What have Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland all got in common? One thing is a border with Germany. Another is that they all have a national tour, a bike race that lasts several days and aims to cover the whole country.
In fact if it doesn’t have a national tour, Germany doesn’t have a big team either, the number of race days is dwindling and the sport is hardly shown at all on mainstream TV. A headwind for German cycling fans but also a real problem for professional cycling as a whole too.
Germany has a population of 80 million and has Europe’s highest GDP. It’s the largest consumer market in Europe. It’s so wealthy German GDP is the equivalent of California and New York State combined or roughly 150% of the entire GDP from Africa. It’s a giant market.
It’s also geographically perfect for a bike race. Germany’s surface area is only 10-15% bigger than Italy or Poland so if these countries can have a race, so can Germany. Better it’s got the Alps to the south, several small mountain ranges across, from the Taunus to Thuringia. In between there’s everything with scenic woodland, valleys, vineyards and many important towns and cities to host a stage. Germany isn’t a big tourist draw but all the more reason for a bike race to show off the country. But there’s nothing, nichts.
Germany has a total of 10 days of racing on the pro calendar, tiny Switzerland has more. There’s the World Tour’s Vattenfall Cyclassics, then in the UCI Europe Tour there’s Rund um Köln which took place earlier this week, the Rund um den Finanzplatz Eschborn-Frankfurt, the Garmin Velothon Berlin and the Sparkassen Münsterland Giro. Plus the five-day Bayern Rundfahrt, he only stage race left on the men’s calendar. It’s a great race but of course sticks to the region of Bavaria.
Are the Germans indifferent to cycling? Doch as they would say:
- You’ve probably noticed the wave of winning riders from Marcel Kittel to Tony Martin, John Degenkolb to André Greipel and there more with seven riders in the Cycling Quotient 100
- Germany’s national federation, the Bund Deutscher Radfahrer, has over 137,000 members, far more than the French Federation
- A broad cycling culture from transport to sport from Berlin fixie hipsters to several large online retailers serving customers across Europe
- A country famous for manufacturing, cycling’s no exception with brands like Canyon, Focus, Tune, Lightweight and Continental
In short cycling’s big in Germany, it’s only the pro cycling angle that’s not getting the coverage. Now this is hardly a disaster, if you view cyclesport as a pyramid with the pro races at the top, Germany has the rest of it covered rather well. But of course the pro races are the big window into the sport.
The big problem is a lack of TV coverage. The country’s two largest broadcasters ARD and ZDF have stopped showing the sport. It’d be like RAI, France Télévisions, Sporza or TVE dropping the sport. German broadcasters get fed up with several doping scandals where they felt they could not continue to screen artifice contests driven by pharmaceuticals so they dumped the sport.
ARD in particular bought into the pink period of Telekom and T-Mobile when Jan Ullrich was a Tour de France challenger, the broadcaster’s logo was on the team jersey. But it was wider than one team, indeed we had several German teams with Milram and Gerolsteiner. But when the TV switched off, so the did the sponsors. But three things to note on this:
- there wasn’t much interest before the Telekom team found success in the Tour de France
- the sudden interest during the boom years looked like a bubble, it wasn’t the norm
- you can still watch the Tour de France on TV with ease as Germany is the only country where Eurosport is free-to-air
But if Eurosport is good , it’s not got the same audience and reach into German households. In simple terms you have to look for the channel rather than turn on your TV and have it come to you. In numbers Eurosport’s audience in Germany is usually measured in the hundreds of thousands compared to the millions reached by the public broadcasters in places like France, Spain or Italy.
— search (@searchhhh) April 23, 2014
The non-Eurosport coverage of pro cycling in Germany adds up to 12 hours in some surveys; for comparison there are 622 hours in Belgium, 431 hours in France, 363 in UK and 99 in Poland.
The good news is that if the big broadcasters did get burned and left in a hurry then they can return too. With fewer scandals and renewed German interest it simply makes business sense to show the major races. After all at 4.00pm midweek viewers are treated to repeats of detective series. Scenic French landscapes topped off with success by Marcel Kittel is bound to be a ratings triumph.
It’s not just a German issue, it’s a problem for the sport as a whole. Want to attract new sponsors for pro teams? Try telling them you race all over Europe but there’s a massive hole in Germany. Germany as in Europe’s largest consumer market. Indeed for all the talk of the UCI’s globalisation agenda, expansion into to markets is great but they probably need a plan for Germany too.
Pro cycling’s often seen as a European sport but it hasn’t got much of a foothold in Germany, Europe’s biggest country by population. But if it marks a retreat from the the Telekom/T-Mobile years, perhaps this period was an anomaly, a mania even? Sadly today Germany has no national tour and other races have dropped off the calendar. Several big pro teams have vanished with only the creditable NetApp-Endura left.
All this is frustrating for German fans who don’t get to see their top riders so easily, whether in person or on TV. But it’s also a problem for the sport, sponsors now expect big airtime in many European countries but missing out on the largest single market has to be a problem.