TDU Not a Beacon for the Season; Media - Go Big (or Small) or Go Home; the Patron Model; Red Bull Rumors are Just That; Amateur Athlete Lawsuits - What Does It Mean for Cycling?
● Town Down Under: Beacon for the Season?
● Media: Be Big (or Be Small) – Or Go Home
● The Patron Model – In Cycling and in Media
● Red Bull Rumors – Probably Just That
● Amateur Athlete Lawsuits: Potential Implications for Cycling
The Tour Down Under wrapped up this weekend, with Israel-Premier Tech’s Stephen Williams taking the overall win and, at 27 years old, demonstrating that not every race in modern cycling is won by the latest youth sensation. And in addition to Williams’ overall win, fellow late-bloomers Sam Welsford (28), riding for Bora-Hansgrohe, and 28-year-old Bart Lemmen on Visma-Lease a Bike, also had stand-out weekends; Leeman finished 5th overall after strong performances on Stages 5 and 6, and Welsford swept the bunch sprint stages behind a well-executed lead-out. However, these veteran riders only serve as temporary distractions from the sport’s seemingly inevitable shift towards youth: 21-year-old British DSM-Firmenich sensation Oscar Onley bagged his first career win on the famed Willunga Hill, and 20-year-old Isaac del Toro – who won a stage and finished on the overall podium in his first pro race – suggested that the next great North American cyclist may come from Mexico rather than the United States. While these WorldTour results carry value in terms of UCI points and eventual standings, it should be noted that the race hasn’t historically been a particularly good predictor of success later in the season; if anything, there seems to be an inverse correlation.
Back in Europe, three of the best riders in the world – Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, and Tom Pidcock – were facing off at the Benidorm Cyclocross World Cup in Spain, where Van Aert finally brought Van der Poel’s streak of ten consecutive wins to an end. Van Aert won a fast and thrilling race on a warm and dry course, despite a dramatic late crash following a botched re-mount inside the final lap. After crashing into a barrier, Van der Poel finished well back in the field. This was likely to be the defining race of the 2023/2024 CX season and was without a doubt the biggest and most exciting cycling event of the weekend. While Van der Poel has seemed single-mindedly focused on cyclocross, Van Aert is clearly thinking ahead to the road season. "It's always good to win a race, but it wasn't the most important thing today. I hoped to have good legs and end the season with a good feeling. I managed to do that, and in the end, I am happier with that than the win itself,” he said afterwards.
There was continuing bad news in the media business this week, and the overall market situation was concisely summed up by the New York Times’ columnist Ezra Klein. This came following widespread laments after the popular online music magazine Pitchfork announced it was being subsumed into GQ. “Sports Illustrated just laid off most of its staff. BuzzFeed News is gone. HuffPost has shrunk. Jezebel was shut down (then partly resurrected). Vice is on life support. Popular Science is done. U.S. News & World Report shuttered its magazine and is basically a college ranking service now. Old Gawker is gone and so too is New Gawker. FiveThirtyEight sold to ABC News and then had its staff and ambitions slashed. Grid News was bought out by The Messenger, which is now reportedly “out of money.” Fusion failed.” Klein adds that more than 350 local and regional newspapers have failed in the last few years. He concludes that there are workable models for success in the media business if you are very large – like the New York Times which has a diversified and bundled offering to a global audience – or if you are very small – like a popular one or two-person Substack blog. But being in the middle is tough. “You can thrive being very small or very big but it’s extremely hard to even survive between those poles. That’s a disaster for journalism — and for readers.” But unfortunately, as Klein laments, the “middle area” can be more “specific and experimental” than the huge publications, and it can also be more “ambitious and well-reported” than the tiny players.
The imminent death of Sports Illustrated, and mass layoffs at Google this past week intersected to highlight the changing landscape of media and marketing. SI, which recently weathered a public beating over its use of artificial intelligence to generate news stories – fired most of its current staff and appears headed for implosion. Simultaneously, Google culled the global teams managing its online advertising business – the human workforce selling, planning, and executing marketing for a wide swath of its ad sales portfolio – saying that the maturation of AI has reduced the need for human input. The irony is that while the ad placement and sales technology mastered by Google (and similarly leveraged by online giants like Facebook) mined the revenue bedrock out from under the pillars of legacy sports news outlets – including the majority of the cycling news field – it has itself become so automated that it is now cannibalizing the human workforce which created the technology. SI’s rapid downturn is an inarguable combination of having its ad sales ravaged by competitors like Google (who know more about SI’s consumers than do SI’s executives), plus the inability to generate revenue from a subscription paywall since much of its core content is already available across a wide swath of free internet media channels. With this continual and hyper-efficient siphoning out of the ad revenue lifeblood from sports media properties, further consolidation of the surviving titles and closing down of others is sure to follow. We examined many of these factors (and predicted many of these outcomes) in our earlier special edition on the cycling media marketplace. And it’s more important than ever for cycling to again debate the question: how can cycling’s media business better position the sport and itself for success in a changing technology and consumer marketplace?
