How much is a race worth?

That’s the prize list for yesterday’s Flèche Wallonne race with a first prize of €16,000 for the men’s race and just €1,128 for the women’s race.

It’s one of the most prestigious one day races on the calendar but many might see the cash prize as rather small. For comparison, last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race offered €16,000, a sum similar to the prize for making the semi-finals of the Dutch Open tennis tournament, in other words coming fourth in a modest tennis tournament.Win the golf tournament in the Netherlands and you pocket €300,000.

But the value of a bike race probably isn’t reflected in the prize list. Instead there are other ways of judging the value of a win.

First up, there’s the salary boost. Win a big one day race and usually a rider’s salary will jump up when it comes to contract negotiation time. If they have won before then they’re likely to win again and this is valuable. It’s hard to put a figure on this as a win rarely comes in isolation, the rider will back it up with other performances. But imagine a second year pro winning the Amstel. They could be on the UCI minimum wage of €24,000 but it is possible to add a zero on to the wage. Thus win the Amstel and you might collect €16,000 in prize money but you can collect 20 times with with next year’s pay packet.

Next there’s the sale value of the race. In most sports fixing the outcome of a sports event is illegal but it happens in cycling and more often than we might think. However, it’s not like races are sold on ebay to the highest bidder for everyone to see. Deals are done in secret, via phones from the team car or between riders as the finish line approaches. Last year we saw the Swiss media seemingly get hold of emails from Alexander Vinokourov and Alexandr Kolobnev with allegations that Kolobnev sold the 2010 Liège-Bastogne-Liège to Vinokourov for €100,000 as the two riders closed in on the finish line. It’s astonishing to think who could have hacked the emails here but that’s another story. Vinokourov since denied the transaction… but partially, stating the €100,000 wired from his Monaco bank to Switzerland was a loan.

Even if we proceed on an academic basis, a figure like this shows a rider could pay €100,000 to buy a win but we can net off the prize money and win bonuses to put a different value on the race. Either way again the value here is superior to the prize money.

There’s the most important aspect: a win is priceless. It might be a touch too romantic amidst the relentless commercialism of pro cycling but winning for the sake of it still matters. But there are fringe benefits that pay out too. If you win big then a lifetime label as a classics winner awaits. Take the Tour of Flanders and you probably never need to pay for beer again in a Flemish bar. Red carpet might not roll after the first win but doors open.

Also note prize money is shared. The race organiser wires the money to the team and there’s usually a formula to pool the winnings amongst riders and staff.

Finally a word to say make a point that might not need saying but it’s worth stressing: it’s not all about money. The thought of more money probably couldn’t make a rider pedal harder up the Mur de Huy yesterday, those fighting for the win were giving it everything. Probably the only type of debt was oxygen debt. If there is talk of selling results, you have to be in the position to deliver the sale, for example with a comfortable lead on the chasing pack. All the same, prize money is relatively low in cycling compared to other sports.

The cash prizes are small in cycling but nobody is racing with them in mind. Winning should be priceless but some do put a price on it. We see the big payouts come from increased salaries. In the rare instances where riders trade the win in a race we see the transaction value is bigger than the prize payout, sometimes by a large margin.

But the value of a race is hopefully more than a cash payout. The sport places a premium on history and a winner may spend the cash quickly but their name can live eternally.

24 thoughts on “How much is a race worth?”

  1. >All the same, prize money is relatively low in cycling compared to other sports.
    But tennis players / golfers don’t have monthly salaries, do they?
    (I’m Sure they get money besides with winner’s checks, start money and the like, but still that’s a difference)

    • Product endorsement isn’t big in cycling. The most obviuos things for them to endorse – bikes, wheels, gears – are what they have little to no say in using as the team gets the payment from the companies (that goes towards salary). Specialized have done some things to alter that in the last few years that seems somewhat underhanded to the traditional ways in that they sponsor an individual rider – Contador – and then whatever team he moves to end up all riding their bikes. There was a lot of speculation that they were trying to do this with Cav and his move to Sky but nothing came of it.

      There are minor endorsements, think of Basso, Nibali and Pozatto for Sidi shoes and Tom Boonen for a super market chain, but there’s nothing major as you’d see in golf or tennis with the players being paid to use a certain club or racket.

  2. I’m glad you allowed the glory as a decisive factor over money – as Napoleon said, A man will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon.

    That’s always puzzled me about the Vino-Kolobnev thing.

    It would have been the crowning achievement of Kolobnev’s palmares, which are otherwise a tale of being good but not quite good enough, whereas for Vino it was nice but it won’t be the first thing anyone thinks of. Was he just so desperate to show that after the doping ban and injury he still had it in him, and maybe to erase or at least smudge it a bit… if it happened that way.

