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NTT undergoes salary cuts, prepares for race revival in pivotal year

Africa's first WorldTour team sees the pressure mounting as its title sponsorship is up for renewal in a season of upheaval.

The new-look NTT Pro Cycling team was barely out of the gates in 2020 when the coronavirus shut everything down.

After nearly two months of a racing hiatus, NTT team officials confirmed they’ve made salary adjustments at a critical time for the future of Africa’s first WorldTour team, with the title sponsorship up at the end of this season.

“We made salary adjustments with riders and staff to try to help the long-term sustainability of the team,” team principal Doug Ryder said Thursday. “We know it is a decisive year for us. Now it is a very tough time to have those conversations with our sponsors right now.”

Ryder did not reveal how much salaries were reduced, and said it was riders and staffers who approached management about working together to find a solution.

The confirmation makes NTT the latest WorldTour squad to reveal it’s feeling the pinch from the coronavirus crisis. So far, at least six WorldTour teams have cut or deferred wages.

NTT’s sponsorship is up at the end of 2020, and Ryder admitted that the uncertainty of the sport doesn’t help.

“For many teams, us included, it’s critical that racing happens again this year, and that it’s in an environment that’s safe,” Ryder said in a videoconference with journalists. “If racing doesn’t happen, it’s big for the teams. We are fortunate that we have amazing partners that support us.”

The arrival of Bjarne Riis and other key investors in January pumped new energy into the moribund team that was languishing near the bottom of team rankings at the end of 2019.

With Riis at the helm on the sporting side, the team was hot out of the gates early this season, with an important victory at the Santos Tour Down Under to gain momentum.

The racing shutdown put everything on ice, and the pandemic and growing economic crisis is creating worry across the sport. Many are wondering which teams and races might fold if the shutdown lingers beyond this summer and if the Tour de France is not held.

“Will cycling survive? It might be that some parts of cycling will take a step back before you can move forward again,” Riis said. “It might be that some teams will fall apart. Maybe some teams will merge. We are working very hard to secure our future.”

Riis, who owned a team before selling it to Russian businessman Oleg Tinkov, explained teams are losing money during the racing shutdown by missing out on start money at WorldTour races and other events.

“Every team has start-money built into the budget,” Riis said. “It is a significant amount for every team. That is cut away, and we are not guaranteed it will come in again even when we start racing.”

Race organizers, which are equally as strapped during the growing crisis, might not have the budgets to pay start-money if racing resumes later this summer. Those fees are not more than a few thousand per race, to the low-10s of thousands of dollars for grand tours — but it adds up.

Ryder also explained sponsorships are not paid out in one lump sum, and that some sponsors are having trouble meeting commitments or perhaps deferring payments until racing resumes.

“Every team is different, but no sponsor pays its full budget on January 1,” Ryder said. “That fact that we’re not racing means the teams are losing money. With the spring classics and the Giro d’Italia, there are a lot of appearance fees that are weighted in the first part of the season that goes toward the costs of running the team.

“Some sponsors are waiting to defer payments until racing begins again,” Ryder said. “It’s a very complicated puzzle for every team. The biggest piece is salaries and people, and we are trying to deal with that in the right way.”

Ryder and Riis said the team is working hard behind the scenes to keep riders fit and motivated during the unprecedented race shutdown. The team’s staffers, coaches, and riders have been staying in touch with conference calls, holding weekly online training sessions as well as conversations to keep everyone thinking about the returning for racing.

“The most important thing is to be ready from the gun,” Riis said. “It’s going to be tough racing, tough logistics. Everyone needs to get ready, and work hard. Then it will be OK. We have to deal with what it is.”

NTT is keen to get back to reason to show sponsors and partners alike they’re racing to win. With the team’s future on the line, everyone is hoping the Tour and other top races are contested later this summer.