An Exciting Way to Decide Dead Heats; Remembering Major Taylor; The Volatile Value of Sports Rights; Can Sports Fans Save America?
· “Dead Heat” Finishes – A Missed Opportunity
· Remembering Major Taylor
· Pogačar Storms Into 2023
· Diamond Sports – and the Value of Sports Media Rights
· Ironman Adopts New Transgender Policy
· Can Sports Fans Save America?
Earlier today, the opening stage of the UAE Tour ended in a dead heat between Tim Merlier and Caleb Ewan. Merlier was awarded the win by the UCI commissaires after a lengthy deliberation. The decision – apparently made without any clear or stated evidence to support it – was identical to (1) the situation on stage 7 of the 2017 Tour de France, where Marcel Kittel was awarded the win over Edvald Boasson Hagen despite the absence of a clear-cut winner on the finish-line photo, and (2) the 2021 Amstel Gold race, where a misplaced finish-line camera potentially cost Tom Pidcock the win over Wout van Aert. These closed-door decisions erode confidence in race juries and give breath to conspiracy theories, and they are also completely unnecessary. A judge's rulebook from the UCI itself actually provides for a tie-breaker in the case of “dead heat” finishes – consisting of a 1-kilometer sprint between the tied parties. Imagine the exciting spectacle and viral highlight that a single kilometer drag race between two top sprinters would create, after a race or before the next stage the following day. So why isn’t the UCI using this provision, instead of letting a jury make a controversial decision behind closed doors? Talk about a missed opportunity …
Only some people within the cycling community, and almost none outside of it, know the name of African American track cyclist Major Taylor. Yet, at the height of his career in the early 1900s, he was one of the most prominent athletes in the country, and he represents “one of our greatest civil rights stories,” according to Michael Kranish, author of The World’s Fastest Man. More than three decades before Jesse Owens dominated the 1936 Olympics in pre-war Berlin, almost five decades before Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and six decades before Bill Russell snagged his first NBA championship, Taylor was one of the highest-paid athletes in the country. (Consider: in 1900 he earned $25,000, while one of the greatest baseball players ever, Ty Cobb, was making about $4,500. ) Andrew Ritchie, author of another book about Taylor, says “he was the first African-American to take on the power structure of the sport and insist on and succeed in his right as a black man to compete on equal terms with everybody else ….” Yet Taylor’s story remains little known, probably partly because he was Black, and because he died penniless and alone. But now filmmaker Cyrille Vincent intends to bring Taylor’s story to the screen and is raising money for a new documentary to be entitled Whirlwind.
Despite the absence of any WorldTour events, the past week of road racing was packed with some of the top stars duking it out across the traditional warm-weather and early-season racing terrain of southern France and Spain. Two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar stormed into the 2023 season with a shock-and-awe long-range solo move to win the one-day Jaen Paraiso Interior race, before heading over to the five-stage Vuelta a Andalucia (Ruta del Sol) and torching some of the sport’s top GC contenders to take three stage wins and the overall. Across the border in Portugal at the Volta ao Algarve, EF’s Magnus Cort and Ineos’ Tom Pidcock stormed to impressive stage wins while Pidcock’s Ineos teammate Dani Martínez shocked his own team – which rode all week in the service of star Filippo Ganna – by stealing the overall title in the final time trial. In addition, young American rider Matteo Jorgenson took a big overall win at the Tour of Oman, while Neilson Powless continued his strong start, coming in second on two stages and finishing third overall at the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var.
This run of interesting races and impressive early-season performance from top riders sets up an odd dynamic when the UAE Tour – a UCI WorldTour event – kicks off this week. The race field and likely level of competition will be lower than these races over the past week, which, at least on paper, aren’t categorized as top-tier events. This contradiction suggests that, although the UCI might try to dictate the relative significance of events via its points system, the athletes and which races they decide to attend are what will actually determine which races are deemed more and less important on the schedule. This also serves as a reminder that while there currently isn’t a viable alternative to the sport’s stakeholders, the UCI’s position at the top of the pyramid is relatively fragile and could be somewhat easily overtaken if a competitor were to come along and secure the presence of the sport’s top talent with significant appearance fees – as the sport of golf has recently been experiencing.
