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Prize money vs television coverage: What’s more important in the development of women’s cycling?

Last week, Nokere Koerse tripled its prize money for the women's event to match the men's. It was met with mixed response, but is there a 'right' way to grow women's cycling?

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To paraphrase an old adage: what comes first, the money or the television?

It’s a long-standing dichotomy that has been troubling those seeking to push women’s cycling forward.

The topic is never far from discussions, and it raised its head last week when the three-year-old Nokere Koerse women’s race announced it would up its money to match the men’s event for 2022. Next year’s prize pot will be €18,000 — more than any other women’s one-day race.

Also read: Nokere Koerse triples women’s prize money to match men

There was plenty of praise for the decision, but others felt the money could be spent elsewhere — such as a live TV broadcast. One of those was rival race organizer Tomas Van Den Spiegel of Flanders Classics.

“I will keep saying that prize money comes after investments in tv broadcasts and start money for all teams, rewarding the whole peloton. Part of the puzzle, of course, but not the main priority,” the Belgian former basketball player said on Twitter.

It’s not a new stance for Van Den Spiegel, who said much the same when Omloop Het Niewsblad — which is run by Flanders Classics — was criticized for its women’s prize money earlier this year.

“Women’s cycling still has a lot of challenges ahead. Prize money is one of them, it’s a very symbolic one and probably the easiest to understand in the whole business model of cycling today,” Van Den Spiegel told VeloNews back in June.

“Giving equal prize money today is not going to make the difference for the sport. The difference is going to be made in the TV coverage, it’s going to be made in better wages for the riders, in more attractiveness of the product for sponsors.”

Also read: Analysis: Women’s cycling is as strong as ever, but there is a long way to go for parity

Flanders Classics has put its money where its mouth is in delivering wide-ranging television coverage for all of its women’s races. It is moving towards pay parity between its men’s and women’s events in 2023 as part of its “closing the gap” plan.

Nokere Koerse put in 30-minute highlights for this year’s event, but it remains unknown what television coverage it will provide in 2022. However, the upping in prize money is part of an attempt to get WorldTour status for 2023, which will require it to provide some 45 minutes of live television coverage if it is successful.

Is prize money just symbolic? Does it matter?

There is no doubting the merit of strong live television coverage, and Van Den Spiegel’s larger point. It is far easier to grow an audience when the general public has easy access to it.

A recent study in the UK by the organization Leaders in Sport and sports broadcaster Sky Sports found that 21 percent of adults in the UK were following more women’s sport than they did 18 months ago. Of those people, a massive 68 percent said that good television coverage had fuelled their interest.

While good TV broadcasts are necessary for promoting women’s cycling, it doesn’t mean that prize money should be left behind. Van Den Spiegel might feel as though it is symbolic, but symbols do matter.

Also read: Flanders Classics broadens support of women’s racing

As things stand, there is a massive disparity between the minimum standards set by the UCI for men’s and women’s events. It is up to the discretion of the organizer if they want to deviate from those minimums.

For UCI ProSeries one-day events, which Nokere Koerse currently is, the minimum mandated prize pot for 2021 was €4,660 with just €930 going to the winner. Men’s events have a minimum overall prize fund of €18,800 with €7,515 for first place.

The overall minimum will increase by a little under €500 for the 2022 season, and by about €700 for one-day WorldTour events.

“I don’t think [equal prize money] is the most important thing out there in women’s cycling, but I do think that it is important,” British rider Lizzy Banks told BBC Sport back in March.

“[Bigger prize money] just creates an environment where we say we value you as women and female riders and racers as much as we value the male riders and racers, and we think that your achievement is worth the same amount as the men’s achievement.”

Crowdfunding prize money

Earlier in the year, fans took things into their own hands and launched a crowdfunding campaign ahead of Strade Bianche. The €2,256 set aside for the women’s winner was more than the minimum set out by the UCI, but it was still significantly lower than the €16,000 minimum for the men.

The campaign raised over €30,000 in five days and meant the top riders would all have their prize money matched to their male counterpart. Trek-Segafredo rider Elisa Longo Borghini, who finished second, announced after the race that she and her teammates would donate the money to women’s cycling projects.

Following discussions about the disparity in prize money at the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes, it was revealed that Trek-Segafredo was already matching prize money for its women’s team.

Trek rider Lizzie Deignan won just €1,535 — the mandated minimum — for her Roubaix victory while Sonny Colbrelli took home €30,000 — which is a whole €10,000 more than the minimum set out by the UCI for men’s one-day WorldTour winners.

“Obviously, the prize money is disappointing, but I think it’s a nice moment to point out what my team Trek-Segafredo is doing,” Deignan said after her win. “They’ve been equaling the prize money to the male equivalent races that we’ve been doing, not just at this race, but the whole season.

“It takes initiatives like that kind of support from sponsors and brands to push the boundaries and each aspect like that we need to keep pushing, we’re not there yet. But we’re not being silent about it anymore. I think that’s important.”

The overall prize pot for the men’s Roubaix was more than €40,000 above the minimum UCI standard. This isn’t to say that the men should have their prize money deducted, just a representation of the disparity.

It was fantastic to have a women’s Paris-Roubaix and we can only hope that future editions will see the prize money — and television production — upped.

Television coverage — especially live broadcasts — is hugely important in the development of women’s cycling, probably the biggest piece of the overall puzzle. Without it, fans are relying on sparse bits of information that serve the already initiated and passionate fans.

While the main focus and impetus should be put behind these broadcasts, we shouldn’t dismiss prize money and the important role it has. Increasing prize money does hold value and we should welcome the fact that some organizers are able to push their resources towards larger rewards.

Women’s cycling is on the up and there are several different ways the final jigsaw can be put together. One thing is for sure, we need all the pieces to come together.