The World Tour’s Shortage of Teams

Cannondale Team 2014

Each passing day brings a Cannondale rider signing for new team. Yesterday saw Fabio Sabatini heading off to OPQS for 2015. If the riders are hopefully finding work, the staff might not have it so easy. It marks the end of the team which began as Liquigas in 1999, starting out with black kit but in time adopting bright lime green tones which persist today.

But the end of one team is problem for the sport as a whole because it suggests a shortage of teams for 2015, notably 17 teams chasing 18 spots in the World Tour.

There’s still time for the Alonso team to emerge, especially since it doesn’t need to worry about a bidding war for riders with points, as long as it can sign enough riders and fill in the paperwork it can race. But there’s almost no news nor rumour about a single rider signing so far. On the more worrying side Giant-Shimano’s future isn’t yet sealed even if there are encouraging noises.

Marginal Team Theory
It might sound obvious but whether there are 17 teams or 19 teams chasing 18 spots makes a profound difference. If there are 17 or 18 teams chasing 18 places then there are no problems. But the moment a 19th team appears everything changes. The big teams like Team Sky, Katusha and BMC Racing won’t worry but it sets off panic among the smaller squads who have to start recruiting riders with points to secure their position. To make it harder, it’s a moving target with teams trying to sign riders during the summer in the hope they’ve secured enough points come the licence review several months later. So one team signs a rider with points thinking they’re safe but another responds by signing another rider with more points. And so on.

When teams need ranking points to qualify for the top league then riders with these points are in big demand but if teams are certain to stay in the top tier then points lose a lot of their value. It means the concept of points as pro cycling’s currency is undermined as the value rises and falls. The worrying point is for teams, the volatility means they might sign a rider at a premium for their points only to find their use the next year is redundant. Vice versa a team coming into the sport today could find its budget blown out of the water should a bidding war start next year.

We had a similar situation last year. The UCI was trying to encourage teams, notably IAM and MTN-Qhubeka, to become World Tour squads but they refused… but Europcar decided to move up. There’s a circular logic here. Rejecting a World Tour licence only increases a team’s chance of a wildcard invitation.

Go wild
None of this changes the racing you’ll see next year, it simply means more wildcards for 2015. Just as 2013 saw 19 World Tour teams because of the UCI’s licence débâcle over Katusha and races moved to 19+3 wildcards, we should see 17+5 wildcards for the big races.

Promotion and Relegation
In other sports getting promotion is a big deal and often the only goal of teams in the second league. But in pro cycling the Pro Continental level is different, some teams don’t want promotion and are happy to sit where they are.

Why bother?
Yes a team gets guaranteed entry to the top races which has been invaluable, the golden ticket to riding the Tour de France. But with three French teams already in the World Tour it means there’s space for ASO to invite several non-French teams to the Tour. We saw IAM Cycling and NetApp-Endura this year and we’re likely to see more in 2015. If MTN-Qhubeka have a good Vuelta they’re likely to be invited, especially if bolstered by more signings. A similar story for Cofidis who with Nacer Bouhanni should find more invitations, probably for Milan-Sanremo and the Belgian spring classics. A World Tour licence can get a team into the Tour de France and other big races but so can careful recruitment. Better still for the smaller teams they can ride the Tour but without all the costs:

  • the licence costs
  • the higher bio passport costs
  • the need for a larger roster of riders to cover three grand tours and other races
  • the need for a roster strong enough to cope with simultaneous World Tour races, eg the Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse

This itself devalues the World Tour concept because it says out loud that you don’t need a World Tour licence. It’s like an airliner with 18 seats in the first class cabin which fills the seats with passengers from economy if it can’t sell the premium seats. Some passengers will book cheap and show up well-dressed hoping to catch the eye of the airline staff and get upgraded.

17 teams chasing the 18 places available sounds relaxed but there’s something strange about a sport with a top tier that’s short of teams. A World Tour licence is not the golden ticket it could be because some teams can exploit their status and ability to win wildcards.

Worse the weakness is comprehensive, it’s not about one missing team at the margin. We see the whole second layer of teams appear content to operate on their current level, promotion isn’t seen as important.

All this changes if the UCI can sell the idea of a licence to one team, whether Alonso or Cofidis but whether this happens or not a flaw in the team licence system is exposed. The shortage of teams this year shows an asymmetric position where the UCI has rules when there’s an excess of teams competing for a place but there are no provisions when there’s a shortage of candidates.

