Breakaway leagues, an ongoing story

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

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A breakaway is a common term in cycle racing, used when riders escape from the bunch. Only now “breakaway” is taking on another meaning: an attempt by some to take the sport away from the UCI.

Cyclingnews.com reports of a breakaway league involving financial group Rothschild. I gather this was earlier reported in the excellent Rouleur Magazine but perhaps the distribution was a touch too exclusive and nobody picked up on it.

In addition to the report by Daniel Benson I can reveal the plans involved a full calendar of races including the Tour de France, several classics and stage races and that Garmin/Slipstream boss Jonathan Vaughters was involved. I understand that the Tour of California and the Tour Down Under were amongst the races willing to join. I gather the Amaury family had words with the Rothschild group to pour come cold water on the deals but that others are continuing to work on a potential deal to include ASO.

Your view on sporting structures might depend whether you are in the US or not. In the US private leagues run by business are the norm for many sports, for example the NBA basketball league. In Europe sport is more devolved and at times chaotic although there is motor-racing’s Formula 1 and the English Premier League remains a financial laboratory.

But with pro cycling there is no ownership of the sport, instead the component parts are owned and operated by different and divergent interests. We have the UCI setting the rules and fronting a couple of races like the Worlds and now the Tour of Beijing. Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) owns the prime asset, the Tour de France, and many other races and half of the Vuelta a Espana. RCS owns the Giro and some Italian one day races. Teams are private businesses. And depending on the arrangements, some riders are even self-employed and contracting out their services to a team.

Plus ça change: commercial interests ruled cycling 100 years ago.

This disparate structure should not surprise. The sport has always involved commercial interests, the Tour de France was created to publicise a newspaper, the first teams were created to publicise the likes of Alcyon, Peugeot and Legnano and the sport has developed in this fractured manner.

By contrast a breakaway league would look to establish a central command and control for the sport. From a business perspective it makes perfect sense with a set calendar of events and control of all the income  -especially TV rights – and costs, much like Formula 1. With a “package” in place the sport would be easier to market.

But from other viewpoints such a deal would be highly questionable. Whilst the UCI often manages to upset many, I’ve long said we need more of the UCI. In theory an independent governing body is able to run the sport in the common interest, taking long term decisions free from financial imperatives, commercial quick-fixes and personal fiefdoms.

Either way, the disparate nature of pro cycling is ripe for reform and you can see why banks are sniffing around.  There are many races that struggle. Teams are asking Latin-American Caudillos for sponsorship because they can’t find sponsors in Europe. The UCI still lacks basic governance mechanisms, although it is improving. In short the sport is a mess and crying out for reform and leadership.

This is obvious and today’s news not the first attempt  in recent years. Private equity firm CVC Capital Partners has been looking at the same deal and at one point there was even a talk of Lance Armstrong teaming up with Arnaud Lagardère and a US hedge fund to buy the Tour de France but this plan is dead with both the potential buyers and the sellers having changed their minds. Such plans are dead and with European consumers battening down the hatches I suspect financiers like the Rothschilds will sit back for now although the Tour de France remains a choice asset in the sporting world. ASO is the key to any new developments. The UCI has said such plans are “unworkable” but those pursuing them firmly believe otherwise.

Attempts to split up the sport might be divisive but they are a reminder that pro cycling has a long way to go to improve its professionalism.

Duluth Baptist Clydesdale November 15, 2011 at 9:02 pm

Splits are usually more of a threat than a practical idea, but they have happened, and they are dangerous.

15 years ago Champ car racing was wildly popular, growing, and in possession of a fabulous stable of teams, drivers, and races. Then political wrangling caused a split that almost destroyed the sport and has rendered what remains a shadow of its former self. They have lost many fans, including me, an they will not be coming back.

Sports are not guaranteed unending popularity. Boxing was once one of the biggest sports in the world. Now it is irrelevant. Cycling, a niche sport to begin with, must take care not to destroy itself in its quest for reform.

That said, if someone managed to rope in the TdF and most of the classics, it would probably be an improvement. But the risks are monumental.

Feargal November 15, 2011 at 9:25 pm

I would seem to me that a good solution is more UCI however they licence (for a large fee) the so called Pro Tour to a commercial body who run it for profit, the Pro Continental to a commercial body to run it and so on, much in the same way that the FIA licence out F1 and Rally Car etc.

The Inner Ring November 15, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Duluth Baptist Clydesdale: yes, the risks are quite big. I deleted your duplicate comment, hope that’s ok.

Feargal: that’s a comparable model but the Tour de France is so big that the rest of the calendar is almost insignificant, the F1 model sees many Grand Prix and points in the season. Subtle differences. I quite like the way nobody has too much power for now.

