Every week, it seems like there’s bad news on the pro team sponsorship front, a steady drumbeat that began with the announcement in August that team Highroad/HTC was unable to land a sponsor. In their wake, Leopard-Trek, the hot new team of 2010 merged with Team RadioShack. Then Team Geox, fresh of their surprise Vuelta victory lost their title sponsor. Garmin-Cervélo apparently secured and then lost a French co-sponsor, BigMat, which may or may not take a leading role on the French team FdJ. There are rumblings that Saxo Bank-Sungard (about to be Saxo Bank) isn’t on sound financial footing, but there have always been rumblings about Bjarne Riis’ formations. And Euskaltel-Euskadi, a reliable formation if there ever was one, is allegedly on shaky ground after next season.
It can be depressing. But we’re going about it as the cycling fans, like the cyclists, we are. We’re worried about doping; we think it might be the state of the world economy. Rational responses, and concerns I share. But I can’t help but feeling that we’re sane people in the psychiatric ward. There’s comfort in feeling right in crazytown, but it probably isn’t the way to success.
I see this most strongly when looking at how we beat ourselves up over doping. And how we let the world beat cycling up over doping. I have no doubt that doping is a problem in cycling. I want to get rid of the dopers, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. At the same time, I am certain that doping is a problem across the entire spectrum of sports, and cycling is doing more to root out doping than other sports. Yet when doping in sport comes up, cycling seems to get more attention than other sports, which work mightily to sweep their doping problems under their rugs. Look at how pro baseball tipped off their players when testing was first initiated. Look at how professional football barely gave a penalty for doping, and is now backing away from their pledge to test for human growth hormone. And this is before anyone discusses what seems to be common use of cortisone in pro football, something that is supposed to be strictly limited in cycling. The notorious Dr. Fuentes of Operacion Puerto fame claims he worked with football (soccer) and tennis players, yet nothing has been heard of that.
Look at sponsors in other sports. It’s easy to see that businesses have no trouble backing tainted athletes. Tiger Woods wrecked his carefully-cultivated public persona on his own, yet most of his sponsors stood by him. Accenture didn’t, but Rolex came on board. There has been no exodus of advertisers from The Super Bowl broadcast over drug use in football. Mark McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinals slugger was caught with steroids by a reporter in his big home run chase in 1998 (the reporter who noticed it in his locker): McGwire denied it, admitted it, and is still popular and employed by the team he “disgraced.” I don’t think sponsors care about perfect actors, but a patina of cleanliness and plausible deniability.
Doping isn’t a real issue. Nor is the world economy. There’s high unemployment, but corporate profits are at record levels. Products always need to be marketed. There’s a oft-repeated story told by marketers about how going in to The Great Depression, cereal manufacturers Kellogg’s and Post were about even in market share. Post decided to cut back on marketing, while Kellogg’s increased their marketing budget. At the end of the depression, Kellogg’s was the dominant player, a position they’ve held ever since.
Companies need to advertise their goods and services. Sometimes it’s something new; sometimes it’s reminding the public of something that’s already around. Some products always have a need to be marketed. Cars, banking, insurance, telecommunications, beverages, and lotteries are some of the evergreen advertisers. Massive companies with huge operating expenses and big advertising budgets. HTC, a mobile phone company, the most recent sponsor of Highroad, doubled their profits from $20 billion to $40 billion between 2010 and 2011. Whether or not this was a result of Highroad’s success is never discussed. Their advertising budget in the United States alone was $50 million per quarter, or $200 million dollars a year, starting in 2009. It’s easy to imagine their worldwide advertising budget was over a billion dollars annually. And that would make a $10 million dollar budget, probably much more than what Highroad received, for strong ProTour team is less than 1% of HTC’s advertising budget.
Highroad’s owner, Bob Stapleton claims that his team offered an amazing Return On Investment (ROI). HTC either disagreed or didn’t care. This plays against a core belief for the cycling fan: that their demographic is valuable. Let’s assume that Highroad had impressive data that showed investing in the team yielded an incredible ROI. It wasn’t enough.