46 thoughts on “The World Tour’s Shortage of Teams”

  1. Like many things in life it is all about money. I am more than happy to see wild card teams in events where often their riders a better suited than some WT teams.

    • Yes, but on the other hand, the WorldTour concept is responsible for providing us that spectacle that was Euskaltel-Euskadi racing Paris-Roubaix. I miss the Bleeding Carrots…

  2. Isn’t the simultaneous race problem coming to an end with the reforms?

    I’d also be interested to know if the UCI is generating more revenue with the deeply flawed WT model.

    A side story to the WT/Continental classifications is the sport’s integrity problems stem from the structure of the sport focusing nearly all of the athlete’s revenue in the WT. Resourceful riders at the Continental level spend far more of their time as a lifestyle brand exercise than racing.

  3. There’s something wrong with the system when the 10th best rider on BMC can’t get a starting spot at the TDF but if he were on a second division team with a wildcard he’d be a shoe in.

    • Well, no, not really – this is what happens with the team system. Same as football/soccer – some players are content to “exist” at a big club rather than play every week for a lesser one – money talks at the end of the day.

      And anyway, does this mean teams should only have 9-man squads in total? It would be ludicrous, as riders are inevitably injured these days. What are they supposed to do then?

    • Three wins so far this season, I can’t it working out for them. If they could win more wildcards, perhaps by signing a sponsor to allow them to take Carlos Betancur, then they could race more. Otherwise they’re stuck where they are… and still entertaining in the races they do.

  4. I’ve said this before and here it is again, THANKS HEINIE! Your great idea was at best poorly executed and at worst an act of hubris. How this has improved the sport in any way is beyond me. Come up with some real benefits to 12 teams and let the organizers pick 8 wildcards. That makes a smaller, safer peloton at least.

  5. The system is broken and the ASO/UCI attempt to redo the WT is noting more than a power grab to make the races the only relevant races on the calendar.

    Reducing the number of riders makes $$ sense. but, when ASO races are in conflict with non ASO events, it will not be a stretch for ASO to put a gun to the WT teams heads and say, “If you don’t race in our .1 races, you won’t ride in the TdF. Problem solved for ASO. More top end teams and riders in their small events. Not enough riders left for a team to go to non ASO events.

    • But is it a problem if we have 17 teams? Perhaps not, it’s just an observation that we have a sport that doesn’t really have a promotion/relegation system. Also that the premium tier of the sport isn’t as beneficial as it should be.

    • What was so wrong with pro cycling BEFORE Heinie’s folly? I admit to being an old fart but can’t remember what was so bad about the situation before this stupid ProTour (or whatever it was/is called) scheme was put in place to fix it. One very simple solution would be to go back to the way it was. There never seemed to be any real reason to pony up all the extra loot it took to be in the top-tier anyway, unless it was to curry favor with Heinie and Co. Am I missing something?

          • Ask Greg LeMond and the ADR team about his unpaid wages. Or Jonathan Vaughters burying his bike. Many teams ran out of money before the season ended.

            Today’s new system audits team accounts and requires them to have a bank deposit to cover rider wages in the event the sponsor/team owner runs off mid-season.

        • There were UCI reforms in the 90’s(?) that required licensed teams to post some kind of bond as a condition of licensure with the UCI to cover unpaid wages in the event of a team going bust.

          I don’t know what those reforms had to do with the pro/world tour.

  6. I think it needs to be rejigged so that World Tour status becomes something much harder to achieve and much more desirable.

    Maybe dramatically reduce the number of World Tour licences to just 10-12 teams. And they are awarded based on UCI points the previous season – no multi-year licences or anything like that.

    So if a team wants the security of a World Tour licence – they have to get out there and earn it… Plus there’ll be some excitement there, especially in the latter half of the season, as teams start jostling for points to make the World Tour cut!

    • That surely makes for a short term system? A team that loses a rider to a broken leg sees them suffer and out of the World Tour maybe they lose their licence? Few sponsors would buy in and many riders would find themselves on one year contracts.

      • We are seeing a similar stupid system with the WTC in Ironman racing. The problem is that there is not a league where profit sharing and revenue redistribution exist. A simple solution, in my mind, would be to have the points attached to the team and not the rider, reduce the number of World Tour Teams to something like 12-15 and have a some sort of revenue allocation system wherein, say ASO has to pay a percentage to the UCI which has a fund setup to allocate directly to teams based upon selection.
        I realize that people think the points to teams will make it more cut throat for riders but I think the opposite is true – a team will build a squad based upon their goals and non-performers will get cut. However, domestiques and other essential riders have a better shot at reward as they can do what they do best without worrying about getting points.

