Commentary: Declining TV audience is a sign that cyclocross should look to U.S.
Imagine if Texans turned off football, Canadians stopped watching hockey, or the British got bored with soccer. To a certain degree, that’s what has happened in Belgium, as fewer Flemish cyclocross fans watched their sport on television this year.
Overall viewership in the cyclocross heartland, Flanders, is down 14 percent at the end of December compared to last season. Of the 20 most popular cyclocross races, 19 events saw smaller television audiences than they did during the 2017-18 year. The viewership decline has hit both men’s and women’s races. However, the hit to the men’s events has been far greater. For some races, the decline has greatly narrowed the audience gap between the men’s and women’s events.
The downward trend is cause for concern, as TV ratings are an important barometer for the overall health of the sport. Teams, races, and even individual riders use these audience figures when marketing themselves to sponsors.
I see another story when I look at these audience numbers, however. I see it as more justification for cyclocross’s push into the U.S. market with World Cups, the live streaming of races, and yes, the 2022 UCI world championships in Arkansas. And, I see it as additional proof that women’s cyclocross deserves more marketing dollars and sponsorship internationally.
I recently spoke with Daam van Reeth about the viewership decline in Flanders. He is an expert on televised sports and an economics professor at Leuven University in Belgium. He said that the current decline has actually gone on for four years, ever since superstar Sven Nys retired in 2015.
“It’s a real trend, it’s not something random that is happening, it is a real downward trend,” van Reeth says.
About five years ago, Belgian cyclocross had the star power to attract more TV viewers than ever before. Bart Wellens, Sven Nys, and Niels Albert fought pitched battles each weekend. Plus, other top riders, such as Zdenek Stybar and Lars Boom, mixed into the front group to spice up the action.
Those exciting dynamics attracted viewers (myself included) and led to some memorable races.
Nowadays, star riders such as Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel don’t inspire such a rabid following, for whatever reasons. Sure, they have already had great battles in their young careers, but van Reeth says they don’t excite the same passion as their predecessors did.
“It’s just that some riders have it and some other riders don’t have it,” he says.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Flemish cyclocross, van Reeth says. Despite the declining ratings, cyclocross is still the third-most-popular televised sport in Flanders, behind soccer and road cycling. The overall cyclocross audience is nearly half a million viewers per weekend, in a region of 6.5 million.
Still, the downward trend, in my eyes, shows that cyclocross should not rely solely on its heartland for financial strength. Any financial advisor (and even a complete dunce like myself) would agree that you cannot invest in just a single company. For long-term stability, you need to spread your wealth around. Cyclocross needs to find ways to diversify its audience. That means cultivating fans in places like the United States.
And there are signs in the U.S. that cyclocross may be roaring back to life, after a few years of flat to slightly declining interest. The first sign is that the major races are being televised across reliable platforms. Up until a few years ago, ‘cross fans had to risk their computer’s security on pirate streams just to watch the races. Now, multiple companies are betting big on reliable video streams.
Some options, like FloSports, work on a subscription model. Senior editor Ian Dille says they are eager to continue investing in cyclocross broadcasts. Anecdotal feedback from fans has been enthusiastic.
“In terms of my view of the sport and what it delivers for us, that is huge and it’s definitely an important segment of sport for us from a broadcast perspective,” he said.
Trek Bicycles has been offering streams of the Belgian DVV Trofee series races for several years at no cost to viewers. What began as a passion play for cyclocross fanatics in the Trek office has become a popular and reliable source of racing action for fans. Now, they see tens of thousands of people tuning in over the course of 8-12 streamed races.
“It is a material enough number for us to say, ‘Hey there is real interest in this,” said Chad Brown, Trek’s CFO. “We would buy more rights if we could.”
Streaming a live cyclocross race is not an easy or inexpensive task. The investment that FloSports and Trek are making, along with those of others such as Global Cycling Network, indicates that the future of cyclocross extends well beyond the 30,000-square-mile confines of Benelux.
The second sign I see is that American race organizers are still willing to invest in major international events, like the World Cups and the 2022 UCI World Championships. I recently spoke with Brendan Quirk, who was integral in bringing the world championships to Arkansas in 2022. Yes, the event is being funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation, the charitable group funded by Wal-Mart scions Steuart and Tom Walton. The group, however, believes the event helps further seed the love and appreciation for cycling in Arkansas, which is part of its overall mission.
This is a sign that American entrepreneurs see cyclocross as a valuable part of the overall cycling ecosystem, not just its own niche sport to be packaged and sold to hardcore viewers. In my opinion, this approach is a smart way to bring more casual cyclists and mainstream sponsors to the sport. We will watch with eager eyes as the 2022 worlds organizing crew works to bring in brands to help market the event.
The final sign I see is admittedly anecdotal. In my circles, American fans aren’t bored with Wout vs. Mathieu. And they are extremely interested in the dynamic battles in the women’ races. Many of my friends agree that the women’s races are now the marquee events; the men’s races are simply the prelude.
Earlier this season, I dug into the reasons why women’s cyclocross is must-watch TV. When it comes down to unpredictable action, these races nearly always surpass the corresponding men’s events. I think there are also some intangible factors that will boost interest even further in the U.S.
Across America, thanks in large part to Title IX, women are given a spot on the playing field, at the very least through college or university. When the law was first introduced, it led to a dramatic increase in women’s participation. One study found that in 1972, 1 in 27 high school girls played varsity sports. In 1998, that figure was one in three. To me, this shows that the American audience understands that women deserve a right to participate and that many women grew up with sports in their lives to some degree.
A competitive, unpredictable, and exciting series of women’s ‘cross races can do just as much to stoke fan interest as an old-school showdown between Nys and Albert.
Look, we all had a laugh a few months ago when that Sporza commentator, Carl Berteele, referenced the lack of U.S. male stars as proof that the American World Cup rounds had been a failure. There are so many other metrics and storylines to reference as proof that American cyclocross is ready to take off.
I’ll admit that sometimes I miss the good old days of cyclocross, watching Nys chase down his foes on the Koksijde dunes or the Hoogerheide mud. But cyclocross can’t remain frozen in time. It needs to keep expanding to places like the U.S. where enthusiast interest is strong. It needs to embrace fresh-faced stars. And it needs to make women’s racing a centerpiece of a given race weekend.
The hallowed venues of Flanders and the hordes of Belgian fans won’t go away — nor should they. We just need to start inviting more people into the beer tent.