Widening the Transfer Window

Yesterday’s look at the 1 August date skimmed over the rarely used “mid-season transfer window”. But later in the day we saw the announcement of Rohan Dennis’s immediate move from Garmin-Sharp to BMC Racing.

It’s testimony to sport’s special status that when an employee is allowed to move from one job to another it’s considered headline news. But Dennis’s deal could be something we’ll see more and more.

The mid-season transfer is rare but “employee allowed to change jobs” makes the headlines only so because riders are signed on long term contracts. But so are many others, for example it’s common in France for many, from the factory floor to the boardroom, to have contracts with no end, although less so these days. Meanwhile corporate executives around the world are able to wangle long term deals too but still these can be ended at any time given notice and consent. As such sport a rare domain to retain such a strong element of control and ownership over the employee.

Last year we saw Alessandro Petacchi “retire” and then tried to move to OPQS, a move that was blocked in May but approved during the August transfer window. Dennis’s move is more of a standard deal in that he moves mid-season with the accord of all parties involved, this is essential for a deal to happen within the UCI rules. His current team Slipstream/Garmin said yes, his new team BMC Racing have him in a red jersey on Monday and the UCI and the Professional Cycling Council, the UCI’s joint committee that oversees the sport must also approve the move and it can only happen at the start of August, a team can’t buy in support for, say, the spring classics, Giro or Tour as the Petacchi case showed. Everyone’s a winner:

  • Rohan Dennis gets to join up with his new team and ride the Vuelta, so he keeps racing rather than get benched
  • Garmin-Sharp save on Dennis’ salary payments from now until the end of the year, all the better for a rider who had become less of a priority “asset” and they possibly collect a compensation fee from BMC
  • BMC get a rider right away for the rest of the season who can help in the Vuelta, the World Championship TTT and more

Such mutual consent is great to see. However such harmony is not guaranteed. Take the case of Nacer Bouhanni he’s off to Cofidis and can’t wait to go but won’t wear the red jersey until 1 January 2015. Why not move now? Well FDJ need a sprinter for the Vuelta so if he left his current team could have a problem to solve and also it takes time to build a sprint train, his move is a long term project for Cofidis so nobody is in a rush.

But let’s imagine a rider in a similar position to Bouhanni. They’re in a team and not enjoying it and sense opportunities elsewhere. They want to move and have been offered a much bigger contract elsewhere. So far so normal but imagine they’re still under contract, maybe to the end of this year but maybe for longer. Normally the rider just has to sit tight but if the transfer window opens they can move. Again this might suit everyone but it’s possible to engineer a situation with a rider. It’s a practice called “tampering” or “tapping up”, the idea of making an athlete unhappy in their current job so they move to a new one. A move could suit the rider but any transaction is bound to generate transaction fees for the agents and others who are certain to gain by stirring. So if the UCI is to explore more mid-season transfers it’ll have to protect against this. One remedy would be to allow the rider to move to the new team but remain on the same salary from now until the end of their existing contract although how well this can be enforced or monitored is a tougher question.

There’s also the destabilising influence on teams. We bemoan the sport’s short time horizons with temporary sponsorship and other insecurities so allowing riders to hop teams all the time would only add to the troubles. In short it would see the big teams poach the best riders from the small teams… but small could well mean World Tour and Pro Conti, established teams who are not primarily fulfilling a youth development role. We could get vulture signings when a team finds its sponsor is quitting riders could jump squads within days, preferring the certainty of a ride with a new team. Or just see a star rider on a small team taken away, for example what if a big team had made an offer to NetApp-Endura for Leopold König in June?

Déjà vu
Riders have moved teams before their contracts are up. See Bradley Wiggins move from Slipstream to Team Sky, the British team paid a substantial fee for this and they did something similar to get Ben Swift out of his contract with Katusha too.

I’ve dwelt longer on the potential pitfalls above than the benefits but only because the negatives require more illustration. A scenario where everyone wins is useful and ideal, something to be encouraged and so obvious that hopefully it doesn’t need to be explained so much.

As we’ve seen with several cases transfers and even transfer fees can be arranged. The question is how to incorporate this into a set of rules so that the practice can be more established. Open the transfer window wider or for longer will require careful rules to prevent destabilising teams. One to watch.

1 thought on “Widening the Transfer Window”

  1. Cadel’s transfer to BMC was similar to Wiggins. They paid half a mill for the last year of his contract with Lotto. Good value at the time, Belgium had a new star and Cadel was tired of sharing a TdF team. Little could Lotto expect Deli would win a worlds in the last wees of his contract, he’d have been worth w whole lot more with a rainbow premium on the deal.

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