A Different Route To TV For The Ardennes Races

There was no live TV coverage of women’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Flèche Wallonne and now the new criteria from the UCI means events must have a minimum of 45 minutes of TV coverage to be part of the World Tour. There have been reports that race owner ASO could drop these events from the World Tour calendar leading to angry responses from many who want to see progress rather than regress. What if there could be a political solution to this?

So far the talk of pulling these races from the calendar comes down to a one source, a quote from Tom Van Damme, President of the UCI’s Road Commission – ie road cycling’s boss – to French website Direct Vélo rather than anything official. Still it’s credible and digital pitchforks are being brandished at ASO. You can see why ASO are on the receiving end, La Course seems to have gone backwards with the proposed circuit race around Pau rather than growing into anything bigger. Plus ASO are cycling’s biggest race organiser with annual profits of €44.5 million, there’s an expectation on them to invest more in women’s cycling including their own races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Flèche Wallonne.

However it’s probably not quite so simple. As touched on in the comments here last month, ASO owns the races but the TV rights can belong to others. In this case local Walloon broadcaster RTBF has the rights. I tried to look into the matter a couple of years ago and someone in media relations at RTBF explained a pan-European multi-year deal was signed for TV rights to ASO’s races and a sub-clause specifies RTBF having the rights both to show ASO’s races in Wallonia but to over the production for the local races, the idea being that these races happen on Walloon soil so it’s a matter of competence and territory for RTBF to do the filming and production in house work rather than an outside third party. Only the implied understanding back then was that the men’s races cost a lot already and the implication the budget only went so far.

So perhaps ASO should pay for this? We all want to see more cycling on TV and there’s a good case about investing now in a sport that’s fast growing, to build a franchise. One risk is the precedent where ASO starts paying for TV production. Do it for women’s Liège and why not ask for ASO to pay for the men’s edition too, or for other events too? Yes it could be an investment to build an audience for the women’s races but it could also see ASO sawing the branch it sits on given TV rights must be its biggest income source. Also this is imagining abilities to pay and fund that may not exist in the small print of the multi-year contract mentioned… if it’s still valid this year and next.

Now for the good news
While ASO is a business, RTBF isn’t a regular TV channel. It’s Radio-Télévision belge de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, the Walloon regional broadcaster for the French half of the country and a public service with a corresponding remit and political accountability including a supervisory board composed entirely of politicians from across the political spectrum. Compounding this is a raft of documents, statements and decrees embedding RTBF with a mission and duty full of words like équité, diversité and others that don’t need much translation. Put simply if the state is filming the men’s racing then surely the politcians ought to offering equivalence for the women’s race? ASO aren’t accountable in the same way, but in Belgium regional government is and there’s some explaining to do here. Now in terms of inclusion the TV rights for a bike race are probably not a priority but equally it’s something that ought not to be too controversial. There’s even the precedent in Belgium where Flemish neighbours Sporza/Een do it for the women’s Tour of Flanders and other races already, although presumably without being tied into long term contracts. Yes this region is richer and presumably Sporza has more means too but there’s still the question of equivalence again here and if it’s good enough for Flanders, why not Wallonia? Similarly there’s an angle with the Lotto-Soudal Ladies team where if the Belgian state lottery is funding a men’s team then it’s also backing a women’s team, so once again RTBF looks like the odd one out.

It’s not easy to get a race on TV. Perhaps it is short sighted of ASO not to be investing in women’s cycling more but as a business that’s their commercial decision which could work or not, if they miss the boat it’ll be there loss too. But the TV rights issue for the Ardennes classics is probably more complicated that “just filming it”, the last time I looked into this there was a dash of Belgian regional politics complicating things. But what if this was the solution, that if the broadcaster does still own the production rights could a campaign convince Walloon politicians to act? The Flemish races are on TV for the whole world to see.

29 thoughts on “A Different Route To TV For The Ardennes Races”

  1. New parliaments have just been elected on all levels in Belgium so the composition of both the politicized boards of VRT and RTBF will change. Maybe this has an impact by next spring.

  2. Thank you for this.

    I’m desperate for cycling to start running womens events alongside mens across the board, whether I can watch them to start with or not – as a few (too few!) races have done a brilliant job of doing so far.

