Why Americans Can't Watch Cycling "On TV"

Mar 22 2013

Script

(not verbatim, contains typos, and sometimes I go off-book)

A couple of weeks ago, Neal Rogers remarked he found it frustrating that despite the advanced technological achievements of these here United States, he still can’t watch bike racing “on TV”.

As you might guess by the tonality that offset it, I have a quarrel to pick generally with that last phrase. After all, a TV is just about $10 of RadioShack cables away from being oversized, power-hungry low resolution computer monitor—which, if the twitters and instagrams of last weekend are any indication, more and more of you are beginning to realize—and that’s a very good thing!

What is of far more concern to me are the connotations that come with TV as a medium—but I’ll get to that later. First, let’s just pretend you’ve all accepted that it doesn’t matter which screen displays your flickering images, and you’re a developing fan who wants check out today E3 Harelbeke, to see what this whole “Spring Classics” thing is about.

I suppose the first place that deserves mention is Cycling.tv, because back in 2005, I watched George Hincapie win KBK on my laptop from my bed, and it was pretty cool. To say it’s been downhill from there is an understatement, but limiting myself to the specific constraints of the scenario introduced above, you can’t watch on Cycling.TV because they don’t carry the race.

But that’s cool, y’know because I have this email in my inbox from Universal Sports, and it says “Watch Tom Boonen, Phillippe Gilbert, Fabian Cancellara & All Your Favorite Cyclists This Week”—they sent it with a picture of Brad Wiggins, but whatever—and right there, on the schedule, Gran Prix E3 Herlbeke—that’s not the name, but close enough. Gonna go to their website and check it out—and…not available for purchase?

So…just to be clear on this, you’ve secured exclusive US broadcast rights but you’re not selling the race? Forgive my lack of business school experience but isn’t the whole idea of producing a product to sell it to someone and make a profit? It’s like, I’m walking into Mellow Johnny’s bike shop, Exclusive US Dealer of Rapha, and—oh, sorry, those $800 bib shorts you want to buy? Sorry—they’re not for sale”. Are you guys on acid on something? Who told you this was a good idea—have I been struggling under the mistaken assumption that you weren’t out to deliberately piss off the fan base who, under ideal circumstances, would be giving you money

But hey—Universal Sports themselves told me on Twitter that they were outbid for US rights to RCS’s events—so that means the Giro, Lombardia, Sanremo,  it they went to…BeIN Sport? That’s a new one one me, but we can get to their website easy enough. We got news, video, TV Guide, several different soccer leagues—ok, “other sports”, I’ll just mouse over that—”volleyball, rugby, golf” nope—no cycling. Well, I’ll just go up here the search bar and a look for “cycling”; one result; “Armstrong Speaks—disgraced cyclist has agreed to appear on American talk show…well jesus, this is from five months ago. Ok, I’ll just track down BeIN’s iphone App in Google—yep, there’s the link, open in iTunes and —and there’s an alert window  “The item you've requested is not currently available in the U.S. store.”

And so, literally bereft of other options, I’m now stuck with one of a dozen or so illegal* streaming sites—procyclinglive.com, steephill.tv, fromsport.com, etc.—and in fact, if you were to Google “live cycling broadcasts” “streaming bike races” etc these pages — and not the actual legitimate rightsholders, will almost certainly dominant your results. So if you work in SEO or online marketing for one of the legitimate cycling broadcasters, please, consider yourself fired.

While journalists can’t get enough of cataloguing the sordid demise of their own profession, the successful method for selling content online is pretty much a closed case. Create an easy, immediate point of sale, charge a relatively painless price for small bits of your content, and then watch the money roll in. This isn’t a new idea—iTunes and the App store are pretty irrefutable examples; and if you’re a diligent Googler can find me applying the concept to cycling in a Podium Cafe comment from three years ago.

The fact that such an option continues to not exist at any of the legitimate outlets for watching cycling induces the sort of apoplexy that I generally reserve for Pat McQuaid quotes and Lance Armstrong denials. Cycling TV has no excuse—their attempt to sell quarterly and yearly packages with a schedule full of more holes than a LADA jersey is at best ingenuous and at worst an actionable example of bait and switch—especially when the overwhelming majority of their coverage consists of two-minute recaps.

But—and this is where I get back to the problem of  TV as a medium—BeIN and Universal Sports both want to insist that they are TV channels. And the problem with that is that TV is really, [expletive] expensive. In my occasional interactions with actual staff Universal/VS/ON, I’ve been quoted absurd numbers for producing a televised broadcast. $30,000 in transmission fees alone, paychecks for cameramen, studio time—and here’s the kicker—a fat four-million-dollar flat fee for TV and internet rights for the ASO’s 6 major events.

It will not surprise you, then, that these cycling operations almost invariably operate at a loss. TVs expense means it is inherently aimed a massive, captive audiences bringing tens of millions of eyeballs—which makes cycling, whose US audience for the Tour de France is barely in the hundreds of thousands, an extremely unappealing target for advertisers. Simply put, TV as it currently exist cannot meet the needs of its audience, and couldn’t turn a profit at all except for the way that cable television is sold in the united states.

If you read the FAQ at Universal Sports, you’ll see that you can, in fact, watch their races online—you just need to have a cable or satellite package that already carries their TV channel. This is because they can make way more money milking cab

le companies for network fees than they can selling your eyeballs, and these providers can in turn milk their customers on the high-priced cable or satellite packages they’d need to get nosebleed channels like Universal or BeIN in the first place

In short, the system works for everyone but the fans. Race organizers can charge broadcast license fees that the viewership doesn’t warrant, small channels can leverage this exclusive access to remain profitable even while overspending and under-delivering on niche content, and cable companies can continue to pay the outlandish network—so long as chumps like us, and other consumers of said hard-to-find content remain obsessed with seeing it “on TV”

But there is, dear listener, one hope—however faint. His name is Michele Aquarone, and in a few short years as the chief of RCS sports, he’s gained a reputation for creativity and progressiveness nearly unheard of in the archaic and byzantine apparatus that drives this sport. After a particularly brutal Tirreno-Adriatico stage, where fully a third of the field dropped out, he volunteered that as a race organizer he had gone too far—showing compassion for the riders that in previous generations, would have be written off as part of the business.

If there were some way to convey to him the sheer misery of feed-hopping at 8am on a Sunday, frantically closing popups, squinting at jumpy, over-compressed images, and struggling to pick out rider names in languages you don’t understand, he might just realize that it’s unreasonable to expect any sort of fanbase to develop when they consistently have to Taylor Phinney their way through such adversity. he might—maybe—look into a buyer with an actual interest in delivering Americans a proper viewing experience for his races.

It just so happens that Michele Acquarone is on twitter—@micacquarone-that’s m-i-c-a-c-q-u-a-r-o-n-e. Next time you can’t seem to find an enjoyable, legitimate source for one of his races, maybe you should drop him a line.

*(In strict terms, these sites themselves are not “illegal”; they provide links to the Russian (if the Cyrillic dialog boxes that occasionally pop-up in the feeds are any indication) hackers who re-broadcast European bike races. I also hasten to add that I don’t use the termn “illegal” as any sort of condemnation—without these sites, watching bike racing in the US would be even more difficult than it already is.)

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