Big 6 Continues to Dominate; Is Women's Cycling More Exciting Than Men's? Challenges of cycling TV; "Category Doping" at Paralympics; Transgender Sports Controversy Continues
● Is Women’s Racing Becoming More Exciting Than Men’s?
● The “Big Six” Continue to Dominate
● Does It Have to Be So Difficult to Watch Cycling?
● Jumbo Visma’s Sponsorship Quandary
● Transgender Sports Controversy Roils On
● “Category Doping” at the Paralympics
Mathieu van der Poel won a scorching fast edition of Paris-Roubaix with a solo effort on Sunday, while his teammate Jasper Philipsen beat Wout van Aert in the sprint for second place – giving Alpecin-Deceuninck an unexpected 1-2 finish in one of the biggest races of the season. While it was exciting to see an elite front group with nearly every pre-race favorite break free with over 100 kilometers to go, the ending was somewhat anti-climactic; Wout van Aert suffered an ill-timed flat tire, robbing viewers of the opportunity to see two of the world’s best riders sprinting it out in the historic Roubaix velodrome. Too many unpredictable events always seem to happen at Paris-Roubaix, and it is rare that the strongest riders get clear through the race clean and able to contest the finish against one another.
This week’s racing once again underlined how a small handful of top athletes continues to dominate the sport – in an “all out, all the time” style of racing. Since the European WorldTour season began back at Omloop in February, only four teams have been able to win a WorldTour race (Ineos, Jumbo, UAE, and Alpecin), and “The Big Six” (Van Aert, Van der Poel, Pogačar, Roglič, Evenepoel and Vingegaard) and their teammates have only been beaten on a single occasion – and this by Tom Pidcock (who is also one of the sport’s top talents at the sport’s richest team) at Strade Bianche. Viewers may disagree as to whether this is a positive development, but it mirrors a larger trend seen across mainstream sports like the NBA and European soccer – where a small number of top athletes and teams are able to dominate across nearly every competition.
The Paris-Roubaix women’s race on Saturday was more exciting than the men’s race, with the outcome in doubt until the final sprint. While favored riders like Elisa Balsamo, Elisa Longo Borghini, Lorena Wiebes and Lotte Kopecky made their presence known early, the story was dictated by an intrepid and deceptively strong early breakaway group which included many tough domestiques, several up-and-coming talents, and one dangerously strong Canadian – eventual winner Alison Jackson. That breakaway held steady, and the main chasing group simply couldn't get organized, due to a combination of nullifying moves, fatigue and untimely crashes. Once inside the velodrome, Jackson's sprint proved too much for the surviving escapees. Attention will now shift to the women's Ardennes Classics, and whether veteran champions like Annemiek van Vleuten still have the engines for another run at Liege Bastogne Liege, or if a host of other younger riders will start to peak.
Unfortunately, for U.S. viewers to actually see all these star riders duking it the past couple of weeks, it has been necessary for them to subscribe to and pay for three different streaming services (FloSport, GCN+, and Peacock TV) – at a cost of almost $300 per year. This represents a major barrier to growth in the U.S. market, and one which may only be overcome by some type of consolidation between these services. Confusingly, the owner of GCN, Discovery Inc., is also the major investor in FloSports. With the cost of capital rising and major corporations under pressure from investors to implement financial belt-tightening, one has to wonder why Discovery hasn’t rolled its two viewing platforms into a single entity. There seems to be economic value and opportunity there.
Although Wout van Aert could only ride to a disappointing fourth place last week at Flanders and third at Paris-Roubaix, he and his Jumbo-Visma have generally been the toast of the sport so far this spring. The team’s Tour de France defense seemed to be on track this week as their GC star Jonas Vingegaard blitzed through a field of quality GC riders to win the Itzulia Basque Country tour overall by over a minute. TJV has racked up a leading 18 WorldTour victories spanning a wide variety of races and riders. However, while they have dominated on the road, a recent story in the Dutch media indicated that their title sponsor – the supermarket chain Jumbo – intends to cut back at the end of the 2024 season. This is eerily similar to the fate that the dominant HTC-Highroad team suffered a decade ago, when phone manufacturer HTC stepped back, and the team eventually folded. The fact that this could happen to a team chock full of superstars from multiple markets seems shocking. However, is it possible that the globalization of the Jumbo team could be part of the problem? For example, does a Dutch supermarket chain care all that much about brand awareness in Slovenia and Denmark (the home countries of Roglič and Vingegaard)? Would the team be in a stronger negotiating position if their key stars were all from the home market – more like Ineos or Soudal-Quickstep?
