Most of content on the Inner Ring is about men’s pro road racing but I follow the women’s side of the sport too. Right now we’re seeing teams disappearing and in 2011 some of the big races on the calendar have gone, a point made in an articulate interview by Australian rider Bridie O’Donnell on SBS.
There are calls to improve the women’s side of the sport with ideas like compulsory women’s teams for every World Tour squad or for big race organisers to put on a women’s race too, with Gerard Vroomen making some great arguments. I like these ideas… but maybe there’s more to be done?
For me any changes to the rules are changes to the supply-side of the sport. We can make rules about hiring more women or obliging race organisers to do more. But the problem right now is the demand-side, no?
Let’s go back to the roots. Why does a pro team exist? The money is there because a company wants its branding on a team, for the association and imagery that goes with this. There are other reasons but that’s the main one.
So by all means fund a women’s squad too or make it compulsory for major race organisers to put on a women’s race but for me, the real difference would be increased TV coverage. It’s this that brings in sponsorship like no other.
TV is everything
Look at the Tour of California. In 2005 there was one US Pro Conti team in Navigators; when the new race started in 2006 this doubled with Healthnet-Maxxis and in the lower Continental level, several team teams emerged. As soon as the TV coverage was agreed team owners and others had a big draw for potential sponsors. Britain has seen something similar with increased TV exposure between 2008 and 2009 when TV coverage of domestic criteriums was in place: three Conti teams grew to five. German cycling went through a boom too with new teams emerging as the sport grew in popularity and broadcast hours before doping stories caught up with Jan Ullrich. TV creates the demand for pro cycling teams.
This raises the question of how to get more TV coverage. Now that’s the hard part. Having a women’s race on the same course and within hours of a men’s race is surely ideal for lowering production costs. Many will tune in to watch the main men’s race but if a fraction stay to watch, say, a 20 minute TV package of women’s racing then you’re getting there and giving sponsors a real reason to get involved.
Lead by example
I think the UCI could take a lead. The governing body is in a unique position of being able to set the rules, including some broadcast rights. That’s why the most prominent women’s races are the Worlds and Olympics, because they get live coverage on mainstream TV across Europe and beyond. Now that the UCI is venturing into race promotion, it would be great to see it do this with a commitment to expand women’s racing. What about a women’s Tour of Beijing for example?
Points in short supply
But it’s possible to exploit other sources of demand. Many teams are desperate for World Tour ranking points and one trick for a squad aspiring for a World Tour licence could be that women’s ranking points count towards a team’s total, men and women combined. I’ve documented the rush to sign Iranian riders which sadly is more about their points than giving new talent a break in the top league.
If teams embrace this logic, perhaps we could also see the UCI enlarge their sporting criteria to include women’s points? The arithmetic can be toyed with but it’s another way to see teams spend more on the women’s side and it essentially sees the impressive demand for a World Tour licence exploited in order to subsidise a women’s team. Maths aside, perhaps the simple notion of supporting the sport via a women’s team (or an U-23 development team) can count in favour of an applicant too?
TV is the all-important thing, it will bring sponsors in to the sport. Get more TV coverage and we’ll have more pro teams for women and riders being better paid. The UCI, as governing body, is able to act in several ways, for example leading by example by promoting more women’s racing or to exploit the demand by some teams for a men’s World Tour licence by encouraging them to see the women’s side as a viable investment that can complement a men’s team.