Major League Baseball may be about to test the theory that sports media rights represent a solid anchor for broadcast subscription revenues. Diamond Sports Group – the baseball distribution arm of Bally Sports Network – has defaulted on a key payment to the MLB and is likely headed towards bankruptcy. Bally inherited the rights to distribute telecasts for 14 teams through an earlier acquisition by its parent, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, but any bankruptcy would trigger a termination clause and revert the media rights back to the League. MLB has indicated it would cut new deals with multiple carriers and host games on its MLB.tv platform for the short-term. But it would be stuck with the production and packaging costs, which would significantly impact League revenues over the next few seasons. Diamond’s implosion is easy to diagnose as consumers cut their cable cords in favor of self-managed, custom-bundled, and on-demand streaming sports and entertainment options. It also highlights the struggles bigger players are undergoing. For example, Disney with its ESPN (cable) and ESPN+ (digital) properties – rapidly losing revenue on the cable side, but unable to raise prices on the digital subscription without losing the sports consumer altogether.
There may be a bigger lesson here to consider: will sports media ownership rights become more volatile – and will they provide the solid anchoring point for consumer relationships that broadcasters have come to rely upon. The prevailing broadcast strategy has been to “hook” sports fans into long-term subscriptions, in which the sport is tied to over-priced and over-stuffed content bundles. We may be approaching an upper limit to what a sports team or league can demand for its media rights. With the NBA going into its negotiation period with a variety of suitors (and lofty aspirations), and with various other global sports seeking higher valuations for their content, this bump in the road may have a short-term cooling effect. Conversely, this may galvanize the concurrent trend of big spenders like AppleTV, YouTube, and Amazon in terms of massive investments in sports rights, even if they have to take a loss on the investment. The bigger play is to consolidate subscribers using sports as the “bait” – to drive higher, per-consumer spending for other on-demand or more profitable entertainment purchases.
Transgender participation in sport once again came into the spotlight this week when the Ironman triathlon organization announced its new policy in a somewhat under-the-radar, but far-reaching press release. First, the organization highlighted the creation of a new “open” category as a catch-all for transgender or non-binary athletes. Second, it formally adopted World Triathlon’s transgender competitor policy, aligning itself with many other IOC-affiliated sports (including the UCI). Proponents of the restrictive measures applauded the change as it falls in line with calls to preserve the perceived “integrity” of women’s sports. Critics, on the other hand, point out the significant lapses of scientific integrity in the science used to justify the IOC’s policy framework, and many other implementation deficiencies that dehumanize people who are trans – such as the complete segregation of trans and non-binary competitors into a non-competitive “exhibition” category and the fact that many trans people would essentially be publicly “outed” simply by registering to participate.
As we have written in prior reviews of this contentious topic, any transgender competition policy should have valid and thorough scientific underpinnings – and one of the best ways to gather the data necessary to scientifically analyze the issue is to increase the pool of available trans athletes through inclusion. The proliferation of high-hurdle testosterone-based assessments is proving to be problematic and will continue to drive legal collisions between athletes, special interest groups, and sports governance agencies. While there may be some benefits to Ironman’s new stance, it is a private sporting venture that is not beholden to the IOC governance framework, and it can technically take any stance it pleases. It will be interesting to watch how this duality of sport and private corporate guidance plays out: will the special category encourage participation and grow event registration that is Ironman’s core revenue source, or will it prove to be an unmarketable and even damaging eyesore that hurts its bottom line?
And wrapping up with a “feel good” sports story … can sports fans can save America, and bring us back together again? The GZero Media podcast asked that question recently. We all worry that America is getting more polarized by the day – opponents in the culture wars can hardly talk to each other anymore, work together, or hang out together the way they used to – and there are dark and increasing innuendoes from the fringes of our society of a coming civil war. However, a new book titled Fans Have More Friends argues that highly-engaged sports fans are less politically polarized, have greater trust in institutions, and generally live happier lives. Co-Author Dave Sikorjak, a marketing consultant who studies the motivations of sports fans, says that sports can often transcend politics and bring us together – and that sports fanatics are more willing to listen to people who would ordinarily be political foes than others. He says, “the common bond of sports can make hatred dissipate.” Fans become friends more easily, and – based on their mutual interests. Can they become more tolerant of one another’s differing political or cultural viewpoints?