On money and identity

Pro cycling has a somewhat unique challenge compared to other sports. Teams have limited means to raise finance themselves (no stadiums and gate receipts) and so are reliant completely on their sponsors. They are even named after their sponsors, which can often mean a name change for the team every year, or with even greater frequency. It also means that the teams are largely beholden to the whims of their sponsor, and every insider account of the sport talks about the pressure applied to managers from the sponsors, and the pressure applied to riders to get results for the sponsor. Not exactly a stable performance model.

Crisis may be too strong of a word to use in respect to the finances of pro cycling at present, and it is difficult – if not impossible – to comment with great accuracy on the situation as an outsider. But teams are struggling to find sponsors, many minor races are struggling for financing, and – despite solid fan support – securing the sport’s financial future appears perilous. The UCI seems convinced that once the doping problem is solved, the money will come back. It also thinks that expanding to the New World is key and, in the lingo of modern finance, has tipped its hat to the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and wants races in all four. China is already in the bag with Russia shortly to follow. Critics of this approach argue that cycling in these countries has no heritage and that the UCI should focus on the heartland of cycling – Europe – and get the local races in order before trying to expand.

As well, team managers are trying to find ways of putting their teams on more secure footings, such as the idea of franchises where the team can have more of a fixed identity and access to other revenue sources such as television rights. The system of UCI points that ‘values’ riders does not help the teams, particularly for World Tour rankings. The big money that some teams are able to bring into play, whether from wealthy individuals (BMC) to Russian oligarchs (Katusha) to state funding (Astana), his led to distortions. Yet cycling has always attracted a particular type of sponsor, like Bernard Tapie, often with out-size personalities and extra-deep pockets that bankroll the stars for a few years before moving on. The longer stayers, like Quick Step or Francaise des Jeux for example, tend to be more modest contributors. The original pro teams in cycling were sponsored by bicycle manufacturers, so teams have always been subordinate to those that held the purse strings.

It is difficult to speculate what the future may hold. Pro cycling may find itself, as it often has, struggling for sponsors and will remain a second-rate sport that simply cannot turn its popularity into solid financial returns. Fans don’t want to pay to watch races (cycling remains a sport of the people for the people). The entrenched powers-that-be don’t seem to want to change the current balance of power, which is in their favour; the largest players, the ASO and the UCI, seem content with the status quo – although the ASO holds most of the good cards and the UCI must be fearful that it will be lured away to a new professional league.

Identity

But, despite its precarious existence, and decades of doping disasters that have constantly threatened to implode the sport entirely, pro cycling remains totally captivating; the legions of fans that turn out to the races, and the passion they show, is testament to the powerful pull that it has. The latest book from VeloPress, Argyle Armada: Behind the Scenes of the Pro Cycling Life by Mark Johnson, is a reminder of how sublime cycling can be. The author (a PhD in English literature no less as well as a Cat 2 racer) followed the (then) Garmin-Cervélo team for its entire 2011 season, delivering “an unprecedented look at America’s most celebrated cycling team”.

But of course there’s plenty of suffering behind the scenes. For manager Jonathan Vaughters, part of the suffering is budgetary. The team has a budget of around 30% of some of the better financed pro teams, according to the book. Salaries take up 74 per cent of the budget. Vaughters needs results that will keep the sponsors interested, but can’t afford the big names that require the biggest money. He has to get maximum ‘bang for his buck’ with solid performances across the season that get World Tour points (to guarantee the team’s World Tour status); the team is built around a number of riders who can produce these performances, rather than one star who will guarantee the team’s position (the sort of scenario that backfired for Bjarne Riis when he hired Alberto Contador).

One of the money raising methods used by the team (and now adopted by most others) is relentless merchandising. This is apparently now worth around $1.5 million annually. A glance at the team shop shows the array of goods on offer, and even team bikes are put on sale at the end of the season. It raises, though, an interesting question for us amateurs riders who are supportive fans: is is cool to wear a pro team jersey?

According to the biologist E.O. Wilson, “everyone, no exception, must have a tribe”. Tribes give us identity and “social meaning in a chaotic world”. We are social creatures and like to be surrounded by others of a like mind. For many of us, cycling is one of our ‘tribes’. Belonging to the tribe has certain requirements and we like to fit in; we like to associate ourselves with one of the sub-tribes in cycling and our appearance is part of this process. This sense of belonging, or buying in, is a powerful branding tool used by the makers of cycling gear – we can by into a ready-made identity that has been carefully prepared for us (how else to explain Rapha?). Indeed, this kind of cultural vacuity has been criticized (stand up Mr. Matt Rendell), particularly as us Anglophones try to buy our way into a European, or other, cycling culture that is not our own.

