As the Tour de France convoy returns to French soil via the port of Calais it passes right by the village of Ardres, a nondescript place except it was once the site of an extravagant display of wealth and power between the Kings of France and England in 1520.
The Tour’s visit to Yorkshire and London has its similarities with pomp, sport, business and exchange.
It’s been said on here before and it’ll be repeated too that the Tour de France is a business. It was created as a stunt in 1903 to sell newspapers. We shouldn’t be too cynical about this, sales were dependent on a contest that captured the imagination. Tour founder Henri Desgrange set out to do something amazing and succeeded.
An austere type, Desgranges could have been a character 19th century novel by Emile Zola. When a hungry rider asked for food he told the impertinent rider to eat a lump of coal. He was an ardent nationalist who used the Tour as a vehicle to define the French nation and challenge Germany. But he’d surely have loved to see the Tour’s visit to Britain with the huge crowds for the business and the cultural exchange, a little bit of France invading England.
Yorkshire’s grand départ and the London finish has been a roaring success. It’s yet another triumph abroad. The incursion to Barcelona in 2009 had huge crowds and a Catalan gran sortida is on the menu. The same for the Tour’s visits to the Netherlands, giant crowds have brought the race back again and again since the 1950s.
Why start abroad?
It’s a money-spinner. Start with the reported £4 million (roughly $7m / €5m) fee for ASO for the grand départ in Yorkshire, a tidy fee but don’t confuse the fee with the profit because part of this money is spent, for example booking hotels to lodge the teams and all the organisation from police to publicity caravan staff. However it’s considered worth paying for given the benefits from immediate hotel occupancy rates to longer-term things such as putting Yorkshire is on the map.
In addition there some more subtle gains. The Tour’s visit helps grow the sport in the UK by raising its profile further thus increasing the likelihood of a return visit. Plus ASO is able to offer its corporate sponsors in the caravan increased exposure to the UK market
“Worth paying” is a subjective statement. Cost benefit analyses tend to show a good net gain for the hosts but those working in the tourist industry gain while others facing traffic disruption and high taxes might not share the fun.
So how does the Tour make money?
Amaury Sport Organisation has four prime sources of income from the Tour de France:
- hosting fees for the grand départ and then stage starts and finishes: The latter cost around €100,000. The race can be in and out in 12 hours, no wonder it’s much less than the start fee
- TV rights money: channels around the world pay for the rights to show the race. It’s a major sporting event however the income doesn’t rival other international competitions like the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics. For starters filing the race is expensive, no fixed cams in a stadium, the Tour is on the move every day with motorbike cameras, helicopters and aerial relays and more. Also in France, the race’s prime market a government decree from 2004 stipulates the race must be available on a free-to-view channel which means there’s no bidding war for the rights
- The publicity caravan: if you’ve not seen the race is preceded by a long convoy of bizarre vehicles decked out in the livery of various brands with staff aboard the vehicles throwing out free samples and other promotions. It measures 12km long and contains close to 200 vehicles. The fees vary in proportion to the number of vehicles and their size, from €100,000 for a single car to ten times this for a flotilla of large trucks
- Race sponsors: if teams are struggling for sponsors there are several giant multinationals pouring cash into the sport. Look at the Tour de France with Skoda, Nestlé. I understand LCL, a French bank, pays around €4 million a year to have its name on the yellow jersey and furnish the priceless lions. The green and polka dot jerseys have a tariff around €1.5 million.
500 years ago Britain and France staged an elaborate show. Today we’ve seen another example, yellow instead of gold. Aside from the odd selfish selfie it’s been great to see the Tour attract such big crowds, the grandest of grand departs. In 2002 Marcel Kittel started cycling with his father, went on a family holiday to France and then dropped athletics for cycling. How many Brits will be inspired to start racing and perhaps in ten years’ time a few will take part in the Tour?
But there’s a business side to it all too. ASO’s decision to visit Britain wasn’t just for the plaisir, it’s part of a marketing and promotion exercise that’s ensured very lucrative weekend for the Tour de France. There’s the immediate cash fee from Yorkshire and various tiers of British government but longer term the Tour’s popularity in Britain means a valuable market for sponsors. As the Tour sets sail to France it’ll say au revoir. The only question is how soon the race will return.