The breakaway league struggles to get clear

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

A remake could be produced by Jonathan Vaughters

Going on the leaked plans received by cyclingnews.com it seems the mooted breakaway league is struggling to get an advantage. As you probably know, anyone can launch an attack, the hard part is making a breakaway last. It’s the same in business, launching a venture is easy but making it work is the hard part.

My eyes were first drawn to the numbers. Projections suggest that by putting in a total of €24 million this will have a value of €330 million in five years time. That’s a compound annual growth rate of 70%. Not 7%, 70%. By then the league could generate €85 million of profits too.

Returns like this look odd. Is the scheme so risky that a high reward is required, like holding a Greek bond only worse? Or is it that by controlling the supply of TV rights would give Rothschild a monopoly stranglehold on cycling’s cashflow, effectively a licence to print money? If this is so then teams look to be getting a poor deal, as the major investor Rothschild will claim all the returns just for stumping up the seed capital. Obviously this is what an investor is there for. But if these returns are real other investors will provide the money for less, giving the teams more control, a greater stake in the venture for the funding required.

But for all the talk of business and finance I think the sport’s biggest assets are its history, tradition and the existing calendar of major races that are build on these foundations.

The exact structure of the WSC racing calendar revolves around 40 days of racing in ten newly created four-day events, with six of them based outside of Europe…. …Each would be structured around a time trial, sprint stage, rolling stage and mountain stage.

Are there even 10 places in the world where you can have a mountain stage? Perhaps but this formulaic race design sounds a touch dull to me. I like the way the racing changes over the year, from one day races to stage races and the way the sport spreads around Europe with the seasons. The WSC plans include slots for the major classics and grand tours but these new events sound a lot like filler.

Cui bono?
Who gains from the leak? It’s perhaps no coincidence that cyclingnews’s editor Daniel Benson visited the UCI yesterday and, lo, the leaked plans appeared online within hours. Curiously I’ve discovered the UCI’s subsidiary Global Cycling Promotions own the internet domain rights to WorldSeriesCycling.com.

If the UCI wanted to pour cold water on anyway breakaway plans then this leak is sluicing glacial water from the mountains around Aigle all over the project. In fact by the sounds of this, Pat McQuaid has rowed out to the middle of Lake Geneva, chained the PowerPoint presentation to a concrete block and thrown it overboard.

History lessons
Dutch writer Benjo Maso covers the history of the sport in his “Sweat of Gods” book:

What has made bicycle road racing so unique has never been its actual history but always its mythical portrait. That is the reason, too, why it continues to renew itself today without losing its special character. In scarcely any other sport does tradition seem to play a more important role. But that tradition is by no means fixed. On the contrary, it is constantly being reinvented.

I think he sums things up well. You can create a new race overnight but there’s no guarantee it will work, you need some ingredients from the past. For example the ENECO Tour doesn’t grab attention whilst the Three Days of De Panne does. It’s why the Vattenfall Cyclassics in Germany is older than the Montepaschi Strade Bianche yet the Italian newcomer is loved, I think because it embraces a stunning finish and uses roads that resemble the cycling of yesteryear. A race’s reputation is dependent on its connection with history.

This isn’t to say everything is frozen in the past. As Maso points out, cycling constantly reinvents itself. The Tour of California is growing. And just as many historic races wither I’m sure you can try new races and new leagues. But you probably can’t start a breakaway unless you are in the company of ASO and RCS who own “assets” like the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Paris-Nice, the Giro d’Italia, Milan-Sanremo and Il Lombardia and more.

There’s much to be said for a new system and one that gives teams greater stability. Having franchises or licences that last for several years whilst revenues are shared improves financial security and ensures team owners can focus on running their squad instead of forever hunting sponsors for next year. But moving to a model that allows this without taking the big races looks flawed. Plus what is good for teams might not be good for riders. For example the UCI’s existing Pro Tour rules set out a range of rider protection such as minimum wages, contract length, insurance and vetting teams for financial stability, like posting a bank guarantee to cover wages. All these things need to be in place to ensure riders have protection, because what is good for the teams is not automatically beneficial for the riders. Similarly if the UCI seems unaccountable at times, a private business could be even more secretive.

Finally the cyclingnews.com piece is only a leaked summary of what is a pitch document designed to entice investors, it is not a full plan. The plans are a work-in-progress. The breakaway’s chances of success look slim right now but the harder those behind the scheme work, the greater its chances of working.

Summary
I’m very sympathetic to ideas that reform the calendar and shake up the sport. But just as any breakaway needs to contain the right mix of riders to work, this plan needs the big races.

Based on the crackling information over race radio, this breakaway league is going to be reeled in with ease by the UCI, thanks to some pace-making tempo from ASO and RCS. Unless the biggest races are included then I’ll struggle to get interested and any new league won’t be able to compete. A bike race is not like a boxing match or Formula 1 where you can put a ring anywhere or build a race track. Instead the choice of roads, the terrain and above all the history of the race all count for something. Indeed Jonathan Vaughters has said ASO believes “they could put on a race with amateur riders from France if necessary” because it is the race that creates the stories, not the riders.

Still, if this leaked plan looks very weak for now this could all change if ASO and others can be persuaded to come on board. Within no time the breakaway would pull out a lead and the UCI would be left behind.

Duluth Baptist Clydesdale November 23, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Risky, risky. I like the idea of new events, but there are already a lot of good events around. Mountain stages might be easier to find than you’d think, if you’re willing to compromise and use hills multiple times in Amstel-style stages. My city, Duluth, could pull that off easily, as could countless cities around the world.

