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Here is cycling’s great paradox as it moves deeper into the new millennium: relevance to the TV audience.
Perhaps there is no sport in the world that’s as exciting to participate in yet is as boring to watch on television as bike racing.
Sometimes that’s hard to comprehend. Anyone who’s raced, or stood on the side of the road to watch a race, can attest to cycling’s passion, speed, and thrills. In many ways, the sport has all the ingredients to be one of the most compelling TV sports in the world, yet it is not. Why? In part because television broadcasting product has remained static for 20 years.
After watching another season of thrilling bike racing yet largely incomprehensible TV coverage to go along with it, a recent trip back to the United States drove home the point of just how non-compelling watching cycling on TV has become, and how much it could be, and needs to be, vastly improved.
For nearly a month back in the U.S., I was clubbed over the head by SportsCenter, Monday Night Football, the World Series, and such contrived events as the Red Bull Air Race with acrobatic planes.
As bombastic, loud, and commercialized American sports have become, it helped me realize how just anachronistic and woefully out of touch cycling has become in the TV landscape.
Five simple ways to make cycling more compelling on TV
There are many ways to tell a story with on-screen graphics, and cycling needs to catch up. The simple use of tickers and graphic boxes could go a long way. These info graphics could display all kinds of relevant information to engage the viewing audience. Beyond critical data about the race, such as distances, time gaps, and even prevailing wind direction, sidebar graphics could provide history, palmares, and factoids about riders in breakaways. Insider data could also be revealed, such as power numbers, heart rate, telemetry, and climbing rates. It could be argued that some of these on-screen graphics are gimmicky and even distracting; but why, after nearly 20 years of watching the Tour on TV, do I still not know how far it is to the finish line? Because the graphics suck.
The UCI finally began this season to experiment with GPS technology in races. It’s imperfect, and sometimes inexact, but it provides critical information for viewers. Riders and teams are resistant to bike-mounted GPS, in part due to weight issues and tactical questions, but if the technology could be worked into their time sensors — and some power meters already include GPS technology — every rider should have a universal GPS system mounted to their bikes. Not only could information be used in TV broadcasts, but the technology could be expanded to smartphone apps — think real-time Strava during the race— or for imaginative TV images of aerial shots of the peloton, with GPS sensors indicating where the major riders are in the peloton. Similar technology has been used for years in motor sports. Cycling simply needs to step into the 21st century, and exploit the technology that already exists.
I don’t know if it was Peter Stetina’s original idea, but I heard the BMC Racing rider talking about it this season and it makes perfect sense. Instead of random numbers plucked from a hat, or based on some inane ranking system, give riders permanent numbers to be placed on their jerseys.
The idea of the No. 1 bib of the defending champion holds little relevance once the bike race is underway. Instead, riders should have permanent numbers they would carry from race to race. It’s a great way for fans not only to identify the riders, but also to feel linked with them throughout the entire season, or careers. Just like football has its No. 12 for the quarterback or soccer has No. 9 for the lead striker at Real Madrid, Chris Froome should have his numbered jersey that he races throughout his career at Sky. And who cares if there are a dozen riders in the peloton with number 7? The team jerseys would be the differentiating factor. These permanent race numbers would quickly become synonymous with greatness, and cycling needs that. Imagine if Eddy Merckx had raced with the same number throughout his whole career. It would rank up there with Hank Aaron’s 44, or Michael Jordan’s 23.
In-race cameras and audio
Like GPS, the sport started to experiment with both of these throughout the season with stunning success. Some of the most compelling video came from Shimano’s bike-mounted camera footage of Giant-Shimano sprinter John Degenkolb and his leadout train during stage 5 at the Tour de Suisse. Everyone who watched that video came away impressed not only with the speeds, bike-handling skills, and danger, but just how cool it was to be inside the peloton.
Another highlight came with the use of cameras and audio mounted inside team cars, particularly during the spring classics. Nothing captured the tension, and ultimate disappointment, at Gent-Wevelgem for Lotto-Belisol more than watching the reactions of sport directors, and later, a dejected André Greipel, who stepped from inside the team car after crashing and breaking his collarbone.
Another idea would be to put cameras on the front and back of photographers’ motorcycles — someone like Tim De Waele, who truly has a front-row seat.
And race radio? Instead of banning it, keep it and embrace it. I’d love to hear the chatter between Matt White and Simon Gerrans in the final run into Liège-Bastogne-Liège, or hear what Bjarne Riis is really saying to his troops.
Some of that technology is difficult to provide in real-time, due to size and weight issues, but many lightweight cameras are already capable of being fed into a live broadcast. Other sports have embraced it, so cycling should too.
