Editor’s Note: VeloNews contributor Steve Maxwell and his TheOuterLine.com partner Joe Harris are publishing a multi-part series of articles about how to improve the sport of cycling’s business foundation. This is an excerpt from the third article.
Many of the financial and sponsorship challenges we explored in the first two segments of this series are partially driven by — and closely interwoven with — pro cycling’s competitive and organizational structure. The way the sport is managed and played out on the road is closely linked to many of these broader economic and structural issues, although the cause and effect is not always obvious. These effects and impacts must be clearly understood to continue reforming the sport.
For example, many have suggested that if the sport could somehow shift the focus to teams, rather than individuals, fan attention and loyalty might increase. Others have pointed out that the creation of a more cohesive, coordinated race calendar could help to create a single “league” feel to the sport, which might increase viewership, facilitate more efficient marketing and television packaging, and drive greater financial returns. Likewise, more geographic diversity in the sport might also drive growth, and hence greater revenue potential in areas of the world which are emerging as cycling hotspots. Some observers (including many riders) have suggested that the length of the race calendar and general physical demands of the sport are so extreme that they in effect encourage the athlete to dope.
Road cycling is a sport which originated — and is still heavily focused — in western Europe. And it is a sport with a deep and enduring historical legacy, one that is tempered with a heavy dose of “this is the way we’ve always done it.” No one wants to see the unique characteristics and allure of the sport decimated, but at the same time, there are many changes or modernizations which might allow it to flower and grow. In this chapter of our series on “Changing the Business Model,” we briefly review several new ideas and approaches that cycling’s leaders should consider — to make it easier for race organizers to plan, for teams to run sustainable businesses, and for riders to compete in the sport. We believe there are ways for pro cycling to create a more fan-friendly and exciting sport, and to pave the way for longer-term growth, while still remaining true to its roots.
1. The first critical issue that must be addressed is the competitive structure of the sport — how individual teams are organized to compete with one another.
A new pro league and dedicated race calendar could help to promote a new and streamlined TV coverage model, and fans could more easily follow their team at events around the world, on the same TV channel, with the same announcers. Cycling could offer a stronger and more straightforward season-long TV product if it could be packaged as one multi-continent international series of events. This would give the sport a stronger negotiating position in terms of TV coverage, and in turn would help to attract additional global sponsors and revenues into the sport.
2. There are also changes in the individual team structure that are long overdue. This includes details like the number of riders per team (itself dependent upon proposed changes in the season and race calendar — see below).
There should also be an examination of the athlete salary situation across the spectrum of teams, from the top level to the bottom earner.
3. A closely related structural issue that needs to be revamped or abolished is the current technique for measuring and ranking individual and team performance, and selection of teams for major races: the infamous UCI points system.
4. Another widely debated issue is cycling’s long season and racing calendar, which today essentially runs from January through the end of October. Few other sports have this type of almost year-round schedule. The UCI is apparently also considering this issue. We would propose a significantly shortened season, with fewer races, in which all teams would be heavily incentivized to participate — perhaps running from mid-March through late September.
5. Cycling is a team sport, but often it is not effectively promoted that way to the broader fan base.
Hence, concurrent with all these other changes, we must find ways of creating a greater focus on team performance and achievements — particularly from the fans’ perspective.
In conclusion, the real future of cycling is building a larger fan base — plain and simple. None of the other developments that we have described in prior articles will ever occur unless the sport figures out how to broaden its appeal and attract more fans. Put in a business context, “Nothing happens until you make the sale.” By means of a more modern and rational calendar, a more permanent competitive league structure, a growing focus on the team, and more balanced revenue sources and sharing, it will be easier to attract those critical new fans to the sport. When that happens, cycling can begin to enjoy stronger revenues and healthier global growth.