Surely there’s never been so much racing on TV as this year. As well as the entirety of the Tour de France, there seem to be more small races on TV and this week the Tour du Limousin, the archetypal rural French race, now has live TV. A boom? Perhaps but nobody is getting rich on this, there are more hours than ever but this isn’t necessarily worth more to the sport as a whole.
The Tour du Limousin has to be the archetypal “Tour of French region” race, there are many of these across the calendar (Circuit de la Sarthe, Tour du Poitou-Charentes, Route d’Occitanie, Tour de Provence etc) and similar events exist in Spain and Italy. They’re all modest, low-budget affairs that rely on regional government funding and local volunteers on the ground.
One boost for the French races is a recent shake-up of regional government where smaller regions have been merged together and the resulting enlarged new region needs an identity. What better than a bike race to thread the new lands together? It sounds good but take the Tour du Limousin, rebranded as the Tour du Limousin-Nouvelle Aquitaine. These regional mergers are allowing several races to tap into bigger regional budgets which is increasing the amount of live TV, a political side-effect.
We’re used to the concept of broadcast rights, where media companies outbid each other for the right to show a sports event only it’s the reverse for many, if not most, pro races. They pay a TV channel to come and film their event. Revenue sharing of TV rights money for teams is an illusion because the big races don’t make that much money anyway but also because teams wanting a cut of TV rights from the handful of lucrative surely won’t want to pay up when it comes to sharing costs rather than revenues. The tariff varies but it’s between €50,000-€80,000 a day in France for the likes of Eurosport or L’Equipe TV. Live TV coverage is valuable, first as way to promote the region as images get beamed around the world and second because it makes sponsoring the event more valuable: the host towns are on TV, the jersey sponsors are on TV, the advertising hoardings at the finish line are on TV and it just feels bigger and better because it’s on TV too and it brings in more sponsors… to pay for the TV coverage. Apparently the Boucles de la Mayenne race last year got an audience of one million in France which is valuable and the Tour du Limousin attracted 500,000 yesterday.
It’s not self-financing though. Paying for TV coverage doesn’t automatically make race sponsors automatically pay more, it’s a slow process. The Limousin’s neighbouring race, next week’s Tour du Poitou-Charentes, also in the same newly-created Nouvelle Aquitaine region, doesn’t have the money. “The production costs aren’t far off €70,000 a day. I’ve got a budget of €500,000, I don’t have the means to multiply this by 30,40,50%” explains Poitou-Charentes organiser Alain Clouet to French regional radio France Bleu. Why so much? Eurosport and L’Equipe deploy impressive means with several motorbike cameras, a helicopter, a satellite relay and two studio commentators as the minimum and a well-staffed production crew.
Technology can help cut costs, for example streaming services mean a race can be filmed and then shared via a 4G network but this is rudimentary. First getting 4G coverage is fine for a downtown criterium or a suburban cyclo-cross but good luck with an itinerant road race across rural France, Spain Italy. Yesterday’s stage in the Limousin included roads so rustic there was grass growing in the middle at one point: good luck phoning in live audio, let alone the bandwidth for video. Also streaming a race is fine but it’s something only a few die-hard fans are going to know about, let alone watch, it’s something we go to rather than being pumped into people’s houses and being visible in popular TV listings.
It’s the changing media landscape that drives this coverage boom. As TV audiences are fragmented across more and more channels as well as different platforms it allows specialists channels and with it niche audiences and ad agencies like this as they can target specific demographics. Meanwhile the likes of Eurosport and others are keen on live content – the same thing explains why the Tour de France is live on TV from start to finish – and so typically they’ll ask for a sum of money to cover (most of) the production costs and then make their money by selling advertising on top.
If there’s more coverage than ever, it doesn’t make cycling that much of a richer sport. We’re adding more hours into saturated markets, the Tour de France reaches all of France so the Tour du Limousin provides marginal extra exposure. It’s like having a plate stacked with food and then sprinkling extra toppings on, there’s enough to feast on already. New races in Brazil, Indonesia, Japan with matching TV coverage on main broadcast channels would be the sign of a real boom. Next week’s revived Tour of Germany is an important test: Europe’s largest country, its wealthiest consumer market.
There’s more TV coverage than ever, even the Tour du Limousin is live and you can watch the Tour of Hungary this week too, a first and next week Eurosport even has live coverage of the Tour de l’Avenir’s mountain stages. Part of this is down to the growth of niche channels hungry for live sports, and in France regional government reform has given some events a boost. It’s good for fans who want to watch races rather than refresh live-ticker pages or just scan the results in the evening but it’s adding to existing coverage, saturating established audiences rather than reaching new ones so if there’s a TV boom it’s probably not adding much to the sport’s value. New technology could cut the broadcast costs but you can quickly spot a cheap 4G production, it’s ok for Facebook but not good enough for a proper TV channel and mainstream coverage the sport craves.