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Race organizers, sponsors call for shake up of broadcast model

Insiders see punchy format and clear narrative of cyclocross as a reference, and call for greater use of social media and coverage of women's racing.

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Ever tuned into a grand tour stage to see there are still 150 kilometers to go until the bunch sprint, then pick up your mobile or start channel-hopping to kill a few hours? You’re not the only one, and race organizers and sponsors recognize that.

Tomas Van Den Spiegel, boss of Flanders Classics, has suggested that broadcasts need to be shorter, punchier, and more to the point in an interview with Het Laatste Nieuws.

“The concentration span among young people is shorter than before, due to the larger supply and the greater number of screens. We have to take this into account in the future,” Van Den Spiegel, organizer of races such as Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad said.

“I do think that the last hours [of a broadcast] are normally more attractive than the first,” he continued.

While marquee races are now being broadcast from kilometer zero to the finish line on platforms across the world, Van Den Spiegel feels this should be used only sparingly, with the focus typically placed on a more high-action spectacle with a clear narrative and brand.

“Recognition, repetition, a clearly defined product: that is the basis of a successful format,” he said. “People are creatures of habit. Cyclocross is an example. Occasionally longer broadcasts, at peak times should be possible in exceptional cases. Like the grand slams in tennis or a Tour of Flanders.”

“We have already shortened some events, such as Dwars door Vlaanderen,” Van Den Spiegel continued. “Or we partly race on a local course, partly because of its recognisability, such as in De Ronde and Scheldeprijs. It is certain that sport on TV is going to change, but we shouldn’t force it: let it be a gradual process.”

With many WorldTour contracts determined on the guarantee of TV time for team backers, insiders point out that race coverage could only be shortened so much. However, some reduction in air-time afforded to sponsors wouldn’t be a game-changer in negotiations due to the growing power of social media.

“Live TV is only part of the whole,” said Marko Heijl of Soudal, longtime sponsor of Belgian squad Lotto-Soudal. “No modern sponsor will consider shrinking of live coverage as a breaking point. Visibility remains important, so there must be a minimum, but TV is complementary to social media.

“Sponsorship is a verb today,” he continued. “Apathetic TV viewing is of little use to you as a company, interaction is what you are looking for. Viewers want a faster and more flashy product: well, replace that boring hour of the men’s race with the final of a women’s competition, everyone wins. Cyclocross proves that it is possible. The falling viewing figures for men, and thus the loss of visibility, is compensated for by increasing viewing figures for women.”

Luc Van Langenhove, sports manager at Belgian broadcaster VRT, also cited the one-hour adrenaline shot of cyclocross as a possible point of future reference.

“A handy format: unity of time and place,” Van Langenhove said “Compact. Super-popular in Flanders. Sliced ​​cake. Young people’s attention span is shorter. They want to have more content on social media and TV. Cycling is still going against that trend for the time being, with an older, mainly male audience.”

Broadcasters and race organizers have been making baby steps toward creating a more engaging televisual product through the use of live rider data made available by Velon and the creation of the innovative Hammer Series format. Since the coronavirus racing shutdown has denied teams and sponsors their usual publicity routes, the use of social media to engage fans through Instagram takeovers, Zwift rides, and Twitter competitions has become vital.

What could be next?

Who knows, but that opportunity to sit on your sofa on Sunday afternoon channel-hopping your way through a sprint stage may not last much longer.