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Live TV coverage of women’s races: The bigger picture

As Women’s Tour organizers launch a campaign for new title sponsors, they also question whether live TV is really viable for Women’s WorldTour events

Which race will you watch once you’ve read this? The condensed season means that if you subscribe to the right channels there is almost too much to see at any given time. Sunday, with the Giro and the men’s and women’s Tour of Flanders, perhaps gives us the biggest choice.

Last month, rather than watching the Tour de France some would have liked the option of watching the Giro Rosa, but despite being the longest and oldest stage race on the Women’s WorldTour, the race wasn’t available live. Yes, there were highlights, but even when you’ve avoided the result, highlights rarely provide real tension. You lose some of the magic of watching live sports.

What complicated the matter for Italian organizers was the UCI’s requirement for at least some live coverage for all top tier events, and its absence was the final straw for the governing body who have since relegated it from the top tier for 2021.

“… Due to various shortcomings on the part of the organizer with regard to the specifications (particularly in terms of television coverage), despite repeated requests from us over the past few years,” read a UCI statement, also acknowledging the race’s historic place on the calendar.

But amid the social media consternation, some might have forgotten another top-level women’s race which has never had live TV coverage.

All six editions of the six-day British race, the Women’s Tour, have had a comprehensive highlights package shown free to air in the UK. In the race’s early years, the coverage was such a novelty that riders would gather around hotel lobby TVs to see how they had done.

Last week race organizers SweetSpot re-launched their search for a title sponsor to replace OVO Energy for both their headline events, the Women’s Tour and the Tour of Britain. It’s not that either race is under existential threat — the funding model sees to that —but title sponsorship allows the race to develop.

As well as possibly extending the race to eight days, real development means live TV.

“That’s just a financial issue, and when a title sponsor does come on board whatever they do will be absolutely enough for us to justify paying for the live coverage to take place,” said Hugh Roberts, SweetSpot’s chairman. “But there are all sorts of new technologies that make live streaming much more cost-effective than before.”

Some smaller events in mainland Europe have used 4G to transmit pictures, but coverage in Britain is still too patchy to guarantee pictures and only the advent of 5G will come close to allow consistent coverage.

Without this, live coverage of cycling is a hugely expensive undertaking. Organizers have the onus of meeting all costs, as there is no chance of race organizers making money from selling rights to broadcasters, at least for now.

“I wouldn’t rule it out completely, but does pay mean cover the entire cost or does it mean making a contribution? Making a contribution towards it I can see that happening,” Roberts said. “I’m hoping that we will get a breakthrough with the larger free to air TV channels in the UK.”

The Giro’s WorldTour relegation was at least partly due to its lack of coverage, and Roberts has some sympathy, especially as what is required is not properly defined.

“The definition is subjective and it’s pathetic,” he said. “I went to the very first meeting when the idea that if you’re on the WorldTour you need live TV coverage [was raised] and I asked what exactly does live TV coverage look like? Is it some bloke with a handheld camera at the side of the road filming and streamed onto some obscure channel, or is it a fantastic program on the largest free to air channel?”

“If the UCI want it that badly they’d pay for it.”

The Women’s Tour is widely regarded as the best-organized event on the WorldTour calendar. It may not provide mountains, but the routes combined with the race’s prestige produce hard racing.

SweetSpot hopes this and the upturn in cycling participation in the UK will help attract new sponsors. But no one knows what the post-pandemic world economy will look like, and there is a chance some races will be unable to fund live TV. Will the UCI lower its expectations or will it — and the fans — accept having fewer races in the top tier?

“We will have live coverage,” Roberts said. “We’re the best race in the world, we are regarded as the gold standard, if we dropped down then they’ve really got a problem.”