Such criticism can be valid but also misplaced. Here in Vancouver, for example, there is a long history of road racing and many well-established clubs. It might be inspired by outside influences but is a work in progress in developing its own cycling culture (which makes, for example, the Rapha Continental tagline for North America of “rediscovering the lost spirit of cycling” – it used to be something about the ‘lost art’ – somewhat galling; what do they think was happening before they came along?). As such, local team jerseys are numerous on the local scene, whether from local race clubs or the increasing popularity of Gran Fondo or more social teams (often built around charity endeavours). Pro team kit can be scarce.

It used to be the case that wearing pro team kit was déclassé in most cases. Current kit was definitely out, unless you were an actual team member (with a number of pro riders from the Vancouver area, that would not be an impossibility). An obscure European team might be okay, providing that you had some connection to the team, as might retro kit from years (preferably decades) past, but the line was fuzzy. Plus, pro team kit was a risk if the team was hit by a doping scandal (think of all the Phonak jerseys that disappeared after Floyd Landis was busted), which has not left many teams unscathed in recent years. Finally, given the liberal use of sponsor logos in branding a team, wearing a jersey is essentially giving free advertising to companies that have given the wearer nothing in return (making them pay for the privilege, no less), other than the sense of being part of the team effort and supporting them financially.

An interesting dilemma. In the future, teams are going to be asking fans to put their hands in their wallets more and more. Perhaps GreenEDGE, lacking a title sponsor and mainly funded by Australian businessman Gerry Ryan, is the model with its various membership packages for fans. At the high end, $990 will get you the team kit, supporter pack, and a day spent with the team including breakfast, training ride and team dinner. Euskatel-Euskadi is also perhaps another model, with the team jointly funded by the local Basque supporters (it’s difficult to know what membership gets you, but the chance to wear an orange shirt and a beret as well as imbibe copious amounts of beer and dubious sausages atop a picturesque mountain watching Le Tour should not be underrated). At races, it seems like VIP access will become more prevalent and access will have its privileges.

The sport needs a better structure to manage the money it has already for the benefit of the riders, and it probably needs more funds overall to make improvements. How we as fans contribute is a difficult situation. Socks, caps and gloves for sure, but somehow pulling on the full team kit is, for many old traditionalists, uncomfortably close to being part of one of the misguided fan sects or anorak wearing brigades. That said, having one of the original Slipstream jerseys, resplendent in its argyle, would probably be okay and be past the statute of limitations.

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure,” said philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. This blog has already discussed suffering and glory, but what of passion? David Hume said that reason was the slave of the passions, which – along with tribalism – goes a long way to explaining why we follow sport so ardently. Passion will keep the fans on the roadside in the pouring rain, or hunched over their computers watching a grainy Flemish internet feed; passion will keep the racers churning out the miles, day after day, for their sport; passion will keep the money flowing in some form or another from the business community. But when passions are directed elsewhere, or become less ardent with time, what will be left? In Argyle Armada, which is a beautiful book well worth owning, Vaughters laments that European cycling is still driven by personalities; he contrasts the situation to American sport, which has regressed to the mean of simply making money. A mercenary observation, perhaps. But on balance, the model to date of pro cycling has not served the majority of riders particularly well. Perhaps a new model, the result of the current evolution or perhaps an actual revolution, will do better.

BC's own Ryder Hesjedal at the 2008 Giro in the original argyle kit (Slipstream pic)

One thought on “On money and identity

  1. Great post yet again! I have been cycling for less than a year and I am currently floundering about in an identity crisis concerning the sport. Is it acceptable to wear a professional team’s jersey? I played soccer (futbol?) for 16 years before a L5 injury cascaded me into the reckless abandon of cycling, but back then it was a way of supporting whatever foreign team you favored to wear as many logo-ridden outfits you could to each and every practice, kick around, and even game (I owned a subtle pair of ManUnited socks that matched my university’s kit). But cycling seems to be governed by different rules. I found a screaming deal on a pair of HTC Highroad bibs, so I bought them. All the guys in my local club mess with me, saying I better have Cav’s calves if I’m going to try and win the sprint signs in it.

    Why not support the teams with jersey, though? Just like during my soccer days, no one would be fooled by the player in a full Liverpool clown costume because his talent with the ball was too far inferior to even match that of such a worthless team. I keep hearing my elder riders say that the the rider is everything (the guy who rides a downtube shifting aluminum frame smoking everyone to the top of the hill repeats), so why should we fear or even mock the willing consumer of their favorite pro team? It shouldn’t take local riders very much to realize if they are in the company of Cancellara. And likewise, it shouldn’t befuddle someone if I don a Highroad jersey. As long as Bentham doesn’t inspire any Panopticons watching me along with his theories, I am proud to help the (as you argue) struggling pro teams by wearing my kits on every painful and pleasurable ride I can. This time I’m going Radioschack Nissan Trek (point about sponsors?) so that I can at the least say I didn’t help drive another team like the infamous Highroad out of business. Plus, where are my other tribe members in the States? I used to be able to identify soccer players everywhere I went. Unless I’m at a local ride, how can I spot those crazy, passionate cyclists from everyone else? Wear pro kits proudly if you are proud of their accomplishments.

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