began to show matches. Soccer specific channels came on line. And today, I can say, with some relief, that there is now more soccer available to me than I can possibly choke down in a month of Sundays.

Now, who cares?

Well, you should, and here’s why. Where I was with soccer 20 years ago is, roughly, where I am with cycling now. I follow races large and small by live text feed online. I catch highlights shows. I squint at live Internet video with Belgian commentary. I read and read and read and read. For a man of passion, it’s not quite enough.

And yet, like soccer, cycling is an international sport. It has a governing body which is actively trying to globalize its brand, to raise cycling’s profile in heretofore unexploited commercial markets. It’s hard to say whether the timeline will be the same, but it’s fair to guess that those of us in currently “non-cycling oriented” nations will gain increasing access to coverage of our sport over the next two decades as investment in Asia, Australia and even in the US begin to bear fruit.

It would be easy, and cynical I think, to say that soccer has a distinct advantage over bike racing in that the ready-made market for its matches is much larger and the advertising revenues are so much greater. The point is not that cycling stands to make the same money as soccer, but rather that the potential reach of the sport is similar, and the success of that initiative can probably be attributed to the philosophy of the UCI, which is to globalize as much as possible.

To be sure, globalization has brought soccer to the United States despite the entrenched interests of our peculiar sports, baseball, American football, basketball, et. al. My generation and those older had no access to the more international forms of sport, and so became calcified in our interests. The younger generation lives in a much larger world, and they are curious.

For those outside the US, the “soccerification,” if you will, of cycling will also have the benefit of broadening the sponsorship pool and stabilizing the economics of the pro peloton. While European sponsors may shy away from being associated with cycling’s doping culture, bigger international sponsors will feel comfortable investing in new, clean teams, such as Garmin and Sky.

Traditional soccer nations have wrestled with their sport’s growth in worldwide appeal. What were once clubs have become brands. Tribal lines and heritage have become harder to defend. If cycling does make it down that path, there will be cultural losses in Western Europe. Already, French and Italian races that were once major dates on the calendar have made way for races in other parts of the world. Some will lament. Some will rejoice.

If it means I can watch the next Giro d’Italia live on television with English language commentary, then you can count me among the latter.

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15 comments

  1. Dave 1949

    You may be overlooking one of the key reasons for soccer dominance as a sport throughout the world. When they hold a world championship they invite other countries to play. Maybe some day the USA will grow as wise.

  2. mark

    As much as I benefit from the growth in the United States, cycling’s growth in Asia will be the real game changer. Historically, cycling was a way for poor, skinny kids from Belgium, Italy, and Spain to work their way out of poverty. Think how many poor, skinny kids there are in India and China whose only mode of transportation is a bike?


  3. Author
    Robot

    @mark One of the aspects of soccer that its supporters often point out is that all you need is a ball. A ball can be the kind of ball many of us grew up with, i.e. an actual soccer ball, or it can be made from any number of readily available materials. The access to soccer as a pastime is fairly unlimited.

    While a bicycle cannot be fashioned from a couple of pairs of socks and some duct tape, its ubiquity as a mode of transportation gives it a natural affinity for most people here on planet Earth. Quite how that translates to support of bicycle racing remains to be seen, but I, at least, see some parallel.

  4. Rod Diaz

    There is a very interesting soccer analysis in “Science in Sports” where it is stated that most “talents” come from middle/lower class athletes in fairly developed/stable countries.

    The rationale is that these guys are “hungry”, but still have the resources to support their equipment/travel needs – and they won’t need to become full time bricklayers/bartenders instead of training. The same has been observed in hockey here in Canada – most players come from smaller economies than the big cities, and a majority of the players are still Canadian in the NHL.

    I think the biggest problem for cycling is that it still has very few “gripping” personalities other than LA – while Mercx, etc. are celebrities, we lack the overall “punch” that other sports have to promote. Imagine if we had a couple of superstars like Pacquiao or Mayweather that are so heavily promoted and known?

    A big part for cycling’s pains are the weakness of the federations (the UCI power struggles don’t help at all), the perceived dirtiness of the sport and the ground it has lost in the previous 100 years… A big chunk of this could be associated to how expensive it can get, but really, it’s not much more so than hockey here in Canada…

    I have no answers to how to make it grow, but a big part would be setting the house in order (I am looking at you, McQuaid), allowing “cool” stuff to be used in the sport (the TT rules, exceptions and all those uncertainties don’t help) and lose some of its “good old boys” structure while maintaining the traditions that make it universal – anyone can see and relate to the suffering and sacrifice of the cyclists. And even my non-cycling wife loves the human stories: Hampsten, Ferdi Kubler on the Ventoux, and the Poulidor/Anquetil rivalries… I think in this aspect cycling is one of the most “human” of sports.

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  6. Champs

    It’s OK to just call it soccer. People can kick and scream, but Canada and Australia quite notably have different kinds of football, as do the United States (home to two thirds of the world’s native English speakers).

    And like American football, I think cycling has serious cost barriers for wider adoption. Judging by a scan of the Tour du Faso some time ago, the third world is lucky to be riding on lugged steel bikes with six speed freewheels. If that was the only handicap, it wouldn’t be too bad, but figure that all the stuff off the bike, like conditioning, treatment, and nutrition is on the same level.

  7. jza

    When you look at populations…..there’s more poor kids than rich kids. By quantity, there will be more poor kids with big time raw talent. And then these average talented club teams funded by rich kids try and get the talented kids to play for them, regardless of income. It creates a myth that being poor creates some ‘desire’.

