A Crazy Week in Pro Cycling, and an "Unthinkable" Merger; The Costs of Historic Success; Roglic to Move On; Saudi Arabia's Designs on International Sport; Leadership Styles in Sports
● Pro Cycling’s Craziest Week
● An “Unthinkable” Merger Between Plugge and Lefevere
● The Improbable Costs of Historic Success
● Charges Against Licensed Massage Therapist
● Saudi Arabia’s Designs on International Sport
● Leadership in Sport
Rumors that Dutch super-team Jumbo-Visma and iconic Belgian squad Soudal-QuickStep were on the verge of an historic and previously almost unthinkable merger last week now appear to be true. Soudal-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere all but confirmed the forthcoming deal in an interview with Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday, even going as far as saying that the ink was dry on a letter of intent between the two teams. It is both shocking and regrettable that Jumbo-Visma – clearly the most successful team in the sport – has apparently had to negotiate a merger with a direct rival in order to bridge the funding gap created by the departure of its title sponsor, Dutch supermarket chain Jumbo. Similarly, it may finally mark the end of Lefevere’s often controversial but highly successful career as a team principal in pro cycling.
While Lefevere’s title sponsor revolving door is well-documented, casual observers may assume that a team with the on-road success of Jumbo-Visma would have no issue finding a new sponsor. However, this merger seems to suggest that this isn’t the case – possibly implying that the value that title sponsors think they receive is not keeping pace with the skyrocketing cost of running a modern WorldTour team (Jumbo was probably shelling out something on the order €25 million per year to be the team’s title sponsor). Rapid increases in salaries for even lower-level riders (Cofidis allegedly offered Victory Lafay €1.5 million per year to stay with the team before he departed for AG2R), has created a situation where teams backed by wealthy nation states and individuals, like Ineos and UAE, can set and reset higher market rates for top riders (Tadej Pogačar reportedly makes around €6 million per season), while teams reliant on “traditional” corporate backing – and working from a more traditional financial rate of return perspective – struggle to keep pace. Commentary as to whether this is good or bad for the sport, and potential solutions, will be explored in a deep-dive piece from The Outer Line in the near future.
The mere whispering of rumors that this blockbuster combination could happen generated ripple effects across the sport – potentially triggering an informal hiring freeze due to the impending talent redistribution. The merged team’s combined roster of 50-plus riders would need to be promptly trimmed down to 30; some 20 WorldTour riders would hence be thrown on to the open market with limited time and available contract slots remaining before the start of next season. (The UCI published a curious and somewhat threatening statement earlier today, seemingly reminding the two teams of their contractual responsibility to their riders.) If the merger does in fact happen, it seemly likely that it will drive short-term downward pressure on prices for quality riders. Hence, it is potentially bad news for teams like Lidl-Trek – which just constructed a near-complete 2024 roster by bringing on riders like Tao Geoghegan Hart and Jonathan Milan. On the other hand, it could be great news for UCI Pro tier teams with ambitions to retool and compete for a WorldTour promotion. And it could be even better news for Ineos; the erstwhile U.K. super-team oddly sat idle during much of the contract “season” and currently has fewer than 20 riders publicly under contract for 2024. It may now be able to fill out its 2024 roster with quality riders at attractive prices.
Thie deal has predictably driven the cycling media into a complete frenzy – with leading websites saying one thing one day, only to backtrack and say something completely different the next. For example, just a day after the merger rumors became public, there was blockbuster news from Dutch marketing expert Chris Woerts that Amazon would partner with Jumbo-Visma for the 2024 season to the tune of €15 million. This development was incorrectly interpreted and cited by nearly every English-language cycling outlet as representing a new sponsor for the team. However, the next day the potential partnership was downgraded to Amazon merely providing €15 million to the team in return for some kind of undefined “media value.” It still isn’t clear if this means Amazon will be paying the Jumbo team €15 million in cash to produce exclusive content around the team for their Prime Video service (perhaps an entry in their fantastic All or Nothing Series?), or exactly what the announced deal will actually entail. The ambiguity around the deal seems befitting for a totally chaotic week – where potentially disruptive changes have been coming thick and fast – but truthfully unpacking what is actually going on has been nearly impossible. Unfortunately, in its excitement, and as other stories start to decline with the approach of the end of the season, much of the cycling media has been a little too quick to announce news and draw conclusions.
