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Cycle Sport’s manifesto: A challenge to the team owners

Yesterday we analysed Jonathan Vaughters’s 10-point plan to reinvigorate cycling. Today we are suggesting 11 things the teams could do to improve their lot and fight for a better deal for everyone who has an interest in pro road racing.

Words by Lionel Birnie

Someone who is extremely well placed to know what the teams’ next move may be said to us this morning: “I wouldn’t hold your breath for a breakaway league. You’ll pass out.”

But it is evident that the teams are serious about challenging the UCI over the way it is running the sport.

At the moment, the arguments are still rather vague. And, whether it is their intention or not, the teams appear to be motivated by little more than self-interest. While it is perfectly reasonable to accept that they want a voice, that does not necessarily mean their voice should always be the voice. At the moment, the teams’ chief motivation looks to us like this: How do we make more money from cycling?

And that’s fine. Money is what makes professional sports professional. Cycling chiefs no doubt look at the billions pouring into English Premier League football and NFL and feel a bit like paupers in comparison.

But the teams also need to start taking serious responsibility, instead of just shouting the odds and issuing threats.

It’s all very well to say they want to be listened to but, so far, what have they actually said that’s worth listening to? Other than to say how much better off all the other key stakeholders are?

Now, many of the following suggestions may well have been made behind closed doors at their meetings. They may also have many far better and more exciting plans to unveil. We don’t know because the teams have not actually presented their holistic vision for the sport’s future.

Until someone provides an alternative to the UCI’s current hierarchy and starts offering some practical solutions to the problems, the sport is stuck with them. A breakaway league won’t happen – cycling won’t want to lose its links to the Olympic Games for a start. The UCI may not be worried by this latest escalation in the teams’ ambitions. They should be. But by the same token, the teams need to start offering something.

So, here is Cycle Sport’s Manifesto for Professional Cycling. Eleven things the teams could do now to improve their lot, increase the significance of their voice and find out exactly where cycling stands in the world right now and what potential it has.

1. Talk to major broadcasters and mainstream media in all the key markets.

In countries where cycling is already shown regularly, ask broadcasters what would make the sport more attractive. In other markets, ask them why they don’t show more cycling. Speak to Sky, the British satellite broadcaster that sponsors the cycling team, and ask why, 15 months into the sponsorship of the team, there is not considerably more coverage on their stations. After all, if a company that sponsors one of the world’s biggest teams doesn’t deem cycling worthy of significant regular coverage why should anyone else? Press for much more coverage on Sky Sports News, the rolling news channel. It’s a start. It’ll get the ball rolling. Cycling needs to become a major strand in a nation’s sporting fabric before you can make money out of it. Suggest a weekly magazine-style show rounding up the week’s action and talking points. And then syndicate that show around the world, placing it on TV for free if you have to, in order to grow the audience.

Bear in mind that the biggest television audience for the Tour de France highlights on ITV4 (a free-to-air channel) in the UK last year was 596,000 people (Source: Barb). And that 699,000 people watched the World Championship Darts final on Sky Sports 1 (a paid-subscription channel) in January. Yes, that’s right. More people watched darts. What about British Eurosport, I hear you ask? Well, according to BARB [the organisation that records television viewing figures] British Eurosport’s highest recorded audience for live coverage of the Tour de France in 2010 was 129,000. So, if you can’t make people in sports-mad Britain switch on in their millions, how are you going to make people in China and India interested?

2. Ask cycling’s existing fans what they like and dislike about the sport as it currently is and what they would do to broaden its appeal.

3. Approach fans of other sports and ask them what they think of cycling. Listen carefully to them – they’re potential fans.

4. Stop appearing so self-interested.

There is a danger that with all the talk of the teams having representation it’s starting to sound like what you really want is your own way. Show appreciation for the fact that there is more to cycling than a couple of dozen professional men’s road racing teams. The UCI may be a long way short of perfect but without considering all aspects of cycling, the professional teams run the risk of sounding selfish. What’s going to happen to women’s and junior cycling? Who’s going to run the other disciplines (track, mountain bike) that provide you with some of your most outstanding talent? Have a view on these matters because they are important.

5. Get your own houses in order. Be beyond reproach. All of you. That means doing more – far more – to prevent doping by educating your riders properly. That means not hiring people within 30 seconds of their suspension ending. That means speaking up for clean sport loudly and proudly.

