Dead Heat in the Tour; Tough Times in Sports Media; Ideas from the NBA and MLB; UCI Reverses Transgender Policy, Troubles at Israel-Premier Tech
● Vingegaard and Pogačar Still Running Neck-in-Neck
● Will Crowd Control Problems Affect the Outcome?
● Tough Times in Sports Media
● Calendar and Format Ideas from the NBA and MLB
● UCI Reverses Itself on Transgender Policy
● Trouble in the House of Israel-Premier Tech
The Tour de France entered its final rest day on Monday, with defending champion Jonas Vingegaard and two-time winner Tadej Pogačar in a dead heat. With Vingegaard holding on to a 10-second margin and a crucial individual time trial coming up on Tuesday, the final week should be an exciting battle for the overall victory, possibly right up through the 21st stage in Paris. While the race’s final stage has typically been a ceremonial parade into Paris throughout most of the modern history of the race, if the gap between these top two contenders remains this small, or even smaller, there is some possibility that we could see the race contested all the way to the finish line on the Champs d’Élysées. The standings after Tuesday’s time trial should clarify the situation.
The prospect of a down-to-the-wire GC battle is thrilling, but perhaps the most interesting sporting story of the race so far just might be the mind-blowing exploits of Vingegaard’s Jumbo-Visma teammate Wout van Aert. The Belgian superstar has been redefining and melding the role of super domestique and world-class stage hunter across every type of terrain. Outside of netting multiple top tens in bunch sprints, Van Aert has also proven to be the sport’s best mountain domestique. He almost single-handedly whittled the peloton down to just a handful of riders through the Alps on stage 14. Then, on stage 15, although his approach of frequently and unnecessarily burning energy seemed questionable, he finished second behind climbing specialist Wout Poels at the mountaintop finish. With his lifelong road and cyclocross rival Mathieu van der Poel struggling to find his place in the peloton and his form for a second straight Tour, there is little doubt that Van Aert is perhaps the most versatile, and valuable, rider in the sport.
Tour organizer ASO came under some criticism in recent days for poor fan control along the course. This was particularly significant on stage 14, when Pogačar was forced to sit up after trying to launch a potential race-winning attack near the top of the Joux Plane, after a photographer’s motorcycle in front of him was unable to get out of his way fast enough. Obviously, with huge crowds and a desire to produce close-up shots of the action, it’s often a very tricky situation for these motorcycles. Even after issuing an apology the following day, it was clear that – given the surging crowd – the motorcycle either had to effectively block Pogačar, or plow into the roadside crowds and probably crash, likely injuring people. Although crowd control is a perennial problem at the Tour, barriers obviously should have been constructed further down the climb. Then, early on stage 15, the actions of one inattentive roadside fan once again brought down a large number of riders, including several on the Jumbo-Visma team. It should go without saying that the riders in the Tour should have a clear path to contest the race, but part of the issue at this Tour could just be the sheer increase in the number of roadside fans. Seb Piquet, the voice of Radio Tour from inside the race caravan, said in a recent appearance on The Cycling Podcast that the roadside crowds at this edition of the Tour are the largest he has ever seen. While this is a promising trend for the Tour, it must also assess better ways of controlling and dealing with excited fans.
The Tour may be basking in popularity in its home country of France but in the United States the race is still struggling to capture mainstream attention. During the last few days, Wimbledon has sucked up a lot of the oxygen among mainstream sports outlets and fans. And, as of last weekend, the Tour is apparently no longer present on any terrestrial cable channel, with only those who subscribe to the streaming app Peacock able to watch the race. It is difficult to see how pro cycling can grow and resonate with the casual viewer – even if the U.S. had a serious GC challenger – if the event is not available to cable TV subscribers. Many casual or potential fans may not be aware of or have the disposable income to subscribe to the Peacock service.
On this topic, The Outer Line is continuing its series of feature articles on the VELO website about how to boost the popularity of the Tour here in the U.S., this week talking with a number of former American stars about how to increase exposure to bike racing in the U.S., and the potential impact of recent Netflix “Unchained” series. In our "Explainer" series on VELO, we also take a look at cycling strategy and breakaway “management.”
