Glamour and fame are two words you would usually associate with the world of the professional cyclist. Triumph and gratification would be two words that might explain the feeling of the teams and sponsors behind a winning athlete. However it’s not all glitz and glamour at the top end of cycling, for behind the scenes, a war of money, wages, conditions and power rages on.
A potential ssible saviour appears, Velon, presenting as everything the struggling sport of cycling needs, bringing exciting new video technology to reinvigorate the viewing experience and put the audience inside the peloton.
The CEO of Velon, Graham Bartlett, insists the new organisation isn’t about to reinvent the wheel, but rather, make it better. Mr Bartlett was the Commercial Director of Liverpool Football Club up until he joined Velon, and prior to that he had business development roles at Union of European Football Associations and Nike.
Velon is based in the UK and comprises 11 of the 17 WorldTour teams, chasing equity and fairness in the sport, their tagline, “Making Cycling Better”. What’s not to love?
The board of Velon includes representatives of the invested parties, to direct the focus and future of Velon in their bid to make the product of cycling more popular and in turn, more financially stable. To do this Velon’s objective is to have the teams at the heart of the economic model in cycling.
Delivering a number of firsts for the sport, Velon has introduced the first ever multi-team partnership and content capture deal with the GoPro camera brand where on-board cameras and telemetry have been introduced to put the audience inside the peloton.
Mr Bartlett has stated that turning the sport of cycling into a symbiotic relationship between the teams and all the race organisers is not a simple task however, and an aggressive stance is not the key to success.
“We have to work in cooperation with all key stakeholders to forge mutually beneficial partnerships so no, it’s not about being aggressive. There’s a desire from all corners of the sport to move forward positively, embrace the opportunities that technology and a globalised media offer, and for all to benefit.”
The key stakeholders he refers to are the cooperating teams and race organisers that Velon works closely with. The 11 teams that are involved so far are BMC Racing Team, Etixx – Quick-Step, Team Lampre – Merida, Lotto Soudal, Orica-GreenEDGE, Team Cannondale – Garmin, Team Giant-Alpecin, Team LottoNL-Jumbo, Team Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo and Trek Factory Racing.
Race organisers ASO, RCS Sport and Flanders Classic are also engaged in the conversation.
The French based Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) is a family trust that has been owned by the same family for over 100 years. It’s a media and event management colossus, owning and controlling every aspect of many of the biggest bike races in the world, not least the Tour de France. They also own the Vuelta and the majority of the one-day Classics. Apart from cycling they own and control other sporting events such as the Dakar Rally and numerous golf and sailing events.
Given there are no ticket sales from stadium seating, for example, as there are in many other sports, and given the immense global spectacle the Grand Boucle has become, the media licensing of the Tour de France and rights to broadcast the event are massive, and are a large proportion of total revenue generated by the sport. Beyond this, a large proportion of those revenues goes directly to the event owner, ASO.
Because of this stranglehold on the finance generated by the sport’s biggest race, the ASO has a lot of power and leverage in the machinations around event administration of not only the Tour, but also the WorldTour which is owned by the International Cycling Union (UCI).
As a result many of the riders and teams have concerns around fairness and equity.
Put simply, Velon wants to take control of the broadcasting rights and reinvest the revenue back into the sport, including the teams and their riders.
While Velon says to be aggressive won’t be helpful, the world can see them rattling cages and demanding respect.
“Do we want to boycott one of the most important races in the calendar (Tour de France)? Of course we don’t.
We want to work together with all event organisers, like the ASO, and build the sport in the spirit of equality and collaboration.
We respect all the race organisers and are sure they respect the teams in return and, given what we’ve done in the short time we’ve been around, Velon too.”
The ASO is understandably quite upset at the current reforms announced by cycling’s governing body the UCI after the Road World Championships back in September in Richmond, USA.
The reforms include plans for a greater number of WorldTour races, less mandatory participation in WorldTour races, and a three-year licensing system that will allow teams to be selective about when and where they race, and give them more leverage in negotiations with organisers.
