How the Colorado Classic upended pro cycling’s broadcast model
Across the world, thousands of fans tuned in to the inaugural race’s live television broadcast and were greeted by a puzzling image.
“I still remember this moment—the TV camera was just focused on a bush at the start line,” says Rob Simon, the chief marketing officer for RPM Events Group, owner of the race. “That was the only thing they could get a picture of. We’re paying all of this money to be on TV, and all we can see is a bush.”
For its inaugural edition, the Colorado Classic was held alongside a two-day rock concert, called Velorama, and the entire package was heavily promoted as a disruptive solution for pro cycling’s business challenges.
Yet the race still relied on the traditional model for television broadcast. The system, used at the Tour de France and Amgen Tour of California, among other races, is prohibitively expensive and notoriously susceptible to bad weather. And throughout the 2017 edition, the broadcast was frequently washed out.
Memories of that rainy day in Colorado Springs had a powerful impact on RPM’s management group, and helped initiate a years-long process to reimagine the race’s live broadcast. Simon and his staff examined new and inexpensive technology for broadcasting live sports. They developed a strategy to overcome the shortcomings posed by the new tech. And finally, they gambled on a live streaming model that ditched TV stations altogether.
“We spent a lot of money that first year to broadcast it on [television]—we stuck with the old model and we weren’t happy with it,” says Ken Gart, chairman of RPM Events Group. “Last year we decided to innovate with live streaming. And this year we took it a step further and the quality increased and the costs dropped.”
Now, the lessons learned by the RPM Events group could help more races afford live broadcast. While the race’s rock concert concept may have gone away, the Colorado Classic’s television model could actually disrupt pro cycling’s business model.
American races have always faced a financial hurdle with live TV. While mainstream sports like the National Football League generate billions in rights fees from television broadcasters, cycling promoters face a reversed economic model. They must purchase airtime from the TV channels just to show a race on television.
Time-buys with mainstream channels often cost in the low- to mid-six figures. When that fee is added to the cost of actually filming the race, the final price tag can surpass well over $1 million, for even a four-day race like the Colorado Classic.
Why not cut out TV entirely? The mainstream sponsors that underwrite the race’s entire budget—beer companies, auto manufacturers, or local tourism offices—often demand live coverage.
“We went [the TV] route because we wanted the credibility with sponsors,” Simon says. “We ended up with a small TV audience.”
After the Colorado Classic’s dismal opening edition, organizers needed to cut costs, fast. For year two, they decided to yank the race for cable television, and instead stream it for free over Tour Tracker, and show it locally on the regional sports network Altitude Sports.
Simon says the decision cut the event’s broadcast budget in half.
Lucy Diaz, the race’s chief operating officer, said the race met with sponsors to discuss the new strategy, and told them that live streaming would actually grow the audience, compared to broadcasting it on a national cable channel. Diaz said that management was surprised when sponsors agreed to the plan.
“All of them took a huge leap of faith in saying [national cable broadcast] wasn’t something they couldn’t live without,” Diaz said. “We told them, ‘Here’s what we’re doing to get live engagement, as well as digital and social engagement,’ and the partners said, ‘Okay, we believe in you.'”
Simon wanted to reach as many viewers as possible, and balked at the idea of simply hosting the livestream on the race’s website. He reached out to cycling media outlets (including VeloNews), as well as professional teams, sponsors, and even USA Cycling, and offered the livestream up for free. For 2018 the race was beamed on more than 20 different host sites, including Facebook.
For 2019 Simon and his team came up with a new innovation, which he called ‘livestream karaoke.’ They offered up to give a clean, commentary-free feed of the action to websites across the globe, and allowed these partner sites to add in their own commentary in whatever language they chose. For 2019, the Colorado Classic was shown on more than 30 different sites around the world.
“We wanted to take cycling to our audience,” Simon says. “We can go where they already are with the livestream and not make them come to us.”
Bonded cellular to the rescue
Simply capturing video images of a bike race and then beaming them to the television production truck is a complicated and expensive affair. Earlier this year VeloNews examined the complex web of cameras, airplanes, helicopters, and transmitters that use radio-frequency waves to televise pro bike races. The model is heavy on manpower and rental fees for aircraft and other equipment.
The fee for one airplane costs approximately $60,000, with another $500.00 a day for the pilot.
In recent years, advancements in cellphone technology—a system called ‘bonded cellular’—has created a new system for transmitting video. In simplified terms, a bonded cellular transmitter attaches to a camera and then beams the images via cellphone signals back to a production truck.
“It’s like if you had six cellphones attached to your back, and each one was wired to a different carrier—T-Mobile, Verizon, or AT&T—so you could get the strongest signal at all times,” Simon says.
The technology eliminates the need for an airplane, helicopter, and local satellite uplink. Overhead images can be captured by drone and then beamed from cell towers back to the production truck, where engineers mix the live feed into the broadcast.
