Should spectators be charged to watch a race?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

News from Spain where struggling race organisers and local municipalities are struggling to make ends meet.

Patxi Mutiloa, the sports boss within the Basque Government has compared cycling to other professional sports “where nobody disputes that you have to pay entry. If we want to see the best cyclists on our roads in certain areas, why shouldn’t we ask people to pay as well?”, adding that “cycling, unfortunately, is a sport that costs much and in which the spectator at the roadside does not contribute financially“. In short, the idea is to charge spectators.

It’s often a wonder to see the roadside fans who cope with road closures and parking restrictions to stake out the most strategic spots in a race. These people are happy to spend hours waiting on the verge of a country road only to see the race flash past in seconds. This is something to celebrate, not tax.

The Jaizkibel tomorrow?

You can charge soccer fans because they are captive in a stadium for over 90 minutes to see all the action but the cycling fan only gets the briefest glimpse. I suppose you could sell tickets… but the cost of selling them would probably exceed the revenue because few would pay big bucks to stand and watch a small race.

You could possibly charge money to stand on Alpe d’Huez, Zoncolan, Kapelmuur or the Angliru but these races have enough money already. Some post-Tour criteriums do charge. But good luck getting money from fans to watch the Tour of the Basque country on a wet Wednesday afternoon. At best this is a meagre income stream that depends on the weather, at worst it’s an idea so pointless it could be an embarassment for Mutiloa.

It’s also fraught with practical problems. A stadium is private property with gates whereas a roadside field belongs to a farmer, not race organisers or a municipality. It’s near-impossible to control.

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

That’s a maxim about the internet, for example if you visit a website for news and it’s free then essentially this traffic is sold to online advertisers. But it is applicable to sports crowds. Races organisers get money from publicity vehicles in the race, the so-called “caravan”. The fans are part of the “product”, the chance to reach parts of rural Europe is precisely why the likes of Liquigas, Euskatel and Cofidis back cycling teams. Discourage fans and you’ll discourage the teams.

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{ 11 comments }

Champs December 14, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Last year, my then-wife and I waited five hours to see a brief glimpse of Mark Cavendish crushing the field on a pancake flat stage of the Giro. The Tuscan sun roasted her olive skin, and it was… interesting to be crushed against the gate in 100F weather.

While our time with the tifosi was an experience like none other, I'd happily spend quite a few euros the next time for:

* A better vantage point
* Four hours to do something else in Florence
* Reserved seating
* Beverage service

TheInnerRing December 14, 2010 at 5:42 pm

Champs, that's the only way I could see it working, that special seating is put in place and there is, to use corporate jargon, some "value added" in terms of catering and other things to improve the experience.

But even then, perhaps the big races will attract the crowds but the smaller ones with the struggling budgets will continue to struggle?

Anonymous December 14, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Maybe we could charge politicians when they make speeches or come up with stupid ideas?

TheInnerRing December 14, 2010 at 7:24 pm

Anonymous: careful, that could fix many of Spain's deficit woes at a stroke. (Well a flippant suggestion deserved a flippant response!)

Champs December 14, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Cycling events need a freemium model, to be sure. Many finish lines, ramps, and critical sections like Arenberg Forest are waiting to be monetised. Bypassing nights of mountainside camping for reserved spot along the Alpe also sounds cost-effective for anyone whose time has any value. Summer holidays in France don't come cheap. It might even keep the too-outrageous behaviour under control.

I assume you're aware of ASO taking offence to third party travel packages offering an experience similar to what I describe.

FWIW, the Giro did install portable bleachers just beyond the commentary boxes, opposite the podium. Maybe that's normal for a grand tour — I have only one experience to draw from.

TheInnerRing December 14, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Yes, you get VIP zones at the finish line in the grand tours but like I say, the big races have plenty of cash and they can pay their way, indeed local towns fight each other for the honour of hosting a stage finish. It's the little races on the calendar that are struggling and nobody's going to pay to see a small race.

Mikey December 14, 2010 at 11:46 pm

The idea of charging to watch a bike race, is almost as ridiculous as the early attempts by the music industry to prevent people from putting music on mp3 players. If he means, offering some sort of value added service, ie, at several locations along the race, maybe provide a good vantage point and also including video, entertainment, commentary, food and drinks, i can see that being something to pay for. A charge to stand on the side of the public highway however seems at best a discouragement designed to keep people away, not a means of revenue.

TheInnerRing December 15, 2010 at 9:25 am

Indeed Mikey. To use a music analogy, the biggest bands can always draw the big crowds, it is the small bands playing in small towns that struggle.

Alex Murray December 15, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Some people already do charge apparently.

See for example the canny farmer who cobbled the road up past him farm in Belgium. It's called the Paterberg and every year he makes an absolute killing as he rents out the fields adjacent to corporate tents who are guaranteed a decent view of the race as it passes and then can watch the finish on telly in the warmth.

And ASO must be coining it big style on the Champs Elysees corporates on the final day of the Tour. I'd heard rumours that you were looking at ballpark of 2000GBP for a seat in the ones that have terraces onto the Champs.

TheInnerRing December 15, 2010 at 2:26 pm

The farmer in question actually owns the Paterberg and "created" the cobbled climb himself. But again, if ASO can charge in Paris that's not the worry, it's how to fund the smaller races. Would you pay €20 to sit on the finish line for 2.2-rated Tour of XYZ?

Champs December 15, 2010 at 11:43 pm

Yes, I did run in the wrong direction. Call that generational ADHD.

Even if 2000 quid per seat is not a misprint (please say it is), a single euro for non-HC events are a total non-starter. Organizers would do well to provide more entertainment to make attendees linger, then find revenue in things like parking and space rental for food/merchandise hawkers.

In the US, this might involve a concert and selling wristbands to persons of legal drinking age for the right to drink beverages sold onsite. I'm less sure that idea works as well in Europe.

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