American tifosi look at the growing popularity of the Tour de France in the U.S, with daily reports in major newspapers, dominating cable TV presence, and then add in the fact that the Tour is the most-watched sporting event in the world, eclipsed only by the quadrennial events of the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup, and figure that there must be advertising gold to be made out of camera time at the Tour. Mix that in with the growth of cycling both for commuting and recreation. It seems to herald a consumer who is tech savvy, spends on her health, and has plenty of disposable income.
For better or worse, perception plays a big part in determining value. Almost a decade ago, the ABC television network was poised to bring Late Night with David Letterman to their channel, which would have meant canceling Nightline. Funny thing was, Nightline had more viewers, but they were seen as less important than the Letterman viewers. And Nightline viewers made more money. They were deemed less important because they were older. Cycling could be suffering from a similar problem. Maybe cycling eyeballs aren’t important enough. Frustratingly, they will remain probably not important enough until they are.
But the reason our eyeballs might not be important enough is that ProTour-level racing has grown to cost sponsors something. It’s not nothing, but it’s not big money like a Formula One team (probably over $100 million) or an ad buy at the Super Bowl ($3 million every 30 seconds). This could put sponsoring a ProTour team out of reach for a passionate company chief, who might have sway in terms of how his company’s marketing budget is used, but not to the tune of several million dollars. At the same time, $10 million might be too small for the biggest companies to consider, as the impact might be hard to see, and consequently measure, as making a difference.
This could be why at least half the ProTeam organizations seems to have angel investors backing them. It also could be why many Pro Continental outfits have their jerseys littered NASCAR-style with small sponsors, many of whom get a benefit out of sponsorship, but the benefit is tied up with seeing themselves as good citizens or promoting their passion. These sponsors like the ROI, but it probably isn’t what drew them to get involved, nor is it what’s keeping them involved.
And this is the big place where being the rational person in the psych ward cannot only be counter-productive but self-defeating. We’re providing data that proves investing in a cycling team is a smart business decision. It makes us feel good that we can prove the value of bike racing. But in so doing, we’re giving out a means for potential sponsors to not only turn us down, but dismiss us. We’re telling potential sponsors we’re good for them, like we’re telling them to eat vegetables when they want to be sold on the idea that it’s a juicy steak.
While I’m sure there’s data demonstrating to potential sponsors of big time sport in the U.S. the value of sponsoring commercials during baseball games and the benefits of having a company name next to the scoreboard or any number of proposals involving businesses putting money into sports, I doubt the data is what sells the companies on putting their dollars behind a sport. I bet they’re sold on the passion, and yes, they have the data.
They way we’ve dealt with this reminds me of how cyclists advocate for cycling in the U.S. It makes sense on an environmental level, on a health level, on an economic level, and most cyclists are happy about that. Then a non-cyclist points out that a person riding a bike might get sweaty and the discussion is over.
We’ve tried rational. Rational doesn’t seem to be working. Maybe it’s time to roll out crazy, an attractive crazy, and start focusing on that.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Every cycling site on the planet has postulated some theory about just which rider could conceivably beat Alberto Contador. Naturally, almost no one places much stock in their theories because all indications are that Contador will spend the next three weeks riding at an endurance pace and then making the odd acceleration to dust off his legs … and the competition. As foregone conclusions go, this harkens back to the time of Miguel Indurain when it felt like the other guys rolled up for the prologue hoping, at best, for second. Despite his ongoing dominance, it felt like there was more fight in the air as Lance Armstrong was winning.
Currently, Radio Shack is the only team showing up with anything like a strategy. Their stated game plan of four general classification riders is the right idea. Rather than sending them all up the road in a single shotgun blast, repeated attacks by each of their protected riders has the potential to put a strong rider on the defensive. It’s not possible for one guy to respond to each attack by a group of peers. Eventually you either crack or have to let someone go. Unless you’re Contador. The trouble I see here is that Radio Shack simply isn’t strong enough to deliver enough knockout blows to dislodge Contador from the lead group. Certainly, Contador will get smart to the sequence of attacks and his propensity to launch his own, withering, attack that has the ability to make previous attacks look like accidental surges could easily negate the whole of the Radio Shack team.