Even more recently in November, the 77 organisers of International Association of Cycling Race Organisers (AIOCC), chaired by ASO employee and Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, voted almost unanimously to support a motion stating “…utmost concern with regard to the reform (of cycling) in its current state, which is nothing like the original project presented to the annual general meeting in 2014.” The AIOCC have requested a working group to introduce “appropriate corrective measures” of the recently proposed reforms.
Mr Bartlett commented on the reforms when asked if Velon had taken part in the discussion,
“We work with all cycling stakeholders, including the UCI, and strongly support the work that the AIGCP (the professional cyclist’s union) has undertaken as part of the UCI Reform process.
We’re pleased that the UCI Reform offers a balanced framework for collaboration but also believe that there’s a lot of work still to be done to secure the future stability of the teams and, therefore, the riders also.”
It is worth noting that most of the members of the Velon Corporation are also members of the French-based professional riders association AIGCP.
Creating a sustainable economic future for the WorldTour teams would act as an incentive for teams to maintain credibility and retain sponsor and therefore, importantly, identity.
The issue of fairness for the cyclists themselves is quite glaring. Compared to other professional sports people on the world stage, cyclists earn close to the least, all the while having to perform in some of the toughest climatic conditions, and in easily the most physically demanding events of any sport.
Obviously the better performing cyclists get paid more; they become the face of the team, and the sponsor, and garner more exposure through winning. A first year EPL football (soccer) player will earn a minimum of $4,658,310.36 AUD. However a neo-pro cyclist’s minimum wage is a meager $43,028 AUD.
There is a minimum wage enforced by the UCI as part of their duty of care, but there are rumours of teams using loopholes to underpay their riders, for instance, having the rider pay for their own travel.
“Velon was founded with an objective to make cycling a more exciting sport for all: we need to attract new fans to the sport by improving the experience if we’re to change the economic model but, equally, if we lose the diehard fans – who are the beating heart of the sport – then we’ll have done the wrong thing. We want everyone to understand the sport, love it and stay involved with it.” Said Mr Bartlett.
Bicycling Australia also contacted a number of teams that chose not to make individual comments but insisted that their views were consistent with Velon management, though we were able to speak directly with Team Lotto Soudal’s Public Relations and Communications manager Arne Houtekier whilst he was in Belgium.
Lotto Soudal also have a sponsorship deal until 2020 with their partners.
“It’s clear for everyone in cycling that the economic model is not perfect because most of the team’s budgets are made by financial deals with sponsors so teams are very reliant on the money of their sponsors.
It is not easy in cycling to change that model because the financial flows are not the same as they are in soccer for example.” Said Mr Houtekier.
“The power in cycling is also different than other sports, and for these reasons that is why the economic model is what it is.”
To divulge a little more detail, Mr Houtekier said with regard to the on-board camera footage, that Velon will own all the rights to the footage captured, and teams have consented to the footage being sold to third parties and broadcasters.
There will be a UCI WorldTour congress meeting in December where Mr Houtekier said there would be further discussion about the 2016 season, possibly with a focus on the Grand Tour races and the Monuments.
Mr Bartlett said, “We want to bring the sport alive from the rider’s perspective but everything needs to be done for a reason: to improve the fan experience in the very best way. Not just doing things for the sake of doing them “because we can”.”
Strategically speaking, the future still seems cloudy for Velon and their member teams, and they are not about to prematurely telegraph their next move.
They do have a majority of top level riders on board from member teams, and could have some influence if they were to boycott ASO owned events. But would they dare taint the Tour de France?
Perhaps they might orchestrate a ‘ride slow’ stage which would generate a lot of exposure for their cause. It seems their plans to integrate mobile cameras and telemetry would be exciting for sure, but there is no sustainable competitive advantage here…ASO could implement this in a flash.
Would they create a rival ‘superleague’ to compete against ASO? With the prospect of better pay and conditions they would probably have a decent roster of riders. And surely these gladiators of our sport, these supreme power and endurance athletes deserve a little more respect than they’re currently getting.