Dutch bank Rabobank has announced it will quit men’s pro cycling at the end of this year. The team will continue for 2013, only with a blank jersey funded by the contractual obligations left behind.
It’s another shock for the sport, especially since the team was finally trying to put its past behind it. Indeed one of the characteristics of the USADA report and other scandals is that they tend to drive out the good guys. Worse this might not be the last sponsor to flee.
Rabobank has seen plenty of scandal over the years but remained a fixture in the sport. Michael Rasmussen was ejected in the middle of the 2007 Tour de France whilst wearing the yellow jersey and team manager Theo de Rooij resigned but we can add much more, yesterday alone saw the UCI initiate the prosecution of Carlos Barredo over suspect bio-passport data and La Gazzetta Dello Sport named previous Rabo riders like Denis Menchov in an investigation. For a company looking to promote its image yesterday was a disaster.
However I wrote just a month ago that the team was turning things around. Old ways were going, whether it a careless recruitment policy that didn’t ask where results came from or even the team doctor outed by Levi Leipheimer for selling EPO. In came fresh coaching staff and a new approach that was genuine and stronger than PR. But distancing yourself from the past is awkward, there is no easy way to escape old mistakes.
“We are no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport. We are not confident that this will change for the better in the foreseeable future”
Bert Bruggink, Rabobank CFO and Director
Rabobank’s management have little faith in the future. No wonder since they’ve been promised fresh starts, new dawns and other metaphors only to find their brand linked to trouble. But these are damning words that echo around the sport as teams, races and others try to attract sponsors and viewers.
No Cash Withdrawal
The good news is that the team lives on, at least for 2013. The bus will be repainted and the team will ride in a blank jersey, perhaps even adding a sponsor because that textile real estate is valuable, maybe cycle manufacturer Giant steps up. The sponsorship deal was around $20 million per year and most of this funding will remain to cover rider wages and more. Still, it says something that Rabobank will pay not to have their name on the jersey in 2013, they could have said they’re quitting in one year but have decided to run today.
Put simply Rabobank has to respect its contracts. This includes the women’s team and if the situation is not clear, they have said they will help Marianne Vos and others until 2016. Similarly Rabobank will continue to support grass roots cycling; we probably only see the top of the pyramid but they are prolific supporters of local sport.
It’s Happened Before
T-Mobile backed out of the sport in late 2007 after a wave of Skandal. It left a pot of cash and a blank jersey under the name Team Highroad which in time became a great team but struggled to find sponsors. Similarly the Astana team can trace its genesis back to the sudden departure of financial services company Liberty Seguros in the wake of the Operation Puerto scandal, prompting rider Alexander Vinokourov to work his Kazakh connections and fund the team.
The Past, The Present and The Future
Last week Luis-Leon Sanchez was outed as a client of Dr Ferrari. Rabobank investigated and were reassured by the Spaniard that Ferrari was coaching the Caisse d’Epargne team and there was no doping. But hang on a minute, Sanchez just said Ferrari was coaching the Spanish team. Is anyone asking Movistar management what on earth was going on?
The French bank that sponsored this squad was sickened by the revelations star rider Valverde was caught by Puerto and also quit the sport. I can reveal they too considered leaving mid-season because of the scandal but feared being seen to run away would damage their brand. Instead they quietly left when their contract was up at the end of the year.
It’s issues like this which blast the idea that this is all in the past. Whenever a rider, official, manager or fan tries to pretend the USADA report is about the past they’re proven wrong by present events. People can no longer say “nothing to do with me, it was years ago” because it is their sport and their future. A rider today has to stand up and say they’re doing it right.
The UCI reaction
The governing body has put out a response which thanks Rabobank for their 17 commitment but bizarrely tries to blame the public for some of this:
In light of the difficult period, namely the high public interest in past doping issues and perhaps a more recent action taken by the UCI against a rider of the team, the UCI understands the context which has led to this decision being reached.
It’s odd to see public interest in doping cited as the problem as opposed to the chronic doping itself, no? No doubt the sport is getting scandalous headlines but the public really want to see a fair contest and a sport they can believe in. The UCI can’t rush its review of USADA’s reasoned decision but today concerns about jurisdiction seem out of place when good sponsors are going.
Rabobank break a 17 year history in the sport. It feels bad to quit now, as if there is some hope but they are a bank not a charity and besides, they’ve believed the hype before about reform only to open the newspapers and get scandal.
Still, the sport loses a good sponsor, one that was increasingly becoming interested in the governance of its team and even the sport as a whole, exploring the idea of a breakaway league and directing new approaches to training. It was the kind of company you’d welcome in the sport.
We’ll still get a team on the road for 2013. New management were expecting a challenge, this changes everything. Unlike T-Mobile which left a vast pot of money as it fled, Rabobank don’t seem to be funding beyond 2013. So the risk is the managers are fighting fires and riders are talking contracts with other teams rather than building something together.
Finally Rabobank are not the only major sponsor to be driven out of the sport. I understand another high profile sponsor is reviewing its contract with a view to quitting the sport.