To make the us against him strategy work, a combine of teams will be necessary. That’s because even though Leopard-Trek will have two of the strongest riders in the race, the Schleck’s brotherly love will see them try to leave the field together, rather than truly alternate attacks. Their inability to take Philippe Gilbert at Liege-Bastogne-Liege showed their lack of tactical genius necessary to use their numbers to optimal advantage.
To beat Contador, Leopard will have to join with Liquigas and BMC and Euskaltel. This is a climbing Tour and Andy Schleck will have to choose whether he wants to ride for second or see Contador beaten. That’s the choice; for any of the GC favorites, the options are to work with other teams to collectively defeat Contador or resign yourself to racing for, at best, second. Even if the teams come together, the odds that a protected GC rider will win the overall don’t improve any. That’s why such a strategy is unlikely to succeed or even last the whole of the race.
It’s possible, though unlikely, that Contador has overplayed his fitness and won’t be as sharp in the third week as he needs to be. These days, very few riders can be fit enough to win the Giro and then go on to win the Tour. But Contador is at the height of his powers. Still, holding peak form for two months is like creating a balanced government budget—easier said than done. Adding yet another unusual wrinkle to all this is the embattled Spaniard’s decision to go vegetarian for the Tour. We must suppose that his chef has the ability to deliver the balanced diet necessary for Contador to ride well. Still, that does not ensure that his body will necessarily agree with said diet. It’s a big change to make so close to the race. The new diet is conceivably the greatest obstacle he faces.
As a total aside, Contador’s new diet is absolutely his best argument for his innocence I’ve heard. It should have no bearing on the case before CAS, but from the standpoint of a gut-check reaction to the individual, I’m chastened by his declaration.
What I see before us is a mouse smarter than the mouse trap. No one can attack with the paint-peeling acceleration he has and only Andy Schleck has the ability to accelerate as many times in 10k as Contador can. In my mind’s eye I see a flurry of attacks with accelerations that impress us, but followed by a counter-attack by Contador that casts his competitors as Mustangs compared to his Ferrari. “You thought that was fast? Check this out.” We’re all going to need neck braces to deal with his head-tossing speed.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
On July 1, 2010, the 2010 Tour de France looked as if it would be one of the most competitive editions of the race in its history. Rarely has a Grand Tour had so much talent show up with winning in mind. It was as if the six best teams in the NFL took the field for the Superbowl.
This was a Tour whose closest parallel was perhaps the 1989 edition, where three former winners—Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and Greg LeMond—took the start and were ultimately the race’s greatest protagonists. This year’s race also had three former winners toe the start line—Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. Nearly as important is the fact it also had an amazing six former podium finishers—Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden and Alexander Vinokourov—at the start, plus Denis Menchov, a three-time Grand Tour winner in his own right. It was to be The Great Showdown.
The point of a Grand Tour, of course, is to see who cracks, which riders fail under pressure, but even more importantly, which riders rise to the occasion and surprise themselves, their teams and the fans. With a field gushing talent and experience like an out-of-control well in the Gulf of Mexico, no one really thought there would be room for any insurgent talents, but the prospect that one of the former top-10s, such as Frank Schleck, Michael Rogers or Bradley Wiggins capturing a podium spot seemed less science fiction than the impossibility of sealing off that aforementioned well.
But here we are, nine stages into The Great Showdown and what do we have? A race of two. That is, the race will come down to Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck provided there are no race-ending crashes or other stunning tragedies that befall either rider. That said, the way this race is going, I am willing to accept the possibility that someone other than either of these two riders could win. This race has had that much bad luck.
Lance Armstrong’s good fortune seems at an end. I’ll say more on that in another post. Garmin-Transitions lost Christian Vande Velde in a crash and it’s odd to think he isn’t the only rider on that team nursing broken bones. Frank Schleck was rumored to be even stronger than brother Andy this year. And then there was Cadel Evans’ detonation. Even though this isn’t the first time he has choked under pressure, his eight-minute slide down the mountain and the standings must have caused a few jaws to hang open, mine among them.
