The Highroad that comes to an end

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Highroad Sports

“After an exhaustive search to secure long term sponsorship we have concluded that it’s time to release our team members to pursue other options”

That’s HTC-Highroad’s team boss Bob Stapleton. I’m travelling right now with a shaky internet connection so can’t cover the topic in detail but the team will fold at the end of the season, marking an end to the most successful team, in terms of wins, in both men’s and women’s cycling. The team has won 484 races including 54 grand tour stages. An impressive record and massive media attention… yet no sponsor.

One aspect here has been the team spirit and the ability to bring the best out of riders by healthy means. This professionalism can’t be invented overnight and whilst many riders and staff should land roles elsewhere, the spirit of the team will now fade. Best wishes to all on the team and thanks for the exciting racing.

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{ 33 comments }

Doug August 4, 2011 at 9:59 pm

Cav is my favorite rider, and the clockwork teamwork that goes into delivering him to the line – everything from chasing down a break to timing the catch to organizing the leadout – is the thing that continues to fascinate me and draw my attention.
I will miss the yellow and black.
I suppose this means Cav is destined for Sky (if he wasn’t already). I hope they (or whoever lands the Missile) can sign at least two out of the trio of Renshaw/Eisel/Goss.

ColoradoGoat August 4, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Not exactly a good sign for the sport as we head into potentially another recessions. This will mean more Katushas (Oligarch funded, dubious doping controls) and less Highroads and less smaller, French and Belgium teams.

DaveO August 4, 2011 at 10:24 pm

ColoradoGoat has said exactly what I was going to say. This with Leopard currently having no main sponsor either and BMC a plaything of Rihs, the future does not bode well for the future of the greatest sport on earth.

Angelo senza la o August 4, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Stapleton, “”All I can tell you is that I don’t think there has been a single discussion with a potential sponsor where one or the other (Alberto Contador from the 2010 Tour de France and the federal investigation into doping at the US Postal Service team ) wasn’t talked about. It’s been a factor in everyone’s view of cycling in the last year.”

ColoradoGoat August 4, 2011 at 11:23 pm

It is going to result in a few, well funded toys for the wealthy, and the rest of the teams living on the scraps of corporate sponsorship, most likley from bike specific manufacturers, who still have a reason to use cycling for advertising. Unfortunately, cycling is a marginal sport (from a spectator standpoint), which masquerades as if it were soccer, and because it is so dependent on sponsorship dollars, is going to take a massive hit financially. I could in theory envision a sport in which rather than kick our Pro-Tour teams, ends up not having enough spots to actually fill Pro-Tour races.

One potentially interesting off-shoot to this could be the advent of kind of National teams (i.e.- Sky, GreenEdge. Astana), which are in part financed through governmental funds to help those teams. It might add in some ways to the fan experience, by adding in the “tribal” aspect so often involved with most ball & stick sports (i.e. – you root for the team from your hometown).

What is interesting, is Stapleton has basically folded for good the idea of running a men’s team. He commented that he is not seeking to recreate a team in 2013, which tells me he want to see through the 2012 Women’s team for Olympic reasons, and then after that, see ya later. I am sure he is not happy with the way the sport is run, and while he did not openly come out and say it, you could read between the lines that the likes of Katusha, Leopard, and others not trying to move the sport, but with budgets twice as large as his seemed like an uphill battle.

ColoradoGoat August 4, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Sorry – I meant I could envision the sport in which there were not even enough Pro-Tour caliber teams (especially in terms of minimum budget) to fill all the slots available for Pro-Tour status (or whatever they are calling the top division these days).

ColoradoGoat August 4, 2011 at 11:48 pm

Not to be a comment hog, but another issue with sponsorships in cycling relate to the fact that once you get away from the Hotbeds in cycling (Belgium, Italy, France and Spain), you end up with sponsorship dollars from businesses that may not necessarily see this as a long-term relationship.

Rabobank has been committed to cycling, because they are getting more than something such as brand awareness. They are in their home country of the Netherlands, by supporting cycling, and sponsoring a team, building up goodwill from a clientele that appreciates their support of cycling.

For teams based in the US and other non-traditional hotbeds of cycling, sponsorship dollars and the motivations behind these dollars is based more on pure marketability for that short time horizon. Radio Shack sponsored cycling in part because of the ability to have Lance in their advertising campaign. But I doubt Radio Shack was expecting a wave of goodwill among US customers because of their support of the sport.

But this is a problem. In order to have the kinds of dollars necessary to compete, you need to grab sponsorship dollars from Companies with short-term marketing expectations from their involvement. There are only a few Rabobank type entities around. Most of the Companies which see involvement of the sport as a long-term decision, and see continued sponsorship as key to their ability to draw in customers are too small (i.e. – bike and component manufacturers, smaller Belgium, French and Italian companies).

