Valuing a rider: past performance vs. future prospects

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Visit a stockmarket and you’ll soon learn the value of a company tends to be based on expectations of its future performance. The on-screen prices flash and change as tiny pieces of information, as well as big news, have their effect on the valuation of a stock.

Traders

On screen stock prices... or is that a race profiles or maybe a power curve there?

A stockmarket isn’t the only place where assets are traded. In the world of pro cycling a team owner will regard riders as assets. Some teams do this openly, for others managers it’s more of a subconscious calculation.

Either way, teams need to put a value on a rider in order to decide whether to hire him. There are various factors at play. Obviously a star rider has a high price but this is based on expectations about his ability to win future races more than his stock of past wins. In addition, can the rider contribute to the team, whether in riding or via other means, from leadership to a sense of humour? Will the rider bring additional sponsors? Will the the rider keep away from scandal?

Past performance is a guide to the future
So far all these questions involve the future tense, they are about what the rider might offer once they’ve been signed. It’s like stockmarket assessing the outlook for, say, Nestlé or General Motors. It’s not so much what has happened in the past but how things will turn out in the future, what will happen to sales and profits. But there’s a new factor at play in cycling that is not about the future but the past: ranking points.

UCI World Tour

These ranking points belong to the rider but they are crucial for a team because the squad’s licence for the top tier depends on a ranking position. If a team wants to ride the Tour de France and other big races, above all if a sponsor has to be present in these races, then a “ProTeam” licence is essential. In order for a team to qualify here it needs, amongst other things, a stock of points accumulated by its riders. The notable thing is that when the points are tallied, they include new signings for the upcoming year. This then brings about the following question:

What happens if a rider who has a lot of points hurts himself badly in September and will be out of racing for a longer time throughout the next season? Does his team still get a licence?

So asks Cofidis manager Eric Boyer in an interview with Hedwig Kröner of cyclingnews.com. You can go further with a reductio ad absurdum argument. What happens if a rider with a big haul of points never rides again? A rider could sign for a team simply to lend points when they actually meant to retire. As we’ve seen with Vacansoleil, this isn’t a pointless question, the Dutch squad got its three year licence largely thanks to banking the points of Riccardo Riccò… only for the Italian to get sacked after a couple of races. Riccò’s gone but Vacansoleil have a licence for three years. The house of cards has to stand straight just long enough for a licence to be awarded.

No contracts for young men?
This marks a big change in the way teams approach riders. Far from a rider’s future prospects, in many cases it means the rider’s value to the team is their stock of points. It marks a shift where older riders with points become relatively more valuable that hot prospects without points.

Protecting your assets?
Another twist to this is the way a team might change the way it looks at its riders. Knowing the squad could need points later in the year when the UCI does the calculations, any rider leaving the team ends earning points for a potential rival squad. Everything else being equal the team will favour riders who will bring precious points to the team. As an example imagine a squad with two near-identical sprinters but one is linked to the team for 2012 and the other sees their contract up and there’s talk of them moving to a new team. The current team is likely to leave the departing rider at home for big races, and to invest more time and training in the rider who is part of the team’s future.

Allan Davis

Turkish deceit for Davis?

It’s here that we might already be seeing some examples. Allan Davis didn’t get much help from his Kazakh team mates in the recent Tour of Turkey. He wasn’t the only Aussie to find team mates not offering their full support in the same race. It’s hard to pin this on the UCI points system alone. But the incentives are certainly there, a team manager hunting for sponsors will want a spot in the top tier and is thus incentivised to protect their “assets” rather than reward riders heading for rival teams.

This isn’t a surprise. In a good interview with Cycle Sport Magazine, Team Sky’s Dave Brailsford sets out how he evaluates a rider. You can even see a chart that correlates a rider’s performance with age and by extension the higher the y-axis score, the higher I’d predict the salary.

Who are you racing for?
It brings about the question of loyalty. Is a rider racing for themselves, their team or a prospective employer? Many riders would just respond “look I just want to win races” or “I’ve got a job to do, helping my guys” with the hope that their work gets reward properly.

But when there’s money at stake people tend to change their ways. Incentives encourage alternative behaviour, in this case for riders to think of their points tally and bank account as well as teams to favour riders who will land them points as opposed to gifting them to a new squad. Plus we’ve seen Jérôme Pineau complaining riders play things cautiously in order to bank points.

