There was no live TV coverage of women’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Flèche Wallonne and now the new criteria from the UCI means events must have a minimum of 45 minutes of TV coverage to be part of the World Tour. There have been reports that race owner ASO could drop these events from the World Tour calendar leading to angry responses from many who want to see progress rather than regress. What if there could be a political solution to this?
So far the talk of pulling these races from the calendar comes down to a one source, a quote from Tom Van Damme, President of the UCI’s Road Commission – ie road cycling’s boss – to French website Direct Vélo rather than anything official. Still it’s credible and digital pitchforks are being brandished at ASO. You can see why ASO are on the receiving end, La Course seems to have gone backwards with the proposed circuit race around Pau rather than growing into anything bigger. Plus ASO are cycling’s biggest race organiser with annual profits of €44.5 million, there’s an expectation on them to invest more in women’s cycling including their own races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Flèche Wallonne.
However it’s probably not quite so simple. As touched on in the comments here last month, ASO owns the races but the TV rights can belong to others. In this case local Walloon broadcaster RTBF has the rights. I tried to look into the matter a couple of years ago and someone in media relations at RTBF explained a pan-European multi-year deal was signed for TV rights to ASO’s races and a sub-clause specifies RTBF having the rights both to show ASO’s races in Wallonia but to over the production for the local races, the idea being that these races happen on Walloon soil so it’s a matter of competence and territory for RTBF to do the filming and production in house work rather than an outside third party. Only the implied understanding back then was that the men’s races cost a lot already and the implication the budget only went so far.
So perhaps ASO should pay for this? We all want to see more cycling on TV and there’s a good case about investing now in a sport that’s fast growing, to build a franchise. One risk is the precedent where ASO starts paying for TV production. Do it for women’s Liège and why not ask for ASO to pay for the men’s edition too, or for other events too? Yes it could be an investment to build an audience for the women’s races but it could also see ASO sawing the branch it sits on given TV rights must be its biggest income source. Also this is imagining abilities to pay and fund that may not exist in the small print of the multi-year contract mentioned… if it’s still valid this year and next.
Now for the good news
While ASO is a business, RTBF isn’t a regular TV channel. It’s Radio-Télévision belge de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, the Walloon regional broadcaster for the French half of the country and a public service with a corresponding remit and political accountability including a supervisory board composed entirely of politicians from across the political spectrum. Compounding this is a raft of documents, statements and decrees embedding RTBF with a mission and duty full of words like équité, diversité and others that don’t need much translation. Put simply if the state is filming the men’s racing then surely the politcians ought to offering equivalence for the women’s race? ASO aren’t accountable in the same way, but in Belgium regional government is and there’s some explaining to do here. Now in terms of inclusion the TV rights for a bike race are probably not a priority but equally it’s something that ought not to be too controversial. There’s even the precedent in Belgium where Flemish neighbours Sporza/Een do it for the women’s Tour of Flanders and other races already, although presumably without being tied into long term contracts. Yes this region is richer and presumably Sporza has more means too but there’s still the question of equivalence again here and if it’s good enough for Flanders, why not Wallonia? Similarly there’s an angle with the Lotto-Soudal Ladies team where if the Belgian state lottery is funding a men’s team then it’s also backing a women’s team, so once again RTBF looks like the odd one out.
It’s not easy to get a race on TV. Perhaps it is short sighted of ASO not to be investing in women’s cycling more but as a business that’s their commercial decision which could work or not, if they miss the boat it’ll be there loss too. But the TV rights issue for the Ardennes classics is probably more complicated that “just filming it”, the last time I looked into this there was a dash of Belgian regional politics complicating things. But what if this was the solution, that if the broadcaster does still own the production rights could a campaign convince Walloon politicians to act? The Flemish races are on TV for the whole world to see.