The means in the future, teams are going to continue to see a more volatile future, with teams popping up from 3 – 4 year deals, which then get suddenly pulled once the sponsor now wants to take their dollars in a different direction, and reach a different audience.

ave August 4, 2011 at 11:54 pm

Somehow I don’t find it too surprising.
“A win is a win” – nope.

ave August 5, 2011 at 12:07 am

Let’s not forget that after Columbia HTC in 2009, HTC started to become primary sponsor, but I know many still referred the team as Columbia… Even commentators on TV! not good

sillyoldbugger August 5, 2011 at 1:05 am

This is very sad for cycling. Bob Stapleton has been a fantastic supporter of pro cycling, not only with the all conquering men’s team, but he been a supporter and personal funder of a women’s team.
I just hope that the Howard/Renshaw/Goss train can be brought into the GreenEdge team.

BikeRog August 5, 2011 at 2:08 am

I’m sorry to see Stapleton leave. He was a pillar of ethical stability in a sport that desperately needs it. Cycling seems to be turning–at least in part–to a nationalistic sponsorship concept, what with Katusha, Sky, Euskaltel, Astana, and Green Edge. Still, sponsorship from a nation or region, or commercial sponsorship, is still sponsored cycling, and that’s what keeps the wheels turning.

I only hope these trends do not turn cycling into a sport of haves and have-nots, because a lack of competitive balance does no good for those on the bottom or those on top.

On another topic entirely, my prediction is that Cav will not wind up on Sky; I think he will ride with the Aussies next year.

The Pelican August 5, 2011 at 2:33 am

Cav to Sky with Renshaw…
Goss and Howard to GreenEdge…

R.I.P. HTC… doesn’t seem fair that such success doesn’t breed stability. Doesn’t bode well for GreenEdge’s search for a major sponsor.

CGradeCyclist August 5, 2011 at 3:00 am

Always sad to see a team forced to leave the sport…

Maybe time for a ‘rationalisation’ of the sport’s costs – have the costs to run a team (eg. travel, rider wages, support wages, etc, etc) risen too quickly??

Not sure if I agree, but maybe time for a ‘salary cap’ for a team, and also maybe a set cost for attending races… That might reduce the costs of operating a team, thus making them more financially viable…??

maddave August 5, 2011 at 3:12 am

2 words.
Revenue sharing.
2 more.
Teams unite.

Donald August 5, 2011 at 3:25 am

While outstanding from a sporting standpoint, HTC struck me as bland and corporate. Other than Cav’s immature brashness, there is no persoanlity to the team. Not a lot to sell to sponsors, who may want something beyond wins, especially when most of their Ws were sprints that dont garner the attention in the mainstream like the GC does. I contrast them with Garmin. JV can be annoying, but he’s created a team with a distinct, quirky personality. Garmin also has the most American identity of any team, whereas HTC’s mishmash of nationalities adds up to no identity. There may be more to getting noticed than victories, especially for a non-cycling industry sponsor.

hamncheeze August 5, 2011 at 3:41 am

@Donald, you might think that but perhaps you may be looking through a hardcore cycling fan’s viewpoint. In terms of advertising time through its sponsorship over the past 2.5 seasons I would say HTC got much more than Garmin. Just look at the victory count.

I would also argue that outside of the cycling circles, Vaughters’ quirky personality adds up to very little in terms of sponsor return. HTC, while very multinational can also use that to its advantage if they market ad campaigns in the UK with Cav, Austria with Eisel, Germany with Martin, etc, etc. And don’t forget some of other riders who rode on this team during HTC’s era: George Hincapie, Michael Barry, Michael Rogers, Thomas Lovkvist, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Andre Greipel. Some good personalities and many wins can be counted in there.

A very sad day for pro cycling, I was really hoping Stapleton could pull a rabbit out of his hat and save this team.

Abdu Whereareyou August 5, 2011 at 3:54 am

Sad to see Bob Stapleton close it down, agree he/they were a good sign for the sport.

Cav is welcome in Oz anyday! Like several other great English sportsmen, he’s really loved by us down here (ignore the stick we give ‘em, we only mean it to those Kiwi’s..). Cav’s been sitting on Mark Rickshaw so often he’d realise the wins he’s had delivered to him, but Mark R’s got the potential to be a damn good sprinter in his own right too. Reckon Sky’s pretty obvious for Cav though, they could let Gerro go to Greenedge to make space? Eisel can come to Greenedge too, he’s got an accent that sounds like he’s an Aussie sometimes. Leigh Howard was another HTC sprinter (who never got a chance) but might head on over to Greenedge .

