Identities

The end of the Tour de France gives most of us back our lives, but not Bjarne Riis. The erstwhile Dane spent much of the Tour answering media questions about his next team sponsor and what he’s going to do if (when) Fränk and Andy Schleck leave to start their own team. After announcing software giant SunGard as one of his future sponsors and confirming that he does, in fact, have a new title sponsor lined up as well, Riis goes back to trying to convince his other stars to stick with the cause.

With SaxoBank exiting the picture, we’ll have yet another iteration of the Bjarne Riis show, much the way we had 7-11, which begat Motorola, or US Postal, which begat Discovery Channel, or Reynolds, which begat Banesto, which begat Illes Balears, which begat Caisse d’Epargne, or the Rabobank team which went this way: Kwantum Hallen-Decosol-Yoko to Superconfex-Yoko to Buckler-Colnago-Decca to Wordperfect-Colnago-Decca to Novell Software-Decca to Rabobank.

Between fickle sponsors, inconsistent management and unstable rosters, one might argue (I am right now) that pro cycling teams have, at best, a loose grasp on coherent identities. We’re calling Bjarne Riis’ team SaxoBank at the moment, but we’ll call it something else next year, all the while aware that it is, at root, Bjarne Riis’ team. He is, for better AND worse, their identity.

This state of affairs stands in somewhat stark contrast to other sports where clubs or franchises maintain a consistent character for decades on end, an attribute which allows them to develop quite loyal followings based on a set of characteristics which transcends the current management, ownership and roster. It also allows them to sell a lot of merchandise.

As a result of its erratic nature, cycling is a harder sport to write about than others. So much of the shorthand that’s available to media when discussing soccer or baseball for example, just doesn’t exist for cycling. The current “rivalry” between HTC-Columbia (Team Telekom, T-Mobile, High Road, etc.) and Garmin-Transitions (Slipstream, Chipotle, Jingleheimer-Schmidt) contains a kernel of the sort of narrative that can emerge from a more stable peloton, but that kernel disappears once a title sponsor leaves and a few riders defect to other teams.

Instead of teams, cycling focusses very much on personalities, usually the transcendent riders like Merckx, Coppi, Anquetil, Hinault, Indurain, Bobet, Stablinski, Indurain, LeMond, Gimondi, Cippolini, Kelly, etc. etc. etc. For a team sport, the stories of individuals far outstrip the stories of great teams, and when we do talk about great teams, the stories are these ephemeral whispers about groups of men that came together at random, crushed all comers, and then slowly slipped away into the mists.

There are myriad reasons for the sport to have developed this way. The governors of the sport, from newspapers to private companies to the UCI and national federations, have never had a clear vision of what they wanted pro cycling to look like. Perhaps no other sport has undergone the transformations cycling has in terms of equipment, rules, team structures, and tactics. The current iteration of the Tour de France, as but one example, bears very little resemblance to the races of 30, 50 and 100 years ago.

In as much as cycling has survived and succeeded, it has done so in spite of itself. With its ever-shifting structure, the races have emerged as the true stars. If the teams have, by and large, failed to hold themselves together, to market themselves effectively, the races have, by sheer force of persistence, elevated themselves in the eyes of the fans.

We may, on a rainy, spring day, cheer on this rider or that one as they approach the velodrome in Roubaix, but none of us turns off the television when he, invariably, crashes out. The drama and spectacle of the events stands in for the tribalism of team support.

Perhaps this is at it should be. We may not have a favorite team (at least not one that lasts very long), but we have the races. You can not paint without a canvas. You can not ride without a race. And maybe, in the end, the fluid nature of a team sport dominated by individuals is best organized by the current system.

Still, as Bjarne Riis puts together the next version of his traveling circus, one has to wonder if a system based on franchises might not make more sense for pro cycling. The UCI already sells licenses for ProTour teams. The next step would be to attach some identifying characteristic to each license, a color, a name, something that would stick with the team, regardless of sponsorship. This would allow identities to form and grow. It would allow shirts to be sold, memberships offered.

There are a million possibilities, and if cycling is to go on, it will need to avail itself of some of them, for the UCI needs new ways to sell our sport in the wake of the doping era, the Age of Armstrong and the brief, wondrous life of Team SaxoBank.

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10 comments

  1. Hank

    There are several obstacles to making cycling more like other sports. It is the most international of sports, there is no Barcelona or Chicago team with a stadium and rabid local fans, no ticket sales, season tickets, box seats and the races are in various countries owned by differing organizations, so who gets the TV revenues for broadcast rights?

    Maybe F1 is in some ways similar but all the team ball sports are light years different in organization, regional and national identity.

  2. Joe

    Robot,
    well written article. It could certainly be argued though that shifting sponsorships is just part of the cycling landscape. Unlike most sports that sell tickets to a stadium, cycling teams must make their money through sponsorships. The benefit in publicity and name recognition that companys get through sponsorships starts to dwindle past a certain number of years, therefor sponsors leave.
    Personally it doesn’t bother me one bit. It doesn’t matter what team he is on next year. Whether it’s with Bjarne Riis, or the Shlecks, when Paris-Roubaix rolls around next year I’ll still be cheering for Fabian Cancellara.

  3. Timothy Day

    Another great piece. I’ve been thinking it would be great for other sports to be more like cycling. Imagine if an NFL team needed a huge corporate sponsor to build its stadium, as opposed to a cities tax payers getting the bill. Would be nice.