    • > just 10-12 teams
      Do you want a small peleton?
      And don’t forget rider numers/team is to be reduced to not allow a single team to control the whole race so easily.
      So, you’d get a peleoton of 100 riders… I don’t think so.

      Also, that would mean a lot of good riders never get to ride as a pro.

  7. There are no serious solutions possible until one messy problem gets solved first: The UCI is a governing body. That is what they should do and what they are needed for. Managing a professional worldwide sport is something totally different and there will be no real lasting improvement until this mess gets fully dissolved.

  8. I don’t think there is a perfect solution, and the UCI needs to make gradual change over time. For example, not having two WT-level races running at the same time would be a start. This would mean making hard choices about the calendar, and a three or four longstanding races leaving the calendar (Catalunya, for example), also allowing for another two or three new races, ideally in new territories (e.g. Colombia) to step in.

    The one fundamental change that would make a big difference is changing the allocation of TV rights money. That would be an enormous shake-up though, probably involving a breakaway league.

    • If I recall correctly, TV rights money is only a small piece of the total amount of money in cycling, so it won’t be very effective to change its allocation. There’s a piece about that on this site. Most race organizers barely cover the costs, and they have sponsoring and (for stage races) hosting fees as additional income.

        • Does that mean that a teams income is too heavily reliant on it’s headline sponsor(s), so that the limited amounts that could come from TV revenues and race fees is not enough to make a difference? If rider wages could be capped, (so some teams couldn’t spend the same on two riders as others have for a whole team,) and team sizes reduced, would this bring the balance of Sponsors/TV/Race Fees to a level where teams were more stable?
          Would this mean that more sponsors would be interested in investing in cycling as it’d be a smaller investment (risk), and then with a bigger market of sponsors(advertisers) would investment slowly increase in teams (1st & 2nd tier), events and tv?

  9. Here’s a few ideas, wouldn’t want to call them ‘solutions’ .
    Some things that would stimulate bigger Pro Co teams to apply for a WT licence:
    -True leagues, no mixing of teams in events between WT and Pro Co (requires major shake-up of classifications etc, probably too disruptive)
    -No more wildcards (not so nice for the ‘local character’ of races)
    -A mandatory fee for wildcard teams, based on the WT points total of the event. The fee is is added to the prize money and so redistributed to the teams.

    Some other things
    -I’m in favor of not basing the team’s sporting value on the current riders, but simply on last year’s performance, like almost any team sports league does. This means you can’t buy points, you have to earn them on the road. It also slightly dampens the volatility of teams. Completely new teams will have to start from a lower level and work their way up, rich sugar daddys will have to buy up an entire team that has already qualified for next year if they want to get immediate access to TdF etc.
    -You could also have a World Tour of only events, no difference between World Tour or other teams. Selection for World Tour events could be based on an ‘objective’ scale of individual riders’ performances in similar events. I mean it like this: individual riders get selected for events and are allowed to bring their team. If the rider doesn’t want to participate the team doesn’t get in unless they have another rider that classifies. It would make it very difficult for teams and riders to plan their season, but it would optimize for the best line-up per event.

  10. -Reducing the number of WT teams is one step. Perhaps in the 14-16 team range. Teams like Cofidis have no need or desire to ride very WT event. Perhaps offer each WT team a four race exemption so that a Europcar doesn’t have to put together a classics squad, or a Giant-Shimano does not have to go to Canada for two one day events.

    – Having a salary cap is another issue. You need a max cap to prevent the well funded teams from having most of the top riders. You also need a minimum to prevent smaller budget teams from having zero stars and not being able to keep a WT calendar.

    But the real elephant in the room is ASO, RCS and UCI. The reforms they are pushing for only enhance themselves at the exclusion of all other events and race promotors.

  11. Why not match the riders points with a team points, ie Mollema gets 20 points to take where he chooses next year, Belkin/Brand Lotto(?) get 20 points next year regardless of riders.

    Its 50:50 riders and teams.

  12. Or another idea, drop WT has to complete every race.

    eg If for 1.HC max is 70% WT, make there a minimum 75% for WT grade races, 20 teams, 15 must be WT.

