Middle East Racing; Improved Concussion Protocols; Is Ticket Revenue That Important? The Russia Question; The B&B Hotels Collapse
· Questions Around Middle East Racing
· Is Sport Kowtowing to Russia?
· How Important are Ticket Revenues?
· Where Was UCI in B&B Hotels Collapse?
· M-SR To Be Shortened
· Improved Concussion Protocols in Cycling
This past weekend saw pro cycling move to the Middle East, with Elisa Longo Borghini winning the inaugural Women’s UAE Tour, and Tim Merlier and Jesús Herrada taking the opening two stages of the Tour of Oman. (American Matteo Jorgensen picked up his first pro win earlier today on stage 3.) Despite a few exciting moments of racing, and four out of five Oman stages featuring an uphill finish, the events had the air of a televised warm-weather training camp rather than hard-core racing. And Oman, which featured the most interesting scenery and terrain of the bunch, wasn’t even televised outside of the local Oman Sports TV network, meaning no one could see the race – outside of the most dedicated fans willing to switch on a private VPN and connect to an obscure web stream. This last fact raises a central question: why spend the money to host a state-sponsored event – whose main function is to promote a region – if no one outside the region can actually see it?
Since many of the Middle Eastern sovereign funds have expressed a seemingly insatiable appetite to buy or host European sporting events (see below), this early season lineup of races is unlikely to cease anytime soon. However, one wonders if they could more effectively promote their soft-power agenda by acquiring and improving major European races (akin to the Abu Dhabi’s Royal Family ownership of Manchester City). For example, instead of hosting a Women’s UAE Tour that sees three out of the four stages end in formulaic bunch sprints, why not organize a true women’s grand tour, sponsored by the UAE, that would be far more widely watched, and more effective in accomplishing their geopolitical goals.
Not surprisingly, the UCI said last week that it will follow in the footsteps of the IOC and loosen restrictions on the participation by Russian and Belarusian athletes in international sport. As we pointed out earlier, this is something of a deviation from its initial position. Although both the IOC and UCI are clearly struggling to find the right balance on this evolving and complex issue, it is hardly surprising that UCI President Lappartient, who was just elected to the IOC last year – and who has long been rumored to have bigger Olympic aspirations – would fall in line behind IOC President Thomas Bach. The UCI stance that it would be willing to let Russians and Belarusians compete as “neutral” athletes clearly rubbed some people the wrong way. Yaroslav Popovych, one of the best Ukrainian riders in history, and currently a sports director at Trek-Segafredo, had a nuanced response but concluded that the Russians “come to my country, kill people, kill kids, [and] destroy cities. For me, no. They don’t need to compete.”
Broader opposition to the IOC and UCI stance is now galvanizing, with some 35 different countries calling on the IOC to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Ukrainian President Zelensky took part in the online meeting of government ministers, saying “Terror and Olympism are two opposites, they cannot be combined.” Ukraine’s sports minister has threatened to boycott the Olympics, with Bach pushing back, and insisting that the country must “uphold the fundamental principles of the Olympic Charter." Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo even joined the fray, saying she does not want a Russian delegation at the Games, adding that she did not accept the "neutral" banner under which Russians may be allowed to compete.
On the other hand, sports can be a powerful diplomatic tool – to promote understanding and to defuse tensions or avoid military conflict between nations. The Los Angeles Times reports that one of the U.S. State Department’s best-kept secrets is its sports diplomacy program. The miniscule $6 million program has sent surfers to Papua New Guinea, taken ambassadors such as Shaquille O’Neal to Cuba and organized sports camps in which both Israelis and Palestinians have taken part. The concept of using sports to further diplomatic aims is hardly new. President Nixon’s ground-breaking trip to Beijing in 1972, for example, would not have happened if not for an exchange of table tennis players between the U.S. and China a year earlier. Ashleigh Huffman, director of the program, is convinced sports can also be effective in more typical diplomatic situations such as conflict resolution because it breaks down barriers, making negotiation and compromise easier. Sports also reinforces the importance of rules, she said, which can aid diplomacy.
