The "Golden Age" - Good or Bad? Controversy Around Gifting Races; WBC Highlights the Power of Sport; Hansen Elected CPA Prez; Change, Risk and Opportunity in Sport
● A Weekend of Gifts
● The Golden Age of Racing: Good or Bad?
● Superlatives From the World Baseball Classic
● Hansen Elected President of the CPA
● Change and Opportunity in Sport
● Stratospheric Growth in Women’s Sports Viewership
Jumbo-Visma continued their early-season dominance this weekend, at both the Flemish classics and the week-long stage races. After a disappointing third place at MSR a week ago, Wout van Aert turned it around in Flanders, winning a thrilling race at E3 Saxo in a superstar-laden three-up sprint finish against Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogačar. He then returned on Sunday to manhandle the Gent-Wevelgem course, pulling himself and teammate Christophe Laporte nearly two minutes off the front of a chasing peloton, and then gifting the win to Laporte. (It may seem absurd for a rider like Van Aert to “gift” a win at a prestigious race like Gent-Wevelgem; indeed, even the GOAT himself, Eddy Merckx, weighed in critically on Van Aert’s action. However, it’s important to remember that Van Aert will likely be asking Laporte – himself one of the best classics riders in the world – to sacrifice his own chances at the upcoming Tour of Flanders in service of Van Aert’s push to get his first career Ronde title.) Meanwhile, down in Spain at the seven-stage Volta Catalunya, after trading jabs all week, Primož Roglič won the GC classification over Remco Evenepoel, and demonstrated that even as he continues to build his fitness after shoulder surgery last fall, he is on some of the best form of his career. Perhaps more critically, he also once again demonstrated his strategic and tactical superiority over Evenepoel, as the two will likely clash in May’s Giro d’Italia.
Interestingly, in both of Sunday’s races, the winner was technically "arranged" by agreement between the riders. As mentioned above, Gent-Wevelgem featured a clear gift from Van Aert to his teammate Laporte. And on the final stage of Catalunya, it appeared that race leader Roglič feigned a full sprint at the finish, happy to let Evenepoel take the daily prize while securing the overall victory for himself. Although under-performing or "throwing" an event is illegal in most sports, this kind of non-competitive behavior happens frequently in cycling – and indeed is often considered to be sportsmanlike or gentlemanly. But imagine if Serena Williams gifted the final of a major tennis tournament to her sister Venus, or if Lebron James stood by and allowed a former teammate to dunk over him and win an inconsequential game; it would likely cause a crisis in the sport. It can be very difficult to prove intent in cycling – particularly if the suspected "collusion" occurs between riders on different teams. This raises the question: is it better to "go public" and let fans in on the agreement, or is it better to create a fake sprint – where the fans don't know for sure? It seems to us that the former is preferable, but either way, it is important to note that – particularly from the vantage point of casual viewers – it has the potential to harm the image of cycling as a clean and honest sport.
Outside of Jumbo being far and away the sport’s strongest team so far in 2023, the biggest takeaway of the weekend was yet another confirmation that we are truly in a golden age of top-level racing – where a small handful of superstar riders – regardless of their specialty – are thoroughly dominating the sport, across the entire calendar. While entertaining, it also exposes the fact that there is currently a massive gulf in quality between the sport’s top tier of riders – Van Aert, Van der Poel, Pogačar, Vingegaard, Roglič, and Evenepoel – and the rest. At both E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, Van Aert was able to ride clear of the rest of the sport’s best classic contenders seemingly effortlessly. At Catalunya, Roglič and Evenepoel were able to drop the star-studded GC field of riders like Jai Hindley, Adam Yates, João Almeida, and Richard Carapaz, whenever they lifted the pace to challenge each other. This chasm illustrates the challenges that events are facing when they attempt to build out the quality of their start lists. In short, if they want to be considered an important and/or must-watch race, they have to attract at least a couple of these elite riders to their event. Furthermore, this trend also illustrated just how vulnerable the current pro cycling system is to disruption. If a deep-pocketed outsider could secure exclusive appearances from these top riders and make their events must-watch viewing, it could quickly disrupt the established structure of the sport.
