Culture

Women’s racing finds broadcast salvation with 5G

If a race happens and it's not televised, does anyone benefit?

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Not if measuring media metrics determines sponsorship for the race, the teams, or the riders involved. For most insiders in the women’s peloton, the key to growth is making sure that fans can watch the races.

“The most important thing is the TV coverage,” said Rally’s Chloe Hosking. “People who watch [women’s racing] are so impressed. That’s going to feed back into the growth of the sport.”

Live TV coverage is all but taken for granted in men’s cycling. It’s another story in women’s racing, where some major races still are being contested without live TV images.

Before the coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on the 2020 season, women’s racing had several reasons to cheer on its TV coverage. Having at least 45 minutes of live coverage was a requirement for all women’s WorldTour races, and the UCI gave organizers a few years to reach that goal. This season was to be the first with all WorldTour events featuring live broadcast.

Live race coverage is a very expensive double-edged sword. Promoters of women’s racing are confident their product is strong enough to stand on its own. But to attract more and better-funded sponsors, they need live images. In order to have live images, organizers must cover the costs.

Until recently, that meant paying for a fleet of TV cameras on motorcycles, fixed cameras at the finish line, a helicopter for aerial shots, on-the-ground staffers, and sometimes even a satellite relay. That quickly adds up to tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Thanks to new technology, some organizers are cutting costs and broadcasting events via wireless cell phone signals. And with 5G wireless technology on the horizon, live-streaming races suddenly could become much faster and dramatically cheaper.

That opens up huge opportunity for women’s racing.

“5G is the big game-changer,” Anthony McCrossan said. “That will increase speeds and reduce costs on a massive scale. It could mean every race will have live images.”

Some races are even designing the courses to fit within the range of wireless transmission stations. Organizers use a patchwork of networks, SIM cards and bonded cell packs to up-beam the images.

The Colorado Classic, which went to a women’s only format in 2019, embraced the digital platform for its images, and saw major savings along with reduced hassles.

“For the first two years, we went with the traditional model, with a full broadcast with NBC Sports and Eurosport,” said Rob Simon, CMO at the Colorado Classic. “We had to pay NBC to be on the network, and we paid for 100 percent of the production.”

When it shifted to a women’s only race in 2019, not only was it dramatically cheaper, cutting production costs by more than half; it also meant that the race was simultaneously live-streamed to viewers, as well as sent to outlets like GCN, team sponsors, media outlets, and others who could produce a full show and build content around the race.

Organizers also discovered that half of their viewers watched the race at a later time at their convenience, Netflix-style, something impossible with traditional TV.

“This is the way to go, because the cost savings [were] enormous,” Simon said. “TV isn’t as important because of the cord-cutting. Sponsors understand that the TV model has changed, and as a race, we have to adapt to how people are watching TV today.”

For many in women’s racing, live TV is the last and perhaps most important part of the puzzle. Many women’s-only races were not broadcast because traditional TV production was simply cost prohibitive. The digital model allows races to bypass TV and go straight to live streaming, providing a huge boost to women’s racing.

“Two thousand and twenty was going to be a key year,” McCrossan said. “We already saw how the numbers were growing.”

McCrossan, who is one of the top race announcers, said viewers during the women’s race at the Yorkshire worlds hit 1.6 million. Amstel Gold Race also had more than 1 million viewers, solid numbers by any measure.