6. Respect above all the race organisers.

Many of those races are a century old. They have the history, continuity and stability you crave. So cherish them. Many of them are suffering due to the economic climate, busier roads and a more competitive market place where football (soccer) dominates. Yes, ASO makes millions in profit but it also puts on races other than the Tour de France that may not have survived this long without them. Small races are going to the wall. Smaller race organisers are being squeezed and their races are disappearing. You may think some of them are lacking atmosphere and marketing opportunities for your sponsors but you are the first to grumble when races disappear. Without them you have nothing to do, unless you’re going to shoulder the financial and organisational burden of that too. The organisers pay ever-rising costs to close the roads for your races. They book all your hotels. They put together all the infrastructure. They provide you with the platform to show off your sponsors and they pay you prize money (small though it may be in the grand scheme of things).

7. Instruct an independent auditor to conduct a report on the use of race radios and then make their findings public. Instruct them to interview all interested parties – that means the UCI, the teams, the riders, the sponsors, the race organisers and commissaires, the broadcasters and media and yes, the fans. Put an end to the tit-for-tat debating and get a professional and independent report on the matter if it’s so important to you. Then allow an informed decision free from blatant self-interest to be made. That would, perhaps, be a compromise, allowing some races with radios and some without.

8. Engage with the fans more.

Some of the teams are very good at this but others appear to think that the people who are providing the eyeballs that your sponsors crave do not matter all that much. A website and a blog and a few video clips are a great start. But start offering supporters real value. Without wanting you to become like pedalling versions of the Harlem Globetrotters, hold roadshows and events – meet and greet opportunities for fans to come along and talk to the riders, ogle the bikes and feel part of your organisation. Go to the markets that matter to you but go to those markets. Don’t expect people to come to you all the time because there’s so much more they can do much more easily.

9. Help and encourage organisers to market their events more effectively.

Take an active part in making cycling attractive to people rather than turning up in your great big bus and sitting inside until two minutes before the start and then disappearing immediately afterwards. Yes, we understand the demands on the riders but why not bring a rider who is not racing that event and have them meet the public? Make that part of the rider’s job. He can then go off and train. Ask yourselves how you get more people on the roadside watching? After all, when you race through deserted towns and villages, it is you that the public have chosen not to turn up to watch. The Tour Down Under has been a success commercially and in terms of spectator numbers. But as a sporting event it is not hugely significant. It is a glorified training race. If it is commercially important for you, suggest ideas to make it more significant in a sporting sense. Tougher stages, more varied routes, see what is available to make the race more dramatic and more testing.

On the other hand, Paris-Nice, for example, is an important and credible sporting event but its atmosphere is waning. Crowds for the opening circuit race were decent. Later in the week there were huge stretches with no one watching. At smaller races crowds are even smaller. What are you doing about this? You need the races to prepare your riders for bigger objectives, so what would improve them? Rather than just turn your back on established events in cycling’s traditional heartland, what are you going to do to get more fans engaged more often? Does it mean each team should take responsibility to co-operate with a race organiser to put on a cyclo-sportive style ride at each major pro race? For example, the Sky Ride Paris-Nice edition could cover the route of the final day’s stage round Nice – it starts and finishes in the same place, the roads and landscape are beautiful, and generally the weather is good. The Garmin Vuelta Epic could be held on one of the Vuelta a Espana’s major stages. Or the Katusha Challenge could be held at the Tour of Poland. Maybe these ideas are impractical but do something proactive. Get all your heads together and brainstorm it. If you are going to think outside the box, think well outside it and take responsibility.

10. Set up rider development schemes in other parts of the world.

Instead of hoping to parachute into China or India or wherever it may be with a million-dollar race sponsored by a huge corporation, take cycling to the people. If all 20 teams joined forces to run talent identification schemes in countries where cycling is not so big, you’d reap more benefits and might unearth a future champion who may never have considered getting on a bike. It’s worth remembering that when English Premier League soccer got all excited about ‘cracking’ China, they sent their biggest teams off to play matches and sold a lot of replica shirts. But the Chinese people identified best with Manchester City (Sun Jihai) and Everton (Li Tie). And why was that? That was because they signed Chinese players to their teams.