Cycling’s nominal riders’ association, the Cycliste Associes Professionels, or CPA, recently elected Australian ex-pro Adam Hansen as its new president, replacing the long-serving Gianni Bugno. Hopefully, this will be a positive injection of energy, and will enhance the CPA’s future ability to influence the professional sport. However, over the last several years, many riders have joined two rival organizations which appear to have more cohesive political, economic, and athlete rights platforms – The Riders Union (TRU) for pro men, and The Cyclists’ Alliance (TCA) for pro women. Hansen is well-known in the sport for his die-hard work as a domestique and unbroken streak for completing grand tours, occasional long-break stage wins, and innovative homemade racing shoes. Outside of cycling, he has built a diverse career as an IT professional and property developer – and we hope that he utilizes these skills to modernize and strengthen the CPA. Unfortunately, as Hansen inherits the job, the CPA remains financially dependent on the UCI, and in many circles is seen as an affiliate of the UCI, rather than an independent voice for the athletes. The riders still need a much stronger position at the bargaining table – to ensure economic advance, career stability, improved safety and the integrity of the broader sport. As we have argued many times in the past, a more powerful athlete’s union would create a more balanced and stronger sport; hopefully, Hansen will find a way to push things in that direction.
The World Baseball Classic last week highlighted the unifying power of sport. Japan beat the United States, 3-2, to win its third WBC title and first since 2009. Remarkably, the final at-bat in the closely-fought battle saw two-way Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani switching from the batting lineup to the mound in relief to face his Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout – a stand-off between arguably the two best players in the sport. With two outs and after reaching a full count, Ohtani caught Trout on a slider to give Japan the title. As Axios said, “You can't make this stuff up.” Ohtani was named tournament MVP, after spending the past two weeks “cementing the case … that he's the best baseball player on the planet.” At the plate in the WBC, he hit .435 with 4 doubles, 1 HR and 8 RBIs. On the mound, he went 2-0 with a 1.86 ERA, 11 strikeouts and a save in 9.2 innings. He also tossed the fastest pitch (102 mph) and beat out an infield single by running to first base in a lightning-quick 4.16 seconds. Axios Sports opined that Ohtani “is better than Babe Ruth ever was, and that’s not even a hot take.” Perhaps the most remarkable statistic of all: at 11 am on a Wednesday morning, 97.4 percent of Japanese TVs were tuned into the game. Talk about the power of sport.
Like pro cycling, baseball has often been criticized for being hidebound – too closely wedded to its illustrative historical legacy, and unwilling or slow to accept change. The game is notorious for being too long and often tedious, with its excitement limited to brief bursts of on-field action. But – perhaps unlike cycling – baseball has recently shown that it is willing to make radical changes. As the season kicks off next week, multiple new and transformative rules are going into effect. The biggest change will be a clock limiting the time between pitches, with consequences for the pitcher or the batter depending on how the pitch is delayed. During the test period in the minor leagues, games were 21 minutes shorter; in MLB pre-season games, that further decreased to 25 minutes and more time will likely be shaved as players understand and utilize the rules more effectively. Just as important, fans have overwhelmingly embraced the new rules – which also include larger bases, limited pick-off opportunities, and a ban against the infield shift. For all the detractors who continue to espouse cycling’s die-hard traditions and say that the sport cannot and should not change, baseball – which has seen almost no changes in the last 100 years – is showing us that reinvention can lead to a brighter future.
New scientific research suggests that attending live sporting events can improve levels of personal well-being and can reduce feelings of loneliness. The new study – conducted by Anglia Ruskin University’s School of Psychology and Sport Science, used data from 7,209 adults, aged 16 - 85, living in England – also found that attending live sporting events leads to an increase in people’s sense that “life is worthwhile.” Furthermore, the study posits that the size of this increase in perceived well-being is comparable to that of finding a new job. The report’s authors suggested that the findings could be useful for shaping public health strategies, such as offering reduced ticket prices for certain groups. “Watching live sports provides opportunities for social interaction and this helps to forge group identity and belonging, which in turn mitigates loneliness and boosts levels of wellbeing.”
Women’s sports have been white hot, and the first two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament highlighted the emerging value for broadcast platforms. According to ESPN – which retained the rights to the women’s tourney – year-over-year viewership for both rounds combined increased 28% and exceeded 2.1 billion minutes. While this might not be the trend for every women’s sport, keystone sports like basketball, FIFA’s World Cup, tennis, and even cycling could become profit centers and revenue pivots for major broadcasters in the future. The key differentiator between women’s and men’s sports audiences is the outsized marketing activation and spending by viewers of women’s sporting content – and advertisers have been keen to connect with these demographics. FIFA renewed calls at its recent annual congress for broadcasters to not undersell the media rights when they present bids for the upcoming 2023 Women’s World Cup and will likely reject lowball offers for key broadcast markets. Women’s WorldTour cycling could actually find itself better positioned to react and adapt to the changing broadcast marketplace – particularly if it can come up with a more cohesive package and narrative for its smaller racing calendar. The upward trend in recent years for the Flanders Classics slate of women’s races is an indicator of this potential, and we are excited to see both the racing and the viewership figures in the coming weeks.