Michele Acquarone ready for league talks with the UCI

Giro boss Michele Acquarone says he is ready to discuss Omega Pharma-Quick Step owner Zdenek Bakala's idea for a cycling league with the UCI

MILAN (VN) — Giro d’Italia boss Michele Acquarone plans to speak to the Union Cycliste Internationale about an alternative cycling league in the near future.

The talks, coupled with the willingness of big-money investors, have the potential to change the face of cycling in under three years’ time.

A proposed project could restyle the current WorldTour, similar to European soccer’s Champions League or to the World Tour of Tennis.

“It’s impossible to give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to this type of project today because we don’t know everything about it yet,” Acquarone told VeloNews. “What we’ve always said, to the UCI and to the teams, is that we are available to sit down at the table and talk about new projects. We know that we need to work together, and if that happens, the famous pie could become even bigger. A good project could be advantageous for everyone. We are ready to talk, but remaining aligned with the UCI.”

Acquarone spoke with VeloNews while in Miami as part of a gran fondo that his RCS Sport organized. It attracted 1,000 riders and created a framework for five more events next year.

RCS Sport runs the Giro d’Italia and other races in Italy, such as Milan-San Remo and the Giro di Lombardia. The notion of a new cycling league, which Omega Pharma-Quick Step team owner Zdenek Bakala spoke of last Friday, would incorporate these in a calendar of around 20 top events.

“[It would be] the top teams with the best riders in the best races,” Bakala said, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper. “A high-quality format that’s easy for the public to follow and to sell to the big TV players, receiving rights that can be distributed to all the actors.”

The top 18 teams, similar to the current first division teams in the WorldTour, would race in all the league’s events. The UCI would regulate it and provide a clear ranking system, leaving the anti-doping to a third party. The UCI confirmed Saturday it has been in discussions for over a year and already signed an initial agreement with Bakala and partner, Bessel Kok.

Bakala attracted investors and said he is willing to put down $12-25 million of his own money to get the league going. He would like to phase it in and have it going full steam by 2016. Teams would receive a share of TV revenues and fight for greater prize money in the new league. So far, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport, eight to nine teams are already on board.

The race organizers might be the last hurdle for Bakala to jump. The principle players are the Amaury Sport Organisation (which manages the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix and holds a majority ownership in the Vuelta a España), RCS Sport and Flanders Classics (Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, and others).

“I was a little surprised by the Bakala press conference, where it emerged that the project is further along than I had thought,” Acquarone said. “We are interested in these projects that promote cycling for the fans. Having the best racers in the top races, where it’s all clearer… There are a lot of confusing aspects out there now: the points system, the licenses… The clearer it becomes, the better it is for the fans. Then, if the pie increases, I don’t see why we can’t satisfy all the principal players.”

Acquarone said that every party must leave the table happy, otherwise the agreement will fizzle. “We have to find an agreement for everyone, under the UCI’s control, for the teams and organizers,” he said.

IMG recently agreed to handle TV rights for the Flanders Classics. Acquarone also has a deal with the U.S.-based group. He said, “We signed a deal with IMG already, which will sell the Giro’s TV rights all over the world.”

ASO maintains lucrative deals with partners across the world to broadcast the Tour, such as NBC in the U.S. and SBS in Australia. Whether it wants to give up part of its pie remains to be seen. For now, Bakala hopes just to have ASO sit at the table with Acquarone and the UCI.