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Tour de France

A conversation with Garmin executives at the Tour de France

Sponsoring a bike team makes good business sense, especially if you’re Garmin and one of the largest companies in the fast-growing, highly competitive GPS market. Garmin unveiled its high-profile deal with Slipstream sports at the start of the 2008 Tour de France as the first step of a title sponsorship contract that continues through the 2010 season. VeloNews spoke with Jon Cassat, vice president of communications with Garmin, about the details of how the sponsorship deal came about and why the company decided to bet on cycling. Here are excerpts from the interview:

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By Andrew Hood

Garmin's Jon Cassat

Garmin’s Jon Cassat

Photo: Special to VeloNews.com

Sponsoring a bike team makes good business sense, especially if you’re Garmin and one of the largest companies in the fast-growing, highly competitive GPS market.

Garmin unveiled its high-profile deal with Slipstream sports at the start of the 2008 Tour de France as the first step of a title sponsorship contract that continues through the 2010 season.

VeloNews spoke with Jon Cassat, vice president of communications with Garmin, about the details of how the sponsorship deal came about and why the company decided to bet on cycling. Here are excerpts from the interview:

VeloNews: Why was Garmin interested in sponsoring a bicycle team?

Jon Cassat: It’s a two-fold benefit for us. We chose cycling in part because you can cover all of Europe. If you sponsor a football team (note – Garmin also sponsors the Premier League Middlesborough soccer team in England), it doesn’t go much beyond they UK until they play a foreign team. With Team Garmin, you get to cover all of Europe, just like we get to cover all of the USA. It’s a sport that isn’t city or region specific. Because we have riders from both Europe and the United States, we expect fans to get behind the team from all over.

VN: How did Garmin decide to sponsor a cycling team rather than another mainstream U.S. sport?

JC: It is true that cycling in the United States doesn’t have the appeal that football or baseball, but it’s growing in popularity. There are hundreds of millions of cycling fans, and those fans are enthusiastic about the products in the sport. If we can demonstrate that our products are interesting, they can go to their local bike shop and buy the same products that the team is racing with. That’s good for us. Every time we have a chance to put the Garmin brand in front of people, that’s good for us, too. We not only looked at it as being part of the emerging and growing cycling market in America, but also to be across Europe as well.

VN: Was there any special connection to cycling from officials within Garmin that they wanted to get behind a professional cycling team?

JC: We looked at this sport to increase our brand awareness, to increase our sales in the fitness category. We’re not here because our owner is a rabid cycling fan. We’re here for business reasons and we’re enthusiasts. The device that sits on David Millar’s bike was designed by engineers back in Kansas City who are devoted to this sport. They asked, the GPS device that works in my car, if I could make it function for a bike, what would that look like? Years ago, we started working with the same technology that guides boats, planes and cars, and apply that same technology to enhancing cycling opportunities. We didn’t have a history with the Tour. We see the Tour as an opportunity to showcase our products in a big way.

VN: Was it difficult for Garmin to commit to cycling after the recent doping scandals plaguing the sport?

JC: The leadership at Garmin took a very practical and pragmatic approach. We looked at that fan base, that’s our customer. We looked at the viewing audience on TV, just during the next three weeks with the Tour, that’s a huge media buy. As the team attacks, we make headlines, that’s great media exposure. Then we had personal conversations with Vaughters and Allen Lim. We talked about the integrity of the team and what they want to accomplish. It was a very thoughtful process, not a difficult one.

VN: The doping scandals have scared off a lot of potential U.S. sponsors, why did Garmin decide to move forward?

JC: There’s been a black cloud over the sport. The doping issue might be a bigger issue in America than it is in Europe. People who aren’t as familiar with the sport, they might look at that and gasp. We are obviously very concerned. But there are a lot of changes in the sport right now. We see it as opportunity to be part of this wave and be part of this movement to ride clean. That’s a good position to be in. If we’re part of the breakaway toward clean riding, that’s good for our brand as well. We have every confidence that this team will do as its promised, that’s to ride clean and ride well.

VN: Does Garmin have language in its contract concerning the doping issue?

JC: Our contract is private and complex, but there are measures in the contract that state what’s expected of us as a sponsor, and what’s expected of the riders. We expect the riders to uphold the integrity of their sport and of our sponsor. Those character issues are part of any standard contract. We have assurances that they will ride clean, and they have assurances that we will support the team.

VN: Was the team’s anti-doping policy and ethics message critical in the final decision?

JC: I would be lying that I understood all that goes into (the anti-doping program). I have every confidence that Jonathan and the team is doing everything possible. We know that they are embracing the highest standard. As far as anti-doping policy, they, as a team, and we, as a corporation, will not tolerate any kind of misconduct. It’s important to us, that’s something we check off early.

VN: When did Garmin initially make the decision to back a pro team?

JC: We started out as a small sponsor at the Tour of California a few years ago. We started to talk to teams, we started to look around and this crazy argyle design caught our attention. We evaluated it, would it be better for our brand to put our name on a race, like Amgen does at the Tour de California? Or is it better to provide equipment to a lot of teams like some companies do? Or would we want our name on a team as a title sponsor? We really looked around. We’ve had countless e-mails and conversations with the owners of (Slipstream). They’ve been incredibly open with us. We’ve come in with eyes wide open, so maybe over the period a few years.

VN: How many teams did Garmin consider?

JC: We had no preconception. We didn’t identify a team early. We stepped back and were methodical in our search. Is it a pro team, something that’s already established? With Slipstream, it was kind of a youth movement and an international movement. The enthusiasm and zeal they have to develop winners of this team was unique. We said, let’s look at everything and then we migrated to Slipstream.

VN: Along with Columbia, Garmin represents the second major U.S. company to step forward as a sponsor, has the sense of caution among corporate America about cycling lifted?

JC: The mainstream American corporate culture is looking for companies to step up. We saw it with Columbia, and we’re a consumer electronics brand. Other corporations are thinking maybe it’s time to come back into it. We’re not worried about it or not worried if we’re setting a trend. We looked at our customer base and our demographic, and a cycling team was a great fit. Cycling is growing every year.

VN: Does Garmin have any other major sponsorship deals?

JC: This is our biggest sponsorship and our only global sponsorship. Garmin is truly an international company. We have operations throughout Europe, North America and Asia. This is the only sponsorship that circles the globe and that’s strong in our major markets.

VN: By the team’s own admission, it doesn’t have a rider who can aspire to win the yellow jersey in Paris, is Garmin satisfied with the team’s roll as an instigator in the race?

JC: We hope to be protagonists, riding in the front, to get great exposure and offer great moments in cycling. Will we be engaged during the entire race. We will race by riding hard, riding clean and riding at the front. We’re going to ride well every day.