Pogačar Wins Again; "Big Six" Dominance Leading to Renewed Calls for Salary Cap; U.S. Racing Underway; Scarcity Value in Sports
· Pogačar Dominant Yet Again … With a Little Help
· Renewed Calls For a Team Salary Cap
· The Masters Perfects the Concept of Scarcity Value
· U.S. Racing Season Gets Underway
· Boston Marathon Inspires Through Sport
At the Amstel Gold race on Sunday, Tadej Pogačar got his Ardennes Classics campaign off with a bang by once again destroying the field with a clinical and long-range dismantling of some of the world’s best hilly one-day racers. Without the other superstars like Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Primož Roglič, Remco Evenepoel, and Jonas Vingegaard present, there was no real challenge for the race win, but it did mean a podium spot was opened up for the 22-year-old Irish sensation Ben Healy to grab a substantial second place. Meanwhile, Tom Pidcock, still working his way back from a concussion suffered at Tirreno–Adriatico earlier in the spring, limped in for third ahead of a quickly closing chase group. The win, which sets Pogačar up for the rare Ardennes Sweep of winning Amstel, La Flèche Wallonne, and Liège–Bastogne–Liège within the course of a week, signals yet again that professional cycling is increasingly under the rule of a few dominant superstars.
The race also featured the controversial sight of the car of race organizer Leo van Vliet passing, and then remaining just in front of Pogačar for an extended period inside the final 10 kilometers. Healy's Team EF manager Jonathan Vaughters was understandably aggrieved, though Pogačar pointed out after the race that cars from the caravan interfering with the riders is nothing new. Although Van Vliet later issued a strongly worded statement denying that his lead car had any effect on the outcome, that clearly was not the case. As later explained by Belgian civil engineering professor Bert Blocken, “drafting at 2 meters behind a car gives drag reduction of 65%, and a time gain of about 36 seconds per kilometer (!).” Pogačar’s winning margin? 38 seconds.
This domination of one-day races by a two-time Tour de France champion is awe-inspiring in a historical sense, but it also increasingly raises the question of whether this extreme bifurcation between the “haves” and “have-nots” is actually good for the sport. As we said last week, the Big Six (Pogačar, Van Aert, Van der Poel, Vingegaard, Roglič and Evenepoel) or one of their teammates have accounted for 88% - or all but two - of the WorldTour race wins so far in 2023 (DSM’s Marius Mayrhofer at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and Ineos’ Tom Pidcock at Strade-Bianche are the only exceptions). While this concentration of wins into the hands of a few superstars can be thrilling when all or a majority of the Big Six are facing off against one another, it can be downright dull when only one is present – as was the case Sunday. Without the sport’s other titans present, the race was all but over the moment Pogačar started whittling down the peloton with 80 kilometers remaining, and certainly no doubt once he launched his solo attack with 28 km to go. After all, if major races like Amstel Gold can be turned into exhibitions where one contender can ride the rest off his wheel at will, like a local pro on a group ride, it begs the question of why exactly a casual viewer would tune in to watch at all.
In a related vein, FDJ boss Marc Madiot this week called for the introduction of a team salary cap, saying, “If we don’t limit the budgets, we will remain in a situation where giant teams can control everything.” The teams of Big Six (Jumbo-Visma, UAE, Alpecin-Deceuninck and Soudal-QuickStep) “can choose the day, time and place to blow things up, and they do,” continued the long-time cyclist and team manager. Over a year ago, it was reported that the UCI was considering the possibility of instituting some sort of team salary controls, but there have been no next steps or follow-up action, as far as we know. And, as we have noted in the past, there are also serious questions about how to actually define and implement a salary cap in this sport. Furthermore, it is also frequently noted that money is not everything in this sport – as some teams are able to compete above their weight by being smarter in recruiting, development and race strategy – but it certainly helps. One thing is certain: if this Big Six group continues to dominate the way it is so far this season, calls for some form of salary cap are likely to increase.
Meanwhile, on the women’s side, the SD-Worx super-team dominated the Women’s Amstel event with Demi Vollering and Lotte Kopecky sweeping the top two podium spots, just like they did earlier in the year at Strade-Bianche. And, just as we noted last week at Paris-Roubaix, the racing was far more interesting than the men’s; there were no long range attacks, and a barrage of well-timed moves and sacrificial efforts by star riders like Lorena Wiebes kept viewers locked-in. As we’ve noted before, the more evenly matched talent, cerebral racing strategies, and unpredictable breakaway alliances underline the contrast in racing dynamics. The fact that “outsiders” have already won some major events this season (like EF’s Alison Jackson at last week’s Paris-Roubaix) shows that outcomes are often in doubt until the final few hundred meters. This is creating a legitimate opening to market women’s sport as a more interesting version of professional cycling, where almost anything can happen and riders outside of an established elite program can actually compete for wins.
