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
The silly season is upon us, and, with the demise of HTC-Highroad, there are a lot of top riders on the market. The merger of QuickStep with Omega Pharma and the start up of the Australian GreenEdge project will also shuffle the pack. And of course, there is the normal, seasonal activity on top of all that.
One move that is sure to create waves is Thor Hushovd’s switch from Garmin-Cervelo to BMC. Hushovd, who absolutely killed it at the Tour de France this summer, was not happy with how G-C managed his spring classics campaign. He believes he’ll get better support and higher priority at BMC. More money probably helps, too.
As a result of Hushovd’s announcement, Garmin manager Jonathan Vaughters promptly excluded the Norwegian from his team’s roster for the Vuelta a España. This makes perfect sense as the Garmin-Cervelos will need all the points they can get for returning riders, in order to maintain their WorldTour placing. Deploying departing riders isn’t very useful to managers in the current pro set up. It’s better for Vaughters to key on Tyler Farrar, who is staying, in grand tour sprints. That Hushovd evinced surprise over losing his Vuelta spot is silly.
One has to wonder the wisdom of Hushovd’s move, though, given that Cadel Evans has already told BMC boss Jim Ochowicz point blank that he doesn’t want Hushovd at the 2012 Tour de France. Freelancers need not apply. If the god of thunder knew that going in, it says something about his commitment to winning Paris-Roubaix, and may indicate BMC’s resolve to support him there.
Another big move is in the offing for Philippe Gilbert, the world’s number one rider. He has been linked with both the new, Belgian super squad and BMC, though where he would fit in with the latter is hard to see, given his large salary and the amount of support he would need to achieve his spring (and fall) targets. Gilbert is running out of things to accomplish. Milan-San Remo and/or one of the cobbled classics must be on his list, but that level of ambition requires ambitious support. With the reported salary of Hushovd being $2.5M euro, it seems likely that BMC—despite its well-deep pockets—was angling for either Hushovd or Gilbert, but not both.
Finally, there is the curious case of Mark Cavendish. In my mind, you can reasonably ask whether the Manxman’s departure from HTC-Highroad preceded or precipitated the end of HTC’s sponsorship of the team. Regardless, now, he’s moving on, and he’s doing it without his lead out man Mark Renshaw, who has already signed with Rabobank in an effort to move from second fiddle to first violin. If Cavendish goes to Sky, as has been rumored, who will comprise his new lead out? There will be more money and a home-based team, but Sky will have the same problem with Cav that BMC might have with both Hushovd. Too many stars, not enough water carriers.
That brings us to our question. Which of these riders will land well, and which will be disappointed in 2012? The motivation to move from one team to another lives somewhere at the nexus of greed, ego and ambition. Getting the balance right is key to success, as long as you measure success by wins. So, who is getting it right? And whose pride goeth before a fall?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Here in the United States an important election is taking place. It is arguably the most important mid-term election in more than 15 years. The talking points have been by turns filled with drama (Lisa Murkowski running as a write-in candidate after losing the Republican primary to Joe Miller), hypocrisy (Meg Whitman claiming to be tough on immigration until the revelation that she employed an illegal immigrant for nine years) and, on occasion, ridiculous (I’m not a witch).
No matter what your views are, the power to vote is such an immense privilege that making one’s voice heard in the political process borders on responsibility.
Cycling has its own democratic process, called sponsorship. Fortunately, participation isn’t nearly so fraught with disagreements and liabilities. And just like with politics, the process goes on whether we participate or not.
I wasn’t in the sport for long before sponsorship influenced my buying decisions. In fact, I began consciously supporting companies that sponsored cycling. I visited 7-Elevens rather than Circle Ks, brushed with Crest even though Colgate would do just fine, and after seeing a photo of Jacques Anquetil in his Bic team jersey, purchased only the French company’s ball-point pens.
I took note of which companies purchased advertising time during Tour de France broadcasts and remember vowing to shoe my car with Michelin tires before the winter arrived. Then I found out just how much they cost. It would be a few years before I could afford their tires in a size smaller than 700C.
I’ve continued to keep an eye on those companies that sponsor our sport. I do what I can to patronize them, though I haven’t moved my banking to Rabobank, nor have I dumped my iPhone in favor of one from HTC. But I’m just enough of a geek that I patronized Radio Shack long before they hooked up with Lance inc; I stop by almost any time I’m working on electronic gadgets. Try not to let that get around, though, would ya?
Some of cycling’s top athletes face allegations that suggest they are, in the grand scheme, less bereft of ethics than the crop of candidates who hope to steer this democracy. Yet we still face the prospect that many companies with pockets deep enough to sponsor Formula 1 or a football (doesn’t matter which kind) stadium may walk away from our sport.
We can’t change who takes what or how justice is administered, but we can continue to show our support for those who spend on our sport. Likewise, we can’t prevent a company from leaving the sport, but our patronage can do much to counteract the perception that their image was sullied by cycling.
And while it can be hard to fathom just how the spending of dedicated cyclists can be quantified or even registered, the great marketing machine in the sky knows when and with whom we spend.
It is likely you already do this and don’t need any reminding from us, but the political process can be frustrating, even in the best of times, but this is one time we can say it with a straight face—
Vote early; vote often.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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.