Speaking of surprises, what of Team Astana? Last winter I wrote of the skeleton crew that had been hired just to give them enough riders to qualify for the ProTour. I was critical of the team and dinged the formation for not having the climbers necessary to defend Contador when he would most need it. Tonight’s meal will include a serving of my words.
What should we make of Alexander Vinokourov’s performance so far? The great fear was that he would go rogue and ride for himself and challenge Contador’s leadership. His performance, while good, has been erratic enough that I can’t say whether he has been riding for himself or not. There certainly have been times when his riding hasn’t seemed to be for the benefit of Contador, but then, in this race anything seems possible.
It is with the impossible in mind that arrive at Samuel Sanchez. Two podium finishes at the Vuelta are maybe on a par with a top-10 at the Tour de France, so almost no one seriously considered this guy to be a podium threat. Sure, he is the leader of Euskaltel-Euskadi, which is something like being a favorite if for no reason other than he is protected (in theory) by eight guys. But a real contender?
I’m beginning to think the battle for the last step of the podium is between Sanchez, Menchov, Gesink and Leipheimer. I think Van Den Broeck will crack, as will Basso, late in the Pyrenees. The fact that there is but one remaining time trial and it is at the end of the race will threaten a GC shuffle, and while we think the likely beneficiaries would be Contador, Menchov and Leipheimer, I refuse to bet. Anything seems possible right now.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Until now there has been an expectation that so goes the team, so goes the bike industry sponsor. As evidenced by comments on this and other blogs, at least some members of the cycling public have viewed a bike sponsor’s lack of repudiation of the team of a convicted doper as a tacit approval of their doping.
Unfortunately, a sponsor such as Trek hasn’t got the ability to elect to sponsor, say, Formula 1 if they decide cycling is just too tarnished by doping. Liberty Seguros’ next sponsorship stop in sports could be golf, but that’s not possible for Specialized or SRAM.
Faust could appreciate such a dilemma.
So Shimano has announced that it will pull its sponsorship of a team if anyone in its management is found to be guiding a doping program for its riders. If a rider is caught doping, Shimano wants an explanation and a future containment plan to prevent a repeat. A second event is grounds for termination of the sponsorship.
Termination would be catastrophic to any team. A return of all Shimano equipment would leave riders unable to train or race until new equipment could be purchased, which could easily take a week or more and could cost upwards of six figures, an amount few ProTour teams (and no Pro Continental or Continental teams) would have lying around.
But let’s be real. While it is possible and maybe even likely that some directors have at least suspicions—if not outright knowledge—of his team members’ activities, the Festina Affair ended any large-scale participation by team management in its riders’ doping. We now have plausible deniability.
Unfortunately, a complete lack of knowledge of riders’ medical programs has a nasty consequence: the director appears clueless. Hans-Michael Holczer’s shock over Bernard Kohl’s and Stefan Schumacher’s positive tests made him look ineffectual.
But what of positive tests by individual riders? The number of teams that have had more than one positive inside of three months is perhaps surprising. Just yesterday the UCI announced the suspension of three riders (three!) riders from Liberty Seguros. Saunier Duval, Phonak and Astana are but three other names that come to mind.
The question is whether Shimano would actually revoke the sponsorship should the possibility come to pass and which teams are actually threatened by such action. Columbia-HTC, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Française des Jeux, Garmin-Slipstream, Rabobank and Skil-Shimano are the ProTour and Pro Continental teams Shimano sponsors. Of these, two (Euskaltel and Rabobank) have had high-profile doping issues in the last few seasons.
While it is fairly certain that most bike industry sponsors have some language in their contracts that allow the termination of a sponsorship as a result of a doping offense, Shimano is unusual in taking such a public stand. Perhaps other companies will have the courage to take a similar stand.
