Cyclocross

The story behind Trek’s foray into ‘cross broadcasting

What did it take to bring live European 'cross to American audiences? The sway of Sven Nys, some cash, and someone to actually ask for it.

Last Tuesday, American cyclocross fans watched the powerful, graceful Koppenbergcross victory of Wout van Aert in high-definition, for free, legally. In a country where cycling livestreams remain mostly pirated and generally horrible, it was something of a revelation.

What did it take to bring legitimate, livestreamed, European cyclocross to American shores? The sway of Sven Nys, a bit of cash, and someone to actually ask for it.

Two weeks ago, Trek bikes announced it would stream 10 major European cyclocross races throughout the season on its website, thus saving avid ‘cross fans from their usual scavenger hunt for quality video through VPN deception or in the pirated back alleys of the Internet. The first streamed race was Koppenbergcross, last Tuesday, and the second is Waaslandcross, this weekend.

American bike racing fans have long been fed excuses about broadcast rights. The UCI’s frequent streams are almost always blocked on American soil because NBC or some other major network owns the rights but chooses not to exercise them. Often, this is because the rights came via a package deal — NBC wants Worlds or Paris-Roubaix or some other major event and gets a bunch of smaller events thrown in. They have no interested in using those rights, as such small races are unlikely to generate much revenue.

In Europe, Eurosport and Sporza own almost everything. But the rights of Eurosport and Sporza don’t extend into the United States, and NBC and other American networks haven’t managed to gobble up everything.

“We wondered, ‘Has anybody actually asked if the rights are available?’” said Trek communications manager Eric Bjorling, one of the guiding forces behind the streaming endeavor. Nobody had. There are rights gaps, and Trek had spotted one.

“It would be a lie if I said this wasn’t a bit of a selfish pursuit,” Bjorling said. “Trek is full of cross fans, and around the office we were going, ‘Why can’t we watch cross racing? Why are we risking digital health poking around in the gray market?'”

The rights to the 10 events Trek will live stream are owned by a company called Golazo, which both produces the events and executes the broadcast. Bob Verbeeck, a cyclocross fan and former Belgian Olympian who attended Iowa State on an athletics scholarship in the early 1980s, owns the company. He also happens to be a good friend of recently retired, Trek-sponsored cyclocross legend Sven Nys.

Nys had previously put Trek in touch with Verbeeck, so Trek leaned on the relationship and reached out again.

“The Golazo connection was super helpful. Bob [Verbeeck] sent us to the right guy there. After that it was a very easy conversation,” Bjorling said. “They were excited that their racing was getting exposure to an American audience. They just didn’t necessarily know how to go about it. The NBCs of the world are really only interested in the world championships and maybe one or two other things.”

Trek didn’t necessarily know how to go about it, either. But a few meetings with the company’s web team indicated that a live stream was possible, and Golazo was willing to take its usual satellite feed, which Trek had no way of acquiring — “We don’t have a satellite truck,” Bjorling said — and turn it into an Internet feed that Trek could use.

“We struggled with satellite feeds, but after we figured the tech pieces it was a very easy calculation,” Bjorling said. “There are some costs associated but we figured it was something that we had to do. From a tech side, it wasn’t a giant burden on our web tech team. After we understood the capabilities of our site we figured it could be viable.”

The feeds are not perfect — there’s no English commentary to go along with them — but there’s no virus-filled popups, no shaky VPNs. The racing is in HD and the improvement is dramatic.

Providing the feed to American fans is not free, and though Bjorling described the effort as something of a public service, Trek is keeping a close eye on its audience. It had over 10,000 live viewers last Tuesday, for Koppenbergcross, and expects more this weekend.

“The cost isn’t massive. But it’s not free,” Bjorling said. “I will say, it really helps when your CFO is probably the most passionate cross guy in the building. He just managed to find some extra budget space for it.”