Legend has it that you’ll find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Science might disprove this but this week there are many rainbow jerseys in Virginia this week and it’s all a terrific money spinner for the UCI.
The road cycling world championships is the UCI’s single largest source of income, accounting for almost a third of the governing body’s annual income. Within this there are three components which are roughly 40%-35%-25%:
- Hosting fee: the largest of the three, this fee is charged to the host town for the privilege of staging the week’s racing and a significant sum. The UCI does spend money on technical preparation like course design, coordination and setting the selection criteria but much is left to the local committee and the fee that’s banked is lucrative
- TV rights: the broadcasting rights to show the World Championships. If you’ve wondered why there’s a a team time trial event with the pro teams then stringing out the championships for a week and having the big teams racing makes the broadcast package more valuable
- Marketing: rights for the sponsors like Shimano, Mapei and others, the lesser of the three pots but still lucrative both for the week but also because the rainbow jersey is trademarked
In 2014 the UCI took in revenues of 33.4 million Swiss Francs (CHF). The table above shows the split of the UCI’s organisation activities, for road this is largely the World Championships. It earned CHF 11.4 million and appears to spend about CHF 3 million on the events leaving it with a tasty CHF 8.4 million profit. Overall it earns CHF 21 million from competition revenues and ends up with CHF 11.2 million, a margin of over 50%, impressive compared to the 20-25% margin earned by the likes of ASO and RCS. As you can see road cycling accounts for over half.
The UCI is dependent on the worlds and there are even special rules to protect the race’s status. Take the anti-doping section which ban a rider under investigation from taking part. Here’s the rule:
Note the first and last paragraph, anyone merely under investigation cannot ride to protect the “reputation of the World Championships”. This doesn’t apply to other events on the calendar (except the Olympics) so the UCI is saying a rider should be blocked from the worlds but they’re eligible to race in the World Tour and start Il Lombardia the following week. Note it’s investigation which may lead to something rather than any more proof: potentially stopping an innocent rider, especially if the “investigation” is one of those Italian jobs that takes years before ending with little to show. You’ll remember the case of Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, it was because of this rule and because an investigation had started that he was dropped from the British team before the worlds and the story came out. It does seem as if the UCI is applying a precautionary principle that it denies to other races.
Of course the “rainbow jersey” isn’t actually a rainbow, it’s one of cycling’s conceits that we talk about it as if our eyes are closed: the bands do not the spectrum of light from red to violet. Instead they’re stripes representing the olympic rings. But that pot of gold is still there because the “rainbow colours” are a defined term by the UCI and trademarked around the world. Anyone wanting to put the rainbow bands on their products has to pay a royalty to the UCI.
Ther are strict rules about their use in the sport. You might remember Tony Martin being fined for having the world champion stripes on his time trial bike during the 2013 Tour de France’s team time trial stage: he was only the reigning individual time trial champion at the time and so not allowed to have the rainbow stripes in the team, not even the stripes on his bike. This rule has since been relaxed because but it still serves to illustrate the zealous protection applied to the image.
So far, so good
Big income, vigorous protection of trademarks: it’s all good as the worlds is a valuable week of racing and that helps cover the governing body’s work and so it’s normal the UCI tries to maximise revenue from this. The danger is that the UCI chooses the highest bidder rather than the best course. If the race gets awarded to too many boring circuits then it risks devaluing the rainbow jersey with too many boring winners. This makes the world championships less exciting and less valuable. L’Equipe’s Philippe Brunel penned a lament yesterday that the worlds has become stale and the rainbow bands are losing their lustre:
“Over the years the worlds has become an autumnal race in the twilight, a lottery that rewards the ‘champion of that day'”
Nostalgia? Even during the fabled “golden ages” of yesteryear lesser riders won – Harm Ottenbros anyone? – but does seem increasingly common for the title to be won by secondary riders who do not define their era, for every household name like Cadel Evans or Mark Cavendish there are more like Rui Costa, Oscar Freire or Alessandro Ballans: excellent, crafty riders but just not the best the sport can offer to the wider publiv. Whether you agree with L’Equipe is up to you but if the perception takes root the UCI may paying for this as a less prestigious race loses value.
You’re watching the racing and hopefully the UCI’s blazer brigade is enjoying the action too, if this weekend’s road racing is as good as the time trials we’re in for some great sport. For the governing body this week is about more than races and rainbow jerseys, it holds the UCI Congress this weekend, its annual general meeting. The week is also crucial to the governing body because of the income generated from the hosting fee, the TV rights money and sponsorship: this pays for a lot of what the UCI does. The UCI even has special rules to protect its own race and trademarks for the rainbow bands. But the late season slot and the absence of many star names means the title is increasingly being won by riders who may be very good on the day but they’re not necessarily the dominant riders of their era. If this trend continues then those rainbows won’t have a pot of gold any more.