Re Colorado Goat’s comments, I would expect some of the non-traditional cycling countries (US, Australia, etc.) have actually had a boom in cycling participation in recent years, hence why they are talking about their own Pro teams. The problem lies in the ‘value’ to the sponsor, when the home country effectively only really turns on to watch once a year (TdF). The sponsorship value is way better on local footy, especially when AFL TV rights are now $1 billion+. Hence, they become the plaything of the Gerry Ryan, Andy Rhis, etc.

Chalk up another fine mess to the ASO and UCI nearly killing its golden goose.

Anonymous August 5, 2011 at 4:21 am

I know a lot of people outside the cycling community think the way Cav – and sprinters in general – is protected and only ‘race’ the last 300m is boring, selfish and not a particularly good spectacle. I’m talking about the kind of people who aren’t hardcore cycling fans but like to watch the tour and follow some of the big one day classics.

Luc Prévost August 5, 2011 at 4:55 am

The staff is one of the main reason for the success of the team.
If Cavendish is “the best sprinter in the world”, what is Holm?
The best unknown DS in the world…

Holm has an incredible winning average but is or was in the shadow of Stapleton.
Everybody went to his boss for comments.
Could that have affected the “exposure”?
How many times have we heard about M. V from Garmin versus M. H in the last TdF?

I loved his detailed explanation on how the Cav’s train worked.
Never read anything so” basic” apart from an interview from Cipollini where is was explained the k. per hour he needed to be sure of winning.

Holm (also called Sorensen in the first part of his career) lived in Belgium when racing and knew Lomme Driessens (DS of Eddy Merckx, Rik Van Looy, Fausto Coppi and Freddy Maertens, entre autre…) . Maybe that helped;-)

I wish the staff and specially, Brian “Holm sweet Holm” the best of luck in their search for a new job.

RobertBB August 5, 2011 at 6:14 am

If the black and yellow can’t survive, what chance are the others? The “here today, gone tomorrow” model of team-building and team-continuity in cycling is really killing the sport (notwithstanding doping, etc) because there is no long term proposition for building a loyal and committed supporter base.

I think it’s time to turn professional cycling into a nationalised sport, so it can be supported by government (e.g. AIS/GreenEDGE cooperation). We need a “world series” of UCI-sanctioned pro events (both tours and classics)… or, better still, while we’re remodelling let’s get rid of the UCI and establish an organisation with some acumen.

Patrick August 5, 2011 at 9:25 am

Their sprint train will go down in legend, that stage win at the Giro this year when they controlled the break entirely on their own was probably the most sublime example.

StevenCP August 5, 2011 at 9:37 am

All roads lead to Sky for Cav, surely.

Cav has been openly applauding the British media on his Twitter feed of late. I think he feels that his success is now recognised, which would make Sky an attractive proposition. They also have the cash to pay him.

Finally, he is now well settled with Peta Todd – another factor which shouldn’t be underestimated in his decision.

Tom August 5, 2011 at 9:44 am

Very sad to see HTC go. Highroad has always been a “your name here” advert to bring new sponsors on board. Is think there’s quite situation going on, if the most winning team cannot find a sponsor then how is the near future of cycling going to be?

I think (but this is kind of a long shot) that ASO and UCI should start paying a percentage of the TV rights to teams on a yearly base to ensure stability. The teams that gather the most points, have a solid anti-doping program, run a juniors and womens team should make the most money. This also works the other way around, teams could be penalized for offences.
The money should be payed to the company that runs the team, like Riis Cycling and Bruyneel Cycling, Stapleton, Rihs etc. If they prove to the UCI & ASO they compete clean and correct they should receive funds and go hunting for sponsors to complete their line-up of riders and races.

Al August 5, 2011 at 9:46 am

Could it be that Cavendish leaving 9and taking some of the train with him) was so inevitable that HTC saw no future in a Cav-free HTC? Yes, there were other talented riders in the team, but not headline-grabbing ones- and it’s newspaper front page photos etc that sponsers are after.

Flashing Pedals August 5, 2011 at 10:50 am

the question is :
why exactly, did one of the most successful (in terms of race victories) cycling teams,
fail to attract any long term marketing partners, when others did.

Rob August 5, 2011 at 10:52 am

RIP one of the great sprint trains of all time next to Saeco and Fassa Bortolo

Clean riding with amazing teamwork and professional structure (not to mention equal opportunity for women) apparently just aren’t interesting enough.

RIP HighRoad

grumpyoldman August 5, 2011 at 11:00 am

A sad day.

Even sadder if Cavendish ends up taking Murdoch’s shilling.