    In terms of TV – I want to watch, I would watch and I’m sure I’d enjoy women’s races, as I have done whenever I’ve had the chance – but more important to me at least (for cycling’s future growth, especially being a niche sport) is just to have no mens race happening without a women’s race running concurrently.

    I know this is pie and the sky – but I just want to voice the opinion loudly to see if anyone else might agree.

    I also know the arguments about money woes, and the arguments that a minority of women feel running alongside mens events relegates them – I passionately disagree with the second and I would take any hits or drastic changes necessary to deal with the first.

    By drastic – I mean, if it meant less races, or a rejigged calendar, or some teams/races going out of business… whatever – I honestly believe for cycling it is an absolute must to bring women’s cycling out of the dark ages and onto a level playing field.

    My reasons:

    Firstly because currently cycling is without doubt sexist in the way it treats women’s cycling. We are far behind other smaller sports like tennis, athletics and this shouldn’t be the case in 2019. Women’s events will undoubtedly be less profitable etc for many years and the sport as a whole will need to subsidise… but it’s my belief that the sport as whole we would be better for concurrent events – hopefully inspiring more women to take up cycling and become interested in the sport, and more importantly being another sport to show women in difficult situations around the world that there is another way. I’d hope one day that might help cycling to stretch into Africa and Asia so the peloton could belatedly become more diverse.

    I would also hope that maybe, again one day, the package as a whole (ie a mens and women’s TDF running together each day) will become more desirable to streamers/tv (whatever it is in 20years) for having both, because it reaches a wider audience in a similar way to Wimbledon and the US Open etc.

    It just feels like this is the key debate we should all be fighting for, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but maybe because by forcing this issue we might be able to shake the branches of other issues in road cycling and maybe force changes that could make cycling more accessible, focused of growth (finding new supporters) and the holy grail – find a structure that was able to support itself, grow and spread the wealth so we didn’t see so many riders, race and teams left on the scrap heap unfairly.

    • I agree – equality is the goal.

      But, TV is a business and it’s not reasonable to expect ASO or anyone to pay for it if their analysis indicates there are no profits in it. If you have different analysis, I beg you to present to ASO and then argue that they will make money off the TV advertising for women’s cycling.

      However, in one aspect you’re absolutely incorrect – you call women’s tennis/athletics smaller events. This is 100% incorrect – women’s tennis is the most successful women’s sport and the major tournaments draw fans and sponsors pay some of the athletes significant sums of money. No one on the planet could make the argument that any female cyclist (or even most male cyclists for that matter) would compare with their counterparts in women’s tennis. Eg. the Williams’ sisters are more marketable than ANY cyclist, male or female. This is why women’s tennis has TV. So people please remember this.

      • Hey – I probably wasn’t clear enough in the above, it was impassioned and kinda intentionally daft…

        I absolutely think what I’m saying is nigh on impossible – and know ASO bosses wouldn’t make money off women’s cycling TV ads at this moment and there is not enough money to underwrite losses in women’s cycling. What I’m saying is actually bigger than this and a long term project – ie restructure all of cycling in whatever you have to make it possible, so whatever part of road cycling cycling is profitable is forced to be set up in a way that makes this possible and we go from there – even if it means less races, less teams, less professionals.

        Then – yes, of course female tennis players are more famous now, but again I’m looking at this in the long term – women’s tennis was broadcast before the Williams sisters, and I think you could make a decent argument to say that the equality of timing (ie men+womens grandslam running concurrently) and then TV resulted in the popularity and marketability of women players – as might be the same with cycling.

        So maybe the equality has to come before the payback… so one day hopefully people might laugh at the idea no-one paid sponsorship for womens cycling, and tennis players were more famous than female cyclists…

        This is crux of my argument – it’s one of those cases were it’s difficult to argue either way as who knows whether its the chicken or the egg or the cart before the horses, but my gut feeling is you have the equality and then payoff is a longer term project.

        My hope would be that if cycling took this route, eventually womens cycling as a package with mens would actually help cycling grow as a whole.

      • It’s worth noting that the finish of Flèche Wallonne Femmes has been broadcast as part of the package at least a couple of times.

        So for RTBF to reverse course and step away from that now would suggest they have a reason for doing so – maybe the ratings data showed a distinct drop off in viewer numbers at that point?