Throughout the winter of 2018 the race looked to trim its costs further, and Simon says he received a crucial vote of confidence in bonded cellular technology from local news stations in Denver, which use the technology for live newscasts.
“Suddenly you’re taking away the airplane and the helicopter,” Simon says. “You don’t need the satellite truck to drive from stage to stage. We looked at the savings and they were huge.”
In early 2019 Simon spoke with Jim Birrell, co-founder of the Colorado Classic’s production company, Medalist Sports, about using bonded cellular for the 2019 race. Birrell had already used the technology to broadcast USA Cycling’s national road championships in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“It increases the sustainability of any event,” Birrell said.
But Birrell was also keenly aware of the limitations of bonded cellular technology—it’s only as reliable as the cellphone coverage in any given area. To backstop the tech, Birrell would create a network of cameras around the start and finish that operated on wireless internet signals.
Bonded cellular technology has been shown to work great for circuit races or one-day races held in urban areas. But it was largely untested in stage races and mountainous events.
And throughout its history, the Colorado Classic had always utilized mountain roads, and ventured into the picturesque and rural parts of the state. Using bonded cellular to broadcast the race was likely to push the limitations of the technology further than ever before.
A studio show is born
Throughout the winter and spring, Simon and his team traveled to prospective host cities to examine each area’s cellular network.
“Our tech team did preliminary scans on each proposed route,” Simon says. “When we decided to do bonded cell, [cellphone coverage] became a key determining factor in choosing [a host city].”
That initial scan helped the race choose Denver, Golden, the Vail Valley, and Steamboat Springs. In June, Birrell traveled to Colorado to perform a more thorough scan of the proposed racecourses. Three of the routes passed easily, however the road and gravel course just south of Steamboat Springs had multiple areas with no cell signal (see above image).
“There wasn’t much we could do—we knew there would be breakup,” Birrell says. “We knew we’d go dark.”
How do you fill approximately one hour of dark broadcast time? Simon remembered the image of the bush from 2017 and got worried. But what if the broadcast could plan for the outage, and then show different types of footage during the period?
The race had already hired Citizen Pictures, the Denver-area production company that produces the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” show, to manage its live broadcast and host a studio show. As another cost-cutting measure, the studio show would be based out of Citizen Pictures’s Denver headquarters, rather than travel with the race. That decision eliminated thousands in travel costs for a semi-truck, plus the on-air talent, makeup artists, and producers.
When Simon spoke with Citizen Pictures’s CEO Frank Matson, the two developed a solution for the holes in the cellphone network along the Steamboat Springs course. Citizen Pictures would produce additional feature stories on the riders and teams participating in the event, and then show these prepackaged features during the dark areas.
“We started producing content because we didn’t know how big those black holes were going to be,” Matson said. “We were just trying to tell the story of what women have to do to be a professional cyclist.”
The feature stories also helped boost the event’s platform as a women’s-specific race, and the obstacles that female cyclists face in their global push for equality in the sport. Citizen Pictures produced feature segments on the U.S. national team, African American rider Ayesha McGowan, Colorado racer Lauren Decrescenzo, and the Amy D Foundation team.
The race hired veteran announcer Brad Sohner and retired pro Meredith Miller to host the studio show, and to provide additional analysis during the crucial hour of lost coverage during stage 1.
Missing nearly an hour of crucial action during the opening stage was not ideal, however race management wanted to keep the Steamboat Springs course, due to its challenging terrain. In the end, RPM accepted the trade-off. They would miss a potentially crucial final climb on the stage, fill the airtime with features and the studio show, and then air footage from the lost action during the following day’s broadcast.
“It was the best we could do in having both a great route and trying to limit the holes we’d have to produce around,” Simon says. “That was the trade-off.”
The final tab
Simon and his team are still tabulating the final viewership numbers for the 2019 race, and he is adamant that it will far surpass the audience that the race generated on cable television.
“Still tallying, but in the hundreds of thousands,” Simon says.
The real magic of the race’s new broadcast model is in the final cost to the event. Gart, RPM’s chairman, estimated the final cost for the race’s 2019 broadcast to be approximately one quarter of the cost from its inaugural year—a figure backed up by Simon. Race management declined to divulge hard numbers, however sources familiar with the event estimated the final tab in the $200,000 range.
While that figure may sound sizable, it is a pittance compared to what bike races have traditionally paid for a live broadcast. And the smaller tab could open live streaming up to race promoters that, previously, could only dream of broadcasting their action to fans across the globe.
While the model may not work for all American bike races—broadcast outages and dark zones may not work for all promoters—the RPM ownership team is committed to bringing the model back for 2020. At the outset of the race’s launch, in 2017, RPM said its stated goal was to create a sustainable business model.
While the Colorado Classic will see small financial losses in 2019, the new broadcast strategy helped RPM close the gap.
“Were going to be really close to breaking even. We still won’t get there but we are remarkably close,” Gart said. “I think we can absolutely break even next year.”