When Sarah and I started discussing the idea for the Social Media jersey, I had an immediate flood of thoughts, hopes and fears. Of course, the first of those was the question of how much money we would try to raise and the fear that we may somehow fail to achieve it (thanks for proving us to be ridiculously pessimistic!). Further to that though, I really hoped that we’d be able to spark some interesting and detailed conversation around the role of the media in general and social media in particular with respect to women’s cycling.
So I was actually quite pleased to see (and today to Google Translate) this post by Lisa Ström. I’m sure I’ve lost some nuance in the mysteries of internet translation and my Swedish is marginally worse than my Norwegian (I can say thanks in Norwegian, which I believe is pronounced essentially the same in Swedish but spelled completely differently). Even with my linguistic failings, I’m glad to see Lisa raise the further question of whether a prize like this will be one of the first steps that leads women’s cycling to value media exposure over athletic performance.
It’s an interesting and important question and I think it carries a lot of complexities with it as well. First of all, I have to acknowledge that I always have a moment of self-conscious and serious reflection before I try to discuss something to do with women’s cycling in a serious manner. I’m acutely aware of the risk of coming across as yet another man who thinks that he knows better than the women in the sport what it is that they need. Have mercy on me if I ever stray into that sort of stupidity, but also call me on it.
Anyway, Lisa rightly asks us to consider the future of women’s cycling and its relationship with the media (old and new). I share her concerns that there is a risk that the world will continue to warp towards rewarding athletes based more on their media skill and engagement than on their athletic performance. I’m not naive enough to believe that social media can correct this imbalance completely, but I do think it contributes to levelling the field somewhat.
Social networks build up in a more organic manner, allowing direct connections that aren’t mediated through the artistic vision of a creative team or pr flack (not that there’s anything wrong with that – everything in moderation and so on, even pr). This means that social media provides for more of a meritocracy and a different kind of engagement.
So I think that the truth is that while we can’t be certain where exactly this shift will lead us all, I do think it’s safer in the collective hands of social networks and new media than it is in the hands of traditional media. I think this might be where Lisa and I differ in our viewpoints (in that I have more faith in new media than she may), and I’m truly interested in hearing more from her on this matter. I’ve written previously about believing that cycling teams should start to think of themselves as marketing businesses rather than cycling teams. Now that’s the kind of statement that can easily be misunderstood (or even poorly explained by bad writers such as myself). So if you think I’m wrong, please feel free to tell me so, but let me try to explain what I mean a little further before you dive in.
When I say that, I’m speaking specifically about the overall business structure of a cycling team. In other words, how it makes money. Under the current sponsorship dependent model of cycling a team makes money by performing marketing functions. Yes, most of the influence of a team and the success of its marketing efforts will depend on how well they perform as a team. I’m not suggesting the functions are mutually exclusive but there are two distinct functions that need to be factored into how a team operates.
Lisa is absolutely right, in this day and age, it’s not enough to thank your sponsor for the cash and turn up at races wearing the kit. The modern media landscape is much more complex and vast. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be navigated efficiently and effectively while still performing as a cycling team. This sort of dichotomy is true for most businesses, there’s a core function that the business seeks to achieve and then there are the supporting business units that exist to make that happen and I’m hopeful that as teams start to understand and accept the importance of that marketing business unit, they’ll be able to build the kind of stability that helps them ensure improved athletic performance as they grow.
Anyway, all of this to say that I was really happy to see Lisa bring this up and I hope we (all) get to talk about issues like this more. I’m a sucker for a good, complicated conversation any time.