Women’s movement: The slow march toward equality

Women's cycling struggles to compete in a male-dominated marketplace. But that may be changing

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of Velo magazine.

It is midday in Paris, in the bleaching sunlight of July. It makes everything bone pale.

The Tour de France is ending in hours, and up from the Champs-Élysées will drift a cloud of noise; through the cuts in the cobbles tiny rivers of beer and champagne will run.

There will be hundreds of reporters stuffed into the corrals at the finish and they will jump over the fencing and onto the world’s great boulevard in order to record the same quotes that everyone else will record. They will dive right into the river of carbon and color and shining racers slick with sweat.

But right now, Marianne Vos has just won a bike race — the inaugural La Course by Le Tour event — on the very same street, and there are, maybe, five reporters waiting on an empty boulevard. Vos stops right in front of them, and hardly anyone is there to see her in her white jersey with rainbow stripes on the Champs.

It’s a moment that crystallizes the current state of women’s cycling — filled with potential, largely unrealized. But why?

“I always get a chuckle when the media criticize the UCI or other organizations for lack of support for women’s sport,” UCI president Brian Cookson told VeloNews, several months later. “Look at any edition of the Guardian, you’ll struggle most days to find any mention of women’s sport. The media has to change. I think there has been a recent change in public perception across the world for women’s sport, I think people are more interested in women’s sport of all kind. We at the UCI are doing our part and we want the media to step up and do their own part.”

VeloNews doesn’t have access to the web traffic of individual stories on other sites, but on that day, two very similar stories were written; one was about the men’s race and another was about the women’s.

About 16,000 people clicked on the story about the men, detailing Marcel Kittel’s victory. Roughly 9,500 people clicked on the story about Vos and La Course. At La Flèche Wallonne, 11,500 people opened up a story about Alejandro Valverde’s victory, whereas 3,000 wanted to read about Pauline Ferrand-Prévot’s underdog victory.

The question remains: why do so few care about women’s racing, in comparison to men’s racing? Why do people make jokes about tears at the finish line, when there are plenty of tears at men’s finish lines as well?

And what can be done about it, really?

Less money, more problems

At a recent development camp in the United States, a potential professional racer was told she could expect to make more money as a middling employee at a fast food restaurant. She did not choose to leave her job to race. It’s no wonder.

The basement pay for a male rider in the WorldTour is 35,000 euros (about $44,000), though most earn much more than that, even very average domestiques. On the women’s side, since there is no minimum, it’s not uncommon to hear about women racing for airline tickets, team kits, and a few bikes. Prize money? Yeah, right.

One of the more business-minded team managers in the sport is Garmin-Sharp’s Jonathan Vaughters. The newly minted MBA holder and longtime manager said, simply, it all comes down to numbers — figures like page views and viewership that then mandate the all-important number: sponsorship dollars.

There are fewer women’s teams, fewer women’s races, than on the men’s side.

The argument, of course, is that with more media attention would come more sponsorship, and more attention. The other argument, of course, is that the media attention will come once demand calls for it. Today, more than ever, media outlets are short on resources, and while many in the cycling media community are supportive of women’s racing, decisions must be made, based on a cost-benefit analysis, daily.

“People are trying to figure out which came first, the chicken or the egg, with women’s racing,” Vaughters said. “I’ve tried to sell sponsorship of a women’s team. It is very, very difficult.”

The wage issue is one that’s at the forefront, but wouldn’t be a panacea. In fact, such a move could result in the house of cards tumbling right away, reducing the teams and cutting the amount of players in an already-thin sport.

Cookson has called for a minimum salary rule to be established, but says that passing a rule would do more harm than anything if the sport cannot support itself.

“We should pass a rule that should be established for professional women’s cyclists. We can pass that tomorrow, but that wouldn’t mean that 500 women make that salary tomorrow; it would mean that most of the teams would re-register and a lot of women would lose their positions,” Cookson said. “What we’ve got to do is invest in the economy of women’s cycling by getting more sponsors in, getting more opportunity, TV coverage, public interest, media interest, and then at that point, we will be able to change those rules and everyone will benefit.”

Cookson thinks such improvements can be made in two to three years. “But it’s not just a matter of changing the rules,” he said. “A lot must happen before.”

Cycling, on any level, is expensive. Imagine a minimum wage is set at 30,000 euros for each rider, but sponsors are only in for 100,000 for smaller women’s teams.

“OK, now I can afford two riders and a director, and a little bit of gas money? You need to sell a million or thereabouts. And the numbers, the marketing metrics do not correlate with that level of spending at this point,” Vaughters said. “So you say ‘How do we change that?’”

In 2010, Vaughters inherited a women’s team when his Garmin squad merged with Cervélo’s men’s and women’s teams. That women’s team was shuttered — along with the U23 squad — amid budget issues in 2011. So it isn’t as if he doesn’t understand the economics in play.

“We needed to figure out some quick ways to make sure if [sponsors] had trouble paying, that we were going to be able to stay afloat as an organization,” he said. “Do I like that decision? No. It was absolutely horrible. But lo and behold … we lost close to $800,000 in that changeover of ownership.”

The jettisoned riders were placed on different teams, and their contracts paid in full.

Another huge monetary concern is the vast gap in prize money. Look at the 2013 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad as an example. Australian Tiffany Cromwell won the women’s event, and took home 270 euros; Luca Paolini won the men’s version and took home 65,000. At the Giro in the same year, the men’s purse for winning was 90,000 euros. The women’s? Four hundred and fifty.

Women in the sport now seem to be fighting the same battles women outside of sport fought decades ago. Unjustly, there’s a fine line that has to be walked, or else “they” risk the perception of complaining.

Evelyn Stevens (Specialized-lululemon) sees the sport from the inside out every day as a rider. She also sees it in a business sense; Stevens left a lucrative career on Wall Street to be a professional cyclist.