Shimano’s Statement in full:
With this statement, Shimano would like to make clear to all parties involved that we would like to strive for a fair and drugs free sport to protect the future of cycling for next generations. Besides the bad impact to the reputation of the sport, we all know Doping and Drugs are damaging and destroying the health and image of especially young people in and outside of the sport. Therefore we are taking a firm stand against doping in general and in the cycling sport in particular.
Basic guidelines in Shimano’s anti doping policy:
• All our contracts and sponsorship-relations are made under the condition and in the belief that there is no doping involved in the particular team or with the individual athletes.
• If the team management of one of our sponsored teams (no matter in which cycling discipline) is involved in any doping affair, we will stop our sponsorship of this team immediately.
• If an individual rider is involved in any doping affair without the knowledge of the team management, the team will be given the chance to give a clear explanation and a future improvement & control plan to Shimano, upon that it will be decided to continue the sponsoring or not. If another doping incident occurs within the same team, we will keep the option of terminating our sponsorship contract
• Terminating a sponsorship contract means return of all Shimano materials or other contributions that have been supplied to the concerned team immediately. This anti doping policy is already stated in our ongoing sponsorship contracts but Shimano feels it is valuable to emphasize this ones more to make it clear for everybody what is our opinion about the use of doping in sport. For all our future sponsorship negotiations it is essential for us that the teams show us their anti doping policy in advance.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Among American cycling fans Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin-Slipstream formation has enjoyed the loyal love afforded a hometown team. That love has been based more on the team being “American” than on having actually kicked a lot of ass.
Of course, it isn’t the only ProTour team registered in the U.S., as Bob Stapleton’s Columbia-HTC team is based in San Luis Obispo, California. However, despite an American owner and one of two title sponsors being American, most cycling fans still perceive the team as European for two simple reasons: Most of its sport directors came from the former T-Mobile team and it has almost no American riders.
Critics of the team have noted a dissonance between the amount of media attention Garmin garners wherever it goes, and its results. The undercurrent being—the team really hasn’t earned its status.
Many of the headlines the team has generated have come as a result of its outspoken anti-doping stance. On paper there are several teams with anti-doping programs as stringent as Garmin’s, but Jonathan Vaughters is the media’s go-to guy for quotes on how to run a clean cycling team. To be fair, no one else is as articulate on the challenges a pro cyclist faces or the mixed signals a rider might receive when trying to balance the need to produce results with the need to recover.
Until recently, most of the team’s wins have come in stages of smaller stage races and four national championships. A stage win and the leader’s pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia were all it claim for Grand Tour performances beyond a host of top-five finishes in stages and general classification.
But in less than a week two different riders, Tyler Farrar and Ryder Hesjedal, won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana, giving the team its first Grand Tour stage wins. Back home, the team defended its title at the Tour of Missouri with David Zabriskie’s time trial win that culminated in overall victory. It was the first stage race victory for the talented time trialist.
Unless you’ve been sleeping through September, you know all that. Why bother to note this? There are a great many teams with little ability to win outside of their star rider. Garmin-Slipstream won stages in two different stage races—meaning two different squads—despite the fact that Christian Vande Velde had to withdraw from the Tour of Missouri.
It’s been easy to slag on Tom Danielson for his failed promise. A probably top-10 at the Vuelta doesn’t measure up to the promises that he would be America’s next Tour de France winner, after Lance Armstrong, of course. That said, until he was struck with a virus, he was lying fourth on the general classification. Even so, he stands to give his team its second top-10 finish in a Grand Tour this year. That may seem an achievement of dubious value but consider that Cofidis, AG2R La Mondiale, Euskaltel-Euskadi and Columbia-HTC won’t post two Grand Tour top-tens and Quick Step won’t even post one.
Tyler Farrar’s three stage wins at the Eneco Tour of Benelux are significant more for what they taught Farrar and his teammates and as a confidence-building exercise than for the wins themselves. Those wins were an imperative step toward winning his first Grand Tour stage.
For a team in only its first year of the ProTour, Garmin-Slipstream deserves recognition for the team’s rise to earned prominence. Still a darling of the media, the team has results to justify the interviews and TV time.
Photo: John Pierce, Photosport International