Why Pay To Race Matters

The Italian cycling federation held a tribunal to assess the claims of “pay to race” amid claims riders were hired not for their talent but their ability to bring a sponsor or cash. “Big deal” you might think, “this is the sort of thing that’s always happened“. Yes and no.

The case is in the hands of the UCI now and the fate of professional cycling in Italy hangs in the balance. It probably won’t blow up but the case and the issues highlighted by it matter.

Italy’s a great cycling nation with the Giro, two monument classics and the second largest cohort of pro cyclists after France. Only in 2017 it will no longer have a team in the World Tour, a first. Now three of its four Pro Continental teams are at risk. The managers of all these teams have been cleared in a tribunal held by the Italian federation but the UCI has now requested the documents and it’s possible their licences are on the line. It unlikely to this but the mere chance of this means it’s a weighty issue.

Logos are go go
Logos are go go

Riders bringing sponsors is neither illegal nor unusual. It helps explain why many of the Italian pro continental teams sport jerseys are loaded with logos, the textile equivalent of Times Square or Shinjuku. A rider may bring, say, an olive oil sponsor with them or perhaps a clothing supplier and some cash. It’s not just the smaller outfits, look at Peter Sagan’s switch to Bora-Hansgrohe: without him there’s no Specialized and their money. So far so normal. If a rider brings a sponsor and cash then where does the money go? If it’s into a communal pot to help keep the team on the road then this is understandable and almost sensible. If it’s into the team manager’s back pocket then it’s outrageous if they collect fees or backhanders to sign riders.

The UCI rules have several relevant regulations:

  • 2.16.003 says “Any contract relating to the income for the professional continental team must be signed directly with the party actually responsible for paying this income” which implies no middlemen
  • 2.16.008 stipulates accounts have to be kept so either dodgy dealings appeal in the ledger or they’re kept off the books which is going to fall foul of the UCI if they’re flushed out
  • 2.16.013a insists on transparency for ethical, legal, contractual and admin matters
  • 2.16.014 says copies of rider contracts have to be sent to the UCI for review

There’s more detail in the rulebook, the summary take is that the team must have accounts and most rider employment contracts have to be sent to the UCI.

Which brings us to the case of Marco Coledan. His story emerged in the hearings and has been relayed via Italian journalist Marco Bonarrigo of Corriere Della Sera. Coledan’s long been a member of the Italian team pursuit squad and his track speed makes him an ideal lead-out rider. Back in 2013 Elia Viviani wanted him at Liquigas for the following season, Coledan wanted to move and his two year contract with Bardiani-CSF team was up. Only Coledan it appears had signed an option for a third year in what cyclingnews.com’s Stephen Farrand calls a “private agreement” and La Repubblica’s Eugenio Capodacqua goes further saying Coledan signed two contracts where “only one is deposited with the sporting authorities, the second is held back to tie the athlete”, adding the word ricattato which translates as blackmailed, extorted or held to ransom.

Coledan was going to go along and buy his way out of a third year, with Viviani reportedly contributing cash in order to get his lead out train in place, only for the price of breaking the side contract to double. As Farrand puts it Bardiani-CSF team boss “Reverberi defended his actions but indirectly confirmed the accusations. “They (the Liquigas management) should have dealt with me instead of sending the rider,” he said according to the La Repubblica newspaper.”

Will the UCI do anything? A rhetorical question perhaps but if contracts have been withheld and significant flows of money have not been documented then this is a clear breach of the rules that underpin a team’s licence and will require some explaining. Proving this won’t be easy.

There’s the sense that the tribunal aired some of Italy’s dirty laundry but anecdotally this happens in plenty of other places too. The lower end of the Pro Continental scene marks the nexus between professionalism and amateurism and it as the CIRC report (PDF) noted it happens in women’s racing too, the CIRC “was given examples where riders in the sport had been exploited financially and even  allegedly sexually”.

How to bring all of this into the open? Some sort of educational programme to tell budding riders that signing side deals isn’t allowed doesn’t sound like much but it’s a start to signal this kind of thing isn’t normal. Agents can play a role but that’s not easy, some stand to profit from contractual complexities, break fees and more and can navigate this complexity better than busy athletes. The rider’s union can play a role but it’s still a weak body. The UCI could act on this but will it want to pull the rug out from under the Italian pro cycling scene. There could even be a kind of “CIRC report” where confidential hearings are held but this is sounds fanciful. None of this resolves the fundamental issue that some teams have weak finances that appear to depend, in part, on the provision of sponsorship by athletes.