As the cultural battles around LGBTQ rights and transgender athletic participation continue to rage across this country, one development flew a little under the radar last week. American cyclocross racer Hannah Arensman announced that she was retiring from the sport, blaming it on transgender women in the sport, and saying, “At my last race at the recent UCI Cyclocross National Championships in the elite women’s category in December 2022, I came in 4th place, flanked on either side by male riders awarded 3rd and 5th places. My sister and family sobbed as they watched a man finish in front of me…” Arensman’s plan was cited in an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court last week, in support of West Virginia’s “Save Women’s Sports” act, which is following a tortuous path through the U.S. court system. Meanwhile, the Biden Administration announced a new proposal that would prohibit schools from blanket bans on athletes participating in school sports based on their gender identities.
In what may become one of the most controversial sports cheating stories of the year, the Paralympics have been compromised with a form of what might be called “category doping.” As reported by Australian outlets, athletes, coaches and administrators have conspired to represent athletes as being more disabled than their actual medical diagnoses would indicate, thereby assigning them to a category where their actual capabilities would give them a competitive advantage. Athletes in track and field, swimming, and – unfortunately – cycling, were all identified in the investigative report. Cycling in particular was described as a problem – where athletes able to compete on two wheels could show up fatigued and otherwise portray themselves as only being able to compete in the three-wheeled division, hence stealing medals from more truly disabled competitors. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has been aware of the possibility of category cheating for years – and it is clearly very challenging to precisely define and enforce specific levels of disability – but the organization has yet to invoke more stringent rules enforcement. Meanwhile, national paralympic committees are loathe to challenge or reclassify their athletes for fear of losing medal opportunities in what is considered to be the world’s third-largest organized sporting event. The call for an independent disability assessment body and protocol, and for a thorough review of potential past wrongdoings has the IPC on edge. In many ways, this could be the same kind of reckoning that cycling experienced with doping – painful, but course changing and a first step towards regaining athlete and public trust.
In a contentious reversal of its earlier policy, the All England Club (Wimbledon) decided that Russian and Belarusian players will, after all, be able to compete at the headline tennis event this summer. Meanwhile, controversy continues to swirl around the International Olympic Committee and President Thomas Bach, who recently outlined a plan by which Russian athletes could participate in the 2024 Paris Olympics as neutrals. Ukraine has threatened to boycott the Games if Russians are allowed to participate – a decision that Bach labeled as “against Olympic principles, but one which could be followed by other countries. Later, a spokesman for the IOC seemed to downplay the situation in Ukraine, pointing out that there are some 70 other ongoing armed conflicts and wars around the world, and saying that the Olympic committees in those countries are nevertheless following the principles of the Olympic Charter. An IOC report issued two weeks ago stated that these countries “….are not requesting the exclusion of athletes from the other party in the armed conflict or war, and they are allowing their athletes to compete in international sporting competitions without restrictions.” With Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo also on record that she wants no Russians in Paris next year, it seems likely that this controversy will continue at full boil right up to the start of the Games in late July, 2024.
And for this week’s feel-good sports story, we look at multiple advancements and achievements in women’s sports. The first female player in D-1 baseball took to the field in late March, highlighting the rise of female participation in one of the sport’s most competitive environments. And more broadly, the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament reached several milestones, including ticket values for the final game, Final Four viewership, and total minutes of coverage viewed reaching record highs. LSU’s win over Iowa has set the stage for even greater valuation of Name/Image/Likeness deals for star performers and all future D-1 blue-chip players, as well as coaching contracts. Here, as at Paris-Roubaix, the women’s final round was clearly more exciting and widely-anticipated than the men’s. And in the upcoming media valuation rights negotiations with potential partners (ESPN holds the current licensing rights), the NCAA – much like FIFA has with its Women’s World Cup – has indicated it will reject any lowball offers on what it feels will be one of the hottest tickets in all of sports. This bodes well for the future of all women’s broadcast sports content, especially the increasingly popular women’s pro cycling.