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Women’s Cycling: The path to parity

In order to sustain itself in the sports world, women's cycling needs a meaningful long-term strategy, writes Joe Harris and Steve Maxwell

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of an article written by Joe Harris and Steve Maxwell for TheOuterLine.com.

Nowhere is the desire and need for positive reform more immediate than in women’s professional cycling. A major priority of the UCI under President Brian Cookson has been to raise the profile of women in the sport, but a meaningful long-term strategy which will improve the opportunities and treatment of women has yet to materialize, and this is especially distressing for the current athletes who are attempting to make a living as professional cyclists. Their careers have a very short lifespan and critical changes cannot come soon enough.

Women’s cycling has much to overcome. There is a great deal of anxiety over the sustainability of key races in the women’s calendar, and teams often do not have the finances or people to commit to a full schedule. Public perception that women’s pro racing is nothing more than a few races tacked on to the coattails of existing men’s events has prevented the sport from developing a true commercial identity, putting women’s race organizers and team owners at a disadvantage to effectively plan and execute multi-year business strategies. Women athletes are also rightfully cautious to commit to full-time professional careers because their earning power is typically greater outside of the sport than from racing year round, and is still nowhere near that of the sportsmen.

Women’s professional cycling appears to be at a crossroads. On one hand, the UCI is lending support and momentum to reforms and enhancements which could benefit the athletes, teams, races, and sponsors. Cookson’s selection of Tracy Gaudry as one of the three vice presidents in his inner circle was a bold move. The UCI recently held its inaugural women’s summit and announced the new women’s “WorldTour” for 2016, and has also become more active in engaging with the team owners and promoters of events, seeking to build out an inclusive, expanded calendar and to enhance the value of women’s racing from a financial and sponsorship perspectives.

On the other hand, the nascent but growing Women’s Cycling Association (WCA) has been separately developing a strategy for growth and a strong following among women racers to rally for changes in the sport. The WCA has already mobilized 90 percent of the professional women racing in North America under its banner. They have also been active in outreach to women outside of North America, and more importantly, have been forging relationships with race promoters, team owners, and potential sponsors of women’s cycling — in a strategy to holistically change the sport. According to two of its most visible emissaries, Robin Farina and Janel Holcomb, the WCA believes it can spur organic change by disrupting the system with a thorough-going approach that fundamentally changes everything — from its competitive foundation, to its operating model and financial foundation, through to post-career athlete support.

Although it may seem that the WCA and UCI are on parallel paths, they may actually be on a potential collision course that could set the entire sport off on a new direction. If the UCI is to reform and grow the sport of women’s cycling, it has to re-invent the policies and financial underpinnings of how it supports and drives the sport from the top-down, up to and including the expectations it sets for national federations. There is some question as to whether it has the agility and imagination to do so, especially in light of overdue debate on key women’s issues in the sport sparked by the CIRC report. And like so many of their new broad and sweeping proposals, the UCI’s statements about women’s cycling reforms lack the actionable details needed to truly advance the sport in a coherent or timely fashion.

However, on the other hand, the WCA’s entrepreneurial intentions and inspired emerging vision will be very difficult to execute without a huge investment and near-100 percent participation by the world’s top racers. While there is precedence for such successful sweeping changes in other women’s professional sports like tennis, the resistance of traditional cycling institutions such as race promoters, national federations, and the media to change in the short-term may represent overwhelming obstacles. The real question facing the WCA is if it can develop the capital and human resources to implement such a commercial revolution in the sport, and whether potential sponsors will have the commitment and patience to see such an investment through.

Time will tell if the UCI and its new leadership team can reinvent the women’s sport it inherited or if it will take some organization like the WCA to develop a strategy and rally the support to lead change through direct intervention. Under any circumstances, either party — whether working collaboratively or on their own — must address five key items in order to achieve success.

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