        • Yeah… this was a quicker way of saying my reply. Thank you for being more succinct.

          I firmly believe this debate is one of those cases where the change has to come before the payoff – a gradual process (which is what will obviously happen, I’m under no illusion) where each step forces women to prove themselves in various ways (usually with one hand tied behind their back because of lack of support) will mean the necessary change that has to happen is long, drawn out and painful for everyone involved. Better one drastic change and woman’s cyclist in 10/20 years can reap the rewards that should have been awaiting current female cyclists today. Unfortunately it didn’t happen then, and it won’t happen now because cycling is disorganised and poorly managed.

      • “Eg. the Williams’ sisters are more marketable than ANY cyclist, male or female. This is why women’s tennis has TV. So people please remember this.”

        Quite. The flip side of all this is that things can change drastically depending on the popularity or marketability of main stars. One only has to look at the decline of golf coverage when Tiger wound down (disregarding the miracle the other month), but also see F1 where the Dutch didn’t care for many years but now Max Verstappen is doing well, they’re everywhere and even hosting a Grand Prix for the first time in years.

    • oldDave, curious, why the dogged attachment to women’s racing being tacked onto the men’s races? For the most part, when this occurs, the women’s race is at best an afterthought (La Course is the best current example). The audience is diluted, often can’t tell the difference, and when coverage of the women’s race is offered, it is a stark difference to the package given to the men (Tour of Califirornia is a good example here).

      To me, all that adds up to is the women’s side continuing to be the underfunded, under appreciated sport that it is now. Is sideshow status really what is wanted? Outside of tennis, where else is this method commercially accepted and succesful in top level sport?

      Shouldn’t the goal be that the women’s side of the sport doesn’t need to be the “me too” side show?

      • Very well said oldDave!

        But I do agree with thesteve on the subject of Women’s races being tacked onto Men’s races and having the same calendar…I think there’s an opportunity to improve on the Men’s model of cycling as Women’s cycling (hopefully) grows and becomes more established.

        The OVO Women’s Tour demonstrates this very well – it could simply be run as an adjunct to the Tour of Britain in September, but as a standalone Women’s-only summer race, it’s become a flagship event in the Women’s calendar and, I think, all the better for it…this is very much a matter of personal opinion though…

        • I do see the arguments on separate races and I understand the feeling they might be tacked on.

          I just think you need to step back and look at the bigger picture specifically thinking about the audience: we want more people to watch women’s cycling. To do that we need to make it as easy as possible to watch. So when people catch the last set of Nadal vs A.N.Other or a men’s 100m heat in the Olympics and next is a women’s match or women’s event, whether the watcher is a old bloke surprising himself that’s he’s enjoying the women’s event more than he expected or a little girl who didn’t actually know that women did whatever sport it is professionally… they can just happen into it. And sometimes watching the Dutch one-day races where the women’s race goes first and you see the ending during a boring section on the mens race it actually makes the whole viewing package more enjoyable for everyone plus giving the women vital exposure so they can start to breakout and grow.

          I’d hope in my ridiculous plan above that there would come a time where the men’s race was on earlier somedays and the women’s later… sometimes shorter stages might be used to show both etc etc…

          By having them on the same day, I do think there’s a very valid cost argument, but most importantly for me, you make it easy for new watchers to see it and get into the sport as whole, which to me is the biggest issue here. Access to women’s cycling is near on impossible aside from 5 races on Eurosport and the Olympics, you’re right the OVO Women’s Tour is a good thing, but in the grand scheme it’s a tiny step and similar to the Women’s football world cup, which is growing and great but if it was concurrent with the men’s would supersize almost instantly and in ten years we would forget they were ever not scheduled together.

          The reason I think it’s so important for a sport like cycling to do it, is because it is a sport that needs to focus more on growth and this would be a step to creating a package that was far more enticing to tv/casual fans than an incoherent season, five hour stages where nothing happens, five/ten races that traverse the same roads within a few months etc etc.

          I lie awake dreaming some nights that a benevolent billionaire will come and buy all the races, the UCI, all the race owners and teams and reformulate the sport so it’s fit for purpose and as good as it should be. I think giving the women side the exposure they deserve would be a damn good start.

