NTT Hangs Up

The NTT Pro Cycling team has announced it is seeking a new title sponsor after title sponsor NTT, a Japanese telecoms and IT services company, announced it will not be renewing its sponsorship beyond the end of this year.

There had been stories about sponsorship difficulties during the Tour de France but first reports that NTT could leave were denied, and instead the story was the team could be struggling with some of its side sponsors to round off the budget.

Things have come to a crunch now, because they have to. The end of September is the deadline for teams to inform riders whether they have a contract for next year or not. Many riders don’t wait around to find out but this is the formal deadline and we’re there now for the South African team.

It’s also the time of the crucial UCI licence review. NTT, or the legal entity behind it, has a UCI World Team licence until 2022 but like all teams this is conditional on satisfying an annual review conducted by the UCI, cycling’s governing body, its semi independent Licence Commission, and their external accountants. Here there’s an urgency to find a replacement sponsor as we’re already in the registration process where the UCI check the team has the budget for next year to meet its contracts and pay wages. Under UCI rule 2.15.069 UCI World Teams must provide documents for audit by 1 October – this Thursday – and if anything is missing there’s until October 20 to file late documents. However the main sponsor and the contract behind it is not an ancillary document, it’s the essential part of a team’s licence. Without this, no licence.

Still the rules allow a bit of flex. Because NTT has an existing licence the UCI can inform the team that it is not planning to register it for 2021 but this triggers the entitlement to a hearing which could take place in October or in November. This buys time in practice, but in theory it’s costly as it involves accountants, lawyers and registration fees and crucially it’ll only work if there’s a genuine replacement sponsor coming in who just needs a few weeks to kick the tires and draw up the sponsorship agreements. Micawber-esque waiting for something to turn up won’t work.

Against the fixed timetable set by the UCI is a dynamic problem. If NTT’s riders have been told they’re not getting a ride for 2021 and the five under contract for next year are free to move as well then the best riders will get cherry-picked by other teams. So any incoming rescue sponsor is going to end up with the rump of riders passed over by other teams, hardly an enticing project. However other teams are already digesting the demise of the CCC team and have been snapping up their riders to fill holes on their roster, Greg van Avermaet’s going to Ag2r La Mondiale, Syzmon Sajnok’s going to Cofidis, Matteo Trentin to UAE. Maybe Attila Valter is off to Groupama-FDJ but several other big names have yet to announce moves so there’s a lot to choose from on the market already and so there’s possibly a brief window where even NTT’s star riders like Giacomo Nizzolo aren’t snapped up immediately.

Now NTT could fail the World Team licence and drop down to become a Pro Team, the new term for the second tier Pro Continental squads. But it still has to convince the UCI that it has the funding in place, it could shrink down to 16 riders but still needs a big sponsor to keep the team on the road. Side sponsors might walk if the team is out of the World Tour. So dropping down a level lowers the bar in terms of cost for an incoming sponsor but it might equally deter them as they don’t get a guaranteed start in the Tour de France. It’d work as a long term rebuilding project but the team’s saviour needs to be found in the coming weeks.

Away from the rules and jobs market, some other remarks.

  • NTT is a big blue chip company but the team didn’t seem a marketing priority, the Japanese company bought Dimension Data a few years ago and so picked up a pro cycling sponsorship deal in the small print. When Dimension Data the company was rebranded as NTT the cycling team kept on riding as Dimension Data. Normally this would be a marketing no-no, to have a sponsorship deal with the old branding suggesting the team wasn’t central to NTT’s marketing message
  • Another issue is the arrival of Bjarne Riis, he joined the team earlier this year after reportedly buying a share of the team. Yes he’s got baggage but at the time the disappointment was that we got an old name coming in, nobody fresh from the Pro Conti ranks or even outside the sport wanted to buy into a World Tour team
  • This has been “Africa’s team” and the squad has got criticism for struggling to field African riders but it’s not easy. Signing the continent’s best riders is one thing, getting them to race in Europe another thanks to visa restrictions. Only last Sunday at the Worlds, Eritrea’s Natnael Berhane (now with Cofidis, ex Dimension Data) couldn’t make it to Italy because of visa issues

CCC haven’t thrown in the towel yet but the exodus of riders makes it harder each day for the team to attract a replacement sponsor. Now NTT are in the same boat, the title sponsor is leaving, only now the news has gone public with just weeks left to find a replacement sponsor, something that usually takes months to cultivate. Who knows what wining and dining took place during the Tour de France but late announcement of NTT’s exit, and the team press release asking potential backers to visit their website contact page suggests there’s nothing waiting in the wings today and time is running out.