  3. My main issue with the lack of prize money is that without a popular fan base that other sports like football have, due to their ability to ring off an area and create ‘home’ teams, cycling and the teams rely heavily on sponsorship. And the reliance on sponsorship creates ridiculous situations that would never happen in other sports (HTC for example, or stories of riders doping in a hope to attract new sponsors). An increase in the prize purses of races would go someway to creating more stability and competitivity for lower placed teams by decreasing the reliance on sponsorship as the main source of funding.

  4. There just isn’t that much money in cycling. The most reliable sponsors are bike companies, which themselves don’t even have the bicycle market cornered (here in the U.S. your average bike rider is probably riding a Wal-Mart special and has barely even heard of Trek). It’s not the sort of sport that is easy to charge admission for, even if you could; by its nature it covers vast amounts of territory and even the most crucial areas only briefly glimpse the event.

    As has been mentioned, tennis and golf do not pay salaries to their players; there are endorsements and there is prize money, and that’s pretty much it. But those sports have greater worldwide popularity anyway. Further, there are hundreds of riders who will never threaten to win a significant race, but are necessary for the proper function of a team. They need the assurance of a salary, even a small one, to be able to make cycling work. As @inrng says, a rider who wins something significant gets a significant bump in pay.

    To expect that a race should award prize money consistent with events in other major sports is to ignore the realities of the economics of cycling, both in its different nature and its reduced monetary yield.

    • One major difference is that a football team can make money off ticket sales (and probably TV coverage, although the deals might be done by the respective national organisation), whereas in cycling no TV money reaches the teams.

  5. @shouldbewritinganessay OK, but increased prize money requires increased sponsorship for the race itself; all that would be done is to shift the sponsorship burden from one party to another.

    • For a start i’m not convinced that the race organisers couldn’t already give more prize money away.
      The race could find other means of increasing revenue i’m sure. And besides, whats wrong with the burden being shifted? The major races I assume will make the majority of their money through TV rights, that gives them an alternative funding revenue, and that’s what teams are lacking.
      I realise that teams using prize money as a source of funding isnt the most predictable or ideal way for them to go about paying their salaries ect but my issue is that the structure of cycling is open to so much flux that its hard to create a stable environment for teams and the sport to grow.

      • If there were additional sources of readily available revenue, most races would already be going after them! There are many races that are just struggling to stay alive; adding additional burdens of prize money only makes that situation worse.

        The race organizers carry the entrepreneurial risk of holding events, thus are entitled to prosper from their efforts. There are minimum standards of prize lists for the various categories of UCI events, as long as these are reached, there should be no argument against compliance with the rules. If a race organizer sees value in awarding higher prize lists, they are at liberty to do so.

        People talk about TV rights like it is the goose laying golden eggs, which except for relatively few events it isn’t. In UCI events, entry fees are prohibited, so teams do not pay to participate, and many of them get travel stipends or appearance fees in addition to the opportunity to win prize money. An argument could be made (not that I am a proponent of this) that states teams should pay for the privilege to race on TV, after all, that is what gives them exposure for their sponsors. Any 3rd party wanting a “commercial” pays for this opportunity…

        • Well said T-R! I get tired of reading all the baloney about the race organizers pocketing this vast wealth from TV rights, etc. instead of sharing it with the teams. All the talk of “business models” and such gives me a headache. It’s SPORT, not business.

  6. Sure the win is worth more in future salary than the prize money, but doesn’t the winnings usually get split among the team. For 1/8th or less of $16,000 why would I help a teammate win when it doesn’t help my salary. Add this to the the need to get UCI points in order to get a job and there seems to be little reason to work for others.

    • Because it’s your job as a teammate. Unless you’re a star, there are hundreds of riders who would love to have your job ferrying bottles and chasing down breakaways; a dozen of these on your own team, left home from the most prestigious races. And nobody will turn around and help you win. A rider who doesn’t ride within the team concept will find themselves free of results and a job.

    • Riders quickly learn whether they have what it takes to win or not. Those unable to deliver regular wins can still earn an excellent living as helpers. Take someone like Sylwester Szmyd or Bernhard Eisel for example.

  7. Yes, money in cycling races is very important, but very often more as an instrument than as a goal in itself. Still, I would always advocate channelling money to riders through prizes rather than giving teams a “cut” in the World tour business.

  8. Who actually pays the prize money, the UCI or ASO (who are the owners as far as I know)? Who benefits from TV broadcasts etc.? I’m assuming one puts together the various deals and the other just gets a cut.

    • The race organiser pays the prize money and the race organiser handles TV. Remember for big events the organiser can sell the rights but for smaller races the organiser will pay for the TV production.

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