USA Cycling recently responded to long-simmering dissent about the national events calendar by merging the premier road and criterium races into one schedule. The National Road Calendar (NRC) and National Criterium Calendar (NCC) were widely criticized after the NCC was introduced in 2012; many believed that the NCC diluted the calendar for promoters, teams, and fans. The two calendars promoted an excess of “premier” events, which drove down the scarcity value, and created an almost self-cannibalizing atmosphere of increased competition for sponsorship dollars. In turn, this may have created pressures that caused some teams and events to fold. Merging the calendars now may reduce the confusion, but it is just the first of many important steps needed to rebuild the value of U.S. racing. USAC should embrace its role as the regulator of a unique industry and address the calendar as a business challenge. A crowded calendar might seem like a disadvantage because of the logistical burdens, but USAC has a distinct opportunity to capitalize on the depth of the events and change the playing field.
Instead of two distinct racing series separated by disciplines, there is now one crowded timeline in which several key 2016 events still overlap — and teams will still be physically and financially stressed to compete in the overall points standings. Previously, the split focus on either criteriums or road events led some teams to field two separate squads — if, like UnitedHealthcare, they had the money to do so. Other teams simply couldn’t keep up, and hence they missed out on sponsorship and racing opportunities. This conundrum hit the pro women particularly hard; this past season’s cancellation of the North Star Grand Prix and the Cascade Classic stopped the women’s national calendar cold in May. Since USAC is the authority that sets the calendar, it should be able to prioritize certain top events so smaller teams can streamline their travel schedules.
Micah Rice, USAC’s vice president of national events, recognizes the challenges faced by promoters and teams, as well as USAC. Although he previously told The Outer Line that USAC wouldn’t take sides when promoters compete for sought-after holiday weekend slots, he recently said that USAC is now “open to taking a more active role in resolving conflicts. We are not satisfied with the current state of domestic racing and the challenges faced by regional races to attract top talent.”
In a sense, USAC’s struggles to create a cohesive calendar mirror those of the UCI, albeit on a smaller scale. The UCI is cycling’s governing body — not really its “professional league” — just as USAC is the national sporting federation. Neither body really has the intent or the power to control the market forces that actually determine success or failure of the sport’s events. However, by having jurisdiction over which events are designated to be part of their respective premier racing series, both USAC and UCI can essentially set the terms of the playing field — and they should.
The good news is that USAC, unlike the UCI, has a relatively open charter, and it should be able to guide more timely and meaningful change at home. For example, USAC could change the allocation of points awarded in various races, elevate the number of points available in certain distressed events, or adjust the points on offer for a sequence of regionally-centered events. This could, in turn, increase participation and attract increased sponsorship investment. Alternately, broader market forces could be allowed to determine which events are significant or popular enough to survive over the longer term.
Whichever approach USAC chooses, it needs to more comprehensively communicate its vision for the future of U.S. racing, and soon. Without a clear articulation of this vision and the fundamental longer-term objectives, any combination of national calendar events won’t really have a logical flow, and could even put greater economic pressures on the U.S. pro racing business. Derek Bouchard-Hall, the new CEO of USAC and a successful business consultant, should consider various incentives when redefining the calendar to facilitate new sponsorship investment and marketing opportunities. New approaches must be factored in for the growth and support of women’s racing and for regional talent development.
The newly merged USAC national calendar is a good first step, but additional follow-up is needed. There are no easy answers or shortcuts; as stated previously, even a UCI sanction will not guarantee a race’s success. Indeed, it can sometimes even be a barrier to profitability for promoters, requiring more investment to meet both USAC and UCI standards. Effectively balancing the calendar might seem like a small win, but it sets the tone for the entire business model of U.S. racing, and it could provide a hopeful blueprint for change across the sport.