      • You have to keep in mind that having 2 un-linked races on separate days or courses is more costly than having 2 races on the same day/course, even if one is a subset of the other. There is an economy of scale for the race organizers to have a women’s race (or U23, or Junior, etc.) the same day as the men’s via cost sharing or one race subsidizing the other via shared resources. While not everything can be shared, but the costs are certainly less than having independent races.

        • What if you created mixed team racing and it was all about the fastest team that won the prize. That would massively change the dynamic, but you’d probably end up with dull races, unless it was based on a TT aspect.

        • Touriste- the commenters point was grandiose, explicitly based in the idea that you DON’T have to keep those things in mind. It was aspirational, albeit not currently rational. In that lens, the cost differences you mention are frankly missing the point.

          If we are aiming high, why not aim properly high?

  3. I’m not necessarily a proponent of separating sexes in any context, even sports, but if you do it, do it right. Same routes, same TV exposure. So stop these silly short routes for the women’s races, show that we take women’s cycling seriously and let them compete on the same routes. And broadcast all of it.

  4. I confess that I enjoyed some of last years racing by the women, Van Vleuten’s win in the Giro Rosa was incredible, and I wouldn’t mind watching more of races like that whether they are with men or women.

    However, the biggest thing that annoys me about this subject is the number of virtue signallers who come out espousing how they would like to see more money, sponsorship, TV time and salaries for women’s cycling. Yes, the ball has to start rolling somewhere, but the fact of the matter is that there are a lot of keyboard evangelists who are happy to talk the talk, but they’re not the ones putting their hands in their pockets, seeing their cut of the take reduced or even attending the events already put on.

    Women’s cycling needs to find a format which it can sell and be profitable at which does not financially impact the men’s racing. Experimenting into a decreased race calendar may yield some dividends (it’s obviously not cheap to travel around and support lots of races in lots of different locations so that is possible and beneficial) but messing with the product may do serious harm also which does neither men’s nor women’s racing any good.

    The biggest issue is probably that the men’s model is such a mess from having grown organically with many stakeholders creating the sport, and no one organisation pulling the levers. If there was one ‘World Tour’ organiser then it would be a far simpler matter. Until that happens, and the flow of money more concentrated, it’s a big ask of all the separate parties involved.

    • Hey – I do see your point here and I firmly and pretty passionately agree on the one world tour organiser even though it will not happen.

      On the keyboard evangelist – I think you’re a bit harsh. Not because I’m looking to defend myself, but change happens in a lot of different ways… there are people on the frontlines and there are the people who just chatter, but I don’t think chatter’s value should be ignored. I’m not saying a magic sugar daddy/mummy is going to read my post above and suddenly solve everything (although it would be nice!) but people putting there views out in even the smallest forum is always part of a bigger wave that helps bring real change, even if it’s a kid who might challenge and change a parents dated views around a dinning table but that sort change but this tiny acts are usually what lead to the being a swell large enough for something larger to really happen. So I would support those creating women’s races, racing in them etc etc as you’re right, they are the real heroes but I feel it’s too easy to dismiss how bigger change really happens and usually it is the ripples that come from tiny conversations whether online, in a cafe, at work, that go on to support real action when it comes.

      I think it is too easy to dismiss support when it’s on your side because it seems small when really it’s more important to push for unity if someone agrees with you.

  5. As this regards thoughts about women’s pro racing and how it relates to men’s and racing as a whole, and further media coverage, that is television, etc…

    My thought, personally is that I’m not interested in women’s racing. Only have limited amount of time and energy I’m willing to sacrifice toward observing other people riding and Am more concerned about Me and My riding. So I will spend some time following men’s racing. That’s it.

    Now, locally in Colorado (for future insight???), We had the Pro Classic (which had awesome spectator counts documented) for some years and I believe the organizers folded for a number of reasons including overspending, parters screwing with finances, and stuff (could be researched more accurately) & then it became what ever it was the last year or 2. In that time, it downsized, avoided KEY stages, incorporated music concerts and unrelated items & shortened the days. IT FAILED.

    NOW, THIS YEAR, I believe they have taken the next step into DEEPER FAILURE. They have decided to make it A WOMENS ONLY RACE.

    I can not see that drawing more spectators. They need more spectators but without the Men’s category will never see MORE.

