Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose… The more things change, the more they stay the same. So long as Tour organiser ASO keeps its golden goose, little will change in this sport, writes Anthony Tan.
A question for you, dear Spin Cycle readers: Across the failed Jumbo-Visma and Soudal Quick-Step merger, the plethora of forced retirements at the end of last season, talk of a Saudi-backed Champions League-style calendar from 2026, and the closure of GCN+ and the GCN app, what is the common theme?
Answer: It is very, very difficult to make serious money from professional cycling. Unless you are one of the world’s best riders or the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), owner of the Tour de France.
“How do you deal with this monopoly?” asked Daniel Friebe of The Cycling Podcast in November last year. “The Tour de France is the most beautiful golden goose in any sport. If you look across the whole sporting panorama, it is very difficult to identify any monopoly that rivals the one over which ASO presides.”
The business model has been screwed for a long time.
Teams do not endure (certainly not in name, anyway) because the ROI (return on investment) is not there: they provide excellent brand exposure for their sponsors but only in the biggest races and it doesn’t translate to a corresponding uptick in sales. Furthermore, there is no revenue sharing from the sale of broadcast rights to the biggest races, meaning all 18 WorldTeams are entirely self-funded.
There is no salary cap – or overall budget cap, for that matter – in pro cycling. So about 15-20 riders get paid extremely well (a handful more than 3 million Euros per year), about 100 get paid quite well but nothing like in European soccer leagues, and the rest of the World Tour peloton take whatever they’re offered, grateful to remain in the major league for another season. Most are on one- or two-year contracts, making it one of the most fickle vocations in professional sport. As for those not aligned with a UCI WorldTeam (that is, UCI Professional Continental and below), let’s just say they’re doing it for the love of the sport.
“The only franchises are the races”
The 18 WorldTeams have, on average, about 25 riders on their books, so in any given year, with just 450-odd places up for grabs, it is a buyer’s market. If you’re a mid-tier World Tour pro, there isn’t much wiggle room for your agent to play hardball if it’s October and there are another 10 or 20 like you desperate for a place. Each year, numerous riders with a solid palmarès are simply forced to retire. If they take a step back to Pro Continental level, very few make it back to the World Tour – there’s always a conveyor belt of heavy hitters and next big things raring to go.
Out of the 35 events on the 2024 World Tour, ASO own eight and together with Unipublic organise the Vuelta a España. The Giro d’Italia is owned by RCS Sport, who also run another four World Tour events. The Road World Championships is organised and run by the UCI, cycling’s governing body, but for WorldTeam sponsors, unless a rider wins and gets to wear the rainbow jersey for a year, the event is meaningless because athletes ride for their country rather than trade team.
“If there aren’t any franchises that the teams somehow can tap into, create an identity with, and have a steady income… the only real franchises are the races,” Brian Nygaard, previously a press officer to four World Tour teams and one-time general manager to another, explained to Friebe on The Cycling Podcast last year.
“Teams come and go; riders will start and stop (and in between) reach a zenith and create eras… But the Tour (de France) goes on. It might develop, it might take on different aspects, but it’s not going to go away.
“So, for obvious reasons, it’s not hard to predict how they’ll react to anyone knocking on their door and asking for (a share of) their money.”
Nygaard was making reference after news broke last October that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the country’s sovereign wealth fund, was linked to a wholesale restructure of the European racing calendar.
Plugge: “Our competitors are not the other teams”
One of the driving forces behind the proposal is Richard Plugge. General manager of Jumbo-Visma, whose team last year won all three Grand Tours, he admits finding a replacement sponsor when Jumbo exits at the end of the year is a struggle – hence the proposed merger with Soudal Quick-Step that has since failed. “The world is changing around us and our competitors are not the other teams; our competitors are football, rugby, NFL, Formula One,” Plugge, who is also president of the teams association, the AIGCP, told the RadioCycling podcast. “We need to make sure we are future-ready as a sport. We have to make sure that in five years’ time this sport is bigger than it is today. Everybody will benefit from that.”
A breakaway league has been tried before, in 2012. The teams wanted a share of the TV revenue from ASO. It failed. Past disputes between ASO and the UCI saw the Tour de France and other Monuments disconnected to the World Tour (then ProTour) before being reinstated; the UCI and the World Tour teams quickly realised that for the calendar to have legitimacy, all three Grand Tours and all five Monuments must be there.
Continued Nygaard: “Let’s say there was a demand for a financial model where (ASO) would share the revenue of the TV rights. The figures I’ve seen, it wouldn’t even cover 10 per cent of the current 18 teams’ budget. So if there’s a deficit, are you (the team) going to cover it?”
Besides, why would ASO, a family-run business since its inception in 1992, sell any or part of its core assets, particularly to a non-French institution? Founder Philippe Amaury, who died in 2006, would turn in his grave just at the thought. And even if an offer was put forward, almost certainly, the French government would veto such a move.
“…Most are on one- or two-year contracts, making it one of the most fickle vocations in professional sport…”
Unsurprisingly, ASO is resistant to the PIF proposal – for now at least.
Could what happened to professional golf with the PIF-funded LIV Series happen to cycling?
Again, if the three Grand Tours and Monuments are not there, who’s going to watch? As in golf and tennis, cycling fans love the history and prestige that accompanies the events they watch – not because there’s a $100 million prize purse up for grabs.
However, as happened in golf last June when LIV Golf, the PGA and PGA European Tour announced a for-profit partnership funded by PIF, if the Saudis can somehow convince ASO to collaborate, anything is possible. “The stories go on of teams, including mine, that have almost had to disappear,” Jonathan Vaughters, manager of EF Education-EasyPost, told The Guardian last October. “This is about stabilising the underpinnings of the sport, which is good for everyone, so we are going to be very active and to push forward on this.”
For now, as long as ASO own the Tour, and all Le Tour, everyone else must fall into line. Plus ça change… Roll on Season 2024.