If he does, (and this is a genuine question) could Sky accommodate both Cavendish and Wiggins?

El Gato de la Cala August 5, 2011 at 11:49 am

it is just even more fuel on the fire on bringing a team-owned-private-league to its feet’s, and note to that; the screaming girls choir of team owners have been surprisingly quiet since early summer, except the once seeking immediately sponsorships. If sponsors will not want to back up teams like HTC-Highroad – then revenue from lucrative TV contracts will be in the crosshairs of the remaining team owners.

Follow the money – and hunt it down at any prize. Just like Brunell did to Indurain in Liege. Bad and crafty behavior never changes. A private league owned by the teams without the influence of the often mentioned “governing body”! I do not believe it would work out well!

In real business life, whenever you catch a new huge client, you separate your effort on working hard with the new client and living up the terms agreed – and immediately after the ink has dried you create a task force finding the next big client to take over when the cooperation comes to an end – it usually does – and this strategy seems to probably be non-existing in professional team management.

the conductor August 5, 2011 at 3:17 pm

It all comes down to TV revenue. Share it with the teams, then the sport will become more viable.

Touriste-Routier August 5, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Winning races does not always equate to securing sponsorship, though it doesn’t hurt. But sponsorship is about forging an identity that enhances your brand image within your target market.

Euskatel isn’t a winning team, but the team and sponsors are Basque. For years Lotto wasn’t exactly a big winner, but the team was decidedly Belgian, as are their fans and many of their sponsos.

HighRoad was a winning team, but if you look at them what were they? They were multinational, which has its pros & cons, but how did they tie their major sponsors with their hardcore fans and casual spectators? I wouldn’t exactly call Columbia or HTCs messaging synergistic.

We all have to remember that everything has a beginning and an end. While it is sad to see HighRoad leave, especially considering all of the positive things Stapleton has brought to the sport, they were living on borrowed time since day 1. Deutsche Telekom settlement money helped sustain them for a few years, and much of the rest came from benevolence. They never signed a sponsor that fulfilled the majority of the budget. Look out, Slipstream, Leopard, Katusha, could all be next,not tomorrow, but eventually…

The sugar daddy model is not sustainable with budgets in excess of 10m Euro per year, particularly when there is no tangible benefit to team ownership. As much as we like to see the riders earn respectable salaries, the sport is becoming overpriced. It isn’t the salaries per se, but to be a Pro Tour team you need to have 25 – 30 rider salaries, and another 30 – 40 staff salaries in order to compete in all of the required races, not to mention all of the expenses that come with supporting such an enterprise

If the teams were smaller, and the required budgets smaller, then the pool of viable sponsors goes up dramatically. It also makes the sugar daddy model more sustainable, as the total expenditure per year would be less.

You can scream all you want for revenue sharing of TV rights, but outside of the TDF, the Giro, and the classics, these are not as much as most people believe. But further, there is no incentive for the owners of these rights (mostly the race organizers) to share them. The teams already get prize money, and in many cases start money or travel stipends. The race organizers have all of the risk of promoting a race, so unless the teams are willing to share potential losses, why should they be guaranteed any spoils?

Gavin August 5, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Greenedge would be too risky a proposition for Cavendish as he can’t afford to go to a team that isn’t on the pro-tour and at this stage that’s guaranteed for Sky. If you also look at all the soundbites coming out from Sky they are all positive about Cav joining the team. The one issue might be that the team won’t solely revolve around Cavendish but is it realistic for him to think he’ll get that anywhere else?

In regards to cycling’s popularity I sense a slow upwards curve in the UK. There was definitely more media coverage of the tour this year, even after Wiggin’s crashed out and with cycling likely to be popular at the Olympics having Cavendish racing for Sky could further increase interest in the sport. Whether you like or dislike Sky as a corporation you have to applaud the work they are doing at increasing participation at grass roots level and I think signing Cav would help support that.
Reference sponsors has it not always been the case that sponsors come and go? How does the size / quality of the current pro-tour compare to those of previous decades?

ColoradoGoat August 5, 2011 at 5:40 pm

It will be interesting to see whether the UCI can impose salary caps and budget caps on the teams to help increase the pool of potential sponsors. As I stated above, there are a lot of sponsors that see sponsoring cycling as part of their overall core identify with their customer base, and not just a chance for brand exposure from finish line photos.

However, most of these companies cannot afford the kind of money necessary to fund a Pro-Tour team.

Pete Verral August 6, 2011 at 4:36 pm

I’m a new subscriber to you timely and perceptive daily newsletter. Excellent analysis today (August 6) of the unspooling of HTC, which as you suggest, comes down to the bottom line that there never was any secure fundung for the team through its various iterations of ownership.

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