  13. Maybe the easiest and most beneficial solution for all is to scrap the WT idea altogether and just have pro teams. This would save teams both money and administrative effort. Everybody will have their own idea of the best teams, and organizers will be free to choose which ever team they want to complete in their event. The UCI need only be involved with bank guarantees and anti – doping revenue.

    Sometime the simplest solution is the best.

  14. This is all about sponsors.
    We all know cycling is a very cheap form of corrporate advertising, but we also know that thanks to the dopers the brand is somewhat toxic, hence the amount of sugar daddy sponsors, which is not a healthy situation.
    To amend the situation, cycling MUST, close the chapter on Armstong very soon, and the closure must be seen as fair and final. Sponosors want to see the back of this doping era.
    At the same time those riders who still bounce around the pro peleton, who come from and just after the Armstrong era and who have a whiff (or more) of doping and who refuse to acknowldge their past, should be encouraged to get out of the sport. As long as they are around there will always be a stain on the sport that any sponsor who is making a cold business decsion will point too.
    As part of a race licence the orgainisor must offer TV coverage to Free to Air statons in the first instance. Any TV station taking the race will be obliged ‘to throw’ to the next race so that viewers know there is more to cycling that just the TdF.
    Cycling must aviod PPV as much as possible as it will kill the sport in the long run, we are not football and do not command a tribal following which is the bases of the PPV model.
    Teams must get a share of the TV rights, this will be small now but will grow. Clever use of TV will build fan and with it sponsor loyality.
    There is not a lot we can do to change the situation for this or possibly next season, as we are reaping what was sown by the dopers and their supporters.
    FIY for those of you who think ES is a PPV station it is not, it is a satalite (as opposed to a terestrial) station which is FTA. You don’t need to subscribe to any plan to get it. In fact if you are in the UK on Sky and cancel your subscription you will still see ES as it is classed as a news station.
    If its not on your cable package then you need to ask them why they dont have it.

    • Cycling (road) is a very bad TV sport and it is just the way the sport is. The races are very long and with not much action. For the TV production crew, it is very hard and $$ to cover the events. There are too many races that had no importance for the top racers and it is very challenging to follow the sports for the spectators that are interested.

      In North America, the audience that cycling reached is very small and it is only people that like cycling. For sponsors, they want a more broad and general market for their products. That’s why big corporation don’t sponsor cycling team even if it is very cheap.

  15. This is much more of a Armstrong doping period problem. Professional cycling has not found a equitable path to big time teams and business structure. UCI and the other powers are trying to modernize an outdated model. The model is essentially the same as when Coppi and Bartioli rode. Every once in awhile an interesting idea comes along bit nothing that addresses the core issues. It’s similar to boxing, in that each race is a business outside of the business of the teams, but they share relationship with little exchange of money. The race organizers are like the boxing promoters, except the riders get nominal prize money. It’s professional, but no rider or team can survive purely on road results. I don’t see how UCI can have a meaning influence over ASO, as they have little financial leverage with the promoters (ASO) who really hold all the cards. Clearly, based on Innering analysis of the tv money, that is not a meaning solution. It’s always a series of short term vision of finding another sponsor, never a way to deliver longterm value of owning a team.

    • Exactly. All patchwork. The powerstructure in the sport has itself established over time and never got rebalanced. It is scary that procycling as it is right now is always only a few decisions away from folding: let’s say either in a concerted move or out of bad timing 5 big sponsors quit and one of the big spenders gets in a situation where he can’t have a team anymore-this would be the beginning of the end. New sponsors only get on board because the whole show is already running (no matter how bad the image of cycling is or not). In this situation cycling really would be toxic for new sponsors. Plus there is no security in any way for them. Cycling doesn’t produce it’s own tv product, so the quality differs and it has no long term guaranteed tv contracts (tv time is the one really interesting thing for sponsors and it is out of procyclings hands? Come on!).

  16. I work a lot with global corporates. Many CEOs, CFOs and CMOs of these corporates are relatively recent cycling converts – these are the guys buying Sky and GreenEdge jerseys, riding sportives and buying Pinarellos. I asked a few of them why they don’t throw a relatively small amount at sponsoring a team. Here’s a summary of their views:

    1) the pervading fear of doping scandal hitting your team.
    2) lack of certainty over (a) race involvement from year to year and (b) TV and wider media exposure.
    3) relative inability to just focus on your core markets (if you are a US electronics manufacturer, you might not really be interested in racing in Northern Spain UNLESS TV coverage in your core market is guaranteed.
    4) this is a growing issue that corporates say is not unique to cycling, but cycling is typically bad: the lack of equality between men and women. Some of the old school may scoff at this but many corporates with large marketing budgets are looking for female role models and personalities. One said – “who would you rather having smiling back at you on the back of a “healthy” muesli box, Lizzie Armitstead or Ian Stannard?” (Sorry Ian…) Issues 2 and 3 (not so much 1) are magnified when we look at 50% of the population.