Earlier this season, Stevens inquired about the discrepancy in prize money at the world road championships in the team time trial (which her Specialized-lululemon team won), but was worried she was depicted as complaining.

But what if she had complained? Wouldn’t that be just? Larger men’s races are increasingly providing companion women’s events, yet how often is it read that women were “given” an event? Didn’t they earn it, same as the men?

“This is not a hobby. This is a livelihood. I don’t know why for men, it’s not a hobby, it’s a livelihood,” Stevens said. “I don’t want money because it’s charity; I want to be paid because I’m generating profit. We have to take ownership for what we do. I hate when I hear someone say, ‘If you race the same distances, you can get paid.’ It’s like, well, ‘We don’t set the courses.’”

Stevens added that she’s grateful for the opportunity, but that if the sport didn’t progress from where it is now, she’d be disappointed. “It’s a great state that it’s in,” she said. “But there’s room for improvement.”

Media Influence

Nicola Cranmer walks the aisles of the bookstore, pulling cycling magazines off the shelf. She counts the number of photos of women racing in each. Sometimes there are two, or five … or zero.

“Obviously it’s a male-dominated sport. Behind the scenes, these men have mothers, wives, a daughter … I still don’t get why it’s not of interest,” said Cranmer, the owner and general manager of Twenty16. Cranmer has been involved in the management of women’s cycling for the past 10 years. She said the perception of the scene might be that it’s on the upswing, but she also points out how difficult it is, still, to make it work.

“The addition of the women’s races, La Course, the Vuelta is having a stage, with the races here in the U.S. including more women’s stages — that’s great,” Cranmer said. She noted the potential for sponsors, the momentum at hand. But at this point, that’s all it seems to be — a feeling that things are getting bigger and better while not much has changed in a tangible sense.

“I am in the trenches, I am constantly looking for sponsorship. I’ve tried all kinds of angles,” she said. “And it’s not getting any easier. It’s still extremely challenging. There’s not a significant change from where I’m standing, as far as bringing in more sponsors. But I do feel like there is momentum.”

One thing she points to, as a potential lifeline, is media coverage. “They don’t know where to look,” Cranmer said of cycling fans and media consumers. “There isn’t the character building, or rivalry.” She cited a lack of narrative development due to a lack of coverage. “It’s there. The stories are there. It’s like a tree falling in the woods. People are just not exposed to it.”

Stevens feels the same way, and points to television coverage as a beacon. “To me, the biggest thing is, can we get on TV? Can we get more articles about us? Is there a way to actually follow our sport?”

Across the cycling world, it’s hard for those outside of Europe to see the sport live, and that goes for major men’s events as well, such as Paris-Roubaix. Trying to find televised women’s races online while sipping a coffee in North America? That’s a needle in a haystack. “You have to be willing to really navigate to figure out how to follow it. I think that’s going to be a very essential part of the success of women’s cycling,” Stevens said.

Deepening the talent pool

If the media can, in fact, make more people care about women’s racing, it can have a deeper effect than yet realized: More interest in the sport would likely deepen the talent pool, and create a more compelling sport.

“That would help,” Cranmer said of increased coverage. “That helps for women’s exposure, when young girls around the house identify a role model and say, ‘I want to be like that.’”

Vaughters also said a higher profile leads to bigger events, which leads to more women choosing to go down the road of racing. Of course that’s not easy; this magazine article won’t do it, and neither will 100 stories on Helpful? Sure. But it’s the New York Times and NBC Sports that Vaughters says can truly buoy the sport.

“Then the audience rating will come up,” Vaughters said. “And then that makes my job as a team manager much easier … we say, ‘Here are the numbers.’”

Critics of women’s racing claim it’s less exciting than the men’s races. That may be true, in some instances, but that also may be a reflection of the systemic shortcomings in terms of development.

“The speeds are a little lower,” Vaughters said. “As more women get drawn into the sport, the level of racing becomes higher, then the racing becomes more exciting.”

There’s a chasm between the top 10 women in the sport and everyone else. In men’s racing, “the difference between first and 100th is very little,” Vaughters said. “With women’s racing, the depth isn’t quite there.” Would that problem solve itself with a deeper buy-in from the industry, fans, and sponsors?

“Fundamentally, women’s downhill skiing, as an example, is every bit as exciting as men’s downhill skiing. But that’s because the depth in those events is incredible,” Vaughters said. “We’ve just got to get to a point where there’s more young girls excited about entering pro cycling,” he said.

Easy does it

The only sure way to leave cycling as a millionaire would be to come in with at least two million. The sport is never going to be the cash machine of the NFL. Nothing happens fast, either. But maybe it shouldn’t.

Why not demand ASO put on a version of the women’s Tour de France mirroring the men’s? Because it would likely collapse, if propped up too quickly.

“I don’t think it’s as easy as saying that there needs to be a women’s Tour, and you just tack it onto the men’s race. It’s a huge, huge logistical effort,” Cookson said, suggesting there could perhaps be women’s races on the rest days instead.

“I don’t think that saying every WorldTour event should have a women’s race or every men’s team should have a women’s team [is prudent]. I don’t think that’s how it works. I think people would do a bad job,” Cookson said. “I think there are races and teams where it works for them, but others where it doesn’t. I think the main focus should be to make women’s cycling stronger, rather than making it a weaker copy of the men’s field.”

There is a tide of talking points now, and Stevens noted that the fact that this particular story was being written was progress. Cookson has established a commission for women’s racing. Cranmer will go on looking for funding and adapting her model to make things work, focusing on education and development, if need be. La Course is a one-day event, the start of something bigger, it would seem.

“We’ve all got a part to play,” Cookson said. “We can’t change the sport overnight.”

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