Teams now have a dilemma, whether to race some of their best riders knowing they might well win races during the season… but that some of the benefits from the win will flow to another team. Indeed some teams lower in the rankings and facing a licence renewal could see their position jeopardised. Also imagine a team that has already signed a new rider for 2012. Would they chase them down in a race this summer because to do this would be to damage the rider’s precious points tally?

Summary
There’s a fixed number of ProTeam licences available and more teams want a top in the top tier than place exist. Given this, ranking points are a crucial part of obtaining a licence. Therefore points become valuable for riders, teams, managers and sponsors alike. A rider’s future prospects still count for plenty but their past becomes increasingly valuable too. It’s no longer “what can you do” but also a question of what have you done. Taken to the extreme, a team could sign a rider with substantial injuries just to secure the services of his points.

It all raises plenty of questions but the answers are difficult. Thankfully following a race won’t require spreadsheet calculations and contractual expertise. But there seem to be examples where this issue already affecting the outcomes of races and tactics. Don’t be surprised to see more of this.

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{ 18 comments }

garuda May 3, 2011 at 12:09 pm

To put it another way, Vino would have attacked all day and Astana would have worked for him, and AC would have been left “vato”less as the comrades know AC is ditching them for sure. The same thing could be said of the Schlecks, if I were Riis, and I was trying to find a sponsor, it would have crossed my mind to leave the Schlecks and Voigt and Fabian at home while I give everything to Porte who has a contract with me for 2011. Again, one more reason to hate the governing bodies.

ziggymund May 3, 2011 at 1:21 pm

The hunt for points isn’t a new thing. UCI introduced the World Cup back in the 90′ies and scoring points became of importance to the riders to get a contract and for the teams to get into what was called the 1st. division which made acces to major races much easier. What has changed now since it is being highlighted as a big issue again? More money? :-)

Tom May 3, 2011 at 1:41 pm

The lack of support for Allan Davis can’t be explained by Astana not wanting to help him gain UCI points because there aren’t any UCI points on offer at the Tour of Turkey.

Sheptastic May 3, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Does this explain why Pauwels isn’t riding the Giro and Kennaugh (sp) is ?

The Inner Ring May 3, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Garuda: it can’t explain everything but take the recent L-B-L. The Schleck brothers were certain to finish 2nd and 3rd by working with Gilbert. Did they think about the points on offer and collaborate or was this never a thought? We won’t know but the thought would flash in my mind.

Ziggymund: indeed and Cofidis was a strange example with riders trying to beat each other to win points.

Tom: oh yes there are, just not World Tour points. Remember Ricco won most of his points with the Flaminia in smaller races.

Sheptastic: I wondered that but it could be a host of other reasons.

Nick May 3, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Split the points between the rider and the team and most of this problem goes away.

Dan May 3, 2011 at 3:26 pm

They should award points only to teams, and only for wins. That would make for much more exciting racing, and much better teamwork.

Velotoday May 3, 2011 at 5:00 pm

I understand some of the backdoor deals that go in cycling by riders and teams during a race but whatever happened to honest competition between opposing riders/teams while going for the win???

In my opinion, all of this scheming for points devalues an already troubled sport. Granted the UCI sets the rules and the teams do what they have to do to retain their license but the system does not support the true spirit of the sport.

I admit that I like Dan’s idea that the points should go to the team. But does that not support the “break away league” scenario?

The Inner Ring May 3, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Give points to the team and what happens if the riders all leave to a new squad? The old team with no talented riders sits on the points and the new team and it’s gifted riders could not be invited to the big races.

A hard one…

Rick Richter May 3, 2011 at 5:14 pm

The UCI should adopt a system similar to the one used by NASCAR. Have a team point system that is separate from the riders (but maintain a rider’s point system to reward their performances). NASCAR uses the system to determine future qualifying spots, among other things. Base the points system on places with an emphasis on teams winning (i.e. 10 pts for a win, 5 for 2nd, 4 for 3rd, and so on).

Velotoday May 3, 2011 at 5:51 pm

Inner Ring – good point.

Quickly though and under Dan’s suggestion, other than a falling-out during contract negotiations or a better offer from another team (more money, pro tour license, schedule etc.), why would a rider leave a team that has enough points to stay in the Pro Tour?

Rick’s idea I believe has legs as well.

The Inner Ring May 3, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Note the UCI system does account for team performances and mixes rider and “team” performances. But still, everything else being equal a team will still prefer a rider who stays than one who doesn’t. Like I say, hard to fix this but one to remember when things look funny in a race.