The last few weeks have been a tough time for the broader sports media. Last week brought news that the New York Times had disbanded its entire sports department, reassigning most of those 35 journalists to other parts of the company. The paper said it will rely on The Athletic, which it acquired last year, for all of its sports coverage going forward – even though The Athletic itself had laid off a number of staffers a few weeks earlier. At about the same time, the Los Angeles Times said it would also be eliminating most of its sports coverage. ESPN announced just a few weeks ago the lay-offs of a number of top staff, as it comes under increasing pressure from its Disney parent company to cut costs. Disney itself recently laid off about 7,000 employees, in an attempt to save some $5 billion expenses, at least partly due to slowdowns in streaming revenue. And though not really in the sports arena, the venerable National Geographic also laid off staff and said that it would cease newsstand sales later this year. As we’ve discussed many times in the past, the cycling media has also been battered by these headwinds. The Tour is the big event of the year – not only for teams and sponsors, but also for the media – and it will be interesting to see how the dust settles in the cycling media sector after the exhilaration of the Tour wears off.
Just after Mike Woods’ inspiring win atop Puy de Dome, his Team Israel-Premier Tech was back in the news but for all the wrong reasons. Three years ago, upon joining the WorldTour ranks via the purchase of the former Katusha team license, team owner Sylvan Adams made a huge splash by signing four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome. Adams was 100% bullish on Froome, confidently predicting that Froome would win the 2021 Tour de France despite his struggles to recover from his horrific crash a year earlier. Adams reportedly signed Froome to a five-year contract, rumored to be valued at five million Euros per year. Even though the deal was generally perceived as being oriented towards raising the visibility of the team’s mission to promote the state of Israel – it raised a lot of eyebrows. Froome has heroically attempted to recover his earlier form but inconsistency and lack of results left him off the Team’s TdF roster. Froome triggered a simmering firestorm inside the team by going public with his frustration (and putting part of the blame on his own equipment). Adams then briskly responded that Froome was “not good value for the money” and that he might become a so-called “pedestrian” domestique. This seemed unnecessarily derisive – especially from a team owner who three years earlier had signed Froome to one of the richest contracts in cycling history. It is unfortunate to see one of this generation’s biggest stars close their career in this kind of conflict. On the other hand, it’s not as if this situation was entirely unpredictable.
Two of the largest and most influential sports leagues have embraced global outreach strategies and format changes to accelerate growth, and there are valuable insights for pro cycling. Major League Baseball is expanding its "MLB World Tour" to include in-season games in London, Mexico, and South Korea. The South Korean stop is particularly important because baseball is its most popular sport, and enjoys high fan engagement with the nation's top tier KBO League and the World Baseball Classic tournament. Along with format changes which have breathed new life into MLB fan engagement in general, the expanded MLB World Tour could quickly capitalize on a variety of profitable content licensing and streaming opportunities that could connect the sport with more fans beyond the Americas and Far East’s leagues.
The NBA has similar overseas ambitions, but rather than radically expand its global outreach (it already plays games in Mexico City, for example), the world's premier basketball league is launching its first in-season tournament. Similar to the types of tournaments soccer fans are accustomed to, the "NBA Cup" format provides a new competitive narrative to an already exciting sport ‒ one which may resonate strongly with global fans who already strongly support and consume the content of soccer's myriad in-season tournaments. That global audience continues to grow as the impact of international players like Nicola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and rookie Victor Wembanyana stretches the appeal and storytelling of the league. Like MLB's global push, the tournament could itself be spun out into a unique and exclusive broadcast licensing strategy to enrich the NBA, but also inspire new fans and players and further popularize the sport. Pro cycling would vastly benefit from calendar and format changes that make the sport more understandable, relevant, and accessible in future years.
The UCI announced this week that it was reversing course on its policy regarding transgender participation in the sport, saying that trans women would no longer be allowed to participate in women’s races. Just three months ago, the UCI had stated that its policy was “based on the latest scientific knowledge” with strict testosterone level requirements ‒ the second revision to the UCI’s policy since 2020. UCI President Lappartient had said, “First of all, the UCI would like to reaffirm that cycling – as a competitive sport, leisure activity or means of transport – is open to everyone, including transgender people, whom we encourage like everyone else to take part in our sport.” But a swirl of widespread criticism developed after transgender woman American Austin Killips won the UCI women’s Tour of the Gila stage race, with three-time Olympian Inga Thompson accusing the UCI of “killing off women’s cycling,” and Canada’s Olympic cross-country silver medalist, Alison Sydor, saying Killips’ win was “no different functionally than doping.” Despite the UCI’s policy shift – and similar to other recent case rulings in international courts which align sports participation with human rights – the controversy is sure to continue.