New backer should mean same Sky dominance
“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss …” — that was The Who singing in angst-fueled outrage in the early 1970s. Could the same tune be cranked up again for the arrival of new Team Sky backer Sir Jim Ratcliffe?
The recently knighted billionaire is set to be Team Sky’s savior. Officials on Tuesday confirmed Ratcliffe’s takeover of sponsorship rights of the UK-based super team. The official rollout will be before the Tour of Yorkshire in May, so what impact will it have on professional cycling?
Things might not change at all, and depending on your opinion of Team Sky, the news can be viewed through dramatically different lenses.
Ratcliffe’s arrival under the Ineos brand will largely mean business as usual for team boss Dave Brailsford and the formidable franchise he’s built over the past 10 years. That’s good news for Sky fans that have enjoyed nearly a decade of unbridled performances across the sport. The team won six of the past seven yellow jerseys with three different riders. Ratcliffe’s arrival, however, will be a bitter disappointment for the team’s detractors, who might have been hoping that Sky’s departure at the end of 2019 was good riddance for a team that some say pushed the ethical boundaries, stifled competition through its dominance, and transformed cycling into a soulless numbers game fueled by an almost unlimited budget.
Ratcliffe’s entrance to cycling means a few things. First off, Team Sky will roll on, with a new iteration under Ratcliffe’s multi-billion-dollar empire of the Ineos petrochemical company. It appears the team’s new look will be largely superficial. Team branding, colors, and jerseys will all change; everything else will largely stay the same. This is not a merger, where a mix of riders and staff stay and others leave. Instead, this represents a new stamp on the jersey — a very expensive one — and most of Sky’s current roster of riders and staffers are expected to stay in what should be a seamless transition into the remainder of 2019 and beyond.
In terms of a new sponsorship deal, Brailsford could not have picked a more ideal prospect: a very rich guy with an open checkbook.
At first glance, Ratcliffe, 66, appears to have even deeper pockets than Sky’s James Murdoch. Like Murdoch, Ratcliffe is a passionate cyclist, who recently relocated to Monaco and will be keen to rub shoulders with the likes of Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, who live and train there.
Ratcliffe’s assets put him among the 50th wealthiest people on earth, in the same orbit at James’s father, Rupert Murdoch, as well as Chinese dealmaker Wang Jianlin, who has made unsuccessful bids to buy out the Tour de France. In terms of cycling benefactors, Ratcliffe will be the wealthiest in a long list of angel investors who include Russian oligarch Igor Makarov, owner of Katusha-Alpecin, or Czech billionaire Zdenek Bakala, owner of Deceuninck-Quick-Step.
In many ways, Ratcliffe could provide even more patronage for the team. He is not only Britain’s richest man — with an estimated personal wealth of $25 billion — he is also the majority shareholder and chairman of Ineos, the sprawling petrochemical company he founded in 1998. That means there are no profit-sensitive boards to answer to. Ratcliffe is the boss, and barring a major blunder, Brailsford could remain at the helm for years to come.
Though financial details have yet to be revealed, Ratcliffe looks keen to spend his money on the high-profile project. He’s already sponsoring a new British-backed America’s Cup yacht team as well as a Swiss soccer club and continues to make a takeover bid of the Premier League team Chelsea. Those sums already number in the tens of millions of dollars annually.
Details are sparse — officials have yet to unveil more insight of the deal other than confirming it — but at first glance, it appears that Ratcliffe will step in with the funds to allow Brailsford and Co. to keep chugging along without missing a beat.
Even if the team’s budget of more than $40 million annually is clipped by 35 percent, it would still represent the largest budget in the WorldTour peloton. Even on a reduced budget, the team’s resources would dwarf its rivals’ and could continue to dominate. If he had to, Brailsford could let a few big-money riders go — for example Michal Kwiatkowski who’s been linked to the CCC Team with its Polish roots — trim some of the backroom expenditures, and perhaps even give some of the all-star riders a salary haircut, and still keep the core of the team intact.