Routier November 15, 2011 at 10:40 pm

We really don’t need CVC to get involved in the sport. They and Bernie Ecclestone are doing a very thorough job of wrecking F1 by moving it to whichever motorsport nonentity of a country is willing to pay the most to host a race, in order to service CVC’s debt. This is great for them but not for the fans, and I’d hate to see cycling moved to countries whose only interest is getting itself seen on TV.

TotheBillyoh November 15, 2011 at 11:53 pm

No! The egregious Bernie Ecclestone and his method of private wealth creation is attractive to capitalists everywhere.

The shambolic and differentiated nature of the pro-cycling year is part of our sports attraction to me. The formulaic and homogonised F1, NASCAR et al is so boring and controlled I refuse to watch them; when once I was a fan.

Wealth can easily be tapped by greatly expanding the TV audience and perhaps the UCI should act as a broker to achieve greater revenues? That is the real lesson of F1’s Ecclestone years.

Michael November 16, 2011 at 1:00 am

Surely the NBA is showing now that there is nothing worse than a privately owned sport. Every sport needs people looking out for it’s interests, not having to fight for the money, at least not much of it.

Without promotion and relegation you can’t have a functioning system. Look at the US college system if you are in any doubt about that.

The Inner Ring November 16, 2011 at 1:06 am

Routier/TotheBillyoh: I think it’ll be harder than F1. You can’t move a race abroad that easily, you need the cheering crowds. Although in the breakaway plans there are ideas for smaller races involving city centre criterium racing as exhibition events as a way to take the sport to new cities.

Michael: yes, sport and business are often uneasy fellows.

Feargal November 16, 2011 at 1:26 am

The essence of my comment is not to create an Ecclestone model that is clearly bad for business.
The essence of my comment is to allow for a licencing of the organisation and media distribution of the recognised so called “pro tour” events.
We all know what these events are, and I feel that they should be organised by an entity that IS NOT the entity that sets and adjudicates on the rules of the sport.
We don’t have to follow the Ecclestone model, however I still feel the FIA model is a pointer for survival of the sport.
My entity would not be responsible organising any individual pro tour race, or licensing the team or rider selection, rather they would be responsible for ensuring that all events on the “pro tour” would get TV and media coverage and that all the teams with “pro tour” status would turn up at all races and take a cut of the monies earned from media coverage of races and fees paid by the race organiser. This entity would also be obliged, as in football, have a budget for teams who have big stars and high wage costs to be financially cushioned for a time should they fall out of the “pro tour” into the “pro continental” ranks.

Another entity, the UCI for example, would be responsible for deciding what are “pro tour” races. They would also manage the points systems that ensures only the best racers can be selected by teams in the “pro tour” and that the points at the end of the season define which teams get into the “pro tour”.

To my mind such a points system would give more points to a rider who finishes high up in a lower category race than to a rider who finished lowly in higher category race.

I also feel that as in football when a rider moves from team to team there should be transfer fee that would be distributed down to all the teams that the said rider once rode for. This should ensure that money from the top reaches the local road club, but that’s another days discussion, let’s get back to my rights holder…

inring you are right, the TdF is the major attraction of the sport, and as such it would stand proud as the highlight of any “pro tour” coverage.

If broadcast rights are sold correctly then the TdF is the hook which brings more of the casual viewers’ attention to the rest of the sport.
As you probably know, the rights holder for the UK terrestrial broadcast of the TdF also holds the UK terrestrial rights for a lot of other “pro tour” events.
However with the exception of this year, this broadcaster has never, to my knowledge, shown any cycling beyond the TdF! Agreed this year they realised that there is an audience and showed live coverage of La Vuelta, but that’s it!

This is where I think the selling of rights is a mess.
I feel that when a broadcaster buys the rights the contract must stipulate that all races MUST be shown by that broadcaster and that all races are both cross promoted and standalone promoted by the broadcaster, so when the causal viewer tunes into the TdF they are told, “get more of this in two weeks when we show the …fill in race name here…”
Allowing broadcasters to buy up the rights and not show the sport is killing the sport!

I also believe an entity given the licence to run the “pro tour” would also be obliged to ensure quality and continuity of TV coverage, so when the casual viewer moves from watching the TdF to (for the sake of argument) watching the Tour of Poland, they would clearly see the same graphics that they saw in the TdF showing distance to go, time gaps etc.
I feel if packaged correctly and videoed right this model will not only help teams to show to sponsors continuity of coverage it can also help struggling races.
By agreeing with organisers that any roadside advertising they sell would be clearly visible on camera in the last 30KM of the race to a worldwide audience would be a big benefit to the survival of the race.
In fact we already see this in the Tour of Poland but lacking in other events, this idea is clearly taken from the motor racing business model where track side advertising is bigger than anything on the car, however everyone body “wins” as the track side ads are readable while cars and teams are called by sponsor names by the race commentator.

