Our dear friend Adelaidefatboy* raised an excellent point in the previous post, and it leads perfectly into where I wanted to go next in our exploration of the nature of team structures. I mentioned three key things that I wanted us to begin to address in our understanding of cycling in general and women’s cycling specifically. The first of these was the notion of professionalism.
I think that there are two aspects of professionalism that need to be (re)considered when it comes to women’s cycling. Firstly, I think we need to question what it is to be a professional cyclist. I won’t belabour this point too strongly as Stef Wyman has covered it brilliantly in his piece on this matter for Cyclismas.
Suffice it to say that I think it’s very much an important part of the broader conversation that we all bear in mind there are still many women “professionals” who are partly or entirely self-funded. Who ride bikes they’ve bought and paid for themselves. Who aren’t supplied with matching kit or various forms of support and assistance.
Let me be clear, this has nothing to do with the talent, dedication, commitment or work of these women. They almost certainly are professional in every respect of their working lives, probably more than professional given the constraints that they have to work with. The point is that it’s misleading to call that level of organisation professional and act as if we can’t do better. Of course we can do better, and I believe that we all want to do better.
So it’s important to consider what it is that makes a team and its riders truly professional. There’s no shame in being semi-pro, so let’s not pretend that we’ve attained the appropriate levels of professionalism in structure and support. Yes, the largest part of this is likely to be a function of reduced funding, I’m not denying that and I’m not suggesting that there’s any ill-intent. That said, funding is an issue that I think will only be properly addressed once we have revised our understanding of the structure of teams and their functions. So, we start by redefining professionalism; and I think that, by extension, we also define several categories or levels of professionalism. This way there is an established path for teams to achieve a true professional status and a system for riders to gauge where they fit within the broader arc of their careers.
The second aspect of professionalism is where Adelaidefatboy’s comment comes into the picture as it highlights the need to question what profession a cycling team is in. Of course the easy assumption is that it’s in the business of competing in and (hopefully) winning bike races. That would be incorrect.
The thing is that on a philosophical level, the notion of what a team is can become rather confusing. After all, looking at a cycling team as a business is difficult because we tend to mythologise sport and treat its players as heroes or demi-gods, sullying those notions with concepts of profitability and sustainability seems to somehow denigrate the idea of professionals competing for the sheer love of the sport. But neither are these charitable organisations surviving on the goodwill of the community and multiple donors, although many teams (especially in men’s cycling) are currently propped up by wealthy individuals… so there is some concept of charity at work.
I think the real problem with both of these modes of thought is that neither adequately addresses the primary function of a professional cycling team. And this is why I think we need to revisit the very fundamental basis of the idea and start again. So far we have (I believe) viewed the sport of cycling as an end in its own right. For as long as there have been two or more bikes in the world, people have wanted to race them. And that may be true when we consider the sport at it’s most broad, but it is certainly not the case when we consider a professional cycling team.
So what business is a professional cycling team in? I’d like to suggest that many, perhaps most, professional cycling teams would benefit greatly from reviewing themselves and re-inventing themselves in the form of highly specialised branding and marketing agencies.
Have you stopped laughing yet? It’s ok, I can wait. Also, I’ve just realised that I haven’t sworn in this post yet, so fuck. Ready to move on? Good.
Look, whether you like it or not, this is the most logical approach to thinking of a professional cycling team. They are charged with delivering value through increased positive brand awareness to their sponsors. This is exactly what a branding/marketing agency does. Moreover, it helps to provide a basis for cost calculations to the team. It helps them to break down the different types of exposure (web impressions, tweets transmitted to X followers, hours in breaks, etc.) that they bring to their clients (for the purposes of this post I’m going to call sponsors clients from here on). They can then offer additional services to their clients including appearances, motivational speaking, custom events and so on. When each of these elements is calculated against the number of participants as billable resources, then we begin to establish a baseline in terms of cost and to calculate a minimum value for the professionals involved in executing the branding/marketing strategy for each client. On top of that, we also establish a methodology by which to calculate the types of ROI that each agency (team) is able to bring to their clients.
But none of these are the most important reason to start to think of teams as agencies. They’re good reasons, and they provide real value for the clients, but they’re not the main reason. The main reason is this:
It’s a much easier sell to go to a potential client and help them solve a problem than it is to ask them to solve your problem.
I can’t state that strongly enough. Businesses are in it for the profit. They have obligations to their owners/shareholders to act responsibly and deliver value in every decision they make. On a basic level they may understand that sponsoring a team helps them, but if a marketing agency specialising in unique sports-based branding opportunities were to turn up and provide detail on how they will achieve success for their potential client/partner…
Well, let’s just say I believe that agency would be getting a lot more attention.
And in tribute to our very first commenter, Adelaidefatboy, I give you the eponymous song: