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The state of racing: Momentum Sports co-founder Thierry Attias

With his pro team losing UnitedHealthcare as a sponsor at the end of 2018, Attias says U.S. cycling needs more personalities.

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North America’s professional cycling circuit faces major challenges for 2019, with multiple professional squads facing an uncertain future, and a shrinking competition calendar. In the coming weeks, VeloNews will publish a series of essays written by the people within this community. The first column in this series is written by Thierry Attias, co-founder of Momentum Sports, which has operated a professional cycling team since 2003, most recently with the title sponsor UnitedHealthcare. In August Attias revealed to the public that his team was in jeopardy for 2019, with UHC not returning as a title sponsor. Attias says he is still hopeful that the team will continue next season.

I believe to accurately comment on the current state of U.S. pro cycling, one must compare where we are today, to where we were decades ago.

In August of 1991 I opened my bike shop, called, Cycle Sports, in Alameda, California. Back then cycling was booming as a form of recreation. Mountain bikes were all the rage, and new bike technology was everywhere. Fans had heroes like John Tomac, and Greg Lemond, and a young and charismatic Lance Armstrong, who was on his way up. At our shop, we often sold out of pro jerseys by the first week of the Tour de France.

We were blissfully ignorant of the doping culture that allowed us to witness superhuman feats on a bike.

Because of the growth both endemic and non-endemic companies wanted to get involved with cycling because the sport was cool and exciting. Most importantly, Americans were good at it. We were beating the Europeans at their own game.

The success had a snowball effect. As more companies became interested in cycling, they sponsored more races and teams. Each sponsorship was often the work of some champion of the sport inside the company, who explained why cycling met the company’s business goals. Team representatives typically met with a company and created an activation plan to address their marketing needs.

So, today, we find the bike racing industry in a much different state. As you have probably seen, it’s not a great moment for pro cycling. Bike shop sales have been clobbered over the past half-decade. The number of brick and mortar bike shops and wholesalers have dropped. Races are being canceled. Teams are finding it very challenging to find funding and the public is looking elsewhere for inspiration.

The $64,000 question is: Why?

In my opinion, two things are required in sports to create a groundswell of attention and to, simply put, make the sport cool. First: we need characters, or at the very least, big personalities (be they heroes or villains) to follow. Second: we need success.

These two elements give average fans — those who are not connected to the sport — a reason to identify with and become interested in the sport. It’s no coincidence that the cycling industry was booming during the Lemond and Armstrong eras, both in terms of retail sales and TV viewership. Both of these guys had big personalities, and they were highly successful.

Today, American cycling does have a few characters, however, the big success — the type of results that bring mainstream viewers to the sport — is unfortunately lacking. Therefore, the overall interest in team sponsorships, race promotion, and other financial commitments that drive the sport forward, are lacking. Sponsors want the ability to draw from a broader audience, and right now, that is diminished.

Here’s the part that disappoints me. From a sports marketing perspective, cycling is still one of the best deals in town! There are few participatory sports that offer a naming right at this price, as well as a return on investment that is anywhere from three to eight times greater than what a company could get in television advertising. A team sponsorship takes place over a 10-month season, and checks so many other marketing boxes that I can’t list them all (employee engagement, unique client experiences, etc.)

Every major company knows how to entertain at a golf tournament or inside a luxury suite at a basketball game. No marketing executive was ever fired for erecting a billboard. Unfortunately, investing in cycling is still seen as a great unknown for the majority of companies, a risky and untested marketing spend. Do you think some mid-level marketing person is going to stake his or her corporate reputation on the success of a bike sponsorship? Unfortunately, no.

I recently saw how these dynamics have impacted the sponsorship market. We at Momentum Sports Group (currently the UnitedHealthcare Professional Cycling Team) were fortunate enough to know that our title sponsorship was set to end at the conclusion of the 2018 season. We allocated resources to recruiting new sponsors to take the place of UHC. We hired an outside company that specialized in sponsorship acquisitions. This company reached out to more than 120 different firms across 15 different industries.

Do you know how many solid leads this netted us?

Just one.

We then reached out through our network of friends, colleagues, and supporters to find additional leads.

Two more leads.

Finally, we hired a creative agency to run three separate campaigns on the social media platform LinkedIn. The campaigns created reached out to chief marketing officers and sponsorship decision makers and invited them to view our sponsorship proposal. Our campaign netted 11 views per week over the course of a six-week period.

Zero leads.

Our search included dozens of meetings, hundreds of hours of phone calls, and too many presentations to count. We spent tens of thousands of dollars on the search. And we got three companies that were interested in sponsoring the team. As any decent salesperson will tell you, success in sales is often a numbers game. The more viable options, the better.

We told each respective company that we were open to exploring a wide range of sponsorship arrangements: WorldTour, Pro Continental, Continental, Women’s WorldTour, or any combination of these.

As of today, we still have one viable lead we are working with, and we are still in the hunt. Our team is not off for 2019, and we hope to be able to register with the UCI for 2019.

My goal with this column is not to cast a negative view on the sport of cycling. In my opinion, our industry happens to be in a trough, due to the aforementioned occurrences. But cycling, like all sports, is cyclical. We will see good days again.

And there are multiple reasons to be excited about cycling, and some of these stories could help our sport rebound. There is the well-deserved growth and prominence of American women’s cycling. As was recently pointed out by USA Cycling CEO Derek Bouchard-Hall, the United States has some of the best female cyclists in the entire world. And these women are well-educated and highly articulate, in addition to being fierce competitors.

Cycling is also making a comeback as an alternative form of transportation that is being embraced by the millennial generation. Thanks to the work of urban activists, cities are building bike infrastructure. More casual cyclists equate to more visits to the bike shop, which should help the entire industry.

There is no quick fix for our sport’s current dip. In order to see another boom, we should continue to develop the characters that comprise the professional peloton. We should also step-up our game in data collection so that investors in the sport and industry know exactly who they are reaching, and what they are getting for their money.

I’ll leave you with this nugget. In our meetings with prospective partners, we spent about 20 percent of our time telling our story, and a whopping 80 percent of our time educating them about our sport.

If we can make Americans think that cycling is cool again, then they would already be experts. If we can make the sport of cycling attractive to mainstream audiences again, then we are sure to see another boom. Hopefully sooner rather than later.