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#2 The Corona Effect

TUESDAY, APRIL 28, 2020

Author: Simon Nessler @tastasol

Can Covid-19 be a catalyst for change in cycling?

It’s been a long time since we’ve written anything here on FC Insights. It was supposed to follow the races in the spring closely, giving you some extra insights to the biggest races in the world, but soon after the first post about the Flemish Opening Weekend, the world as a whole changed. Already before Omloop Het Nieuwsblad got started, the UAE Tour had to cancel their last two stages due to Covid-19 starting to spread within the race.

Around the same time Italy was handling the first real outbreak in Europe, and together with the possible quarantine of RCS staff in UAE, the discussions started. Should the Italian spring races be cancelled/postponed? The decision didn’t come before teams already started backing out. Some teams still made the travel to Tuscany for the Strade Bianche, even though for some it meant plenty of rebooked flights to make it to Italy. In retrospect, it was surely the right decision to postpone it. Cycling is a unique sport in many ways. Especially road racing is a sport without a real home, and creating closed doors events will always be close to impossible. You could for instance see that during Paris-Nice after it was decided the spectators wouldn’t be able to access the start or finish area, but you still had good amounts of the people on the hills just before the final stretch. The most significant thing about cycling in the world of Covid-19 is of course the travelling. Going from town to town during a race and then flying in and out from Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and so on, is just not possible.

Paris-Nice was indeed a special race in that way. It probably should have been stopped earlier, but at that point the world as a whole was also changing from day to day. And the master class from Nairo Quintana up La Colmiane could very well also turn out to be the last cycling race in 2020.

As of now, there is a plan to start up road racing again in July, but only time will be able to tell if that actually will be possible. What we know is that plenty of countries have banned big crowds for the whole summer, so even if the cycling season actually start again in July, some races could still be cancelled and plenty of restrictions must be expected in many others.

Can cycling survive this crisis?

That also brings us to the big question for the sport of cycling in this pandemic: How will the cycling world look like when we get back to normal?. In the world of social economics, one often talks about shocks to the economy, and this shock is something that will be talked and discussed for years to come. It will probably take years for the world economy to return back to how it was at the start of 2020, and when costs are getting cut, sponsorships are often one of the first things that see big cuts. For a sport like cycling, which is based so much around sponsor money, that will be a huge challenge. How many teams will survive a year without a Tour de France, the race which by far is the most important for sponsors worldwide?

The topic has been discussed in the cycling press the last weeks, and over the same timespan several sponsors of teams have also been discussing cuts. Covid-19 strikes different. For some industries it’s still going relatively good, like super markets chains such as Jumbo and Lidl, while other industries of course will expect big downfalls in turnover. The Polish shoe company CCC have been badly affected so far, and many more cycling sponsors will struggle due to the sudden loss in income during this crisis. Sports will always be needed in the world, but this could also be the start of a change in how cycling is organised.

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The sponsorship model in cycling has for many years been labelled as a model which gives unpredictability.Teams needing to look for a new sponsor to secure their existence is something of a yearly tradition in the world of cycling, and in many cases that also means a lack of identity for the teams. How can you expect fans be connected to a team if they drastically change their sponsor and jersey every third year?

But what’s the alternative? Compared to a sport like football, the big difference is the lack of income from other sources than sponsorships. Prize money is at best an unstable factor and you don’t get “match day” revenues from all the fans by the side of the road. As a sport, cycling should also be extremely careful of heading in such a direction. The VIP tents are a good (and important) source of income for organisers, but in general the closeness between the athletes and the public is a huge part of what makes cycling such a great sport. The elephant in the room is TV rights. But then again, a road race is also costly to produce for TV and with the exception of the Tour de France and some of the other big races, the TV revenues aren’t really huge. For some races nothing at all, and the potential impact would therefore be limited for the men. It could be of bigger significance for the women’s teams, but that’s mainly because of the already quite low budgets compared to the professional men’s teams.

As professor Daam Van Reeth points out in the book The Economics of Professional Road Cycling, more money from TV rights could potentially just mean higher costs for the teams, for example in terms of higher wages. Something we have surely seen in the world of football the last decades, with wages and transfer fees going through the roof.

Cutting costs is therefore probably a much more sustainable way of fixing the business model, but it will of course be hard. At the same time, this crisis might be the time where it is possible. Many teams may have to cut big in wages to be able to continue, and if kept at that level, prize money and possible TV revenues might be able to stand for a higher percentage of the total income for the team and thus a less sponsorship dependent model.

A wage cap has been suggested by many general managers for the last few years. It can be a part of the solution. Does the UCI need to rethink its global focus or how to shape to the calendar in order to limit long distance travelling? Possibly. Will we get smaller teams and fewer riders per event? Also a possibility. Do we need money going down the value chain after a transfer, to prevent the bigger teams from just snapping up the biggest talents without any form of compensation for the smaller teams? It could be a way to ensure that the economic gap between the biggest and smallest teams doesn’t get too big. These problems have been discussed widely over the years, and we might now have to make rather quick decisions on the matter.

