The Classics Get Underway; Tracking Sports Media Content; LIV Updates; NILs and Cycling; Caffeine and Cycling; Money Continues to Pour Into Sports
● Jumbo-Visma Blasts Into the Classics
● Vingegaard vs. Pogačar at Paris-Nice: TdF Preview?
● Better Ways to Track Sports Media Content
● The Legacy of LIV Golf
● Using NILs to Grow Collegiate Cycling?
● Caffeine and Endurance Sports
The professional road cycling season entered the spring Classics portion of the calendar, as Jumbo-Visma destroyed the field with a dominant, team-wide performance. New arrival Dylan van Baarle took a solo win at the traditional season-opener Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday, and on Sunday Tiesj Benoot emerged from a reduced bunch to take victory at Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne. This assertive display by the Dutch squad signaled that not only do they have some of the sport’s best grand tour riders, but that they are also now the new Classics super-team until proven otherwise. And for the rest of the peloton, the scariest part is that Jumbo’s superstar, Wout van Aert, hasn’t even made his road debut yet this season.
While the Classics were getting started, stage racers were honing their craft across the globe, with Remco Evenepoel winning the overall at the UAE Tour and Jonas Vingegaard thoroughly crushing his competition at the Spanish O Gran Camiño stage race. Vingegaard’s victory in the four-stage race (shortened to three, due to snow on stage 1) by over two minutes, sets up the thrilling prospect of him facing off against a peak-performing Tadej Pogačar at next week’s Paris-Nice. This could turn out to be a sneak preview of the 2023 Tour de France.
An important recent analysis critiqued the way sports content is typically measured, arguing that we need to stop relying on default social media metrics. The success of a story or an event is typically measured in terms of “views” or “engagements” – primarily because these numbers are easy to access and measure, not necessarily because they indicate anything of value. For example, one “view” might involve watching a two-minute YouTube video, whereas on TikTok the video only needs to play on a screen for one second to count as a view. One “view” differs from the next, and no engagement is the same – so any total sum makes very little sense. “It is akin to keeping score and not knowing how many points are scored for a try vs a penalty, or a dunk vs a score ‘from downtown’, but cheering along nonetheless.” The bigger concern is that sponsors and supporters are making major financial decisions based on metrics with little real meaning. Success metrics within the “serviceable and obtainable market” (SOM) should be based on (perhaps harder to measure) but more reliable metrics such as ticket sales or actual revenue generated.
Despite the challenging economic and financial environment, money is continuing to pour into sports. Sapphire Sport recently announced that it has raised $181 million in an oversubscribed second fund, adding various new investors from across the sports landscape. The company raised $117 million in 2019 and made 15 early-stage investments in sports-adjacent tech startups like Overtime (media/basketball) and Tonal (fitness); its second fund plans a similar approach. New investors include Madison Square Garden Sports, Arctos Sports Partners and David Blitzer (owners of the 76ers, Devils and Guardians). Courtside Ventures has also just announced a $100 million fund, with investors including Shaquille O'Neal and Dick's Sporting Goods. According to Michael Spirito, co-founding partner of Sapphire, these types of investments are “driven by entities who have a genuine belief that the power of sport can reach new people and create new business models."
While it seems like the calendar is as packed as ever with top-level professional racing, the increasing profile and viewing availability of many smaller European races have come at the expense of other locally based professional series. The Tour Series, Britain’s premier series of races, recently announced they won’t be operating their events in 2023. As American cycling fans know, with, for example, the now-defunct Tour of California, it is extremely difficult to restart events once they have been placed on hiatus. As it becomes easier to view the top-level road races around the globe, these local events are forced to go head-to-head with larger, more prestigious events – and they may suffer as a result. It appears that the only way to survive or thrive in this changing environment is to create events with a unique local flavor – for example, the Kansas Unbound Gravel event – that can offer viewers and participants something they can’t get anywhere else.
