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Sky fall? Title sponsor to depart after 2019

The British super-team announces that its main backer is pulling the plug following the upcoming campaign.

Team Sky, cycling’s New York Yankees, will see its wings clipped at the end of next season.

Founding corporate backers Sky and minority stakeholder 21st Century Fox both confirmed in an unexpected announcement Wednesday they would end their support of the peloton’s richest team at the conclusion of 2019.

“The end of 2019 is the right time for us to move on as we open a new chapter in Sky’s story,” Jeremy Darroch, the chief executive of Sky Group, said in a statement.

Those words draw the curtain on one of cycling’s most successful sponsorships and immediately throws the future of the team in doubt.

While team sponsorships come and go, Wednesday’s announcement brings an abrupt end to a 10-year partnership that delivered six Tour de France victories with three different riders.

There was no indication in official statements as to why the British media company was stepping away at the end of next season, but the decision appeared to catch team insiders off guard.

Team principal Dave Brailsford recently penned long-term contract extensions with Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas as well as Colombian sensation Egan Bernal, the latter in an unprecedented five-year deal.

Private conversations among those close to Sky seem to suggest that the sponsorship news was a surprise. One source said they had recently heard from team insiders that the team’s future seemed secure.

Something changed, and now the future of the most dominant grand tour team of the past decade is thrown into question.

Team principal and founder Dave Brailsford said management vows to try to find new sponsorship to keep the team afloat. Finding the same level of backing as Sky’s could prove difficult, something that Brailsford seemed to admit in his comment.

“While Sky will be moving on at the end of next year, the team is open minded about the future and the potential of working with a new partner, should the right opportunity present itself,” Brailsford said.

The implications are immediate for cycling’s super-team with the sport’s biggest budget at more than $40 million annually and the home of Tour de France winners Chris Froome and Thomas.

Brailsford will have less than a year to try to find new backers to keep together cycling’s most successful dynasty of the past decade. If he cannot, the peloton’s best-funded team would dismantle and some of the sport’s biggest stars would flood the market.

There was already speculation about the team’s future on a few fronts.

In September, U.S. media company Comcast bought most of the European entertainment company Sky in a blockbuster $38 billion deal. The takeover meant the departure of Brailsford’s longtime contacts within Sky, including James Murdoch, son of media titan Rupert Murdoch.

And then there was a pair of PR disasters involving 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and Froome. The former was involved in a high-profile investigation into allegations of TUE abuses, while Froome spent much of 2018 fending off allegations over a disputed Salbutamol case.

While Froome was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, Wiggins and Sky management saw a rebuke from British government officials over Wiggins’ use of a powerful corticoid ahead of becoming Britain’s first Tour winner in 2012.

Corporate officials cited a shift in strategy for its decision to end cycling’s most expensive sponsorship.

“Sky’s decision to step back from cycling at the end of 2019 comes as the company begins a new phase in its development,” a statement read.

Brailsford, not immediately available for comment, said this in statement:

“We aren’t finished yet by any means. There is another exciting year of racing ahead of us and we will be doing everything we can to deliver more Team Sky success in 2019.”