To actually make the right decisions will be tough, but because of the unfortunate circumstances, this could be the time where it’s possible to do them. It also comes after an increasing professionalism in the sport in recent years, something that comes with increased costs. The difference between the biggest and the smallest teams on the WorldTour is already rather big, and to prevent it from getting bigger, action might be needed.

The same can be said about the organisers. ASO, RCS and Flanders Classics are amongst those who have an organisation strong enough to handle this, but still at a high level, many races are run by local organisers. Even a cancelled race has costs and without a strong organisation behind it, that can be tough to handle for many.

The Digital surge

It’s been a few years since Velon was created back in 2014, but the Hammer Series never got going like the organisation wanted. The UCI is partly to blame, but the concept also failed to get cycling fans really enthusiastic. What it did show, is that it’s certainly a will to try and change the sport. Races similar to the Hammer Series, focused around big cities over the world, might very well be a part of the solution in the quest for the modern cycling model.

In the last weeks we have also seen the steady rise of digital cycling, with Greg Van Avermaet winning the “Lockdown edition of the Tour of Flanders” in competition with twelve of the best road riders in the world and most of the big teams joining the Velon event Digital Swiss 5 over the last week.

Platforms like Zwift, Bkool and others have been growing fast the last years, but mostly as training platforms and races that don’t really reach the news. This is of course an extraordinary situation, but there is potential. Digital racing was already on the rise before the world started locking down, but as we saw in the Tour of Flanders, it still needs a good amount of work. Graphics will be very important, as you must at least able to actually see something that reminds you of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg in a race like that. Can it replace ordinary road cycling? It might have to for a good amount of months, although it has a long way to go before it can feel anything similar to a normal race. Tactics are one of the most interesting aspects in cycling, but at the moment it’s mainly the good old “be the strongest”-tactic that works in the world of eCycling.

At this time it’s still early days, and the Swiss race had significantly better looking graphics than the Tour of Flanders. It is still great for cycling fans to be able to have these races, being able to see much more than most other sports fans are able to see from their big stars. These platforms also give the teams opportunities to do things like group rides, which is good for both the team sponsors and the public health.

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It’s also a great platform for some long rides, and in these times, many riders are now challenging themselves to ride extraordinary rides. In Norway it started with cross country skiing, but quickly spread to cycling and last week saw two different trips end up at over 1000 kilometres, without sleep, (1012 and 1005 kilometres) in between 36h18min and 38h38min. On Zwift, riders have done 750 and 765 kilometres in one session here in Norway, and you also had the Burgos-BH rider Willie Smit riding 1000 kilometres on Zwift recently. In some ways it also shows the difference between countries in this pandemic, as riders in Spain for example, must stay indoors for their training sessions. As more countries now start to open up for exercising outdoors, we could see even more impressive rides. Remco Evenepoel, Oliver Naesen and Marcus Burghardt are amongst the pros who’ve already done rides over 300 kilometres this spring, and more will probably follow as we edge closer to the summer in the next few weeks.

For sponsors it could also be great exposure, and for some teams the interest in these digital races and training rides could turn out to be what is needed to secure the sponsors necessary.

A different Tour de France

The lockdown also creates a lot of other problems going towards the Tour de France, which is now scheduled to start in Nice on the 29th of August. The program beforehand will at best be a bit limited and the preparation may vary hugely amongst the favourites, purely based on where they live. Will it be a fair Tour if some have been training outdoors for three months, while others only got two weeks after ten weeks on the rollers? It could at least cause some surprises, and hopefully not of the cheating sort. It’s quite understandable that doping tests now are being kept at a minimum, but it also opens the door for those who want to take shortcuts.

You would also expect it to be a completely different Tour. With the current situation, the enormous crowds we are used to seeing every year, just seems impossible. For some races it won’t matter hugely, but for the Tour de France it really will matter. A big part of the race is the amount of press and spectators present at almost every moment for three weeks. An even bigger part of the race is the dates itself, on what is normally a time for vacation in Europe. Easy days with the Tour rolling in the background. A trip to the beach, lunch, and then home to watch the Tour. It will be different, but also extremely valuable.

Another possible problem is if the virus starts to spread during a race. For some riders it took several weeks before they could travel back from the UAE Tour, and a potential infection during a race like the Tour de France, would make it hard to continue the race.

The cycling world now waits to see how the new calendar will shape up, a process that up till now has felt like “First the Tour, then the Tour and after the Tour, let’s check out the Tour in 2021”. What’s clear is that we have to be prepared for a long season, and a season with totally different dynamics than we are used to. It’s going to be a lot of clashes, and we could also see changes to team sizes and amount of teams in races.

But it’s still a big if. If we can re-start the season during the summer and if it’s possible to keep going. Nobody knows, but that if could turn out to be vital in shaping the sport of cycling for the years to come.

The focus should be on the costs, both for the present and the future. Otherwise it might not be that much left in the cycling world should the Covid-19 pandemic last a long time.