I know this is a difficult time for the sport, so it is also the perfect time to consider and change how we market our sport to ensure its survival.
Business as usual, across the whole sport, from team management, to the UCI to race organisers to doping, just won’t cut it anymore. The whole sport needs good PR and now.

Ankush November 16, 2011 at 3:59 am

English Premier League is one of the most successful sports model in the world, much more popular than MLB, NFL, NBA, MLS. The essence of EPL is stable teams with their stadiums and generous TV rights revenue sharing model. All the parties in pro cycling i.e. the teams, UCI and race owners like ASO, RCS, Unipublic need to sit down and decide upon a revenue sharing structure (may be also charge nominal toll amount across race routes). As ASO also runs many races on a loss, UCI needs to step in and plug that hole. I’m also an advocate of a proactive UCI but they need to increase their involvement for development of the sport and not for its detriment.

DB November 16, 2011 at 4:54 am

Feargal is onto the core of a good idea I think.
UCI has too broad a “responsbility” & too few resources, i.e. develop cycling, Olympics, participation etc. and in general are being out thought because most of its Administration are well meaning cycling people with relatively minimal commercial experience, cue the confilict of interest around Tour of Bejing…what confict? (being sarcastic).

On the other side, witness the evolution in sophistcation of thinking (J Vaughters as one example) and Team management in general over the past 10 years, they are now thinking like what they are, multi million euro businesses.

The UCI revenue model is flawed as unlike F1 football etc cannot charge admission tickets and package TV rights, they do not know how / cannot package theiur product, … what value do they provide? No one knows they are so anarchic hence they get zip for it.

At the same time the ASO is building a model around protecting its jewel the TDF with all other events either subservient, feeder, or like TV rights bought and growth rationned so as not to threaten the jewel. I would do exactly the same in the ASO’s position, hence the conflict of aims in the two bodies and neither will ever meet for the good of the sport, their DNA is incompatible.

An arms length 3rd party licensed (fees to the UCI) and chartered to run the “International pro circuit” with budgets, TV rights sharing (Teams, organisers), promotion / relegation, transfer market where teams get credit of some tangiable sort for building lists & talent, with the best elements of F1, EPL etc & American marketing smarts must be coming.

There is precedence, Australian Cricket was shattered in the late 1970’s when a TV mogul first tried to work with the then Cricket board, they didn’t want it, he built a breakaway league, didn’t last long, but smashed huge barriers down, brought innovations in, (not all good) didn’t last that long but eventually the two merged back and in the longer term a stronger, wealthier, more professional, game emerged, hopefully something similar can emerge but with less pain and without the McQuaids et al and their divise ways.

Mat November 16, 2011 at 5:26 am

At the risk of moving from the original topic … to move forward I think most fans want to see 4 things:

1. Long term revnue sharing between administrators, organisers and teams. Fundamental to growth and development. Essay’s could be written on this topic.
2. Team stability. Having teams startup, merge, fold year on year is part of the sports history but it is also killing the future. Compare this to other sports where teams have a rich past and rtraditional rivalries. Granted this would involve a major shake up from where we are now but there are leagues (such as the A-League in Australia) that went through the process of ‘starting over’ with new franchises set up for the long term.
3. Promotion / Relegation system. It works. Universally.
4. Overhaul of the points system. The concept that 1 rider wins the points from a single event in a team sport is rediculous and causes huge imbalance and disruption come transfer time with direct impact on team stability.

I welcome any movement brave enough to sort the mess out. If this is a breakaway league then so be it. Consultation with all stakeholders and then some tough decisions are needed. Sure it might be worse before it gets better but with the current circus in town I dont have a lot of faith that they are up to the challenge.

Larry T. November 16, 2011 at 10:21 am

All these ideas have some merit BUT a) pro cycling is on the downhill slide from the “golden years” and it’s not coming back. The multi-national money involvement via LeMond and Armstrong was a short-term deal and will likely never occur again. b) when the winner of 2010’s TdF may not be known until January of 2012, no casual fan cares about watching pro cycling on TV anymore. I chuckled at the comment “we’ll have more of this in two weeks” and thought about an announcement – “we may know who actually won this race pending dope tests and legal wrangling within a couple of years, so tune in soon”. Pro cycling has more of a decline to face before it bottoms out and (possibly) gets rebuilt from the bottom up. Meanwhile the hardcore fans who’ll watch no matter what can try to enjoy the spectacle for what it is..but don’t look for any large number of new converts to come along.

touriste-routier November 16, 2011 at 3:17 pm

I think it would be rather easy to organize a league of teams, but unless they organize the events, bringing in the race organizers to the league will prove to be the difficult facet.

