Making Cycling Sustainable; or, Why Cycling Coverage Sucks, And What To Do About It

It is a widely held opinion that the economic structure of professional cycling is not sustainable. Teams are in what Jonathan Vaughters has called “continual start-up” mode, with no permanent capital, always living from hand to mouth in a desperate search for sponsorship money.  This is the model that Oleg Tinkov tried, and failed, to change.

An equally widely held view is that the answer lies in TV rights.  In many sports TV revenues are shared with the individual athletes, teams or national sporting authorities who provide the actual content.  In contrast, the TV rights to cycle races are almost invariably held by the race organisers, who do not share revenues with the teams.  This issue is particularly important in cycling, because revenue sources common in other sports are not practical possibilities in cycling, leaving teams totally dependent on sponsorship money.  Teams can't sell tickets to races, since they are held on the open road - and partly because they change sponsors all the time it is hard for them to sustain merchandise sales.   

By far the largest race organiser is Amaury Sports Organisation, or ASO, who own the rights to (among many others) the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Fléche Wallone, Paris-Tours, and Paris-Nice.  Many team owners have complained about this, and insist ASO should hand over some of the money they make from selling the rights to broadcast these events.  Again, Vaughters and Tinkov (among others) have been vociferous on the topic.

Unfortunately for those team owners, there is a very simple response to this.  Why should ASO give them anything?  Simple assertions that it would be “for the good of the sport” are less than compelling.  And what does “not sustainable” mean, anyway? Cycling has run, and survived, on this model for many years.  More importantly, there was a time when ASO had to pay broadcasters to show their races, even the Tour.  Those days could return: who knows?  So, ASO might say: we organise everything; we hire all the equipment and staff; we assume all the risks and costs involved in generating and selling the TV rights; so why shouldn’t we take all the revenues?  Are the teams willing to share costs, risks, and thus potential losses, as well as profits?  In the face of this question, even Vaughters might go quiet.

So the WorldTour teams, eleven of whom are now members of and represented by a collective called Velon, need to be realistic. ASO are not about to give money away for nothing. But there is a clue here. ASO might be willing to share TV revenues with the teams if the teams gave them something of value in return.

What could this “something” be?  Velon’s website tells us that it “wants to create a new economic future for the sport and bring fans closer to the riders, races and teams”.  To date, its sole gesture in this direction is the fixing of cameras to bikes within the peloton.  This has attracted widespread ridicule, but to me it does not obviously seem that bad an idea.  It allows the teams to generate something new and different, which adds something to the racing coverage; something which they own, and which they can share – at a price – with the race organisers (or alternatively sell directly to broadcasters, bypassing ASO – but to keep things clear, let’s ignore that possibility).

So in my view, the principle of on-bike footage is a step in the right direction.  But it is no more than a step. The teams need to ask themselves: what else can we sell to ASO?

Simply looking at the woeful standard of coverage of cycling compared with other sports suggests the beginnings of an answer.  Take football (soccer). Twenty years ago no one gave a thought to statistics on possession, passes completed and missed, metres run by players, shots on target, and so on, and so on.  But now, coverage without them is unthinkable.  The situation in baseball is even more extreme, thanks to the development of “sabermetrics”, that is, the intelligent application of statistical analysis to this most analysable of sports.  And the same principle goes for many other sports, coverage of which has been revolutionised in the last couple of decades.  Think of cricket: subscribers to Sky Sports’ coverage of last year’s Ashes series could download a free app giving them access to the same statistics as the presenters and commentators.  The list goes on.

By contrast, cycling coverage - despite its modern-day ubiquity - remains unchanged: endless similar pictures, from helicopters or motos, of emaciated young men suffering in the saddle, with the occasional shot of Alpine scenery, tricolore-waving schoolchildren or formation tractor-driving. If you are lucky (the UCI didn’t seem to be able to manage it during last year’s Road World Championships), you might get details of the remaining distance to the finish line and an estimated time gap between breakaway and peloton. And that’s it.

But the technology exists to transform coverage of the sport, and bring it alive in a whole array of new ways. The most obvious comparison is with motorsport (which has been hugely improved by advances in camera technology).  If F1 can give us radio broadcasts between drivers and team managers in the pits, why can’t cycling – which also has “race radios”?  If MotoGP can tell us which gear Valentino Rossi is using, his average and current speed, his best lap times, and even his lean angle when cornering, why can’t cycling tell us Chris Froome’s power output, or his heart rate, or his cadence, or his speed – and compare it to Alberto Contador’s or Nairo Quintana’s?  We all know the technology exists, and that all the teams use it all the time. Most casual enthusiasts use similar technology every time they ride, for God’s sake.  So why not have the teams share it – “for the good of the sport”?

It is obvious what the response will be.  No team wants to share information with the others.  Doing so might reveal secrets of strategy, or of training, or of the relative fitness of particular riders, or a thousand other things the teams bleat about.  And the obvious response to the obvious response is . . . well, duh.  Of course. That’s why it’s interesting, and that’s why it’s valuable.  But think about it: since all the teams would be sharing data, not only with ASO and the broadcasters but also with each other, each team would gain more than it lost.  

The effect on the coverage of cycling would be dramatic.  How many of us would love to know the heart rate of top riders as they strain up a climb, or their peak power output as they sprint for the line?  How many would like to know exactly how far apart all the top contenders for GC are on a mountain stage, or what speed the peloton needs to average to catch the breakaway, or what percentage of the time each member of the breakaway has spent on the front, or how much faster than everyone else Peter Sagan really descended the Col de Manse, or the power output of each of Mark Cavendish’s lead-out men in the last four sprints he’s been in, or . . . well, you get the idea.  And the effect on the sport might be equally dramatic.  How much more fascinating would strategy be if each team knew the others’ numbers – not just for the current race, but for the whole of the season to date, and before that?  How much more intense would the competition between riders be if each knew, and sought to match, the other’s peak and current wattage?

The benefits don’t stop there.  Think what it would do for the much-touted “transparency in cycling”.  It would go a long way to shut up the trolls and armchair experts, whose “estimates” of different riders’ power outputs over climbs would suddenly be obsolete.  Better yet, it might even bring new and different sponsors into the sport – for example, the ASO and / or UCI could provide accreditation to a variety of data providers, each of whom would be able to provide the data to a particular team (or teams) and get their logo on screen every time a piece of information appears.  And the best bit is this: it wouldn’t cost the teams anything. The data already exists, and they are already collecting it.  All they have to do is agree to share it.  

Let’s recap.  At a stroke, data sharing would transform coverage, improve the racing, increase transparency, bring in sponsors, shut up the trolls (or at least give them something new to argue about), and it’s free to the teams.  

Of course, sharing data isn’t going to solve all of cycling’s problems – far from it. But the data represents an asset that the teams own and can use to improve their own bargaining position; a means by which they can improve the viewer experience and so increase the value of the TV rights, and so expect ASO (and the other race organisers) to consider sharing the revenues.  So, it’s a start. Over to you, Velon.


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