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Home sweet home: How U.S. racing can reshape pro cycling

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a story originally published on The Outer Line by Joe Harris and Steve Maxwell.

Bicycle racing in the United States has always charted a maverick course. American six-day track races were the most successful and lucrative cycling events in the world in the early 1900s — think of the “Madison” events, so named because many originally took place in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

But in the many decades since then, if an American wasn’t winning the Tour de France, the coverage and interest in bike racing simply hasn’t been there.

Enterprising bicycle race promoters stepped into this gap during the 1970s and 1980s, and rather than wait for American talent to improve to European levels, they tried to replicate the general formula of European racing — particularly that of the Tour de France — in America.

In a way, events like the Red Zinger and Tour DuPont set the stage for today’s Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge. However, history shows that most of these marquee events tend to have fairly short life spans, and are just as likely to drop off the calendar altogether as they are to have long-term success.

The unsuccessful attempt to copy the European model on U.S. soil has led to a situation today where we have five different tiers of U.S. races, according to veteran promoter Michael Aisner. The first tier of U.S. racing is comprised of the big events like the tours of California, Utah, and the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. In the past, races like the Tour du Pont/de Trump, tours of Georgia and Missouri also fit this mold. The key characteristic of these larger and more visible races is that, essentially, they have all been underwritten by wealthy patrons and/or government entities. From Fred Mengoni, to Donald Trump, to the Anschutz and Miller families, or to the states of Georgia and Missouri, these big races have not always been big profit centers, and have often had to cover start-up and operating losses through direct financial contributions — rather than sponsorship investment. The former Tour of Missouri was a rare example of a successful race that should have continued, and was financially stable by its third edition, but political changes led to its premature cancellation.

The second financial tier consists of races which are unfortunately mostly no longer alive, but which utilized a model that could work well in the future. These events had excellent local and regional support, and were run by entrepreneurial promoters on large budgets with carefully balanced sponsorship dollars, merchandise sales, and volunteer and service contributions. Races like Aisner’s Red Zinger and Coors Classic, Dave Pelletier’s Mayor’s Cup, Rich DeGarmo’s Tour of Texas, and the late Jim Rabdau’s Ore-Ida women’s stage race all fit this mold. As a classic one-day race, the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic still flourishes with iterations over three decades and a million dollar plus budget. But largely due to the UCI’s rule that criteriums cannot be included in any stage race sanctioned higher than 2.2 on its ranking scale, the second tier no longer exists. On its face, this rule seems today like a pointless constraint which should be reevaluated and removed — for the overall betterment of the sport.

The third financial tier, according to Aisner, can be summarized as “volunteer-supported” events. These events enjoy excellent local support and leverage extensive volunteer staffing and contributed venue services; historically, these races have the most successful longevity in U.S. cycling, and even with modest sponsorship budgets often have the look and feel of the first and second-tier races just mentioned (despite having far less money to work with). Although many of these races have some local TV or online streamed coverage, they typically generate very little income and operate on the strength of those balanced budgets. The North Star (formerly Nature Valley) Grand Prix in Minnesota, Redlands (California), and Tour of the Gila (New Mexico) are all good examples.

The fourth tier is comprised of all the major criterium and weekend omnium events like Chris Thater, Tour of Somerville, Artie Longsjo, Manhattan Beach Grand Prix, and other similarly themed events. These races have been the cornerstones of the U.S. sport since the 1960s, and at a regional level provide high-level sporting entertainment in bike-friendly communities. These races often take place as part of wider holiday celebrations such as Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day.

And finally, the fifth tier is basically everything else: hundreds of local club criteriums and road races. These events really provide the backbone of grassroots racing and talent development in U.S. cycling.

On top of this, USA Cycling has two often disjointed series: the National Racing Calendar (NRC) of premier road and stage races, and its complementary National Criterium Calendar (NCC), which began in 2012. Unfortunately, many promoters believe that this model doesn’t work very well. These series have too many overlapping dates and involve too much geographic dispersion — few teams except for deeply funded programs have the resources and hence can’t cover the distances necessary to essentially field two teams at once.

With Richmond world championships slated for this fall, promoters and USA Cycling have an opportunity to come together on several key initiatives:

1. Focus on the community first. Successful U.S. races have historically developed strong relationships with and investments from the community where they take place. One of the prime examples of this cooperation is the former U.S. pro championship race in Philadelphia. Philadelphia may have risen and fallen in size over time, but it has been a 30-year mainstay of the U.S. calendar — despite the “U.S. Pro” prize having moved on to other venues. This is in no small part due to the people of Philadelphia — itself an important urban and cultural center on the East Coast — making the race a high point of the summer calendar, in which music, food, and community celebrations coincide with the race.