Just as in cycling, wealthy media patrons don’t really seem to be the key to long-term success in the media business either. The Times this week also investigated the track record of various billionaire investments in media – Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post ($250 million); Patrick Soon-Shiong, the Los Angeles Times ($500 million); and Marc Benioff, Time magazine ($190 million). While each transaction was characterized by early optimism, all of those publications lost millions of dollars last year – “wealth doesn’t insulate an owner from the serious challenges plaguing many media companies.” All of those players continue to reduce staffing head counts and deal with declining employee morale. There are a few exceptions to the trend, such as the Boston Globe, purchased ten years ago by the owner of the Boston Red Sox, which has been profitable for several years, and The Atlantic, purchased by the widow of Steve Jobs several years ago, and which is gradually winding its way towards profitability. In a closing statement which could be equally applied to the cycling business, one observer stated that “The very rich find it very difficult to lose money year over year …. even if they can afford it.”
Red Bull’s majority investment in the Bora-Hansgrohe team might still be under review by the Austrian antitrust authorities, but that hasn’t stopped the media from furiously spinning up rumors that the organization could be the sport’s next super team. While there is not yet any concrete evidence that the arrival of Red Bull will actually increase the team’s budget for the 2024 season (team manager Ralph Denk has already clarified that the acquisition of Roglič was made possible by historical budget surpluses – not funds from Red Bull), it has been suggested in the media that the Red Bull logo could appear on the team’s jerseys as soon as this season. (It isn’t clear how this would work with the current title sponsors, Bora and Hansgrohe, who recently extended through the 2026 season.) German media sources also suggest that Bora is already attempting to sign other big stars such as Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel. While Red Bull has a pre-existing relationship with Van Aert, it isn’t clear how significant or accurate this news is either. Any team would obviously like to sign two of the biggest stars in the sport, but they are both under contract with their current teams through the 2026 season. However, in an age where riders are increasingly changing teams before the expiration of their contracts, nothing is impossible. Perhaps the real question isn’t really whether Bora wants Evenepoel and Van Aert, but if they want to ride with Bora – or with each other.
The racing may have been hot Down Under and in Benidorm, but all sporting eyes should be on U.S. court filings next week as several major legal actions seem likely to redefine athletes as employees of their universities and sports governance bodies – potentially ending the concept of amateurism in “elite” level Olympic sports forever. The pivotal cases all center on NCAA sports, with several lawsuits seeking direct recognition of student athletes as full-time employees, based on the hours spent in the service of the college or institution. Other on-going suits seek to dismantle restrictions on athletes transferring to the school of their choice – to schools which offer the largest Name/Image/Likeness (NIL) payouts for their services. Any of the lawsuits has the potential to break down the doors of amateurism once and for all, and counter-proposals and legislative lobbying by the NCAA may simply be too late. The U.S. Department of Justice has joined one of the largest suits on behalf of the athletes and even the high-paid coaches – including University of Michigan’s national championship winner, Jim Harbaugh – have publicly supported the athletes, whom they say should have some participation in the riches being earned on the sweat of their labor.
Where this intersects with cycling, and other so-called elite amateur sports, is in the cross pollination with other NCAA sports like track and field – the single largest pool of elite U.S track and field athletes competing today. By default, this would open the doors for new challenges by these athletes for recognition and revenue sharing in big events such as national collegiate championships. What we call “professional cycling” today actually shares an IOC definition with track and field worldwide – it is an “elite” sport. By redefining the boundaries between elite competitors and professionally employed athletes, cycling may actually benefit. For example, it could provide rider associations with the legal framework to encourage race organizers, teams, and the UCI to the bargaining table to determine a path for revenue sharing. In fact, the NCAA is the only party seeking to kill the lawsuits, as it is loath to lose the monopoly of its multi-billion dollar cash cow – a situation not that dissimilar to ASO’s protective stance over the Tour de France. The framework that the NCAA will likely have to adopt for national championships would eventually allow the athletes to derive payment from the event itself, via broadcasting and other licensing fees. Such a potential trend could eventually be exploited in more distant sports like cycling to force major races to directly remunerate all the athletes directly, rather than via the current prize money pittances.