Felipe November 23, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Those people (Rothschild) are not amateur’s in doing business and making money. And for what we could see on CN, the plans for the breakaway league are way to dull. A banker projecting a 70% growth a year on a investment? Sorry, not buying it.

Starr November 23, 2011 at 7:08 pm

race tactics and strategy played well in this piece

Larry T. November 23, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Nice post. Can you say XFL? Without ASO this will never happen. Pro cycling’s in decline for a lot of reasons though I believe the biggest one is the lack of credibility due to recurring doping scandals. Tour of California growing? Correct me but I thought it was still owned by the same folks who bankroll the MSL soccer team Galaxy. The idea was they’d create this hot property and after five years sell it off for big profits…but as far as I know they still own it and it’s still underfunded by Amgen…the only ones they could find to put their name on it. It seems they keep it going as much to save face as anything. The Giro d’Italia folks (who have their own financial problems) will try to wait it out until ToC goes bust like every other multi-day pro cycling tour in the US has done. I still do not understand where all this money is that Vaughters and Co. talk about. Other than ASO’s big profits, which they at least reinvest in losers like most of the other races they promote, who else is raking in these big TV rights fees? If making money is your main aim, pro cycling’s a great way to a small fortune…you just need to start with a big one! In some ways I hope it NEVER gets to be solely a business driven by profits….there’s a passion that most of the folks in it share, otherwise their talents could probably make ‘em a lot more money elsewhere.

trounder November 23, 2011 at 9:56 pm

In honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., consider: the race organizer provides the turkey dinner with all of the fixings; the teams provide the fancy china, silver, and stemware; and the UCI is the child with his fingers in everyone’s piece of pie. Perhaps a new league format is the adult table where the grownups have an assigned seat to enjoy the dysfunctional meal. Mmmmm…turkey!

Darren November 23, 2011 at 10:09 pm

There is a concept where if you want to introduce something new and controversial you start with revealing a basic plan, sit back while the reactions (mostly negative) dance around! Wait a few years, then re-ignite plan with formidable changes! Response is then usually more positive and engaging! If I’m not wrong this concept is a sub-set of Game Theory!

benDE November 23, 2011 at 10:11 pm

If you take a longer look at it it could be a huge hit. If you have an entitiy with deep pockets that cuts out the risks of doping violations (either by taking enforcement seriously or not at all, take your pick) and lends a stability to teams and sponsors then it could go. I check in every year to see what happened at Batenkill because I love how the race is set up not the history of it. In the same respect someone could take a long view, try new things, keep the good/popular events while continuing to innovate. Add to that the possibility of huge financial and social rewards for ‘winners’ of such a series of races and it could get exciting. Show this long view with a few years of financing and good management and the monuments will come on board or sell out to the new org.

Rooie November 23, 2011 at 11:50 pm

The teams should cooperate and buy, with private equity, races like the Flanders Classics, AGR, Frankfurt, Vattenfall, ToC and Montreal themselves. Then their position would be much stronger in dealing with the UCI and ASO. A step further would be to buy up assets from RCS and/or ASO. If that is their strategy, then it could work.

Gavin November 23, 2011 at 11:53 pm

This is potentially a novice question but before the uci who governed cycling and how did the uci come to be as an organisation?
For me you can put the riders anywhere and create an exciting format but a large part of cyclings appeal lies in the history of the classics and the tour. I was happy when wiggins won the dauphine but were a brit to win Paris roubaix that would be history.

TotheBillyoh November 24, 2011 at 3:11 am

My question is this: surely this model is predicated upon vastly increased sums of money coming into the sport and where exactly do they expect this new money to come from? The ten four day races? What TV are they going to get? Very little.

If Rothschilds were proposing huge media campaigns backed by major TV exposure I could understand their deal. Otherwise it just appears to me that they plan one day to turn on ASO et al and eat their lunch.

Apropos the style: I would have thought the sharp sudden coup detat was the way to go, not this slow drip method. The UCI/ASO et al is being given time to circle the wagons.

CGradeCyclist November 24, 2011 at 5:10 am

Honestly, I don’t mind who ‘runs’ cycling – just so long as we get to see the best teams and the best riders at the best races.

Worst case scenario for me would be a ‘split’, which sees half the teams racing UCI Tour, and half racing the Breakaway Tour… And I want to see the Classics, Tours and Monuments retained, not these manufactured cookie-cutter “mini-tours”…

ave November 25, 2011 at 2:23 am

Actually, I’d be interested to see a Tour de France filled with ameteur racers.
That would be much more interesting than watching 10 very similar 4 day races.

TotheBillyoh November 25, 2011 at 2:30 am

Good one Ave: An all amateur TDF also wouldn’t diminish my enjoyment of it all. The playing field being level is the key.

channel_zero November 28, 2011 at 6:20 pm

The UCI (Pat and Hein) concentration of wealth and power at the ASO/World Cycling Promotions sets up the conditions for their irrellevance.

There’s no shortage pros to fill a field. The UCI’s structure has created a huge pool of starving pros just below the WorldTour. There’s no shortage of events that have been demoted by the UCI because they threatened the ASO too.

I think the 4-day format is a fail though. Three-day maximum and maybe a double-header in there is better. Lots of one-day events needed to simulate the UCI’s World Tour schedule. As long as WADA has 100% control of dope testing, I’d watch another league!

The thing that keeps the UCI relevant is the IOC relationship. Lots of power and money on call as needed.

I too call shenanigans on the Tour of California as growing and profitable. No one but AEG knows, but I don’t see how it could be profitable with Pat, Hein, and perhaps Weisel in the deal.

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