    Why this irks Me, is because I would like to see world class bike racing in Colorado and it seems obvious they are reducing the likelihood this may happen in the near future. (The parties on top of Independence Pass 12,000+’ & Moonstone in Breckenridge was incredible)…

    What maybe should have happened is the Colorado Pro Classic, continue with a smaller budget, yet that may not have been the whole story.


    To bring this back around, I believe when it was a men’s & women’s race, there were X amount of spectators and once it becomes a women’s ONLY VENUE, this year, it will reveal a reality that shows not much interest.

    If men’s racing is hinged on women’s racing, fans will lose. Cycling may lose. Law suits may harm cycle racing.

    I hope I’m not coming across too weird but only wishing to expose some feelings which I think are common to help the future of pro racing and especially mens pro racing. I’m fine with women’s expanding but not at the detriment of men’s.

    • Er, yeah, you are coming across a little odd! Not to be dismissive, but your example sounds very specific and it’s quite hard to take wider notes from it?

      I do though take your point that some fans only have time for mens cycling.

      I firmly believe, as it happened to me, that if they had the opportunity to see some women’s cycling they’d be pleasantly surprised as generally is actually more exciting…

      But if I’m wrong I think, given time (I emphasise this is a long time project) if women’s cycling was given the proper support and time the fanbase they brought to the overall package of road race cycling would be a vital part of a vibrant sport, even if you might no be watching. I think women’s sport has proved multiple times that it can enrich and be a valuable alley to it’s male equivalent as this should be the case in cycling. I think you’d see benefits to the mens racing you love that you might not have expect later down the line.

    • Strictly Amature, the road side fans in Colorado don’t really pay for the race. Sponsorship pays for the race and the different, recent races in Colorado couldn’t secure & maintain sponsorship. It might be that they now have significant sponsorship, but for a women’s event.

  6. A mix of chauvinism + politics doesn’t promise much 🙁
    If I were the king of pro cycling (and was forced to keep Heinie’s Folly of the WT) a great way to winnow it down would be a requirement of those teams to bankroll both a women’s and a development squad. Once well-funded women’s teams in sufficient numbers were created, I think the money and will would be found to show plenty of their events on TV, one way or another.

  7. More women’s racing would be great but it needs to be done right and I don’t know what the answer to that is or how it should be done.
    Cyclocross is an interesting thing until two years ago both races looked very very similar and in some conditions they still do, when the courses are running fast though mens’s racing is a totally different spectacle with barrier hopping, which kind of makes the race for me at least a way faster and more exciting spectacle, I’m guessing lowering boards would be an easy fix for this?
    In terms of road racing if it’s a classic monument or decent one day race surely it’s possible to build a sportive in to the weekend and run racing both days, it’d allow sportive riders to maybe head off after the start of the Women’s race that could be televised fans could meet mingle and chat before leaving and then run the men’s race on a Sunday.
    I’m guessing a meet heroes of Women’s racing would soon build a personal engagement would increase engagement really quickly and the Sportive goes some way to offset two days of racing?

  8. It’s perhaps worth examining the TV viewing figures in Flanders (on Sporza) for some recent Women’s races, courtesy of the excellent @vrdaam on Twitter…

    Strade Bianche 2019 – 344k (vs 547k for the men’s race / 63%)
    Gent Wevelgem 2019 – 516k (vs 698k / 74%)
    Amstel Gold 2019 – 302k (vs 512k / 59%)

    And in the UK on Eurosport:
    Strade Bianche 2019 – 29.1k (vs 32.1k / 91%)

    Also worth noting that towards the end of the 2018/19 cyclocross season, women’s races were attracting viewership in excess of 90% of the men’s race, so almost on par in terms of tv interest.

    In comparison, those Women’s races only streamed online (eg OHN, Trofeo Binda, Dwars door Vlaanderen) only attracted audiences of 2-3k…

    It just goes to show – put it on TV, and people are interested and will watch it…

    • Thanks for the hard data, which is always useful and clarifying. From what you wrote, it sounds like the viewership of women’s cyclocross grew as the season wore on, which fits with my observation that my interest in watching women’s cycling has grown as I’ve watched a few races and gotten to know who the top female riders were. I now find watching a high level womens’ race far more interesting than watching a lower level mens’ race, not because the women are more exciting then the men at that level, but because I have a sense of some of the riders, their history, their personalities.

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