We have often critiqued professional cycling for its unending, crowded and often overlapping calendar, arguing that the sport might benefit from the scarcity value concept – arguing that fewer but bigger and better distributed events might make the sport more popular and more valuable? As an example of why this might be a more successful approach, one needs look only at the recent Masters golf tournament – one of the most iconic events in all of sport. In a fascinating story last week, the Huddle Up newsletter summarized the extent to which the Masters has gone to tightly control its product and thereby drive up its value. For example, it is one of the only major sporting events which restricts merchandise sales to in-person attendees – no internet business – but it generates $70 million in sales, or about $10 million a day. Sandwiches cost $1.50 and imported beer $5.00 – just one part of an effort to create a great experience for attendees. The event’s lottery system offers tickets priced at $140 per day – but which trade on the secondary market for as much as $2,000. Perhaps most amazing, the organization lets ESPN and CBS televise the event each year for free, in return for complete editorial control – and perpetuation of the Masters’ legend. With the combination of all these efforts to control its product, Huddle Up estimated that the tournament may leave more than $250 million in potential revenue on the table. However, in the process, it has created one of the most enduring, exclusive and widely-watched events in the world.
The domestic racing calendar kicked off this week at the venerable Redlands Classic stage race in Southern California. The pro fields were surprisingly large, with nearly 200 men and over 120 women in the race. While it may be premature to declare that “road racing is back,” the size of the fields was an encouraging sign. In addition, the participation by teams built for criterium racing – L39ion of Los Angeles, Miami Blazers, Denver Disruptors and Austin Aviator – suggests that the bike racing ecosystem in the U.S. is expanding across disciplines. And, speaking of criteriums, the NCL’s first event took place a week ago in Miami, with insiders saying it was a well-run event with an innovative – if somewhat confusing – scoring format. While many criteriums fall into the “sit in and wait for the last 2 laps to start racing” category, this event featured constant attacking in both the men’s and women’s races. And finally, on the gravel front, the Belgian Waffle Ride also took place an hour to the south in San Diego, attracting riders from a wide variety of cycling backgrounds: women’s winner Heather Jackson is a former top triathlete, men’s champion Russell Finsterwald comes from mountain biking, and there were a number of former WorldTour road pros (Pete Stetina, Alexey Vermeulen, Laurens Ten Dam, Nico Roche) in the race. Look for an even wider array of talent at this week’s Sea Otter Classic races.
In a follow-up to our earlier analysis of the business model breakdown in regional sports network content distribution, Major League Baseball has filed court motions that may accelerate the bankruptcy of Diamond Sports and take back the media rights for several MLB teams. Diamond, which has selectively been making payments to teams with which it has favorable licensing arrangements, would either have to comply with a court order to pay out to all of the 14 teams in its current portfolio or continue into bankruptcy receivership and relinquish the broadcast rights back to the league. This outcome, which would also affect NBA and NHL broadcasting rights held by Diamond, and the speed at which it is happening, underscores how valuable centralized rights are for monetizing on-demand live-streams. Fans are increasingly willing to specifically pay for games of their choosing from an unrestricted broadcast source – when one is available. While many analysts thought this process might take until 2024 to shake out, the RSN meltdown might be complete by mid-summer 2023, and place pressure on other league and content owners worldwide — like the race event owners in professional cycling — to re-think aggregated licensing models and content distribution as current regionally-restricted broadcast strategies hit a dead end.
The capacity of sport to bring people together and provide inspiration was on full display at the Boston Marathon, won by Kenyans Helen Obiri and Evans Chebet. This edition marked the 10th anniversary of the terrorist bombing attack in 2013, which tragically took three lives and injured hundreds more including both competitors and spectators. Many of the participants in the iconic event ran in honor of those affected by the attack, and concurrent activities related to the race have been consecrated in a concept called “One Boston Day” – filled with acts of kindness and service to others, including multiple community building projects. Hopefully, this will inspire future runners, and certainly illustrates goodwill and understanding through the power of sport.