    It is hard to see a solution until someone – UCI or ASO – agree who is to control of the “total product” to provide certainty on (2) and (3), mandate some rule / sponsorship changes to encourage (4) and continue (or, depending on your point of view, increase) the efforts on (1).

    Nationality-based sponsorships of teams will continue to rise in the meantime I think.

  17. I only began following road cycling literally during this year’s TdF. (This blog has been very helpful/interesting in learning more, thanks!) But I’ve been on the internet long enough to know that even if I’d been born in a camper van half way Alpe d’Huez that the UCI still probably won’t read my comment let alone take it into consideration, so I’m content to read and occasionally throw peanuts.

    That said, the league is certainly confusing, but I think the two issues that probably aren’t affecting viewers -> sponsors -> number of teams are:
    1) The coverage being very newbie-unfriendly, which seems more the fault of ASO (I believe they handle the filming etc?) focusing on Drama and the pretty landscape, than that of UCI. Don’t get me wrong, I like both of these things, but if they want more viewers, they should put in more of an effort to make sure people know things like e.g. ‘what a domestique does’ and ‘the winner is the person who has the best time on average’ (I know this is obvious but apparently it was a common question in the US back when Armstrong was the boss, so maybe it wouldn’t be to a lot of people channel-surfing) A sport like cricket might be confusing but the sheer number of fans ensure people learn the rules through osmosis; I just happened to be lucky enough to live with a TdF fan
    2) The reaction to doping (and other scandals like the racism allegation) being Do Not Talk About It Ever Unless You Absolutely Have To In Which Case Be Vague And Move To Another Topic As Soon As Possible, which is the fault of almost everybody. It was just silly seeing the SBS commentators being cagey about WHY Michael Rogers’ win in Stage 16 is so remarkable (I eventually looked it up) when even the internet cynics I’ve seen agreed that he wasn’t doping. I can only imagine what it was like being a fan when the shit hit the fan in 2011-2012, but going from one culture of silence to another is not a long-term solution. People can smell bullshit!

    • ASO don’t do the filming, it’s French TV. All the shots of landscape are because a large share of the audience in France tunes in to see their country in the glory of summer and want the scenery more than the race. This segment of the audience is greater than the total TV audience in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand put together. As for explaining things, local productions can add this and probably need to, concepts such as the yellow jersey are awkward to explain the first time.

      • Ah okay, I badly misremembered who handles the tv coverage/filming. Like I said, I like the landscapes too! (and they’re honestly half of the reason the people who got me into it watch it) The cameras weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time too often, either.

        My thoughts were more that it feels like it’s assumed everyone watching is on the same page (we get the Phil and Paul commentary and they elaborated a little, but not much). If there was an effort to explain how the sport itself works, I could stand to lose a few of the sweeping aerial shots to make room for that.

        I agree that local productions explaining the race would be a smart move. SBS played some mini-documentaries alongside the race during early stages, but they were mostly historical and a little intrusive. If they reworked that concept to be more explanatory, it could be helpful…

    • I think the ability for countries to showcase itself is one of cycling’s assets. In the last weeks we had 2 good examples: San Sebastian and Poland. Both looked beautiful and especially in Poland it was nice to see all these excited people everywhere, even applauding the riders while waiting at the bus station (ok, if you were able to see anything else than the larger than life inflatable balloons). Plus you have to differentiate between TdF and other races. It makes sense to explain the essentials of the peloton at the TdF and the world championships, because there may be new viewers. If you watch other races I think you will already have a rudimental knowledge of the sport.

    • one important part of cycling (at least for me) is landscape and nature and that you “conquer” it with your bike. its a difference to most other sports that are bound to a certain place. so i think its very fitting to show it on TV.

  18. Interestingly you didn’t mention the fact that teams will be required to carry less riders (I think next year?) – what effect will this have? it lowers cost but I don’t think is good in the long run.

Comments are closed.