Team Leopard-Trek had its grand unveiling this week, the denouement of a story that has been percolating, seemingly, since the beginning of recorded history. Much has been made over the last few days of the spartan team kit and surprising lack of title sponsor. Leopard is simply the name of the holding company operated by Flavio Becca, the project’s main financial backer. Trek provides bikes, and some lower order financing.
Calling the squad Leopard-Trek is akin to Bjarne Riis renaming his squad Riis-Specialized, and connotes a failure to secure corporate sponsorship to offset operating costs. One must assume that Becca will pick up the majority of the not-inconsiderable tab for a team already ranked number one in the world.
And that brings us to a much more serious issue.
In May of 2010 we ran a piece about the significance of Bjarne Riis’s difficulties in securing sponsorship for his then SaxoBank team. At the time, THEY were the top team in the world, with super-duper-star Fabian Cancellara, Tour contenders Andy and Fränk Schleck and a long list of other race winners and top class work horses. We posited then that Riis’ struggles, since surmounted when Sungard stepped into the mix, were indicative of a greater challenge faced by the sport, the challenge of bringing in new investment.
Since May, new investors have in fact joined the fray, Movistar and Geox among them. But for the world’s top team to go without title-level corporate sponsorship remains troubling. Riis’s dilemma from last spring has simply defected along with all his top riders.
Leopard-Trek will not struggle financially. Becca is reportedly extremely wealthy and extremely committed to the project. No, the struggle is likely to be felt rather at the lower ends of the Pro circuit. We have already seen Pegasus Racing denied a pro continental license and subject to dissolution by circumstance. Geox’ patience as financier of the team featuring former Grand Tour winners Carlos Sastre and Denis Menchov has been stretched by their failure to secure a ProTeam license.
One might argue that the UCI’s inability to get the various levels of pro-cycling organized in a coherent and transparent way have exacerbated the problems of securing sponsorship. Jonathan Vaughters made that point quite well in a recent piece for Cycling News. The doping controversies swirling around Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, et. al. have also undoubtedly lowered the cache of the sport.
What the Leopard-Trek unveiling tells us is that there is something rotten in more than just the state of Denmark. It is fair to ask whether Sungard and SaxoBank still feel good about the checks they’ve written to Bjarne Riis, given the very real possibility that their prize asset, Contador, won’t be able to ride in 2011. But those same questions extend to Spain (Geox), Luxembourg (Leopard-Trek) and France, where teams like Cofidis and FDJ fight to stay relevant, to Germany where Team Milram is gone, leaving Germany with no ProTeam, and even to the US, where RadioShack’s funding of Lance Armstrong’s ultimate venture is running out.
Until the UCI gets the structure of its leagues right and forms real partnerships with the owners of the sport’s most influential races, we are likely to see more unveilings like the Leopard-Trek event, two dozen skinny men in blank jerseys and a team manager deflecting questions about money.