As Baseball and Golf Reinvent Themselves, Why Not Cycling? Tour Kicks Off With a Different Feel; Lappartient's New Job; The Safety of Women's Racing ...
● Baseball and Golf are Reinventing Themselves: Why Not Cycling?
● Tour Kicks Off With a Different Atmosphere
● Lappartient’s New Job: Implications for Cycling?
● Double Standard on Women’s Racing Safety?
● Cycling Sustainability Studies Often Miss the Point
On the cover of The Atlantic magazine this month is a story called “How Baseball Saved Itself” – and it has some interesting parallels and lessons for pro cycling. (The venerable and esteemed literary magazine doesn’t often cover sports; it was founded in 1857, with initial contributors including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe.) Over the years, baseball games were taking longer and longer, while stadium crowds and TV audiences steadily declined – a clear downslide as more and more people consumed their sports and entertainment in bite-size, self-managed pieces. “Baseball had a great run, a nice century,” says writer Mark Leibovich, but “times change, tastes veer, attention spans shrink ….. players and managers might talk about ‘growing the game’ and attracting new fans,’ but it usually comes off as lip service.” Any of this sound familiar? But baseball, with the help of some of the same young whiz kids who developed the analytics revolution 20 years ago, decided to make some major changes. The institution of the pitch clock – along with other historic changes like larger base sizes, limited pick-off attempts and the infield shift ban – have reinvigorated the game, and have made it more exciting, fast-paced and “consumable” by a wide range of fans. At a time when cycling suffers from similar challenges, baseball’s apparent ability to reform and revitalize itself offers an encouraging model. (Interestingly, the country’s other prime literary magazine, The New Yorker, also featured a long article on baseball this week – on Rockies’ pitcher Daniel Bard’s anxiety challenges, and his loss of ball control on the mound.)
Baseball’s changes and the pending LIV Golf – PGA merger are not only rejuvenating staunchly traditional sports but also rapidly changing the sports investment landscape. While MLB is posting record game attendance gains to reverse a multi-year decline in fan interest, prize money in golf is now falling into line with the actual value of the sporting product and has changed the competitive dynamic in the PGA's major tours. Assuming the new golf "league" merger passes multiple legal hurdles, further reforms may change tournament qualifier rules as athlete contracts pioneered by LIV become a mainstream feature of the improved sport. This change will guarantee that the best players in the world will be going head to head in every major event, and it will accelerate the race to lock in media rights. It is also a feature cycling could sorely use to enhance the value of WorldTour race media rights. And as we pointed out in last week’s analysis of evolving media rights business models, those rights will determine who succeeds or fails in an ever expanding, crowded sports entertainment marketplace.
Cycling’s biggest event, the Tour de France, kicked off this weekend in Bilbao, Spain. While the season up to this point has been all about the domination of the so-called Big Six, the first two stages – which featured unusually difficult parcours through the Basque country – featured underdogs and outsiders. Instead of Pogačar, Van Aert or Vingegaard, it was Team UAE’s Adam Yates who pulled on the first yellow jersey after ripping clear of an elite front group with his twin brother Simon. And, on stage two, the little-known Victor Lafay bested both Van Aert and Pogačar after exploding out of the sprint bunch with less than a kilometer to go. His exciting win from a reduced final-kilometer sprint ended his Cofidis’ team’s 15-year-long Tour de France winless stretch. (Kudos are due to Cofidis – a financial lender – for sticking with the team, through thick and thin, for over 25 years now.) As exciting as it was to see some unexpected winners and leaders through the unorthodox opening weekend, we expect the race will return to a more predictable form as it heads back into the French Pyrenees. These stages will almost certainly favor Pogačar and Vingegaard, both of whom appeared to be head and shoulders above the rest of the GC field on the climbs featured so far.
With the race beginning in the Spanish Basque Country, and with the unusually difficult parcours of the first two stages, there was a different feel to this Tour’s opening weekend. Mass crashes, which seem to have become almost standard in the nervous opening weekends of recent Tours, were absent – likely due to the tougher terrain, which created slower and more subdued racing. As of stage 3, only two riders had left the race, but they were critical names; GC contenders Richard Carapaz and Enric Mas crashed out together on a descent in stage 1. As for the location, while it might be strange for newbies to see a race named after France taking place in Spain, it was hard to deny the stunning scenery on display in the Basque Country. As for the reason ASO decided to start the race in Spain? The reported €5.8 million it received to start last year’s race in Denmark in 2022 likely had something to do with it.