Photo credit: inspection cover by Flickr’s Ikeda Ryuchi / Nizzolo winning in Victor Harbor by Chris Auld photo courtesy of the Tour Down Under

32 thoughts on “NTT Hangs Up”

  1. NTT were the top team during the lockdown e-racing “season”. Would be highly unlikely but interesting to see Zwift come in with sponsorship and create the sport’s first world tour team with an ongoing indoor racing commitment

      • Some watch but it’s a segment, a fraction of those interested in pro cycling already. Zwift must have the biggest marketing budget in the cycling industry but hard to see them supporting one team over others.

        The ticking clock is a big problem, hard to imagine another sponsor right now, there’s the African angle in the team but the Danish management but if Riis or his wealthy backers like Lars Seier had plans or contacts they’d surely be onboard and unveiled already?

      • Agree. nothing beats getting out on a bike and just riding. especially with the covid thing, its good for mental well being as well as keeping you fit. the zwifters on here will disagree, but I find it utterly soulless. its almost as dull as these everesting folk. as for NTT, it seemed almost like an afterthought to get the license and almost not know what to do with it. the team has had some ok results, and has some decent riders, but seem a little directionless.

  2. Other than Nizzolo, who’s done relatively well this year, has a rider ever gone to Dimension Data/NTT and prospered? Valgren went there as number one classics prospect and hasn’t been seen since, Campanaerts hasn’t been as effective, Boassan Hagen is just seeing out time It seems… the rest are just a random jumble of riders. They seem like a fairly directionless team that is getting put out of its misery.

      • “If I ran another team…”
        Is this a past tense reference to running a team in the past? Or a hypothetical day dream of running a competitor’s team in the World Tour?

        • Another as in rival to NTT at the moment. UAE are the obvious team in the market, they need some climbing support for Pogačar and some bodyguards for the flat and team time trials and they’ve just lost Tom Bohli, a specialist in this area.

          • Cofidis too seems to be searching helpers for Martin. The ones you named or even Gebreigzabhier or Sunderland for the mountains, and Janse van Rensburg or Walscheid for flat stages would be some good signings, it seems. And maybe Circus can also hire some NTT riders, but they have apparently six (or five, if you put Valter out) CCC riders under contract. I wonder if someone will hire Meintjes though…

    • Once again, super negative comment. They aren’t the winningest team, but for their budget level and difficult mandate they have done a solid job. The focus of this team isn’t to blow the doors off the other teams, but it is to promote cycling in Africa.

      In their history they actually have some pretty nice wins, including a Monument (some other World Tour Teams can’t say the same). As well, they have won approx. 40 National, Euro and World title jerseys during their time, as well as helped to encourage cycling in Africa. They are the strongest African team and losing them may have big ramifications in that Continent’s cycling community.

      • The problem is they moved away from that African focus a while ago, to the point they’re now indistinguishable from one of the many multinational teams out there (think UAE, Trek, Bahrain, ISN, etc.)

        Even the development team hasn’t been going so well, and the best talents coming out of the squad so far have been Italian.

        On the Tour this year, they fielded only one African rider (Ryan Gibbons) and he didn’t exactly make fireworks happen. It’s a long way off Teklehaimanot taking the first African mountain jersey…

        • Right, but the other side of that coin is they currently have the reigning Italian road champ, along with the Euro champ. Hardly proof that the team is a total disaster – exposing a handful of young African riders to a proven National/Euro Champion is a big positive.

          I think the interpretation is however people choose to see it. Either way, it’s a loss for cycling to lose another WT team, and it continues to highlight the issues with the financial structure of our sport… now anyone with a potential solution?

  3. NTT were well nigh invisible during the TdF, hardly a surprise given the lack of success in recent years. I know its unkind but except for Giacomo Nizzolo the riders are a collection of has beens, not quite able to recapture their best form and hopefuls. Since the start of Mark Cavendish’s problems the team has been fading away.