Despite the overall bedlam around the team, one certainty that has emerged is that Jumbo-Visma superstar Primož Roglič will leave Jumbo-Visma - with the team’s blessing. The latest news is that Roglič will announce a move to a new team following his final race of the season – next Saturday’s Il Lombardia. While nearly every major team in the WorldTour has been named as a potential landing spot, careful analysis by The Cycling Podcast’s Daniel Friebe – and rapidly burgeoning rumors – point towards Bora-Hansgrohe. The departure – which seemed highly unlikely just a week ago, when the team’s general manager Richard Plugge declared that the team would never let Roglič go – highlights just how radically things have changed in just a few days. Indeed, it underlines the ultimate “cost” of the team’s dramatic Vuelta a España podium sweep; Jumbo-Visma’s incomparably successful 2023 season has apparently made it clear to Roglič where he stands in the team’s hierarchy, and has suggested that he needs to leave the team if he wants to challenge for the 2024 Tour de France. Interestingly, despite the flurry of news around the team, Roglič appeared completely unfazed – as he almost always does – by pulverizing all comers, including Tadej Pogačar, en route to winning Saturday’s Giro dell'Emilia for the second time in three years, and signaling he is well-positioned to win the upcoming Il Lombardia.
Recent comments by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman confirmed the uncomfortable truth that sportswashing is a driver for the bold moves his country has made in global sports. The country has weathered heavy criticism over its use of “sporting goodwill,” via major sports enterprise investments in England’s Premier League and golf, that seek to deflect and distract from the country’s abysmal human rights record. By publicly stating that “If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1%, then we will continue doing sportswashing, I don't care,” bin Salman may have sought to demonstrate the legitimacy of the practice for its positive economic outcomes, but he may have also created a major hurdle in the country’s sovereign wealth fund’s attempted merger of its LIV Tour with PGA Golf. That merger is being scrutinized by U.S. Congressional leaders and the Crown Prince’s words are sure to come back into focus, as well as his government’s actions – literally the day after his quote echoed throughout news outlets and social media, a Saudi court sentenced an 18 year old female student to 18 years in jail for posting social media statements in support of political prisoners.
Rather than smoothing over the LIV/PGA merger path, a door may have been opened to an alternative investor group to elevate the PGA. According to multiple sources last week, a consortium of Endeavor, Fenway Sports Group, and Henry Kravis (KKR & Co. founder) is reportedly looking into a major stake in the PGA, either parallel to the Saudis or as a potentially alternate partner to elevate the game. But with the Saudi PIF fund positioning $1 billion USD or more in its strategy, the barrier to entry in the PGA sweepstakes is not insignificant. However, the upside is tangible: in addition to the PGA’s existing tournament format and media rights reach, the wildly successful Ryder Cup may be the bigger global golf prize. The most recent edition – convincingly won by Europe in Rome this weekend – suffered from player substitutions as some of the world’s best golfers employed by LIV were blackballed from being selected to Ryder teams. Should the PIF secure its stake via the LIV merger, the future Ryder Cup steering organization would essentially be controlled by a company led by the PGA Tour commissioner, but potentially chaired by the PIF. In light of the mergers and opportunities opening up in professional cycling for angel investors – and cycling’s recent sportswashing history with nation state sponsors and World Championship venues – the strategies and outcomes in this unfolding drama deserve continued attention.
One of the biggest stories in sports over the last few months has originated right here in our hometown of Boulder, Colorado – as the University of Colorado has sought to rejuvenate its athletic program by bringing in big-name coach Deion Sanders to lead an overhaul of its dormant football program. At least until the past two weekends – when the Golden Buffaloes were thoroughly whipped by Oregon and then pipped by USC – Sanders’ flashy style has captivated the entire sports world. It remains to be seen if and how fast Sanders can turn the team into a contender, but there are some interesting lessons in terms of how to manage a modern sports team. Similar to Richard Plugge’s role on the Jumbo-Visma team, Sanders has focused on leadership, setting the tone, and creating a specific environment within which the team can flourish – the supporting superstructure – while leaving much of the coaching and competitive tactics to others more finely schooled in the details. Jumbo-Visma has successfully demonstrated – vis-à-vis other teams that tend to simply throw money at trying to build a team – that setting the tone and creating the environment for success is every bit as important as the detail of budgets, training, nutrition, and competitive strategy. It will be instructive to see how well this meshes in a new team should the proposed merger go through.
Although under-reported in both mainstream and the cycling press, the July arraignment of a licensed massage therapist on multiple charges of indecent assault and one count of rape has sent shockwaves throughout U.S. cycling’s circles. According to the criminal complaint, David Rose worked a training camp for USAC in September 2022 and authorities were alerted of the alleged offenses in January of this year by a USAC coach, with formal charges on July 24th. USAC and other parties are not commenting on the legal developments as this is a criminal case, but outside of the arraignment details which have been made public, many questions come to light. Did Rose work for USAC, other cycling programs or sports organizations between September 2022 and the arraignment? While we do know that the defendant was sanctioned by SafeSport on August 15 this year (ineligible to participate in activities until the criminal case concludes), he was not suspended by USAC until July 27th – three days after the arraignment. Setting aside this case which has yet to go to trial, we have learned from many historic sports-related sexual assault cases that these types of crimes often go unreported or are buried to prevent derailment of successful athletics programs. While we are not suggesting that is the case here, it bears repeating that the pattern of sexual abuse in sports is a cancer that requires a swift response to remedy its victims and protect future participants.