TV producers who know the sport
Perhaps there should be a crash course on bike-racing tactics for TV directors and producers. I am not privy to the inside process of who calls the shots of what eventually is broadcast, but the quality of images is often inconsistent, haphazard, and without focus. Each country has a host broadcaster that handles the production from their respective countries, so the French handle the Tour, the Italian the Giro, and the Spanish the Vuelta. It’s maddening for viewers as TV images will invariably cut away from the decisive attacks at the front of the major climb to the suffering face of Thomas Voeckler or some other non-contending Frenchman languishing off the back. Fans want to see Alberto Contador attacking Froome, not some random shot a director is selecting on a whim. The sport does a good job of selling the beauty of France during the Tour, with sweeping shots of the countryside, the castles, and the fans, but there is still a feeling that more could be done with how the narrative of the actual race action unfolds.
Sporza leading the way
To see how good bike racing on TV can be, watch Sporza during the spring classics. Without question, the best European TV production comes from the Belgians, and more specifically, the Flemish broadcasters during the spring classics. The TV producers and directors clearly know the sport, and they’re packaging a product for an informed public. You don’t see feel-good features about why riders shave their legs on Sporza. Instead, the Flemish have been on the cutting edge of cycling broadcasting, putting TV cameras inside team cars, utilizing GPS technology mounted on TV camera motorcycles, and providing accurate, real-time information that makes the TV not only more comprehensible but infinitely more engaging.
No easy feat
Having said all that, it must be pointed out that no sport is as complicated and expensive to broadcast as cycling. Most sports have the luxury of unfolding inside stadiums, where fixed camera positions and hard-wired lines assure the best shots and a clear signal. That’s obviously not the case in cycling. Production facilities must be moved from stage to stage. Platoons of technicians work day and night during the Tour to ensure everything unfolds without a glitch. Not only is the race moving at breakneck speed over open roads, the technical difficulties of beaming TV signals from the back of motorcycles or helicopters flying across the Alps present a major technological and logistical hurdle each and every stage. Add rain, snow, wind, and heat, and it’s probably easier to cover a war than a three-week stage race across Europe.
Who’s gonna pay?
A major problem is money. To modernize cycling’s TV image requires investment, but that’s not so easy to do in cycling’s ever-dwindling pie. The Tour de France keeps a close lid on how much it earns off TV rights, but it’s nowhere near the billions that soccer or major U.S. sports bring in. GPS sounds great, but who’s going to pay for it? TV production is always a labor-intensive endeavor, and a very expensive one at that. The broadcasting budget for a race such as the Tour runs in the millions of dollars, and with today’s struggling economy, there’s not much money left to spend on fancy computer graphics or new gizmos like bike-mounted cameras.
More headwind for cycling’s TV product stems from the fact that the TV rights are sold largely on a race-by-race basis. There is not one universal contract, such as the NFL season or the Champions League, that can be packaged, marketed, and invested in. Instead, the Giro sells its races, the Tour theirs, while smaller races must pay for the TV production out of their own operating budgets because there are no rights to even sell.
Keeping up with Red Bull
In an ever-competitive TV landscape, cycling clearly needs to shake things up to stay relevant. The UCI deserves credit for broadening the horizon, and there is discussion of some of these issues as part of its revision of how the sport will look moving forward. Some can be quick, low-cost fixes, such as numbers on jerseys or cameras inside team cars, while others, such as the GPS tracking and on-bike cameras, remain a work in progress. But something needs to be done, especially when the foundation of the existing sponsor model for teams — media exposure — is dependent on quality TV. Yet cycling’s television product has barely evolved in two decades, while other sports have completely eclipsed cycling due to technological innovation.
In many ways, cycling is a perfect TV property, a virtual high-speed chess match set against the world’s most dramatic landscapes. Yet cycling is fast becoming a “grandpa” sport, with younger viewers drawn to more slick, well-produced, and enthralling TV products.
Cycling’s major problem remains its credibility, but as the sport struggles to find its new identity, it could go a long way to bring back disenfranchised fans, and win new ones, by making the sport as compelling, engaging, comprehensible, and exciting as possible for television viewers.
Cycling doesn’t have to change completely; just the way it’s marketed, presented, and broadcast. The sport needs to do a much better job selling itself in a highly competitive marketplace, where not only traditional ball sports, but made-for-TV events such as the X-Games and Red Bull-anything, are offering a much more viewer-friendly product than how cycling looks today.
And it still makes my skin boil when I hear that bull riding draws better TV ratings than cycling. Some things just shouldn’t be.