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Lefevere raises alarm bells over threat to team sponsorships from coronavirus

Veteran Belgian manager warns that if the Tour de France cannot be held, the fallout could be costly for team budgets.

Professional cycling lives and thrives on marketing dollars. And in the face of unprecedented challenges from a growing coronavirus pandemic, cycling’s business model could be at risk.

That’s the takeaway from longtime team manager Patrick Lefevere. Writing in a column in Het Nieuwsblad, the Belgian said the coronavirus is a clear and present danger to cycling if it’s not quickly contained by world health authorities.

The racing calendar has already ground to a halt. Now Lefevere is wondering if team sponsorships could follow.

“I realize that in this big story, cycling is just a footnote, but I’m a cycling team manager, so I’m also worried,” Lefevere wrote. “All companies that export will see their turnover drop. And then savings are quickly made on marketing. It would be naive to think that the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis does not translate to cycling.”

So far, cycling teams are holding tight. Most have wound down their operations in what many hope will only be a temporary stop. Pressure will grow, however, if races later in the season are also canceled. Riders and full-time staffers have seen their salaries assured, but many team helpers who are hired on temporary contracts for a specific number of days won’t be getting paid if there are not races to go to.

Lefevere said the sport could hit a tipping point if the Tour de France is canceled. So far, race officials are holding out hope that the Tour will be allowed to be contested. Worsening conditions across Europe, however, are raising serious doubts about the future of the entire 2020 racing season.

“Then we are talking about a total disaster,” Lefevere said if the Tour is canceled. “It would be downright stupid not to take this into account. My maxim is to always start from a best case and a worst case. In the first case, we race again in June. In the worst case, the season is over. I may be a pessimist, but who would have dared to predict three weeks ago that half of Europe would suddenly be under house arrest?”

Others in the sport are already worried about the fallout of the coronavirus crisis. Not only do teams largely rely on marketing dollars from top sponsors, race organizers count on a large part of their budgets from local and regional governments who use races to promote local business and boost tourism. Those resources could quickly dry up if the coronavirus continues to crater the European economy.

“And then I hold my heart,” Lefevere said. “The spring, the most important showcase for my team, is completely gone. ASO [Tour de France organizer] can take a beating, the teams cannot. If there is no Tour de France, the whole model of cycling can collapse.”