Evenepoel Dominant at Liege; Sea Otter Shows Growth; Changing Landscape of Sponsorship; Saudi Sports Investments Spur Change
Evenepoel Dominant at Liege as Women’s Race Shines Bright
Sea Otter Shows Growth, Highlights Bumpy Path for Gravel
Jumbo-Visma and the Changing Landscape of Sponsorship Stability
Saudi Sports Investments Spur Change, Controversy, and Opportunity
Sports Icons Inspire Across Generations
Remco Evenepoel destroyed the field to win his second consecutive Liège-Bastogne-Liège in emphatic solo fashion. He attacked and convincingly dropped the contenders on the (in)famous Côte de La Redoute with 30 kilometers remaining, and with co-favorite Tadej Pogačar out of the race due to an earlier crash which saw him rushed into surgery for a broken wrist, there was no one strong enough to organize a serious chase-down. Tom Pidcock sprinted in over a minute behind with young Colombian Santiago Buitrago shocking everyone with third place, but many fans noted that with Pogačar out, tactics mattered little as QuickStep telegraphed Evenepoel’s unstoppable La Redoute attack. Well-organized long-range solo wins have been commonplace this season, but rather than indicating that tactical racing is dead, it may just reflect the gap between cycling’s current best riders and the rest of the peloton.
While each of these top riders seems unstoppable in their own way, the reality is that these so-called Big Six (Pogačar, Roglič, Vingegaard, Van Aert, Van der Poel, Evenepoel) rarely compete against each other and only three of them have actually lined up together in 2023. Their teams are so strong that the racing seems almost scripted to a fault – often nullifying the efforts of the other WorldTour teams around them, and stripping complicated tactics to a minimum. Nevertheless, the impressive show of force not only saved Patrick Lefevere’s Soudal-QuickStep’s spring season, but the 23-year-old Evenepoel has now won two Monuments (2 x Liege), a grand tour (La Vuelta) and the World Road Race title in the past twelve months. Considering that Pogačar can’t boast the same – and is regarded to be building a palmares that could make him one of the best riders of all time – it underscores the generational talent of Evenepoel and the uneven distribution of the strongest riders among just a few teams. However, this Big Six might not face off against each other at any point throughout the WorldTour calendar, which is a constraint for a sporting venture attempting to compete in a modern entertainment landscape.
In contrast, the women’s edition of Liege outshone the men’s race with masterful tactics, multiple changes in race dynamics, and a thrilling two-up sprint. Demi Vollering out-kicked Elisa Longo Borghini to complete the historic Ardennes Classics sweep (Amstel, Fleche-Wallonne, Liege), and joined an elite club with three other riders – men or women – to have accomplished the feat. Vollering has won five out of her eight races so far in 2023, and her SD-Worx team, expertly directed by former Classics star Anna van der Breggen, now leads the Women’s WorldTour rankings by a staggering margin. Even with Vollering’s superlative week, the dynamic punch-counterpunch racing kept fans glued to the coverage, and all the top stars from Canyon Racing, Trek-Segafredo, Movistar, and Jumbo-Visma were featured as the favorites came to the front and the winning move developed over the Côte de la Rouches. Moreover, it reflected the evolution of women’s cycling from “opening act” to headliner status, and stakeholders are starting to take notice that women’s pro racing might be the pivot for the sport’s future.
Turning attention to events on U.S. soil, the Sea Otter Classic drew record crowds to Monterey, California, and over 700 brands participated in North America’s biggest cycling manufacturer showcase. There was universal excitement from attendees about finally connecting in real life, post-pandemic, and of course, there was the first round of the Life Time Grand Prix. The 110K mountain bike race was unsurprisingly dominated by professional MTB racers, but the era of the retired road pros using gravel as a “retirement plan” is over, as the front end of both the men’s and women’s races included newcomers, Olympians, and fully committed gravel athletes. But despite the high participation and quality of the racing, a lack of live video streams in gravel may soon become a limiting factor in the sport’s commercial growth. Most races are run in rural areas which makes video feeds difficult – and expensive, often in excess of six figures for a single production day. Yet without such broadcast reach, the sport will struggle to attract larger audiences and brand partners outside of cycling’s circles.
An important emerging trend at Sea Otter is the number of young female athletes who started cycling seriously during the pandemic and have transitioned from other sports (running, rowing, triathlon, and eSports) into U.S. bike racing. Several members of the new Cynisca women’s development team are already thriving with just a couple of years of cycling experience. Gravel pro and 2022 Big Sugar gravel race winner Paige Onweller came from a running background, and teams like TWENTY24 and Fount Cycling are recruiting from non-traditional areas. We expect to see these athletes and others like them continue their growth curve in pro cycling.
