German riders are having a very good season. Andre Greipel’s a dependable winner and this year Tony Martin’s confirmed his abilities whilst neo-pros John Degenkolb and Marcel Kittel have been highly impressive. And if you want a tip, look out for a guy called Tino Thömel.
Germany isn’t quite Europe’s premier cycling country but it is certainly Europe’s biggest country. It’s got the largest population with 81 million inhabitants and the continent’s biggest GDP too. Put simply it’s big and it’s rich and for a sport that rhymes with commerce, where teams are named after companies and brands, it’s a key market. Germany is hard to ignore.
Only that’s exactly what the UCI is doing. It’s refusing to do interviews with German broadcasters ARD and ZDF. For context, switch on a German TV and “channel 1″ is ARD. Hit the remote and next comes ZDF. These are broadcasting giants and the German equivalent of Britain’s BBC, CBS in the US or ABC in Australia.
A governing body that ignores the two biggest channels in Europe’s largest country is, to put it mildly, behaving oddly. According to cyclingnews.com, the UCI is frustrated that “every year the German networks’ agenda is the same: doping, doping and more doping” and this can be true at times, especially since despite holding the broadcast rights, there’s no live coverage.
But note the channel is consistent, for example treats cross-country skiing and even the Olympic Games in a similar way. Das Doping is big news in Germany and for obvious reasons, cycling features prominently in the negative coverage. Based on this alone I can understand why the UCI is annoyed. But surely this is all the more reason to engage with them, to show them that pro cycling has more to offer? Ducking interviews only allows these broadcasters to say the UCI’s on the run.
There’s more to this though. The two channels are pulling out of cycling coverage for 2012 and so the UCI has another reason to be annoyed… but again I’m not sure refusing interviews is right.
Plus it was thanks to Hajo Seppelt, an award-winning ARD journalist, that news of Alberto Contador’s positive test emerged. This proved a major embarrassment to the UCI. First because such a sensitive story was flushed out. Second because it emerged bang in the middle of the World Championships, the race that’s organised by the UCI and crucial for its funding. Third, because Seppelt started asking a lot of awkward questions, like whether the UCI President Pat McQuaid lied to him and why the UCI had sat on the news for so long.
I can’t help feel blacklisting Germany’s largest broadcasters is a bad idea. It might allow the UCI to duck awkward questions about the delays in the Contador case, to which they’ve yet to properly answer, but this is a short term concern. Even if the UCI is annoyed, the refusal looks petulant.
The UCI agenda to set up new races around the world is fine but alienating sections of the media in Europe’s largest consumer market is a recipe for disaster. It also sets a bad precedent and signals to others that the sport is retreating in on itself and lacks the confidence to face awkward journalists.
With many teams hunting for sponsors, knowing the governing body has issues with the major broadcasters in Germany is another hurdle. Pro cycling needs to find ways to rebuild confidence with Germans, whether the public or the media. A governing body should be capable of handing tough questions.