That’s assuming, of course, that Ratcliffe doesn’t want to spend $40 million a year. Perhaps he wants to spend even more. We don’t know. And there’s nothing in the UCI rulebook to stop him.
Ratcliffe’s arrival doesn’t come without its detractors. Some activists are already accusing Ineos of using the team to “greenwash” its petrochemical production. Ratcliffe also raised hackles in the UK after moving to the tax haven of Monaco shortly after being knighted.
So it looks like Team Brailsford is here to stay, at least for the next several seasons. What does that mean for racing? First, the notion of a Sky-free peloton is gone. There was speculation last fall that if the team closed, the larger peloton would suck up the best bits of Sky. The sport would face a future without one dominant franchise. It would be like the New England Patriots shuttering its doors and its best players moving to opposing teams. Chris Froome might well have won another Tour or two in a different jersey, but the idea of a Tour de France without Sky seemed appealing to many.
Those dreams were dashed with Tuesday’s announcement. Froome’s jersey will change — most likely to some iteration of Team Ineos — but Fortress Froome and all the support and knowledge that has delivered six yellow jerseys with three different riders in seven editions of the Tour remains fully intact.
In fact, if the new-look team does ride on with little more than cosmetic changes to the title sponsor and jersey, nothing much at all will change. Sky-cum-Ineos will be the favorite to win the yellow jersey in July. Brailsford still has Froome and 2018 Tour de France champion Thomas under contract, and it’s likely both riders would want to end their respective careers on the team that’s done them so well. Already starting a few years ago, Brailsford has been recruiting new talent to take over in a post-Froome world. Brailsford looks to have a gem on his hands with Egan Bernal, whom he’s already signed to an unprecedented five-year contract.
Another key to the deal appears to be that Brailsford will retain near-total control over the management and operation of the team. Again, details are lacking, but this is just what Brailsford wanted. A key to Sky’s success was that Brailsford had complete control to sign riders and plot strategic decisions. Brailsford is captain of the Sky ship, and that does not appear to be changing.
Of course, nagging questions remain about “Jiffy Bag Gate” and an ongoing inquiry over former team doctor Richard Freeman. With the unwavering backing of Sky, Brailsford was able to weather that storm when many were calling for his head. Brailsford also survived Froome’s salbutamol case with his position strengthened even more, so his post atop the team’s hierarchy remains safe — for now. Any future revelations could revive old questions. Right now, it’s impossible to know the fine print of the Ineos deal, or if there is some sort of exit clause if any past transgressions that might come to light.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, none of the team’s direct opponents wanted Team Sky to die. Many of his WorldTour rivals are jealous of the money Brailsford has at his beck and call, but they’d all love to have the same problem. When it looked like Sky might close last winter, rival managers were in near universal agreement that the peloton would be worse off without the team. In fact, nearly every major WorldTour team manager said that Sky has the financial model that everyone else is trying to achieve.
Of course, Sky’s dominance has produced a heated debate about introducing salary caps or budget restrictions to create some sort of NFL-style parity. While insiders agree that the notion at first glance has its upside, it would be almost impossible to enforce with teams working across international boundaries, all facing different tax rules and financial structures. Many are in agreement that the answer to cycling’s woes is more money, not less.
Ratcliffe’s arrival means a few key things: Team Sky’s dominance will likely continue so long as its top riders remain healthy and injury-free. Its budget will likely stay the highest in the WorldTour. And Brailsford will remain king of the hill. Brailsford also delivered a new sponsor in time to assure the team’s future in a deal that bucks the peloton-wide tendency of teams folding when the title sponsor decides to pull the plug. Sky announced in December it was leaving, apparently catching everyone inside the organization by surprise, only to see Brailsford entice Ratcliffe within a matter of months.
So anyone hoping for a peloton without the dominance of Team Sky will be disappointed.
Just like Roger Daltrey sang in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “The world looks just the same.” Except in this case, the team’s “new boss” is even richer. Let’s see how much he wants to spend.