I miss pro cycling. I do. I miss milling through piles of magazines, reading badly translated interviews, and reloading pirate internet race feeds in order to follow it. And while it’s true that I do still engage the top level of the sport occasionally, tuning into mountain stages of Grand Tours and some of the one day Classics, by-and-large I have stopped following the pros.
I was thinking about this on my ride into work today. What am I doing with all that time I’m not spending reading about the Euro peloton? As it turns out, I’m spending it reading it about Euro soccer, which led me to thinking about the popularity arc of pro sports.
You might argue that we are going through a “morality” filter with our sports now. Undoubtedly, the relentless cheating of pro cyclists took its toll on the sport. Athletics (track and field) is going through its own doping era now, the continuation of an earlier era, almost quaint now, when anabolic steroids were the problem. Tennis is in a vulnerable moment. Even America’s NFL football is wobbling over the long-term health of its players. Fans are still watching, but fewer and fewer are allowing their kids to play, which is a long-term recipe for decline.
Like any entertainment, sports need to be sensitive to the evolving tastes of their customers. Too many believe in the cult of their own personalities, ignoring new social mores that erode their popularity from the outside in.
I think pro-cycling will make a comeback. Brian Cookson’s tenure as UCI chief has been remarkable for its lack of controversy, common-sense changes being implemented, politics taking a back seat. And while I don’t think Cookson is a real revolutionary in sports management, I do think that calm stability has a lot more value than people think. Now the UCI are negotiating with ASO about the make up of the Pro Tour, and certainly there are landmines within that discussion, but these are the things a sport has to figure out to move forward. This is actually what the UCI should be doing.
The question, and this week’s Group Ride, is how long the road back is. Cycling has never been the most popular sport in the world, but how long will it take to get back to the levels it enjoyed during the reigns of Hinault, LeMond, Indurain and Armstrong I? My guess is 20 years, nearly a generation, based on a societal shift to more active lifestyles and a reaction to global warming. The more who ride, the more who will watch races. But that’s as obscure and facile a theory as any. What do you think? Are we just one charismatic champion away? Or is cycling in its current decline for much, much longer?
Image: Eric Houdas, Wikimedia Commons