2. Develop a true professional promoters’ association. Rob Laybourn promotes the AFA Cycling Classic and the Grand Cycling Classic (which served as the U.S. pro criterium championships in 2011 and 2012). At the conclusion of the November 2014 USAC race promoters’ conference in Bend, Oregon, Laybourn brought together many key race organizers to create a promoters’ association. This group quickly gelled, with everyone seeing the potential benefits of creating a business association, comprised of professionals in the field to coordinate calendars, share knowledge and best practices, and build a collaborative framework for engaging sponsors and building the value of North American racing. “Aligning calendars is always a challenge, due in part by the local pressures of the host cities,” says Laybourn. “Whether or not they are aligned, our key emphasis must be growing team participation and building better value for sponsorship investment.”

“I’ve been an NCC promoter for only a few years,” said Marco Colbert. “It soon became clear to me that promoters interacted with USAC but not much with each other. That changed when the new association formed. One of the main objectives of the new association is the sharing of knowledge and best practices. For instance, we had a talk by an intellectual property attorney about how to protect the intellectual property of our events. We have also started to promote each other’s events on social media.”

3. Calendar normalization. Although the promoters’ association is still in its formative stages, race promoters should not wait for USA Cycling to devise and execute a plan to better coordinate the NRC and NCC series. As a business discipline, race promotion has traditionally been an independent and fiercely territorial affair, but the upside for true schedule cooperation is too great to ignore. The race promoters have to band together and solve this issue. Structuring events in such a way that teams can handle the logistics, and with enough financial and personal development opportunities for the participants, can only help to build viewership and expand the fan base of the overall sport. A challenge for U.S. racing success is to make the racing understandable to a wider audience; having a more consistent calendar with better viewing opportunities and a simple-to-understand format could help the sport to connect with and draw in new fans.

3. Investment in women’s racing. Traditionally, in the U.S., women’s racing has never really had much of a chance to develop its own identity. As a matter of logistics, most women’s events have coincided with — usually preceding, as a warm-up for the crowd — the men’s events in major races. It may be time to buck that trend. Robin Farina, a former U.S. national road champion and a principal behind the Women’s Cycling Association (WCA), believes that the differences in the quality of women’s events from one race to another is partially caused by this inadequate focus. “If we have the right format, we have a great opportunity to offer our potential sponsors the right coverage and the right audience. Right now, this isn’t happening,” says Farina. “We can do a lot more to bring in sponsors and fans — and inspire girls to compete — if we send out the right message. We want to make this our sport, and not just borrow the space.”

On this issue, USA Cycling’s Micah Rice believes that the organization is taking steps in the right direction. “We have combined the women’s and men’s pro championships dates, and required equal prize money for the winners. We want to push race directors to have equality in our races; we mandated web-tracker and equal TV coverage for the pro and criterium championship races as well.” Promoters should look at the opportunities to make women’s races more of a focal point in their events. As cycling is a sponsor-driven enterprise, race organizers should embrace and expand their ability to connect sponsors with their target markets — women as well as men.

4. Improved sponsorship metrics. Wisconsin-based race promoter Tom Schuler has a very broad experience in domestic racing as a U.S. pro champion, team manager, and now, as the promoter of the America’s Dairyland race series. He has a strong track record of delivering value to his sponsors. “But you have to have research, direct customer feedback and third-party audits to document the real returns to your sponsors. Our best-practice application is to hire a marketing research company to report on our marketing data and independently calculate the return on investment for our sponsors,” says Schuler. “Yes, we have to demonstrate value, but more importantly, we have to know what we’re getting right and what we might be doing wrong. And we shouldn’t be afraid to get a second opinion in order to validate the first.”

5. Avoid the temptation of joining the UCI calendar. Many people believe that a race is only truly successful if it makes it into the UCI’s pro calendar, but the truth is, UCI status is often overly expensive and by its very nature can limit spectator and sponsorship opportunities. Having “ProTour-level” fields might entice viewership, but the actual costs to do so can break the bank. The economic burden of meeting the requirements of the UCI can cut heavily into the budget needed to plan and market an event effectively. A recent example of this is the Tour of the Gila, which currently maintains a UCI 2.2 ranking. The event grew organically and has been a focal point for regional teams for over 30 years, but it is located around a small municipality, not easily accessed except by car, with limited local sponsor opportunities to cover these kinds of UCI-level, top-tier obligations. “The Gila” nearly folded due to accumulating financial pressures, until a mysterious ex-racer donated the necessary funds to continue staging the event — at least for this year.

6. Continuity of institutional knowledge. Many promoters note that “best practices” of good race management have been lost over the years due to attrition. There simply may not be enough people who know how to run profitable races who are able to share their knowledge and experiences to help other races start and grow. As a result, new promoters have often been at a disadvantage; while many may have the basic skills to organize a race, they may lack the more detailed tools and guidance to execute effectively because they’ve never actually done it before.

Despite the challenges faced by U.S. promoters, the fact is that the calendar has an incredibly deep library of racing which could be organized into a cohesive, easy to follow, and highly marketable racing series. And unlike the European scene, the promoters in the U.S. are less constrained by political frictions or nationalistic objectives; there is no reason not to cooperate for the greater good. As Rice suggests, if the market forces some races to lose importance or give way to others that are more successful, the result might be a truly healthy calendar. But it doesn’t have to be like Europe; in fact, it should be different and it could be even better.

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