Sky, the European pay-TV broadcaster, is to end its sponsorship and ownership of the Team Sky cycling outfit at the end of next year, after a highly successful 10-year spell in which it won six Tour de France titles and transformed the image of the sport in the UK, albeit the team also became embroiled in damaging doping allegations.
In a statement today, Sky said: “The decision will bring to a conclusion Sky’s ownership and sponsorship of Team Sky, which will continue to race under a different name if a new backer is secured to provide funding from the beginning of 2020. The team will compete as Team Sky for the last time throughout the 2019 road racing season, aiming to add to its total of 322 all-time wins including eight Grand Tours, 52 other stage races and 25 one-day races.”
The announcement coincides with the news that McLaren, the UK-based formerly successful Formula 1 motor racing team whose results have languished in recent years, is to enter the sport of cycling by teaming up with Bahrain-Merida, the team of Vincenzo Nibali, winner of the 2014 Tour de France (the sole edition of the tour not won by a Sky rider in the last seven years).
McLaren is owned by Mumtalakat, Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund, while Bahrain-Merida is owned by Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, a member of the Gulf state's royal family.
John Allert, McLaren’s chief marketing officer, told the Daily Telegraph newspaper: “We’re not coming in saying ‘Everyone else has been getting it wrong and we are going to get it right’. We’re looking for areas where we can make a difference.”
Sky’s decision to withdraw from the sport had been expected since its acquisition earlier this year by Comcast, the US media giant, in a deal worth £29.7 billion ($39.1 billion).
However, Graham McWilliam, the chairman of Team Sky, tweeted this morning: “The decision was taken by Sky in the last few weeks. Comcast are aware and supportive of what we have decided to do, but this is our decision not theirs. Now looking forward to a great final season with @teamsky.”
The launch of the team 10 years ago raised eyebrows, given that Sky did not hold rights to broadcast the Tour de France or any of the sport’s other major races, and that funding the team is estimated to cost the broadcaster about £30 million a year.
However, Sky always claimed that its involvement in cycling, which initially included sponsoring the Great Britain team, was part of a “bigger picture” that included increasing participation in sport. In today’s statement, it said: “Sky kicked off its involvement in cycling in 2008 when it joined forces with British Cycling in a mission to increase participation at all levels and support elite success on the track and road. By the end of that partnership in 2016, nearly two million people had been inspired to cycle regularly and the Great Britain Cycling Team had achieved unprecedented medal success at three Olympic Games…
“Sky’s commitment to cycling has been a core part of its Bigger Picture work, which focuses on the positive impact Sky can have in local communities and the wider world. The company’s most recent flagship campaign, Sky Ocean Rescue, is raising awareness about ocean health and encouraging businesses and the public to eliminate single-use plastic.
“Previously, Sky has worked with a range of partners in long-term initiatives including Sky Sports Living for Sport, which promoted sports participation in schools over a period of 10 years, and Sky Rainforest Rescue, an environmental campaign with WWF that ran for six years.
“Last year, Sky announced a new long-term partnership with the England & Wales Cricket Board. The partnership, which includes a commitment to grow participation among children and at the grass roots, will form a central part of Sky’s Bigger Picture activity in the coming years.”
Jeremy Darroch, Sky’s group chief executive, said: “We came into cycling with the aim of using elite success to inspire greater participation at all levels. After more than a decade of involvement, I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve achieved with Team Sky and our long-standing partners at British Cycling. But the end of 2019 is the right time for us to move on as we open a new chapter in Sky’s story and turn our focus to different initiatives including our Sky Ocean Rescue campaign.”
Dave Brailsford, Team Sky’s principal, added: “The vision for Team Sky began with the ambition to build a clean, winning team around a core of British riders and staff. The team’s success has been the result of the talent, dedication and hard work of a remarkable group of people who have constantly challenged themselves to scale new heights of performance. None of this would have been possible without Sky. We are proud of the part we have played in Britain’s transformation into a cycling nation over the last decade.”
Doping allegations The vision of a ‘clean’ team became clouded for many by a long-running saga which ended with a report by a UK parliamentary select committee that found that the team and Bradley Wiggins, its star rider ahead of the 2012 Tour de France, which he won, “crossed an ethical line” by using banned drugs allowed under anti-doping rules to enhance performance instead of for medical reasons, under the so-called ‘therapeutic use exemption’ system.
Earlier, British Cycling, the national governing body for the sport, admitted to “serious failings in our record keeping at the time” in relation to a now-notorious ‘mystery package’ received by a doctor on behalf of Wiggins in 2011.
There were suspicions that the package could have contained doping materials, but Brailsford told the committee that the package contained an over-the-counter decongestant, Fluimucil.
In 2017, Sky rider Chris Froome, who won the Tour de France in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, failed a doping test at the Vuelta a Espana, but eventually escaped any action by the UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency, with WADA saying that it “remains convinced that the UCI reached the correct and fair outcome in what was a very complex case.”
Froome was reported to have had double the allowed level of the asthma drug Salbutamol in his system, but claimed that he was within the limit. The use of Salbutamol is permitted, but within certain doses, without a TUE.
McLaren’s Allert said of cycling’s long history of doping problems: “I think they [cycling’s world governing body, the UCI] have actually gone further than cleaning up the sport. It is probably the most stringently regulated sport on earth. Of course, nothing is ever guaranteed, so we’ve had to come into this with our eyes wide open. But we’ve discussed it at length with our partners, with the governing body, we’ve done our due diligence and I can tell you, if we weren’t 100 per cent satisfied, we wouldn’t be involved.”
Brailsford ended today’s Sky statement by saying: “While Sky will be moving on at the end of next year, the team is open minded about the future and the potential of working with a new partner, should the right opportunity present itself. For now, I would like to thank all Team Sky riders and staff, past and present - and above all the fans who have supported us on this adventure."
Sky continued its run of success at the Tour de France this year as Geraint Thomas, another of its British riders, came in first
Brailsford said: “We aren’t finished yet by any means. There is another exciting year of racing ahead of us and we will be doing everything we can to deliver more Team Sky success in 2019.”
• Telefónica, the Spanish telecoms giant, is reported to be close to extending its sponsorship of the Movistar team until 2021.
Telefónica began its sponsorship of Movistar, the only Spanish team in the top-tier UCI WorldTour, in 2010.