With the Fifa World Cup, Wimbledon and the British Open all complete, this week the world’s attention moved on to the culmination of road cycling’s Tour de France and whether Team Sky can win this epic test of endurance once again.
But while cycling hosts one of the world’s premier sporting events and participation and equipment sales continue to grow, professional cycling remains, in commercial terms, a third-tier sport. Global commercial revenues amount to $600 million a year, a third the size of those of rugby union, and less than a quarter the size of golf (another sport with significant participant equipment and apparel spending).
The UCI, the sport’s governing body, is well aware of this challenge and recently announced a move to bring all its world championship events together to create a global cycling spectacle every four years, one that can attract the world’s attention the year before the summer Olympics. But even if this manages to double the appeal and commercial income of the combined world championships, it is unlikely to have a significant financial impact on the sport as a whole.
To bring cycling into the second tier of global sports, something has to be done about the UCI WorldTour
To bring cycling into the second tier of global sports, something has to be done about the UCI WorldTour – the annual series that includes road cycling’s three grand tours, the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta a España. Combined, these three races account for over half of all cycling’s commercial revenue, with the biggest of the three – the Tour de France – accounting for well over half that total.
The WorldTour has evolved over decades into an incoherent mix of multi-stage and one-day events in what appears like a fairly random and confusing geographic timetable, with no clear narrative outside of the three grand tours and with rival commercial agencies – most notably ASO, RCS and Infront –vying to gain a share of the commercial spoils of the WorldTour and occasionally undermining it by setting up rival events – e.g. Infront’s Hammer Series.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the fact that the Tour of Britain – based in a country that has recently fallen in love with road cycling and which is one of the largest TV and sports markets in Europe – is held at the same time as the Vuelta a España, and lacks the status to attract the best riders and teams.
Cycling fans like events in their own countries, and they like to follow native riders and teams with something of a national as well as corporate identity
Consumer research Oliver & Ohlbaum (O&O) has conducted suggests cycling fans like events in their own countries, and they like to follow native riders and teams with something of a national as well as corporate identity. Other work done by O&O suggests that a better coordinated WorldTour, with more major events in more major cycling and media markets across the globe could double the commercial value of the tour.
Furthermore, collective exploitation of the key media and sponsorship rights and a proper digital strategy alongside well-coordinated amateur participation events and a proper women’s tour alongside this, could help take cycling’s global revenue well over the $1-billion mark and towards second-tier global sports status, alongside golf and tennis. This in turn will attract more talented people into the sport and improve the events further. A larger commercial income would also give the sport the resources and incentives (and scrutiny) to solve its persistent doping problems.
It might just be time for the UCI to sit down with the major teams (most of which are represented by Velon, the umbrella group which, along with Infront, is behind the Hammer Series), and the major incumbent agencies – ASO, RCS and Infront – and came up with a proper plan for the WorldTour, otherwise cycling might be going backwards, not forwards, as the second wave of digital transformation hits all sports over the next 20 years.