11. Put together a clear, cohesive and direct manifesto document – A blueprint for the future of cycling – setting out your vision.

In an ideal world, how would you like your bit of cycling, the men’s professional road bit, structured. What races are important to you? How do you want the calendar to look? Is three three-week grand tours too many? Too few? Should the World Championships be held in October or June or August? Are bike-design rules too restrictive? Can you come up with some radical and exciting race formats while preserving the best of the traditional aspects of the sport? Do we need some very bold and different thinking? How can cycling be taken to developing markets with more on the mind than merely scooping up the available dollars and bringing it home?

Now it’s over to you, our readers
We want to know how you would improve professional cycling. Think big. Be creative. Have fun We’ll publish the best ideas. Remember, cycling fans – it’s your sport. It’s not the UCI’s sport. It’s not the teams’ sport. Have your say.

Use the Twitter hashtag #ourUCI or, if you have several ideas that can’t be explained in 140 characters, email us at cyclesport@ipcmedia.com with Our UCI in the subject title.

Follow us on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cyclesportmag
www.twitter.com/lioneljbirnie

7 Comments

  • James Tresman says:

    Required reading for all involved in cycling! I’d like to see the Elite level of the sport get more in touch with the grassroots fans and by doing so open up cycling to many potential new fans in the UK.

  • JB says:

    Boring I know but so much No. 5 in my opinion. clean up and the rest will follow.
    There is huge potential at the moment for cycling to cross to the mainstream interest and participation is at an all time high in the UK at least.
    Cycling is a sport filled with stories of individual heroics, a narrative adored by the British public (along with tearing those heros down of course) but it can never be widely accepted as long as there is as an assumption that those heros are frauds. People just won’t invest the emotional energy.
    To the man on the street cycling is synonymous with cheating and there is a huge amount of work involved to fix that. The monetary cost of every high profile case must be staggering – it is often the only time cycling makes the papers.
    There has got to be zero tolerance from everyone involved and all the PR to go with that. Teams should go much further than whats required and communicate that.

  • SuperFred says:

    “…ask broadcasters what would make the sport more attractive.” Sort of like asking the gallery owner how he’d paint the Picasso if given the chance, yes? Remember when US TV wanted to put commercial breaks in the World Cup? Imagine what these broadcasters with no understanding of what makes pro-cycling beautiful whatsoever, get their grubby little hands on it… they will squeeze/mold cycling until we no longer recognize it.

  • skippy says:

    Your idea of bringing excess team members to handle the public is particularly worthwhile since there are a lot of people around the pullmans looking for souvenirs and autographs .
    Team Telecom used to bring masses of people to the TDF where they set up a BBQ for their members and i remember they did the same at Salzburg Worlds !

    Why Sky has not organised a Worldwide deal is obvious when you say 129k watched Eurosport and only 600k tuned into the ITV4 effort . Now i can see why my blogging efforts to help “Adaptive Sport” has had such little success ! Apathy towards cycling is rampant in the UK ! Imagine that 1m were supposed to be in Hyde Park for the prologue of the 2007 TDF and that is more than both ITV & Eurosport combined !

  • The Pelican says:

    All good points… now give the UCI a similar set of suggestions. That is where the real reform needs to take place. I’m sensing momentum here, help seize the moment, not by belittling the teams for their efforts to be heard, but by calling the UCI to account for its years of ineptitude, lack of vision, transparency and communication.

  • Rob says:

    How about the teams start re-engaging with the fans a bit more? one of the real draws of cycling is how close you can get to its stars, so why at races like the tour do all the riders sit in their team buses until just before the start, why not get out and talk to fans, sign a few more autographs etc…
    also, i read a suggestion to have small cameras mounted on riders frames and/or helmets: this is an excellent idea, cycling would be so much more exciting if we could get a front row view from andy schleck’s bike of a great alpine descent or cav sprinting up the champs elysees. They do it in F1, why not in cycling, i’m sure small cameras are very light these days.

  • Dave Morton says:

    Cycling’s big problem is doping…not that it is done but the way the sport treats it. Seems like the focus is on tearing down all the potential greats in the sport. It is becoming a science experiment to see who can defeat the latest tests. “Real” sports don’t ban their best players when they are caught, cycling should lighten up.

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