At first sight bringing a sponsor to a team sounds fine, what’s so scandalous? It might even help keep rest of the team afloat. This seems to be a common reaction when learning of the “pay to race” case, many people shrug and say it’s reasonable. Only there’s more to it.

For starters if this becomes habitual then riders with wealthy backers turn pro at the expense of more talented riders who don’t have rich parents or wealthy networks. Right now there are some good riders still searching for a job, have spaces been taken by more mediocre riders who have funding behind them? Maybe and some would just say that’s how pro sport works. But if this is entrenched then team managers are sawing the branch on which they sit. In theory if they took the best talent then this would deliver results which in turn attracts sponsors, reversing the downward spiral. Until then a promising Italian rider may just go abroad, see Gianni Moscon to Team Sky and others have done the same.

Most of all it’s the more furtive aspect of side deals with talk of blackmail and riders being subject to various forms of racketeering. Coledan’s case is one that’s seen the light but there are many more in Italy and beyond.

36 thoughts on “Why Pay To Race Matters”

  1. If a rider brings a sponsor and cash

    So, we’re still talking about a sport that is treats the athlete as a revenue source first, and way down the list, a performer. Hardly the stuff of a “professional” sport.

    • In sport professional means athlete making money, presumably, the riders make a living – maybe it’s mainly ex-professional the managers that benefit the most in this instance?

      Brings to mind the old official’s adage ‘if in doubt, blame the Italian’. In other arenas I’d blast it as being bigoted but sadly the only two times I’ve seen it applied directly it turned out to be correct 🙁

      • The scenarios described above happen in other countries, I don’t have documentary proof but have got detailed accounts from several other countries of similar practices. Surely this has only gone public because some Italians want to do something about it?

        • Or the problem is too big to hide in one country.
          Considering the preoccupation with style it’s hard to understand how italian teams mostly look like someone vomited alphabet soup over them.

    • That was my first thought as well; this is basically how almost every pro motorsports discipline I know of functions, from NASCAR, F1 on down.

      “Won’t somebody think about the [purity of the sport]!?”

      Money is the root of all evil.

    • I didn’t word my response very well. There is an illusion maintained by the federations that a pro is paid because other larger sports pay their athletes. The federation also maintains an illusion that the elite athletes are the highest performing. (within reason) The third illusion is there is an intrinsic sporting aspect to the events.

      None of those is true. The credibility of the federation is, once again, diminished. This on top of decades of talk of improving the riders situation in the sport. Nothing has changed but the UCI’s revenue figures.

      Be transparent to everyone that the people in the business (drivers/cyclists) are pay to play with the federation making their decisions based on “commercial interests” and it’s fine by me. I’m okay with operating the sport like entertainment wresting. Just be clear that’s what it is.

  2. I applaud the UCI for attempting to tackle the issue of “pay to race”, for all their faults they do at least try and tackle a lot of the entrenched issues in the sport. (ok they are more often than not totally inept at it and unsuccesful, but they get a A for effort).

    The problem is that “pay to race/play” is such a common practice in almost all sport. It’s not a surprise that not everyone can afford access to all sport. Even at a basic level nigh on every sports club in the world requires a membership fee. And provided this fee, of the money brought by a rider, goes to the club/teams costs and improvement i honestly can’t see the issue. When it gets siphoned off to someones wallet that’s morally wrong and should be tackled.

    I also know that people think “well if he’s more talented they should get the spot on the team”. Oh my god is this naiive, to the reasoning that almost nothing in the world works like this. The age old saying “it’s who you know, not what you know” comes into play. I wish we lived in a fair utopia but we don’t.

    If a guy has the quality to ride pro, which is actually a really big number of people, but can also bring other support and skills why shouldn’t he get the ride? The issue isn’t “pay to race” but dodgy contract’s (which is a HUGE issue in cycling, especially Womens) and dodgy staff that still live in the past.

  3. Of all the things threatening pro cycling, it would be very sad for the UCI to concentrate on this. I have a hard time believing Reverberi, Savio, etc. are getting rich off this scheme – rather they’re trying to keep a pro team afloat during the European economic crisis combined with continued doping scandals. UCI can’t do much about the former, but their efforts on the latter are questionable.
    Most understand F1 drives on lower-end teams go to guys perhaps less in pure speed but more “gifted” in the sponsorship department. Should cycling be held to a different standard? I remember awhile back a cycling magazine writer/editor getting hired (Cervelo was it?) to “race” on a pro team on a deal that seemed more about the publicity they’d get via the magazine than the guy’s real ability to help the team win races. Where was the UCI then? Already noted is the pile ‘o euros the Big-S attached to Mr. Sagan so the lowly Bora team could take him on. Nobody would question Sagan’a ability (either on the bike or as value for the marketing-mavens) but how different is it in the end? As to Reverberi’s jacking up the “transfer fee” when he saw bigger pockets – how much changes hands in FIFA regulated football in the form of “transfer fee” and nobody blinks an eye? In a perfect sporting world everything would be purely by merit – but how often do we hear the trope “pro cycling’s a business!” when it comes to justify…well…pretty much anything these days? Seems to me there’s are a lot more important things to get “your chamois all in a bunch” over than this.