Champs May 3, 2011 at 6:21 pm

As long as ProTeams and the various other divisions mingle in races, it’s hard to have a straightforward system of promotion and relegation. Nor would I segregate them; this would kill many non-premiership races, and prevent new ones from being conceived. You’d never see another Tour of California if star-studded fields weren’t possible.

The points system is flawed, but it’s about the best we’ve got. Take a look at last year’s UCI world rankings. There’s only so much arguing you can do with the top of the list—those gents are winners. At the bottom, you see mostly support/injured riders with very few points that rightfully shouldn’t be assessed on results.

jkeltgv May 3, 2011 at 6:54 pm

Has anyone thought about having a system which follows (European) football’s promotion and relegation system? (Perhaps it has happened in the past before i followed cycling and it didn’t work?)

All it needs is a mathematical formula that allows teams in each division equal access to point scoring races (or they can calculate from their best 10 one day races and best 5 stage races…or whatever) and that’s the league ladder. Imagine the interest in the end of season races? AG2R needs to get a top 10 in Lombardy to stay up at the expense of Euskatel…. the races within the races would be great and I don’t think it would mean that AG2R’s riders who aren’t staying with them next year (unless they go to Euskatel!) would ride soft – we saw that from Scarponi last year in the same race – his Pro Conti winning ride to second place confirmed their participation in the tour de france…..(didn’t it?!?!? oh….)

Is there any other team sport in the world that allows a team to come from nothing into the top level only because of money and a sponsors desire to get into a big race? Green Edge (and sky for what it’s worth) should have to work their way through the divisions (probably only from a 3rd level of, say, 30 teams) to the top (like Slipstream did) and if Cofidis or Vaconsoler aren’t good enough they get relegated. It would mean the teams have more stable foundations for a start – that they would be able to withstand a year or two out of the top division would mean they’d need to. We could even see fairytales like VC La Pomme having their year in the sunshine as we occasionally do in football.

It could also save infrastucture & history like Credit Agricol going down as perhaps someone like GreenEDGE or Sky could have bought their license and jumped into that division (is that fair though?).

Shambles like the current point scoring system happen when organisations make decisions without consulting their stakeholders – riders, teams, TV…..um…ah…..Fans!

Touriste-Routier May 3, 2011 at 10:57 pm

How about get rid of the points system and Pro Tour all together? Was it really so bad when the top races were invitational?

This removes a lot of complication and conflict of interest. It reduces the team size and hence budget, because teams can skip races they don’t want to participate in, but are currently forced to. And domestiques can earn the contracts by being domestiques, and not having to worry about their placings.

If teams want selection for races, they’ll have to earn it the old fashioned way, on the road and with actual discussions with the race organizers. The UCI can then go back to officiating and basic administration. If there needs to be a season long competition, than have it privately sponsored/organized like Pernod used to do.

ant1 May 4, 2011 at 1:01 am

i agree with the shortcomings of the system discussed here, but one thing that seems to have been ignored is the sponsor’s desire for publicity, and therefore wins. if contador is leaving the following year, it’s still in astana’s interest to have him win the tour. maybe that interest is weighed against the downside of the points leaving, but it’s still there.

PeterC May 4, 2011 at 6:56 am

Can definately see this happening. Perfect example might be Robbie McEwan. He’s said he’s likely to quit at the end of the season but would like to do the TdU one last time. Assuming he accumulates more than his current 7 points during the year – feasible – he could be of value to a team during the UCI team decision process, and then ride one last race before retiring one month into the new year.

And there also needs to be some ability to revisit decisions for circumstances like Vac – where the key point providers of their team now sit suspended (or pending suspended)

Dan May 5, 2011 at 6:04 pm

“Give points to the team and what happens if the riders all leave to a new squad? The old team with no talented riders sits on the points and the new team and it’s gifted riders could not be invited to the big races.”

It wouldn’t make a lot of sense for the good riders to leave the good team to go to a team that won’t be invited to the big races. Having the team keep the points would presumably help the teams make stronger assurances to their sponsors about getting into the big races which would help keep more sponsorship money in the sport.

In that system, you wouldn’t need some formal system of evaluating riders. Let the teams do that for themselves, which they will do anyway. Teams should judge riders on how they fit into the team strategy rather than how they rank on some overall points system. The all or nothing approach, (or maybe points to people on the podium and that win the jerseys) would make for much more aggressive and entertaining racing.

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