    I agree with Joe. Part of the fun is watching how our favorite riders interact with each other when they find themselves on the same team. I enjoy the sports shifting nature for that.

  4. Touriste-Routier

    I’ve commented on this matter before, so forgive me for repeating myself. There is no benefit to team ownership, as there is no “profit” incentive, nor any tangible asset of substantive or durable value.

    As noted by others, teams rely on sponsorship for their “revenue”. The teams are one body, the racers contracts often aren’t legally bound, the races are independently owned, and a National/International Governing Bodies are not leagues or coalitions. Unless there is some uniting, there will be no shared revenue, coming from common sponsors or TV rights. Except for track racing, and some criteriums and kermesse races, there is no “gate” revenue.

    While the UCI may appear to be the strongest body here, it is actually the race owners that really have the most tangible asset. If a race has prize money and or develops prestige, the teams/riders will come, even if it goes against the wishes of the UCI. Hence the ASO vs UCI war; look who got more of what they wanted prior to and after reaching agreement.

    All marketing efforts have a beginning and an end. Cycling in particular suffers from this. Robot’s idea of a set color or name is novel, and would help secure identity with fans, but at the expense of the sponsors, who are the party that require the most appeasement. Fans are adaptable; changes in identities, kits, and rosters help keep things fresh, even if there is learning curve each year.

    Owning a Pro Tour or Pro Conti term license is very different than owning a franchise in s league. The revenue models are totally different, and there is no tangible or durable security under the license scheme. This is one of many reasons why the Pro Tour concept is such a mess.

    Riis Cycling held the license for CSC (Saxo, tbd) just as Tailwind held the license for US Postal (Dicovery), and Highroad holds it for Columbia but the license itself is not valuable enough to secure a sponsor. And keeping the corporate name in the team name is merely a holding strategy until someone writes a check (hence the changes to Highroad & Slipstream).

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  6. randomactsofcycling

    I too find this the fascinating aspect of Professional Cycling. I see no reason why a ‘season’ of track racing could not be held on a kind of ‘circuit’ basis. I suppose this is already done with the Six Day ‘circuit’ to some extent.
    The real limiting factor in this whole question is not really sponsorship or parochialism but fitness. A rider cannot possibly maintain fitness for the full length of the cycling calendar.
    Most riders aim to peak once or twice a season. Even those that are ‘season long’ riders (Zabel comes to mind) have lengthy periods of no results. Imagine if your football team ‘rested’ one of the star players for two months, simply to ‘save’ him for an important game later in the season.
    Hence I believe it’s never going to work, trying to model cycling on any other Pro. sport model.
    Let’s celebrate that fact and admire not only the athletes but those that keep the wheels turning from behind the peloton.

  7. SinglespeedJarv

    Good discussion point. I haven’t really got the time to get into this in as much detail as I’d like. Initial I was going to ask why does cycling need tribalism, why does it need to avail itself of gimmicks that are part of the identity of other sports? But almost as soon as I wrote that I realised that my response should be that cycling doesn’t need to change, it doesn’t need tribalism.

    This is cycling, at present, most people are fans of cycling. Some have their favourite riders, some have favourite teams, most tend to as a minimum follow riders from their home nation, all of which are a form of tribalism but one that allows fans of different riders, teams and nations to stand next to each other on the road side and not start hitting each other over the head with the nearest blunt instrument to hand, or perhaps even stabbing or shooting each other.

    Soccer shows up to a global market the worst elements of tribalism, both amongst the fans who like to run pitched battles with each other and occasionally with the players. While the clubs or franchises milk the maximum amount of money out of long-suffering fans which ultimately lines the pockets of either already wealthy businessmen or overpaid and under-performing athletes.

    I see the cycling fans as a better type of fan, could you imagine soccer fans being able to get so close to their heroes, or all sleeping together in the stadium the night before a world-cup final, like cycling fans do on Alp d’Huez?

    Constantly changing sponsors brings many benefits, you get memories of an era. Only the top stars are remembered in the long-term, but everyone can remember the days of rivalries between the Panasonic and buckler teams, or the USPS and T-mobile. Changing sponsors bring changing colours and that in itself rings it’s own excitement and dynamic to the sport

    Cycling fans already have the chance to buy replica shirts, why should this be a closed shop for the teams to control and charge the fans too much money for.

    It all smacks of the UCI attempts to globalise the sport – although really a seperate subject, it is something that doesn’t sit well in todays contracting global markets. Ultimately, why should cycling beconme just another business with a busioness-model like all the other sports? It’s doing pretty well following it’s own path. There are plenty of things cycling can do without pandering to consumerism.

    I’ll finish with a few questions:
    1) Why does cycling need to grow?
    2) Why does cycling need to become global?
    3) Why is commericalism/consumerism the holy grail for everyone at the top of the sport?

  8. reverend dick

    This is an interesting way to think about cycling. I confess, I’ve never given any consideration to the structure of teams; only taken what was offered.

    I think cycling cannot have a team based on a static model. Other sports are all played in place, while cycling IS movement.

  9. Souleur

    sounds like it could come down to be a ‘switch-a-roo’. As Astana is talking to the Grimpeur Brothers. Now how odd is that? But then again, Radioshack has also taken strong interest in them as well, if the Luxembourg team doesn’t fly.

    Tis the season….for trade-talks

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