    The only real pattern is that kids with freakish athletic talent get taken care of. Iverson was poor, Kobe wasn’t. Armstrong was poor, Lemond wasn’t.

    Cycling interesting because talent is EVERYTHING. Some guys can train 10 years and never get above Cat 3, some can go Pro Tour in 2-3 years. So basically developing pro cycling is treasure hunt for genetic freaks. And then you hope they can steer. There are probably some skinny kids in China with VO2 max of 80+. Hopefully they can steer.

  8. Alex Torres

    Being a cyclist in the “soccer center of the galaxy”, I must say I´m deadly bored with the sport, and highly opressed by the massive presence of the game everywhere. Like every other cycling-lover here in Brazil I´m considered an outcast, almost a pariah for totally despise and ignore soccer. I say that with a grin, as I don´t mind being the different. I´m sure my day will come lol.

    I suck playing ball, I´ve got two left feet when it comes to play soccer. Yet I´m usually invited to matches because of my VO² and endurance, but I turn down each and every invitation. Everyone is soccer-crazy here and during the games of Brazil (or any of his usual opponents), everything shuts down here and people get glued to the tube. Which has a good side for us cyclists. We can barely wait for the World Cup to start so the streets and roads are entirely for us to ride during selected matches!!!

    As for the theory that countries like Brazil being good cellars of soccer talents, I can say that what really happens is the same that used to happen to cycling in countries like France, Italy and Belgium: kids grow playing soccer since tenre ages, inspired by their multi-milionaire, worldwide famous stars, and dreaming of being a great player in the future. It´s a way out of poverty and up the social ladder.

    Also, these kids are playing footbal for hours, weeks and months and years on end, while their european and american counterparts are at school. The whole structure and support of teams, clubs, fields, media exposure assure that lots of them end up becoming extremelly good players. The whole thing is huge, like hockey in Canada or baseball in US.

    There are many times in history when cycling and soccer met. Merckx was a soccer lover. He´d go on to win TdF stages in a hurry to get to the hotel and watch the the finals. He followed it closely. He´d play it in his offseason, and I´ve got a picture of him with another legend of his time, the great Pelé.

  9. Touriste-Routier

    Soccer has several edges on cycling in terms of adoption & popularity, both as a spectator and participant sport.

    In addition to the already mentioned low cost of entry (a ball is cheap and can be easily fabricated), we should consider that there is a profit incentive to own a pro soccer team, and that there are leagues (not just a federation/governing body), which help create common interest.

    Compare this to cycling, where there are relatively few paying spectators, where TV coverage is a chore, and there is no profit incentive in team ownership.

    When the top of the sport is strong, it is easy to have a trickle down effect. It is funny that in the US, soccer is a tremendously popular activity among young kids, but that there isn’t much structure or opportunity in terms of serious sport domestically as they grow up.

  10. david

    soccer/football has succeeded because it’s easy for kids to play with their friends; compete in local comps; and there is a path to take it to the next level and so on. get kids interested in cycling the way they’re interested in soccer and you build a strong future for the sport.

  11. Revenant

    ‘It was like trying to quench your thirst by catching rain drops on your tongue.’ That’s nice writing. Describes exactly how I feel about trying to follow pro-cycling here in Australia without forking out for overly expensive cable and satellite TV deals.

  12. randomactsofcycling

    Interesting topic and good choice!
    As both a football (the game they play with the feet) and cycling tragic, every four years when the World Cup (I love it that it’s just “The World Cup”, and doesn’t need any qualification like “The Cricket World Cup” or “The Rugby World Cup”) is on I am sleep deprived for 6 weeks from it’s beginning until the end of Le Tour.
    For mine, cycling is trying to follow the football roadmap in terms of expansion, which is a good thing, but they’re going about it the wrong way. More focus needs to be put onto Track. Costs are lower, it’s safer and if you’re a time poor parent, it’s a better option to take your kid to the track twice a week for a couple of hours than to wait at home wondering if your 13 year old has been hit by a bus on his after school training ride.
    covering the track for Television is a breeze. Velodromes are small and filled to capacity easily and did I mention track bikes are cheap?
    Road cycling is romantic and the heroes of the sport are generally made in mud soaked stages of the G.T.s but stadium sports are growth sports.

  13. Touriste-Routier

    @randomactsofcycling makes an interesting point regarding track cycling. As a former track racer, I agree with his sentiment. Unfortunately the IOC seems hell bent on killing track racing by eliminating events, but some of the Olympic/World Championship events are less exciting (Kilo/pursuit) to watch than the massed start races that you see weekly at the tracks (scratch, unknown distance, etc).

    But if you think about it, track racing made British Cycling what it is today, and without it, there probably would be no Team Sky.

  14. Ron

    To each their own, but I’d be quite bored if my life revolved around just cycling. I’m enjoying the World Cup. I follow cycling, world futbol, ice hockey, lacrosse, the tennis Grand Slams and maybe a few others that I’m forgetting. I love cycling, ride daily, and follow the big events, but I can’t imagine just following one sport. Even just playing one sport would get boring, though I do feel guilty when I don’t get a ride in but play some soccer.

    It it kind of weird to me that soccer seems to finally be kind of popular in the U.S. I grew up playing it year round and was constantly bashed for being a soccer fruit and not playing a sport that was rough enough.

    And I grew up watching sports like NFL, NBA, and a bit of baseball (but not much). Now I’d rather be covered in honey and put on an ant hill than watch these sports. The NFL reviews every play and takes too long, plus the guys playing are hopped up elephants, not athletes. The NBA is one step away from WWE wrestling, entertainment, not a sport. Baseball. Well, could it be slower and more boring?

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