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Big News From the Worlds of Golf and Soccer; Where Will Saudi Arabia Invest Next? TdF Hints From the Dauphiné; Safety and Women's Racing
Key Takeaways … from a Big Week in Sports:
● Golf’s Craziest Day
● What’s Next for Saudi Arabia?
● Messi’s Miami Deal May Revolutionize Athlete Contracts
● Vingegaard Strong at Dauphiné
● Safety Concerns in Women’s Cycling
● “Fast Freddie” Rodriguez Interview
We have been closely following developments in golf over the past year, as the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tournament emerged to challenge the PGA, handing out hundreds of millions of dollars to defecting players and shaking up a conservative and change-adverse sport. We have noted a number of lessons or parallels here that could apply someday to pro cycling – in terms of forcing dramatic change on the sport’s antiquated business model. Well, this week, in what The Athletic called golf’s most absurd day ever, it was suddenly announced that the PGA Tour and LIV would merge to form one entity. All the lawsuits, hyperbole and controversies were suddenly (at least temporarily) dropped, as the PGA apparently concluded there was no way to compete with the Saudi’s checkbook. Loyal PGA defenders like Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods were blindsided by the PGA’s abrupt decision, while those who were earlier lured to LIV, like Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, suddenly looked like the big winners. In an astonishingly duplicitous about-face, PGA President Jay Monahan abruptly went from trashing the LIV defectors as traitors and condemning the Saudi human rights record, to suddenly hyping the combined entity’s bright future. While Monahan will supposedly remain CEO of the combined organization, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) will bankroll the new organization, and its governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan will serve as chairman.
Few people (with apparently one notable exception) saw this coming, and of course there are still many questions or potential roadblocks to completing the deal. LIV had appeared to be rapidly losing its fight for attention, with its primary matches reporting tiny TV audiences, even as its players were winning or placing highly in recent majors. Now those players will return to the PGA with a fat check and “their guy will run the show,” while those who remained loyal to the PGA feel like they’ve been stabbed in the back. But we haven’t heard the end of the story yet; as pointed out in an Atlantic magazine article, it is far from clear that the deal will pass anti-trust muster in the United States. Situations like this are exactly why antitrust laws were passed in the first place, and – in direct contradiction of the claims both sides were making just a few days ago – it is clear that “if the merger were to go through, the incentive to pay players more would disappear. The golf labor force would suddenly have only one source of employment to choose from.” In fact, some sources say that the proposed merger is “comically illegal” and suggest that the parties may not even intend for the deal to close. One thing is certain: golf will never be the same. And the next question is: as Saudi Arabia continues to diversify its national portfolio, what sport might be next? Tennis is rumored to be a ripe target, while NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, although ruing potential Saudi investment as a two-edged sword, seemed to leave open the possibility of an investment in global basketball.
In what might be the shrewdest, boldest, and most lucrative move in sports history, superstar footballer Lionel Messi signed on with MLS club Inter Miami last week. The move is poised to accelerate the growth of the sport across North America, and will begin to move the MLS closer to rival European premier leagues in terms of overall value. Messi’s innovative contract is key to understanding why he would forgo the massive upfront payday from the Saudi league (estimated at $1.6 billion over three years) and instead play for the more modest MLS. Messi clearly understood what happened when David Beckham – the most marketable athlete in the sport in the early 2000s – went to play for the LA Galaxy in exchange for cuts of the team revenue and guarantees of a team equity ownership position (the team that would eventually become Inter Miami). Beckham’s presence spiked the attendance, merchandising, broadcast value, and overall global interest in the developing U.S. league, in turn encouraging new teams, elevated ownership valuation, and increased investment in youth talent development. Beckham turned his contract into an estimated $255 million payday during his five year MLS playing span, and probably doubled that given his current stake in Inter Miami. Messi – who is the face of a larger global sport today – will be tapping into much richer revenue streams than what were available in Beckham's era. His unique contract apparently includes a preferential stake in Inter Miami ownership, a cut of the newly signed Apple TV+ streaming revenues, a cut of Adidas merchandising revenues, and an exemption from league salary cap agreements.
Unfortunately, cycling lacks any personalities with even remotely the same status, name recognition or fan pull that Messi brings to his sport – and such a revolution is only on the very distant horizon. With sports announcers still butchering the pronunciations of Jonas "Vingigo" and "Taddy Pogochar," with critical sponsors still falling well outside the branding of the world's most valuable companies, and with the pro sport still constrained by its outdated competitive structure and calendar and conflicted governance oversight, it will take more than a few years to elevate cycling back into economic relevance and the world’s cultural zeitgeist the way it was when Lance Armstrong controversially ruled the sport. But if and when that day comes, could a Messi-style master plan guide the way?