The Economist magazine recently published a breakdown of the revenue generated by top soccer clubs around the world. A key finding which is pertinent to cycling is that most clubs derive the bulk of their from commercial (team-branded merchandise and partnership deals) and broadcast (TV rights) sources, and that ticket revenues are only a small piece of the puzzle. This fact runs counter to the argument often thrown around in cycling that teams can never make money because they don't have stadiums to fill or tickets to sell (despite some exceptions like the Flanders Classics). The reality is that soccer clubs have made money by building visible and widely-loved brands and by aligning themselves with real professional leagues, instead of allowing IOC-aligned governing bodies outsized influence. The Outer Line has examined all these issues in the past, but this information should be a reminder: cycling teams – even without ticket revenues – could build sustainable businesses if they were willing to consolidate under a singular professional league which could build and monetize its IP and TV rights effectively.
A recent piece from the French newspaper L'Equipe shed new light on the downfall of Jérôme Pineau’s B&B Hotels project and provided new details – particularly the team’s rumored sponsorship by the City of Paris, which would have been both politically and legally impossible. The team’s late demise meant that most of its contracted riders failed to find employment for 2023. While the media connected the team with big names like Mark Cavendish and notable partners like Amazon and Sephora, we now know that these potential sponsors were a mere mirage, with no real interest in writing big checks. The fact that B&B was allowed to go ahead and sign full men’s and women’s rosters without disclosing that it had no real financial viability borders on the criminal. It points out once again the UCI’s inconsistent oversight, and the crying need for a real (non-UCI affiliated) rider’s union and collective bargaining agreement.
Concussions have been a longstanding concern for the health and safety of professional cyclists, and the integrity of professional road racing. A recent summary of concussion protocols summarized key concerns as the 2023 campaign gets underway. Cycling has a complicated relationship with riders enduring pain and rider health and safety – from inconsistent enforcement (which has emboldened some riders and team directors to try to circumvent those protocols) to the sport’s uneasy history as a game for “hard men” who will suffer beyond any injury to fight for victory on the road. On one hand, sport in general is coming to terms with both the immediate and cumulative effects of concussions; the NFL has finally accepted its role and funded long term monitoring and care for athletes who are or will be crippled by degenerative Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) due to multiple head and whiplash impacts on the field. Other sports like soccer, ice and field hockey, and combat sports have joined a concussion minimization and monitoring mindset. And concussion science continues to diversify; a symposium will be held in March to discuss female-specific protocols.
But, on the other hand, preventing concussion in contact sports seems to be an impossibility due to the nature of competition, and the fact that fans have come to expect – some even reveling in the possibility of – seeing an athlete knocked out of the game from a devastating hit. Cycling’s long calendar ensures that at least some athletes will experience concussion this season, but just as there are multiple flavors of concussion assessment, there are at least some tools at the sport’s disposal to better monitor the in-race scenario and post injury care. A rapid-response blood test can be taken from a rider within 24 hours of an assessed concussion to provide data on key brain injury protein markers which can then be used to optimize treatment. Similarly, consistent use of a single type of decelerometer such as the ICEdot helmet pod could provide an immediate, front-line decision trigger for administering the full battery of concussion assessment observations, especially in cases where the initial symptoms are delayed. More to the point, it could also be used as a triage trigger that requires a race-certified doctor – not just an EMT medic or team trainer – to take an in-person observation and make the final judgment of whether or not the rider stays in the race. Regardless of the emergent and available options, concussions will unfortunately continue to play a role in the peloton and shape race outcomes so long as riders speed down the open road.
The absurdly long Milano-Sanremo race will be slightly shortened in 2023 due to the start being moved out of central Milan to a nearby suburb, Abbiategrasso, after the race was unable to secure a permit from the city. In practice, this course rerouting won’t affect the outcome of the race and will be far easier in terms of logistics for teams, riders and the organizers. However, the fact that the race was forced to move its start (allegedly due to the city prioritizing the Stramilano half marathon that runs on the same weekend) suggests that pro cycling has fallen in the sports hierarchy – in a country that has long been a hotbed for the sport. The country’s main event, the Giro d’Italia, has also shown a noticeable decrease in roadside crowds and local relevance in recent years. Given all of the current frenzy arounds sports investments, this leads to speculation as to whether race owner RCS (or the race’s secretive true owners), would consider a sale of their portfolio of races (Giro d'Italia, Milan–San Remo, Il Lombardia, Tirreno–Adriatico, and Strade Bianche) to a highly-capitalized and sports-focused buyer like Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund or Qatari Sports Investments.