As reported earlier, there is an uncertain road ahead for WorldTour team sponsor Jumbo Supermarkets and Team Jumbo-Visma following the 2024 season. Although the chain has indicated it will stay involved with the team, there is some question as to whether it will remain a primary name sponsor. However, this doesn’t seem to be worrying the team’s top riders. Earlier this spring, the team announced that Jonas Vingegaard, winner of last year’s Tour de France, has re-upped for another three-year contract. And star support rider Christophe Laporte reportedly turned down more lucrative offers from French teams to remain with the squad. The team seems very comfortable that it will maintain its dominant position going, regardless of the future role of Jumbo. The team’s other stars, Wout van Aert and Primož Roglič are committed to the team through 2024 and 2025, respectively.
Along these lines, we turn to a sound bite by Jumbo-Visma’s team owner, Richard Plugge, which calls attention to changes that could drive pro cycling forward. With men’s WorldTour pro cycling viewership continuing a downward trend, and content either unavailable or prohibitively expensive for fans to acquire outside of European regions, Plugge would like to see “the calendar shortened so that the top riders always compete against each other.” This is one of several structural changes we have championed in the past, because it would position the sport to drive up fan interest and content demand by potentially eliminating event overlap and increasing the quality of cycling’s primary calendar. It would also foster the conditions for the sport’s teams (AIGCP) and events (AIOCC) to aggregate and formalize the rights for a cohesive and globally available broadcast licensing and distribution model. Plugge’s public comments echo those behind the scenes by many of his WorldTour colleagues, many of whom are or will be looking for new sponsors over the coming season – but there is an upside. Team owners now seem willing to front these ideas in the open, which may spur constructive actions to change pro cycling’s structure and economic culture for the better.
In a recent interesting development regarding sports investments, the English Premier League passed a new resolution banning any individual found to have committed human rights abuses from becoming a team owner in the league. “Human rights abuses, based on the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020, will now be one of a number of additional disqualifying events” under the new UK policy which was, in part, spurred by criticism after Saudi Arabia’s sovereign Public Investment Fund purchased Newcastle United. This position raises the possibility that similar policies might cross-pollinate to other sports leagues and ventures, with direct ramifications for cycling. While no team or race owners have been directly implicated, such sporting investments are often underwritten by regimes like those in UAE and Bahrain, which have weathered multiple controversies in recent years and consistently rank low in UN and Amnesty International human rights assessments.
The Saudi PIF remains at the forefront of global sporting investments, acquiring eSports and online gaming stakes ($4.9 billion purchase of Scopely Games) and digging deeper trench lines in its ongoing LIV legal battle against the PGA tour. It recently failed to fend off court orders which could (1) jeopardize the playing status of its most valuable stars and (2) force Saudi royalty to give depositions in U.S. courts this summer. This could force LIV into a more protracted battle, delaying the start of the trial to 2024. The LIV experiment is suffering from low TV ratings and increasing legal challenges, and this is in addition to the now widely-acknowledged charges of sportswashing. There were also featured mainstream media stories in both The New York Times and the venerable 60 Minutes television show in recent weeks.
Nevertheless, the changes which LIV has forced on the game – paying the players guaranteed money, and providing contracts and expanded prize lists – have caused the tradition-bound PGA to evolve. LIV has permanently changed the balance of power between tournament owners and the players, and this was on full display at the recent Masters tournament as three of the supposedly weaker LIV talents placed in the top 10 and a total of 12 made the cut. Despite all the legal and human rights controversies, LIV seems poised to bring in more competitors and potentially launch a Ladies tour. The CPA cyclist’s association – which recently elected former rider Adam Hansen as its new president – should examine the LIV/PGA situation as a possible blueprint to better organize and align riders globally on key economic issues, and negotiate from a stronger position with the teams and UCI in the near future.
Finally, this week’s inspirational anecdote comes from basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Writing in his regular blog after Lebron James broke his all-time scoring record a few weeks ago, Abdul-Jabbar says that, for him, the inspirational power of sports is best illustrated by a scene in a 1985 film called Vision Quest. In it, Elmo, an aging fry cook at a hotel, explains to a colleague: “I was in the room here one day, watchin’ the Mexican channel on TV. I don’t know nothin’ about Pelé ... Next thing I know, he jumps in the air and flips into a somersault and kicks the ball in – upside down and backwards … Pelé gets excited. He rips off his jersey and starts running around the stadium waving it around over his head. Everybody’s screaming in Spanish. I’m here, sitting alone in my room, and I start crying … Because another human being, a species that I happen to belong to, could kick a ball, and lift himself, and the rest of us sad-assed human beings up to a better place to be, if only for a minute.” Cycling has had its fair share of inspirational moments over the years, and we’re looking forward to many more in 2023.