For Sponsors, Winning Isn't Necessarily Everything

May 3 2013


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

Let’s talk for a moment about why anyone would sponsor a cycling team. It’s such a bizarre relationship—between 5 and 20 million Euros or the equivalent in dollars or bitcoins, and effectively get no tangible return. They don’t own the team, or the rider contracts, or its license to enter events, and they don’t collect a share of the winnings when it does well. I dunno, maybe sponsors get a cut from sales of jerseys or team-issue bikes…but, other than that…

Sure, the sport has TV rights, but they remain clenched firmly in the hands of race organizers. Sponsors don’t get to collect income from ticket sales —there are no tickets, or $13 beers, or stadium oriented development and real-estate projects to skim from. In fact, as a sponsor, fans expect you to invest in them, in the form of hilariously retrofitted vehicles packed with cheap trinkets and attractive young women to toss them out.

And since teams radically change in terms of brand, roster, and appearance from season to season, there’s no—ok with the possible exception of Euskaltel, where fans actually own part of the team—there’s nt storied franchise entity to rally around. It’d like major league baseball, except every team is the Florida Marlins. Miami. Miami Marlins? Really?

Cyclingnews helped conduct a study recently to assess the ROI on that one slim vector for those few companies who fund cycling. That’d be media exposure. As Cyclingnews is a media company funded by cycling, I’m not sure I put that much stock in their assessments—doubly not sure because they decided to make downloading their report a lead-gen opportunity download with misleading opt-out text—but, anyway, the numbers were roughly in line with what Jon Vaughters was boasting to Joe Lindsey about four years ago—90mm dollars.

And that sounds like a pretty good deal, but then again, big numbers are really, really easy to come up with. For example, YouTube estimates people spent over 164,000 minutes watching How The Race Was Won videos in the month of April—that’s 104 days, 3 hours, and doesn’t include the 290,000 impressions served by Vimeo embeds in the same time period, but I digress—the point is sponsors and potential employers aren’t exactly kicking down my door.

And this is because all exposure is not created equal. Example A: I was raised in a veritable sea of cigarette ads and to this day, I cannot shake my bizarre aversion to camels, cowboys and the phrase “alive with pleasure”. So sure, when Thibaut Pinot wins Stage 8 of last year’s Tour, that is indeed millions of dollars of exposure for the title sponsors. The French National Lottery and a French Building Supplies distributor get millions in their target audience, at prime-couch-wart time staring at their countryman in their national race.

But what—to borrow Josh Kadis’ example from 2009—would a firm like CSC, which sells kinda wonky non-consumer IT solutions, want with however-many-million couch-loads of middle-class French eyeballs? The mass-market works for the mundane European products that filled cycling when I first started watching it—home goods, concrete, an inexplicably large number of flooring products. But with the advent of the ProTour and a focus on larger, multinational sponsors, there kinda has to be this connection with an world audience thats…eh, different…from its European base

For CSC, I think the plan was that cycling stereotypically appeals to the sort of nerdy, well-off white dude that you’d—again, stereotypically—find making IT purchasing decisions. Plus, Team CSCs reputation, their brand, if you will, was that of an efficient, successful, modern team.  Even after Riis, Hamilton, Jasche, Basso, probably Jalabert and etc., I think to this day, Team CSC’s image as the forward-thinking, commando-campers, attacking boldly in a sport of dull US Postal and backward also-rans, remains intact.

Basically there are two ways to slice the sponsorship orange. The first is obvious—you’re the team that wins stuff. Right now, even after a roundly miserably classics seasons, that’s Sky. It’s big, superfunded, successful, on the cover of every newspaper the next morning, but also boring as hell and nobody really likes you. I shouldn’t say nobody really likes you, but c’mon—being a fan of Sky is like being a fan of the Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys, or Manchester United. Associating with the perennially dominant brand makes you a tourist, or a bandwagoner, or at best, that guy.

The other way to show your sponsors return is to be the squad where people really like brand and want to associate with it—like I think CSC once was. And today, you still have a pretty well established Cult of Jens, of Johnny Hoogerland, and to a lesser extent, Thomas Voeckler—though, to be fair, he seems less interested in attacking and more interested in annoying the hell out of everyone.  You might win rarely, or never at all, but you make the race exist, or at least interesting, and the viewers at home appreciate it.

And this would be a great thing—except that internally, cycling worships the winner like no other. Even the great animators had to get results sometime. Virenque never won the Tour, but he did manage a few stages and more than a few KOM title. Likewise Alexandre Vinokourov, for all his ethical shortcomings, did a splendid job of both animating and coming across the line first. Even Jacky Durand, whose name was synonymous with the nonsense breakaway, managed to pick up Flanders 
d a a few Tour stages over the course of his decade and a half in the sport

Regardless of how much value there might be in the animating a race, the pressure from the team car is always to win. To race smart. And in some respects, thats’ fine. I’m not saying winning doesn’t matter—but in other ways it sucks because everything turns into Fleche-Wallonne: a bunch of guys hanging around and saving energy until the last moment when all but one of them finds out “oh, wait—I wasn’t the strongest.”

I think this was especially evident at Liege, where, around 15k from the end 260 kilometer event, you had the top, top riders at the head of the race, the pack reeling behind them, and everything was six pedal strokes, check over the shoulder, and coast. It’s not quite as bad as the NFL, where coaches literally play not for victory, but to avoid criticism for doing anything that might have caused a loss, but I feel like it’s getting there.

Don’t get me wrong, there are other factors, too. Riders on the whole are better  athletes than they used to be, and bigger rosters allow groups within teams to peak for different events, making for a fitter peloton, and one that’s less prone to lose control of an event. Plus the efficacy of the single leader strategy has taken plenty of strong riders who might otherwise animate and turned them into bottle carriers, gap closers, or wheelsuckers.

So to continue to increase the value this second style of sponsorship, remain attractive to sponsors who are not especially interested in the European mass audience, and, frankly,  to ensure the racing stays interesting—cycling really needs to better incentivize the sort of risk-taking that can turn a bike race on it’s head.

It’s done quite the opposite in recent years; with the Tour scratching bonus seconds and bunching the points scored on a given stage into two overloaded sprints, the second of which occurs on the finish line and thus is already contested by everyone. The Giro’s Intergiro classification, which was literally a stage race to points that were not the finish line, was unfairly maligned as being too complicated and nixed after 2005.

I know it’s almost trite to complain about the death of panache, people have been doing it since Anquetil, but surely we can do better at assessing and rewarding actual, purposeful aggressiveness than polling journalists and giving some guy a set of red numbers to ride in the next day.

Break the stage into zones based on predicted race situation, and offer prize money for successful attacks in the dullest or most critical areas? Restore the Intergiro or the intermediate sprints competition? Actively penalize teams who don’t send riders up the road? I honestly don’t really know—but I think it’d be a welcome change to watch as the sport experimented trying to figure it out.

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