Surely there’s never been so much racing on TV as this year. As well as the entirety of the Tour de France, there seem to be more small races on TV and this week the Tour du Limousin, the archetypal rural French race, now has live TV. A boom? Perhaps but nobody is getting rich on this, there are more hours than ever but this isn’t necessarily worth more to the sport as a whole.
The Tour du Limousin has to be the archetypal “Tour of French region” race, there are many of these across the calendar (Circuit de la Sarthe, Tour du Poitou-Charentes, Route d’Occitanie, Tour de Provence etc) and similar events exist in Spain and Italy, think the Vuelta a Burgos or the Giro della Toscana although a lot of these events have been shrivelled down to one day races or vanished altogether. They’re all modest, low-budget affairs that rely on keen volunteers and regional government funding.
One boost for the French races is shake-up of regional government where smaller regions have been merged together and the resulting new region need an identity. What better than a bike race to thread the new lands together? It sounds good but take the Tour du Limousin, rebranded as the Tour du Limousin-Nouvelle Aquitaine and indeed today’s stage was actually for the most part just outside the Limousin’s borders but only just, it’s not covering the whole new area. Still these regional mergers are allowing several races to tap into bigger regional budgets which is increasing the amount of live TV.
We’re used to the concept of broadcast rights, where media companies outbid each other for the right to show a sports event but it’s the reverse for many pro races. They pay a TV channel to come and film their event. Revenue sharing of TV rights money for teams is an illusion because the big races don’t make that much money anyway but also because teams wanting a cut of TV rights won’t want to pay up when it comes to sharing costs rather than revenues. The tariff varies but it’s between €50,000-€80,000 a day in France for the likes of Eurosport or L’Equipe TV. Live TV coverage is valuable, first as way to promote the region as images get beamed around the world and second because it makes sponsoring the event more valuable: the host towns are on TV, the jersey sponsors are on TV, the sponsors of the hoardings at the finish line are on TV and because of this the idea is they’ll pay more meaning there’s more money… to pay for the TV coverage. Apparently the Boucles de la Mayenne race last year got an audience of one million in France which is valuable and the Tour du Limousin attracted 500,000 yesterday.
It’s not self-financing though. Paying for TV coverage doesn’t automatically make race sponsors automatically pay more, it’s a slow process. The Limousin’s neighbouring race, next week’s Tour du Poitou-Charentes, also in the same newly-created Nouvelle Aquitaine region, doesn’t have the money. “The production costs aren’t far off €70,000 a day. I’ve got a budget of €500,000, I don’t have the means to multiply this by 30,40,50%” explains Poitou-Charentes organiser Alain Clouet to French regional radio France Bleu. Why so much? Eurosport and L’Equipe deploy impressive means with several motorbike cameras, a helicopter, a satellite relay and two studio commentators as the minimum and imagine the production staff behind this. It’s a set-up that’s not changed for decades and given it is costly this helps explains why a lot of race coverage looks like it did 25 years ago, give or take the on-screen graphics for the results.
Technology can help cut costs, for example streaming services mean a race can be filmed and then shared via a 4G network but this is rudimentary. First getting 4G coverage is fine for a downtown criterium or a suburban cyclo-cross but good luck with an itinerant road race across rural France, Spain Italy. Yesterday’s stage in the Limousin included roads so rustic there was grass growing in the middle at one point: good luck phoning in live audio, let alone the bandwidth for video. Also streaming a race is fine but it’s something only a few die-hard fans are going to know about, let alone watch, it’s something we go to rather than being pumped into people’s houses and being visible in popular TV listings.
It’s the changing media landscape that drives this coverage boom. As TV audiences are fragmented across more and more channels as well as different platforms it allows specialists channels and with it niche audiences and ad agencies like this as they can target specific demographics. Meanwhile the likes of Eurosport and others are keen on live content – the same thing explains why the Tour de France is live on TV from start to finish – and so typically they’ll ask for a sum of money to cover (most of) the production costs and then make their money by selling advertising on top.
If there’s more coverage than ever, it doesn’t make cycling that much of a richer sport. We’re adding more hours into saturated markets, the Tour de France reaches all of France so the Tour du Limousin provides marginal extra exposure. It’s like having a plate stacked with food and then pouring extra sauce on top, there’s already plenty to feast on. New races in Brazil, Indonesia, Japan with matching TV coverage on main broadcast channels would be the sign of a real boom. Next week’s revived Tour of Germany is an important test, Europe’s largest country, its wealthiest consumer market.
There’s more TV coverage than ever, even the Tour du Limousin is live and you can watch the Tour of Hungary this week too, a first and next week Eurosport has the ultimate niche with live coverage of the Tour de l’Avenir’s mountain stages. Part of this is down to the growth of niche channels hungry for live sports, and in France regional government reform has given some events a boost. It’s good for fans who want to watch races rather than refresh live-ticker pages or just scan the results in the evening but it’s adding to existing coverage, saturating established audiences rather than reaching new ones so if there’s a TV boom it’s probably not adding much to the sport’s value. New technology could cut the broadcast costs but you can quickly spot a cheap production and the for now livestreams aren’t the mainstream coverage the sport craves.