    • EXACTLY! Instead of focusing on this, Brian Cookson needs to have a potential sponsor forum/conference to generate dozens of sponsorship leads! If that is done, it would be the single most useful thing that Cookson did in his entire tenure.

      Issues need to be ranked according to cost/benefit, and I agree with Larry – the cost far outweighs the benefit of the UCI spending time on this.

    • That’s my point, everyone is picking up on the “rider brings a sponsor, who cares” aspect while ignoring the things like hidden contracts and what amounts to blackmail attempts to stop people moving to a new and better job.

      • Agreed – this second issue (blackmail/made-up transfer fees/preventing upward movement) is completely separate, and that part is bad – but is currently enforceable under regular EU laws. Hearing the story of Viviani’s friend who he was trying to bring to Team Sky, I can’t help but wonder what really happened and why Viviani (and friend) went along with the unreasonable requests from the previous manager. That is, if a transfer contract existed, I’d be shocked to hear that the amount was flexible.

  4. Agreed it is a shifty practice BUT, without this agreement, the team in question would not have a spot on the roster.

    They only have payroll room for X numbers of riders, so if rider Y wants a spot, there is no room, unless and extra sponsor comes in. Obviously this scenario is frustrating, but it is because our sport has significant revenue issues.

    Inrng’s argument that Y is potentially taking a spot from a more deserving rider. But the fact is that the team doesn’t have payroll for either Y or the more deserving rider unless one of the two has an extra sponsor. If that extra sponsor is Y’s uncle, or parent, then of course it is acceptable to put Y on the team.

    Unfortunately, cycling does not have unlimited funds. Besides, since when did sport provide a well-paying job for all deserving athletes? Look at the female peloton – a handful of excellent and hardworking athletes, many of whom barely make $20,000 per year.

  5. I think the point of the article, and the investigation, is whether the cash is going into keeping the team afloat (in which case, good commercial practice!) or into the back pockets or saddlebags of the priveleged ringmasters.

    There are innumerable examples of the former in this and other sports – how many English-native speaking riders get spots on teams due to their ability to bring greater media coverage (Phil Gaimon admitted that was his main role at WT Cannondale).

    Equally, David Beckham’s world record transfer to Real Madrid paid for itself in terms of replica shirts and marketing rights sold, whilst he wasn’t even the best player in England at the time.

    However, in any sport, when this is being syphoned off as, effectively, bribes, it becomes a real problem.

    • The transfer fee for Beckham directly went into the pockets of his previous team’s shareholders! It didn’t touch their backpockets as it were, instead directly into their front pockets… The only difference is Beckham’s fee was seven figures, but the transfer fees we’re talking about here are barely 5-figures.

      • I can find no information showing Manchester United distributed the transfer fee to the shareholders. It was stated by the chief executive at the time “The proceeds of the sale will be used to support Manchester United’s business development, including continuing to maintain its playing success at the highest levels of the game.”, meaning to be spent on purchasing players.
        Do you have a link to anything that says M.U. paid out that transfer fee to its’ shareholders ?
        if not, what you state is false.

        • Sorry… you just proved my point – if the transfer fee was used as you say, that is not a shifty use of a transfer fee. It wasn’t a backroom deal, but instead was used in the normal business practices of Manchester United, of which the end goal is to a) win championships and b) put money into hands of shareholders.

          These transfer fees are not illegal/immoral/unethical/etc. They are the normal business practices when you’re asking a top athlete to cancel a contract. It isn’t shifty. If a transfer fee is a contractual obligation, then enforcing it is logical.

  6. A Footnote: Formula 1 and NASCAR are private associations, Cycling is a Professional sport, therefore regulated by the UCI rules and by the rules of the state in which the team is incorporated (Italy in the examples). I’m a private association you can pay for racing. In a professional contract, on the contrary, you cannot.

    • There’s not a binary divide: F1 might be run by a private organisation, but is regulated by the FIA, which plays a similar role to the UCI. NASCAR is more independent, but driver licences and some of its circuits are regulated by the FIA too. And private organisations are also regulated by the laws of the state in which they’re active.