If the races were directly organized by the teams or the league as a whole, that is one thing, but the established races are all 3rd parties, whose interests will only be aligned with the league if it brings more stability and revenues to them. If they lose revenue by joining, there are few incentives.

As things stand, the races have all of the notoriety, prestige, and media coverage, and hence power. Teams and various UCI season long competition come and go, but Le Tour is Le Tour and the Ronde is the Ronde, regardless of what teams participate, and who is the governing body. The teams will always want to participate in these races.

Paddy sweeney November 16, 2011 at 3:28 pm

There are certainly problems with the current model and with the UCI in particular. The UCI is I think 177 national federations representing thousands of clubs and millions of cyclists, that’s the way it should be, the assets of the sport should benefit all clubs and all cyclists fairly. Allowing a breakaway group to enrich themselves by controlling and exploiting the main assets of the sport would not be a good development. Giving the current state of the World and European economy in particular do we really want a bank involved in the ownership or running of the sport. I agree that the long term instability in teams is a problem, mostly it is a problem for the teams themselves and for the riders under contract, or rather out of contract, they make-up a very small proportion of the membership of the UCI.

The model of the English premiership is not a good one. One commercial company owns all the events, try making that happen in cycling! I think perhaps that the model of professional rugby in Ireland might be a better starting point, the players are under contract to the governing body, the IRFU and not the clubs or provinces which remain more or less as they were before professionalism. The UCI would contract 400 riders per season for participation in the world tour, organised into 20 teams or clubs with a transparent financial structure that benefits all cycling and not just a few millionaires at the top.

Chris Campbell November 16, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Hi there. I just wanted to clarify what McQuaid told Rouleur, as it’s slightly different to the plans listed above. He said the proposal contained “the Grand Tours, four of five Classics”, and he also mentioned an additional “ten four-day races” which would take place “around the world”.

Fat2Cat November 16, 2011 at 4:36 pm

No truer words have ever been written on this blog:

In short the sport is a mess and crying out for reform and leadership.

Rider Council November 16, 2011 at 4:38 pm

comments just keep getting longer and longer, some are even longer than Mr Inrng’s blog!

roomservicetaco November 16, 2011 at 5:03 pm

“In theory an independent governing body is able to run the sport in the common interest, taking long term decisions free from financial imperatives, commercial quick-fixes and personal fiefdoms.”

This theory has been disproven on many occasions in cycling.

Oh, and add “intra-family conflicts of interest” (if not implied by “personal fiefdoms”)

The Inner Ring November 16, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Rider Council: keep the comments coming. I read all and they’re part of the enjoyment of this blog.

Raouligan November 16, 2011 at 8:55 pm

I do worry about a Premier League model I’ve commented previously about it. That sort of model will almost certainly lead to locked down broadcasting and the end of free coverage…

The horror of having to subscribe to a Murdoch run organisation to watch cycling is just grim.

touriste-routier November 16, 2011 at 9:22 pm

One question no one seems to ever ask, is why there needs to be any type of league at all?

There are races, there are teams, there are riders, there is a world wide governing body. All are willing participants. One could argue to set the rules, license the racers, license the teams, license the events, and get out of the way.

Everyone should ask (among many other questions):
Has the racing improved due to the series or year long competition?
Was racing inferior prior to it?
How has the series helped the various stakeholders?
How has it harmed the various stakeholders?

All this talk and banter may be arguing about a cure for which there is no disease.

The Inner Ring November 16, 2011 at 9:38 pm

touriste-routier: indeed and one thought in my mind is that what is good for Jon Vaughters or Rothschilds might not be good for the riders or the fans.

binotto November 16, 2011 at 11:35 pm

CyclingTips attempted to sketch what a new league might look like back in March:
http://www.cyclingtipsblog.com/2011/03/what-a-new-cycling-league-might-look-like/

Davido November 17, 2011 at 4:06 am

Rider Council: Yes, some of the comments are long, some may even be a bit too long, but I love this site. Mr. Inrng takes a position, and others weigh in. It’s one of the few places I can go on the web where the comments are civil and often bring new insight to the subject at hand. I sense that’s what Mr. Inrng had in mind, or at least what he has come to realize is a great side-benefit of writing this blog.

Feargal November 17, 2011 at 11:34 am

Long comments need to be thought about before they are written and show passion for the survival of our sport!
Talking of survival, think of this very real possibility: if the current investigations into Armstrong and Contrador find they have done wrong, then our sport will once again be in the media central spot light, sponsors will run a mile, TV may do what German TV did, and once again cycling will be the whipping boy to deflect attention from other sports that “don’t have a drug problem” (yeah right).
We must sort out how the sport is run so that it makes money for those who do it, so it can survive for those of us who watch and support it, we must ensure the sport has the best PR to honestly face (not spin) the issues and the sports rights sold for the benefit of the sport from the grassroots up to the elite level.

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