First up I should probably confess that the title of this post will wind up being more of a question than an answer, sometimes that’s how things go. For well over a year I’ve observed with interest the collective headscratching and uncertainty surrounding how to sustainably build a professional cycling team. It’s a complex and involved set of issues, rather than just something that can be considered as a standalone problem. This is because cycling exists as a fragile ecosystem and changes to any one part of it have effects (sometimes unforeseen) on the rest of it. So the question of sustainable cycling models is by necessity going to be a tough nut to crack. Something I think the sport itself is really only starting to come to terms with.
In particular Jonathan Vaughters has been vocal on the issue and has at different times had varied ideas and suggestions on how a more sustainable structure may be put into place. Along the way Mr Vaughters has done a good job of explaining why this matters and why the current system is not really viable or in the best interests of cycling.
Let’s start at the start – the dependency of cycling teams on sponsorship deals leaves them in a peculiar and vulnerable position compared to most other professional sports. Most sports derive their primary income from broadcast rights. That is, tv networks pay them large sums of money in order to broadcast the sport. Cycling Oddity the first; broadcast rights are held by race organisers not by any sort of league or association (as is the case with other, larger sports). This means that teams have limited bargaining power in terms of money and in offering exposure to potential sponsors. Problematic to say the least.
In addition to this, there’s the rather disturbing development that several officials with prominent positions in the UCI have recently become race organisers. Allegedly this has been done in order to help “grow” the sport globally, but for those who may have a less charitable turn of mind, it could be read as those with a position of influence feathering their own nests, so to speak.
In either case, it’s a hard argument to make that requiring teams to add further long-haul international travel to their schedules with little tangible financial return is good for the sustainability of the teams themselves.
Anyone who would question the impact these structure have on teams only need to look at the collapse of HTC (the winningest men’s team around at the time) and Garmin-Cervelo’s rather poorly managed dumping of their women’s team due to last minute sponsor dropout, to see that these are very real issues and that they impact on people’s lives.
Now this set of issues is complex enough on the men’s side of the sport, but things become even more fraught when we transition to the women’s side. In large part it’s my view that this is due to a lack of leadership from the UCI in providing meaningful structures and a roadmap to a World Tour level of teams in women’s cycling.
For a long time now there has been a lot of debate about the introduction of a minimum wage for women’s cycling. Variously spokespeople for the UCI have made ridiculous and in my opinion, harmful statements on one of the more important issues in the sport. Pat McQuaid said that he didn’t think women’s cycling was “at that level yet”, which can generously be understood to be a pretty ambiguous statement. That said, it was widely understood to mean that McQuaid didn’t think women’s racing was good enough to warrant it, a claim which doesn’t hold up under even minimal scrutiny.
Conversely if McQuaid was trying to say that he didn’t feel that the sponsorship structures were strong enough to support a women’s minimum wage then I think it’s quite clear that he’s missed the point and the opportunity that comes with it. Namely, to show some real vision and leadership on the matter.
Then there was the more recent comment made at the Olympic Games in response to Lizzie Armitstead raising the issue of a minimum wage. This spokesperson said that the UCI can’t force a private company to do anything. It was a clever bit of wordplay as the spokesperson pounced on the opportunity to phrase their response so that it addressed the question of requiring sponsors to adhere to a minimum wage. Technically this is true, and perfectly beside the point, which is that the UCI absolutely can (and does) require teams to adhere to a variety of rules, up to and including wages (for men).
It’s easy to understand why there’s rising frustration in the professional ranks of women cyclists. I will forever respect Chloe Hosking for calling it as she saw it and referring to Pat as “a bit of a dick”. I know that a lot of people were (or pretended to be) offended by the use of the word dick. It’s sad to me that they seemed to be far less offended that a sport they care about doesn’t seem to feel obliged to pay women competitors.
But anyway, that’s enough bemoaning the problems. I just wanted to lay some foundational thoughts for you, in the next chapter we’ll start to unravel the ways in which we might be able to address this ugly set of issues and brighten the place up. Because that’s the good news, the future’s not at all bleak.
We, collectively, the universal we; the riders, the teams, the organisers and gods help them, even the UCI, are all about to do something very special. We’re going to change the sport. Make no mistake, this is going to happen and we will be better for it.