The continuing LIV Golf saga took several new turns in January which may affect its defense in its upcoming lawsuit with the PGA – and there are two critical developments which could have implications for pro cycling. First, the PGA has capitulated to allow LIV golfers back into the PGA Championship, creating an uneasy coexistence with LIV’s highly compensated players, including many considered among the world’s top ten. This truce is symbolic in that it essentially negates one of LIV’s advantages – product scarcity via athlete exclusivity – since the golfers will be free to compete in LIV and the four PGA marquee events. It remains to be seen if the highly compensated LIV players will be welcomed with open arms back in the shared clubhouse. Second, requests and rulings by the presiding judge may strip both the business and diplomatic shielding of LIV’s Saudi Arabian owners, potentially opening the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) to discovery, deposition, and ultimately legal responsibility in a U.S. court of law.
Even if LIV ultimately fails to defend its position as a long-term sports disruptor, the upstart golf tour will have reshaped the game – by paying players their actual (or perceived) market value and forcing the PGA to drastically increase its prize money and depth of payout in tournament fields. Just the shift in athlete power may have forever changed professional golf. In another sense – and just as important to cycling – the LIV project has renewed scrutiny over how sovereign nations invest in and use sport as a political and economic transformation strategy. Any out-of-court negotiation and settlement by LIV with the PGA could inform how cycling teams like UAE, Bahrain, and Astana sustain their investments. It could also impact how other future parties, which seek to break into cycling as a basic sportswashing exercise, may invest in the future.
Name, Image and Likeness rights (NIL) deals are rewriting the amateur sporting landscape. How might this affect cycling? NIL “collectives” are forming which utilize booster cash to entice athletes to sign with a particular school – creating a unique market for blue-chip football or basketball players to receive healthy compensation. These collectives have been underfunding women’s athletics in comparison to men’s programs, and so there is some irony in the fact that the first NIL infraction handed down in collegiate sports was for a women’s team. However, according to NIL platform Opendorse, women may begin to out-muscle their male classmates and colleagues on personal and brand endorsements, and this could force schools and broadcasters to raise their support and visibility for women’s sports.
Could this model of NIL opportunities help American cycling reshape its academic and collegiate club racing landscape? Few colleges in the U.S. currently offer cycling scholarships, and most high school racing is supported by a mix of volunteer, non-profit, and public education money. But it’s worth investigating: could collegiate cycling utilize similar NIL models to revamp its structure and forge a more official presence within the NCAA sporting landscape? Many of the top U.S. riders – especially women racers – were first exposed to and started racing in the collegiate club system. A NIL-supported collegiate cycling model could also help to identify and support riders coming up in the high school racing associations, especially those who are economically disadvantaged. Even without any official NCAA partnership, we hope that cycling’s stakeholders examine all the possibilities to leverage NIL strategies as a means of funding and diversifying a stronger talent pipeline in the future.
The mysterious death of Rwandan journalist and news editor John Williams Ntwali, a vocal critic of President Paul Kagame, has cast yet another dark pall on the African nation’s human rights record. However, sports governance bodies have been conspicuously absent from the dialogue to date. In two short years, Rwanda will host the UCI Road World Championships, and the nation expects this event to launch it onto the greater economic and political world stage. Just this past week, Chris Froome was making waves with a long-distance breakaway in the country’s national tour. Cycling, for better or worse, has become an international symbol of Rwanda’s growth, and Rwandan leverage of cycling is a clear and direct example of sportswashing. The UCI has been a vocal proponent of cycling development in Rwanda, but it now sits uncomfortably in the hot seat once again, as an autocratic regime makes use of sport to deflect attention from grave violations of its citizens’ human rights.
Although this will hardly come as news to many cyclists, a recent article summarized the role of caffeine in enhancing performance in endurance sports, suggesting that in some sports, like running or cycling, performance times can be improved by as much as two to five percent. “Scientists have been looking at caffeine’s effect on athletics since the 1900s. While there is still some disagreement as to the exact mechanism by which caffeine consumption affects exercise performance, and whether taking a break from it until game day can give you an edge, scientists agree that a cup of coffee before working out can improve performance.” More interesting, however, is a parallel placebo effect that researchers are now uncovering, which suggests – as in many drug and medical studies – that people also perform better if they simply think that they have consumed caffeine. Actual caffeine consumption can obviously vary depending on the size of your cup, the type of coffee and the brewing method – and doctors warn about the deleterious side effects of caffeine, like sleep disruption – but the consensus seems to be that ingesting it about an hour before exercise allows the bloodstream time to fully absorb the effects of the caffeine.