Jonathan Vaughters has written a must-read article over at cyclingnews.com. He takes a look at the worries concerning Geox, where their exclusion from the new UCI World Tour has led to boardroom discussions on whether to continue with sponsorship. It’s a similar point to the one made by Gerard Vroomen just a few days ago, although Vroomen says the harmony is coincidental.
|Underneath the tartan and argyll lurks a pin-stripe business brain|
Vaughters is dead right when he points out the view from a sponsor: cycling can offer huge returns in airtime and newspaper coverage. But companies hate risk and if they can overcome the fear of doping scandals then committing to spend millions on a cycling team only works if there’s a minimum guarantee of coverage. In short, teams want to know if they will qualify for the Tour de France.
Race organisers have a slightly different perspective. They want the best riders in attendance but they also want to retain some control over who turns up. For example ASO has given wildcards to the likes of Cervélo and Team BMC, in order to ensure the likes of Hushovd, Sastre and Evans take part. Plus race organisers want to ensure local flavour, the Giro needs Italian teams.
But Vaughters goes a step further, calling for licences, essentially franchises, to be issued to teams:
Maybe instead of 15 teams fighting on a year-to-year basis, 15 teams are given a 10-year contract with all the top events, based on their history, performances, and ethical foundation and then the remaining 5-7 teams are invited as new comers and potential league members after the 10 years is up.
It’s here that I think things get harder. Giving some teams the incumbent right to sit on a licence for a decade entrenches established teams at the expense of others. Remember the Pro Tour gave Mauro Gianetti a licence, this was tarnished following the ejection of Ricco from the 2008 Tour de France but Gianetti kept the licence and the Fuji and Footon team got invites to the big races but could not deliver.
For me it’s all about who gets the risk. Right now teams and especially sponsors share a large burden here, they have to worry invitation to major races. Meanwhile race organisers have been able to cherry-pick their favourite squads, whether in terms of sporting performance, national colours or ethical standards. Move to a franchise system with 10 year licences and the risk teams lose risk but the concern then is that a team and its manager can sit on the licence. Especially for a smaller team there’s little point aiming to win the GC, it can just aim to grab airtime via breakaways.
In fact this is what we already have with the French teams, the likes of Cofidis and Bbox have been guaranteed a ride in the Tour de France because of the need to have French teams taking part. It works for a few teams but I’m not so sure about several teams.
I think Vaughters ideas have a lot of merit and require wider discussion. But it’s a real Pandora’s Box, the money involved in these franchises could be significant and the risk here is that the sums involved distort behaviour. It’s also up against other ideas, for example the concept of a full cycling tour with universal TV rights, a project that would bring significant windfalls to the owner of the concept. That’s something a couple of private equity houses know intimately.
So I’d propose an interim solution. We keep the system of guaranteed entry plus five wildcards for the Tour and other races. But the rankings should be based on a team’s position at an earlier point in the season, for example June. This allows a team the element of stability, they can sign riders in the second half of the season but it won’t change the rankings.
The second fundamental point has to be a block on sudden rule changes. By all means change the rules over time but give plenty of advance notice, for example if race organisers meet with the UCI, any significant changes should be implemented in 2013 or 2014.
And the riders?
Another issue is the riders. If Vaughters wants teams to link up with the UCI and organisers like ASO and RCS, then there are two other groups missing. First up, the broadcasters as they pump millions into cycling via TV rights but they tend to work direct with race organisers. More importantly there’s not much discussion with the pro riders. For me I’d think about balloting every World Tour rider to get rider approval on significant rule changes.
Dilution is the solution
One final point. Right now the race organisers are in a relatively powerful position, this has been so since L’Equipe created the Tour de France. The UCI needs to exist to draft the rules and enforce them, but I’m wary when it tries to go beyond this I get wary. Sponsors can come and go, and whilst the sport has always been dependent on corporate funding, extending this is a concern. Similarly can we sell the right to the big races to every team for a decade?
For me, it helps to have the power divided up amongst these, at times, chaotic groups. Big changes might reward some… but at the expense of others. Right now it’s useful to ensure no one group is able to call the shots. Giving everyone a slice of the pie works, the real problem is that some seek to change the recipe after the chef has bought the ingredients.
I really like what Vaughters and Vroomen have to say. They make articulate and sensible points. But I’m more with Vroomen when he says the pressing need is to stop making sudden changes to the rules. Vaughters is raising some really important long term issues but they are complicated and the execution carries risk. Simply stopping last-minute stitch ups from the UCI and others is easy and achievable, moving to a new model of team licencing is a massive step, perhaps a leap into the dark. It is worth exploring this, but without rushing. This isn’t to say the idea is out of reach, more that we can fix the easy things first.