Defending Tour champion Jonas Vingegaard dominated the rest of the field this past weekend at the traditional Tour de France warmup race – the Critérium du Dauphiné. The young Danish star won two stages en route to the overall title, with a wide margin of 2:23 (the average margin of victory for the ten editions between 2022-13 was just 28-seconds. Vingegaard’s win left little doubt about the challenges for anyone trying to unseat him at the upcoming Tour, especially with his main rival, Tadej Pogačar, coming off a broken wrist suffered in April. Meanwhile, across the Alps at the Tour de Suisse, Remco Evenepoel returned to racing with a runner-up finish on the opening stage, a 12.7-long kilometer time trial, behind Stefan Küng and ahead of Wout van Aert.
While it was great to see big stars like Van Aert, Evenepoel, and Vingegaard back in action after long layoffs, it was once again hard not to notice the disparate nature of the calendar, which spread the sport’s other big names like Mark Cavendish and Mathieu van der Poel around smaller events like the ZLM Tour and Duracell Dwars door het Hageland. If we also include women’s events, the past weekend saw almost ten events that featured participation from notable riders. While we have often commented on cycling’s calendar issues, this crowded weekend seemed particularly strange since the week before, directly following the Giro d’Italia (which wrapped up on May 28th) and up until the start of the Dauphiné (on June 4th) featured basically no races of note. This fallow period would have been a more appropriate slot for lower-tier events like the Tour of Norway; running those sorts of races against the bigger events makes it more difficult for both events to gain viewership and traction with fans, and siphons off talent that should be concentrated at the most important races.
Women's professional road cycling may be one of the fastest growing and marketable segments of the sport, but race organizers are not keeping pace with the development opportunities. This weekend, the CIC-Tour Feminin International des Pyrénées 2023 was canceled before the third and final stage, when most of the teams refused to ride in dangerous conditions created by lack of traffic control. After a chaotic first stage and a shortened second stage – with many cars and trucks recklessly sharing the course with the peloton – the riders declared they’d had enough. Nonetheless, and perhaps unintentionally revealing a double standard between men’s and women’s racing, the race organizer lashed out, calling the riders spoiled children. Safety is a concern in many bike races, but the terrifying scenes and crashes shared by athletes on social media raise the question: would any men’s bike race in Europe be allowed to proceed with conditions as dangerous as this? A debacle like the CIC Tour Feminin is a reminder that women’s racing still has a long way to go before being treated equally by both organizers and the UCI.
There are several key takeaways from this unfortunate outcome. First, consensus rider input is actually being heard at higher levels in the sport's management structure. Adam Hansen's voice at the helm of the CPA seems to be having a more influential impact than the riders' association's earlier leadership ever had. Secondly, the UCI may be stepping up both its commitment to safety and the enforcement of professionalism in women's global cycling. However, the Tour Féminin des Pyrénées is a smaller race, organized by a small regional cycling entity – not a major player like an ASO. It remains to be seen if the UCI will take a more active role in pre-race safety assessments with the big players – or leave it up to the national federation, or wait until riders complain that they are in imminent danger?
This weekend’s Tulsa Tough three day criterium event in Oklahoma has been called “Woodstock for bike racing.” With packed fields, huge crowds and all races live streamed, it’s hard to argue with that description. This has become one of the most important bike racing events in North America. Tulsa has a tragic history, with the Greenwood Race Massacre taking place there in 1921, where “America’s Black Wall Street” was burned to the ground along with 1,250 houses. So it was powerful that the only Black-owned pro cycling team, L39ion of Los Angeles, dominated both the men’s and women’s racing and paid tribute to Greenwood with multiple victories.
The long-awaited Netflix documentary, Tour de France: Unchained, was finally released this week – to unprecedented fanfare and amidst hopes that it will revolutionize the cycling audience in the same way that the earlier Drive to Survive series did for Formula 1. Virtually every cycling media platform felt obliged to weigh in immediately with their take or critique on the series; one even dedicated a complete podcast series focused on each of the individual eight episodes. And from at least a quick informal survey, the new series seemed to be well-received. Although we have trouble believing it will have anything near the impact of the (COVID timeframe) F1 series, we’ll wait to comment – until we’ve had time to digest all the episodes and take the pulse of both diehard fans, as well as casual or potential new followers of the sport. (And if you don’t get enough of Jonathan Vaughters in the opening episode, you can check out Enter the Slipstream for another just-released cycling documentary about the challenges and successes of Team EF.)
Finally, listen to the most recent edition of The Outer Line Retrospectives podcast, where our colleague and host Steve Brunner talks with former racer and fast man Fred Rodriguez. The U.S. has not produced that many sprinters at the top world-class level, but, “Fast Freddie” Rodriguez was one of the best, winning stages of elite races Giro d’Italia, Tour de Suisse, Four Days of Dunkirk, and Tour de Georgia. Also check out our earlier in-depth discussions with other cycling figures like Phil Liggett, Tom Danielson, Chris Horner, Kevin Livingston, Alex Stieda and others.