As the Tour enters its home country, it seems unlikely that it will be able to insulate itself from on-going unrest inside France, following the recent killing of a 17-year-old of Algerian descent, shot by a police officer in a Paris suburb. Although there hasn’t been much comment yet from ASO – the organizer only announced that it would employ two additional motorcycles at the head of the race to ensure security – it is possible that we could see stages disrupted, or potentially even canceled. It is difficult to imagine the final stage on the Champs d’Elysee running without disruption if current conditions continue throughout the month. On top of this, the Tour may once again have to deal with the climate protests that disrupted the 2022 edition on multiple occasions. Considering the race was already thrown for a loop when tacks were dispersed onto the course towards the end of Sunday’s stage – harkening back to the chaos of the 2012 edition – ASO is likely already on edge.
Attentive viewers of this year’s Tour will have noticed the inclusion of snippets of conversations taking place over the race radios for select teams. This change was done in cooperation with 17 teams (who were paid a fairly insulting €5,000 for the content). Along with ASO partnering with companies like Netflix and the popular social media app TikTok to create content around the race that will ideally resonate with younger fans, these represent long-awaited steps in the right direction. But, these incremental improvements don’t necessarily imply immediately expanded engagement. For example, through the first few stages, the selected race radio content has been largely hard to follow, uninteresting, and uninformative – more akin to the NBA’s bland “Mic’d Up” content, and less like the unfiltered, and far more interesting F1 team radio.
The shortening of Giro Donne stage 3, due to a dangerous finish demonstrated once again that women’s pro cycling operates at a separate and less professional level from men’s events. And this debacle follows the outright cancellation of the recent Tour Féminin des Pyrénées. Does the UCI need to refocus on approving routes and races before they happen? And should Adam Hansen, as the new President of the CPA, need to be even more involved and advocate for safe courses with race directors? While there are many issues of equality that need to be addressed with the fast-growing women’s side of the sport, none is more important than the safety of the athletes.
Even though there are potentially major implications, there was relatively little commentary or pushback in response to UCI President David Lappartient’s election this week to head up the French Olympic organization. According to one analysis, this means that Lappartient is now trying to hold down as many as eleven jobs – a situation which even he has said is not sustainable. The story got more interesting last week, when French investigators searched the Paris Olympic organizers' headquarters as part of an investigation into potential corruption involving various contracts linked to the Games – now only a year away. (In “fairness” to the French, it should be pointed out that this is only the latest in a seemingly endless historical saga of controversy and corruption surrounding the Games – from the perks afforded to IOC members, bribes around how the Games are awarded in the first place, questionable construction contracts for venue, and various social and human rights issues.) All of these developments only intensify the questions we posed a couple weeks ago – is Lappartient biting off more than he can chew, and will it be deleterious for cycling? Given Lappartient’s close relationship with IOC head Thomas Bach, and his clear interest in moving up in the Olympic bureaucracy, it seems likely that this move likely signals his eventual departure from the UCI. We can expect that new names for the 2025 election may start to emerge.
Once again, an analysis of the sport's sustainability and environmental impacts is making the rounds. While some of the observations here seem a bit off the mark (for example, it is implied that Formula 1 is “doing better” than cycling because it only has 21 events vis-à-vis cycling’s 35 WorldTour events, ignoring the massive logistical costs of moving the F1 infrastructure around the planet) this latest analysis, like many before it, tries to summarize the climate impacts experienced in recent additions of the Tour and the sport's estimated environmental impacts. The Outer Line tackled this topic with an in-depth special edition earlier this year to move beyond the click-worthy sound bites: cycling – indeed all sports industries combined – contribute only a small fraction of one percent to the world’s carbon footprint. Yes, the Tour is our biggest stage, and yes, every little bit of environmental recognition and progress helps. However, the biggest difference we can make is not so much by over-analyzing and over-investing in fractional reductions of the sport's footprint, but rather by drawing attention to the larger issue and boosting awareness and exemplary practices through the marketing power and political channels of the sport. In short, we should continue to highlight the best practices of the former, but the commitment to change the world will take even greater investment in the latter.