    It does seem odd that on one side Ineos are waving around wads of cash to add even more to their already too strong roster whilst a number of teams disappear. Not sure this is beneficial for the sport long term.

    Perhaps we are heading towards a “World Tour” (rather a misnomer) of 15 teams or even less.

      • Many promising riders would probably accept what they can get to obtain place on the WT or even PT ladder. The problem is that at least two WT teams and sixty or so rider positions are probably going. Riders like Pidcock will always get a place but many with potential will find it hard. In all this uncertainty the French WT and PT teams seem a haven of security, while equivalent level French riders will find a place with less difficulty than those from some other nations.

      • Quite a few teams in the Tour didn’t have Ineos levels of cash but did vey well indeed. NTT were all but invisible. So they clearly had a poor rider policy and had a squad full of those with a bit of potential and retirement riders spinning out their time a bit longer.

    • Well, Pozzovivo and Nizzolo were out of the race quite early on. Boasson Hagen provided a few moments – not that he was even close to a stage win behind Van Aert. Last but not least, Max Walscheid wasn’t invisible when he was in the TV picture…

      PS Speel checking: it’s Attila Valter, of course, not Atilla.

    • Quite so. When teams start to realise that having employees like Riis must compromise efforts to find good sponsors the situation will improve. Riis is far from an isolated culprit.

  4. Maybe the TV money will help them for now; oh, sorry, this is cycling, there is no (or little) TV money…..

    One always has sympathy for teams losing sponsors, and struggling to survive, but nothing ever gets done to address the main issue.
    And for all the power that the ASO have, even they aren’t exactly major league when it comes to income.

    The sport needs a major overhaul in regards to the ‘financial model’ – and people may have to accept that they might have to pay to watch certain races, etc

    But of course nothing will be done, and we’ll be here in 5, 10 years when x number of teams have folded.

  5. With NTT and CCC struggling for their future an riders searching a contract for the next season, I have to think that it’s no coincidince, that Lotto Soudal has sending resignation letters to 10 Riders of its riders for the next season?

  6. There are essentially 21/2 World Tour teams flooding the market if you count the Lotto riders who were let go today. The entry of Wanty to world tour does offer a few spots, but it’s going to hard to keep track of who is going where.This is a sad moment. Some riders are going to be left without a ride. With so much instability it’s no wonder why so many riders are moving to Ineos, it appears to a safe contract, unlike many other teams. Unless there are late entries into the peloton is going to take a big hit.

  7. The matter of ownership is a curious one in the story (so far) of Riis (and his partners) and NTT. In January it was – as you wrote – reported that Riis had bought a third of (the company that owns) the team. In June the news in Danish media was that the transaction had not yet actually taken place, there were still details that were open, although the intention of both parties was clear and unchanged. In September it was reported that there was no news and the January deal was described as an option to buy 33%.

    One cannot help wondering what obstacles could there have been. Were Riis and Seier unable to disentangle themselves from their previous project, Virtu, and simply didn’t have the necessary wads of money available? Were they just awaiting the “real soon now” arrival of a new title sponsor? (There were rumours of Velux, the Danish window manufacturer, stepping in.) Or were they simply cautious and not guilty of overoptimism and chose not to put their money in the team as long as its future was uncertain?

    • Considering the events of this year. It would be crazy to buy into a team unless you were a billionaire.
      I can easily see how they may have put it on the backburner for at least this year.

      I hope riis does come back into the sport. He clearly has some passion and that’s what you need. There’s plenty of team managers and helpers who existed during the period 1990 to 2005. Some people get angry at Riis but then you must get rid of all this people. Plenty who have not suffered being exposed run other teams.

  8. Media revenues aside, how do other “team” pro sports provide for their lowest-performing teams?
    Such as curling, bocce, handball, water polo, cricket (too big perhaps?) and other 2nd / 3rd tier sports?

    • NTT isn’t the lowest performing team, it’s just a weaker one in the top tier. Pro cycling is popular in core Western European countries which makes sponsorship valuable / expensive compared to, say, handball but yes in terms of a real global audience it’s far from a top sport. But this is a problem for “Africa’s team” as it doesn’t have a big following in Africa.

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