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.
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.