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Reporter’s Notebook: Why the Abu Dhabi/Velon deal matters

The deal between Velon and the Abu Dhabi Tour is a first step for teams to leverage power in their relationship with race organizers.

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Velon is more than a proprietor of mildly interesting GoPro videos.

On Tuesday, the commercial coalition of 11 WorldTour teams announced a new deal with the Abu Dhabi Tour, its backer the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, and organizer RCS Sport. The deal leverages Velon’s strongest asset, the star riders on its teams, into a revenue-sharing agreement that will see Velon teams financially benefit as the Abu Dhabi Tour grows.

The concept is simple: Velon teams agree to send send big-name riders, thus raising Abu Dhabi’s profile, in exchange for a slice of the revenue generated as the race grows.

This particular deal is not a financial game-changer for teams. The 11 Velon teams will not suddenly be flush with piles of new euros. So why does it matter?

To understand the jockeying between cycling’s stakeholders — the UCI, ASO, organizations like Velon, teams organization AIGCP — consider what is at stake.

Races live and die by the riders who attend. More stars equate to more coverage, more fans, more sponsors, and thus more revenue. For races like the Tour de France, this is never a problem. But it’s a constant battle for nearly every other race on the calendar.

This dynamic would suggest that teams, which have control over their stars, could hold much of the power. But that is certainly not the case. Teams lack strong organization, or a way to leverage their collective star power. This is the primary motivation for Velon — not GoPro videos, as nifty as those are.

Under the current system, much of ASO’s power stems from pro teams’ reliance on its races. Riding the Tour makes or breaks a season for teams in search of sponsorship — and they are almost always searching for sponsorship, most teams lone source of revenue. That gives ASO a tremendous amount of power over the entire sport.

Remember the letter ASO sent to the UCI in June, when it threatened to pull the Tour out of the UCI calendar over “stalled” reforms?

The primary point of contention was not the race calendar, but a debate over a single question: Should the WorldTour be governed by an open system, whereby teams have the opportunity to the move into and be kicked out of the top level, or a closed one, which protects teams from being downgraded out of the WorldTour?

The ASO letter was somewhat disingenuous. The teams (through AIGCP, Velon), the UCI, and ASO all want an open system. No stakeholder wants a team to be guaranteed a place in the WorldTour regardless of its performance and ethics. The difference between the two sides lies in the definition of ‘open.’

The UCI’s definition of an open system, shared by the teams, is essentially what we see today. According to the UCI’s reform document, teams would be guaranteed their place in the WorldTour for three years, unless (and this is the important part) they fail to “comply with the license criteria,” including sporting criteria, which presumably means winning races.

According to sources within the UCI and teams, all of whom requested anonymity, the ASO wants a system that relegates underperforming teams out of the WorldTour each year. Relegate is the key word. Under the system proposed in the UCI’s reform document, teams would only relegated for particularly bad performance — if they lacked “the ability to be competitive.” The ASO prefers automatic relegation, with two teams lopped off the bottom of the WorldTour every year, similar to European pro soccer leagues.

There is a strong case to be made for booting teams out of the WorldTour every year. But ASO has another motive. Recall that the ASO gains its power from teams’ reliance on its races. Under a relegation system, teams must send high-profile riders to more races, to make sure they have the required points to stay in the WorldTour. This is an advantage for ASO, which owns a good chunk of the WorldTour calendar, with the Tour, Vuelta a España, the Critérium du Dauphiné, Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Flèche Wallonne.

So why does the Velon deal matter? The presence of star riders is an issue of such importance that it led the ASO to threaten to pull its races out of the UCI. With the Velon deal, teams are banding together and offering up their assets — the star riders — only in exchange for a cut of the pie.

Imagine, for a moment, the entire WorldTour doing the same thing to ASO. That’s why this deal matters.