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In women’s peloton, chasing sponsor dollars is a constant fight

The sport director of Tibco talks to VeloNews about the constant challenge of finding sponsors in women's professional racing.

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GOLDEN, Colorado (VN) — The status of men’s and women’s cycling sponsorship fluctuates like a mini stock market. Telecommunication companies, banks, and car manufacturers come and go, often at a corporate whim.

It’s no secret women’s teams are the most vulnerable, and the demise of the Velocio-SRAM team at the end of the season is the most recent example. Limited budgets also prompt unusual, if not cumbersome, combination names in the women’s peloton, with BMW-Happy Tooth and Visit Dallas-Noise4Good as examples.

The most notable enduring team name in the men’s peloton is Jelly Belly. The California confectionery has sponsored its men’s squad for 16 years. TIBCO, the women’s team sponsored by the Palo Alto, California software company, is in its 11th season. The founder and former owner of the company is Vivek Ranadive, now the owner of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.

Team TIBCO has been run since its inception by Linda Jackson, the former Canadian pro whose career included international stage race wins and a steady collection of other victories. She retired in 2000 for a career change into the world of investment banking.

Jackson, 56, who lives with her husband in Pescadero, California, still rides her bike frequently and has the energy and appearance of fitness to still compete, although she has no desire to do so. She has little spare time but enjoys cultivating organic tomatoes in the family’s garden.

“The second year of the team, Vivek said, ‘I’m behind you, but you’re going to have to convince my management team,’” Jackson said Sunday prior to the concluding stage of the three-day women’s USA Pro Challenge. “So then it became less about someone just helping out a sport to convincing management why they should.

“So I did. I went to several departments at TIBCO, human resources, sales and marketing. I worked with the head of each division. I convinced them why they should sponsor a team and what they could get out of it. That was the first step.”

Jackson was originally going to start the team with a $5,000 budget, but she convinced the company to contribute $15,000.

“Step two is delivering on those promises, and that’s where a lot of teams fall short,” said Jackson, who traveled from her Central California base to not only visit with team members but also to cultivate the relationship with another sponsor. “Even to this day, some of my own staff when they have to go to sponsor events, they’re grumbling about it. I say, ‘You don’t understand. This is what keeps us alive.’”

While far less than many men’s teams’ bankrolls, the budget for TIBCO via its title sponsor and second-listed sponsor SVB (Silicon Valley Bank) supports 11 riders and staff. Jackson doesn’t discuss financial contracts, but the team’s riders all have salaries. Krista Doebel-Hickok, who placed 14th, was the squad’s highest-placed finisher at the USA Pro Challenge. Several other team members also competed Sunday in the World Cup event in Sweden.

The three stages of the women’s race in Colorado had a total prize purse of just under $33,000. It was the same amount as the last three stages of the men’s race.

“At the top end, I suppose it’s livable,” said Jackson of her team members’ salaries. “At the bottom level, it certainly isn’t. They have to be doing other things, like coaching.”

While an outspoken advocate of women’s cycling, Jackson is also a realist. She viewed the end of the UCI guaranteed women’s salary structure as good for the sport.

“I am glad that they dropped it, because if they kept it, it would throw a lot of teams out of business, including our own,” said Jackson. “We wouldn’t be able to survive. While I agree it should happen, it’s going to be in the future. There’s just not enough sponsorship.”

Jackson’s perspective is direct. To acquire and sustain sponsors, women’s cycling needs television coverage. The UCI has promised more women’s racing, but events like the one-day women’s race at the Tour de France is more of an appeasement. Jackson described it as a circus.

“The sponsors aren’t just giving the money away; they’re doing it for a return,” said Jackson. “For men’s racing, it’s the Tour de France and three weeks of television coverage. For women’s racing, it’s a lot different. It takes teams constantly working with sponsors and the media. The bottom line is figuring out what the sponsor wants. But that always doesn’t align with a team’s goal of trying to win a bike race in Utah.

“I think there should be a seven-day women’s race along the seven-day men’s race,” Jackson said of the USA Pro Challenge. “That said, I can understand that they are not going to take sponsorship dollars out of the men’s race to support the women’s race. That means we need to raise more money for women’s racing. Welcome to my world. It’s a hard thing to do.”