      • I’m sorry, it is totally different and there is a binary divide: F1 and FIA decided to stay outside national legal regimes, AND in their association there is no rule about the dutu to be paid. While in cycling, beside the different UCI rules already commented in the post above, THERE IS ALSO the application of the legal professional status. One might disagree with this choice, but a rider in Italy is considered like a bus driver: You cannot pay to be a bis driver, you have to be paid otherwise the contract lack of consideration. Same thing for cycling. If the UCI and the riders decide to have their own private sport they can do it. But at the moment their activities are entranched with national laws – that on this matter are very clear.

        • I’m not disputing the idea that cycling is covered by national laws, I just don’t understand why you think F1/the FIA isn’t. You only have to look at the disappearance of tobacco sponsorship to see that. Various F1 drivers and mechanics have won employment law disputes against teams under national laws.

          • The disappearance of Tobacco sponsorship regards a public policy measure based on the land of the track (interest of the spectators, not of the FIA or the drivers), of course the law of the nation hosting an event matters, but it regards a different issue.

            Re. “I just don’t understand why you think F1/the FIA isn’t covered by national law”

            Because there is not a single rule referring to drivers as a worker, neither in the association rules (FIA), nor in national laws. While there is about cyclists (both for the UCI rules and for the national laws and the national cycling federations. At least in the main federations. It might be that in some states I don’t know the national federation and the state did not provide for the pro status, but in any case the UCI has these rules also for covering these cases – at 2016 the minimum wage is regulated by the 2013 Joint agreement. 36,300 euro per year World Tour pro, 29,370 euro in the case of neo-pros. As for Pro Continental squads, they must pay a minimum of 30,250 euro to their riders, or 25,300 euro to neo-pro).

            If you are talking about mechanics, with their job contracts, that’s one thing. But if we talk about drivers and riders… In cycling the rider too is included in a working category. Formula1 drivers are not, for their decision and the FIA.

            Then you can agree or not with the choice made by the UCI and the cycling teams (and by soccer, basketball, and all professional sports affiliated to a national federation and the CIO), but that’s the legal context of riders, very different from the F1 drivers.

  7. the same things happened 25years ago. Some proriders I knew that time payed their fee back to the team so they rode for free in a small proteam. nothing new under the sun and these things happen in mare sports even amature sports were parents pay for letting there kids play in the better teams

    • Exactly, it isn’t a sketchy practice, merely a result of a relatively poor sport. If you think about the economics of cycling there are X number of racing spots each year, but only $Y of sponsorship monies/salary monies. So many teams have open spots but no money to pay for the extra riders, therefore you get these types of situations.

      What we need to do is focus on how to increase revenue for the sport as a whole. And, every single stakeholder needs to work together towards this goal.

  8. Hmmm. Can you pay to win too? It’s reminiscent of the Fifa scandal – as soon as the Fat Cat’s start looking at sport as a business, they’ll kill it as UEFA’s Micheal Platini said. Now I’m not saying we’ve got to that point here, but entry based on sponsorship money and not talent and passion seems a step in the wrong direction.

    Now, combine this with last weeks Inner Ring article “Going The Distance” where race length is being shortened for TV ratings and I start to wonder. I don’t want to say that the sky is falling, but the sky might be falling…

  9. Cleared / not cleared. Legal / illegal. Legit etc.

    It’s interesting Italy will not have a pro team this coming season. Ever happened before? Will that likely change next season. Is it the beginning of the end?

    • “Is it the beginning of the end?” End of what? Big-money Italian sponsors putting lots of euros into a scandal-filled pro sport like cycling? Perhaps, at least until the economic crisis gets resolved -which could be a long time. With Italians salivating at the thought of a big new rivalry (Aru vs Nibali) and plenty of punters out on the roads emulating their heroes, I don’t see Italians abandoning interest in cycling, though it seems the only ones with cash to risk in sponsoring “Italian” teams are Chinese (ex-Lampre) and Bahrain.
      “Italy still boasts more riders in the elite peloton than any other nation. La crisi hasn’t changed that.”
      Read more at http://www.velonews.com/2016/05/news/the-fall-and-rise-of-italian-cycling_403813#IHlO5oxjuUFyRDWb.99

    • Is it the beginning of the end? Maybe the apocalypse? What?!?

      No way, this is just a cycle. Clearly cycling is popular in Italy, and when markets and finances improve, Italian cycling will benefit.

      Hey, where is the UCI and spending it’s time developing new sponsors for future teams?!? Let’s get progress on that front. Thanks.

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