The Impact of "Unchained;" New UCI Budget and Salary Data Leaked; Stiff Challenges Ahead for the Bike Industry; Cheating in Sports; The Future for Ineos? Fallout from Uijtdebroeks Affair ...
· The Impact of Netflix’s “Unchained” Series
· New UCI Salary and Budget Figures Leaked
· Reasons Behind Stiff Challenges Facing the Bike Industry
· Cheating in Sports
· With Manchester U Deal Done, What Now for Team Ineos?
· Fallout from the Uijtdebroeks Affair?
When Netflix’s highly-anticipated Unchained series on pro cycling was released last spring, there was widespread hope that it would help to drive a boom of audience interest in the sport – just as the earlier, and now iconic Drive to Survive series did for Formula 1 racing. Although the series was generally well-received by critics and did seem to drive some new viewers to the sport, it’s far from clear that it substantially increased the size of the pro cycling audience. It was popular enough that Netflix and their contractors signed up to produce a second season of the series. But viewing statistics recently released by Netflix also cast some doubt on the impact; Unchained ranked in 984th place in terms of all of its content; at 22 million total viewing hours, it ranked way below the company’s other sports-related narrative content. Observers pointed out that the Netflix data spans just the first half of 2023, and the Unchained show was released relatively late during that period; on the other hand, most of the viewing probably occurred around the time of the Tour de France anyway – since the race was the theme of the series. It’s hard to know exactly how to interpret that single viewing figure, as the series basically consisted of eight one-hour episodes; i.e., did 22 million people watch one episode, or did about 2.5 million people watch the entire series? Whatever the actual viewership was, it seems clear that, while it was a well-produced show and liked by most cycling fans, it has not yet had a major impact on helping to grow a new and larger audience for pro cycling.
Amidst all of cycling’s leaked exclusives, speculations, and unsubstantiated rumors in 2023, the best may have been saved for last – after a summary of UCI road racing team analytics found its way into a Belgian newspaper last week. Among the highlights (obtained from confidential UCI documents) are new average salary benchmarks for both the men’s (nearly €450K) and women’s (€65K) WorldTour team riders. However, the fact that median salaries are way below the average figures underlines the skewing of the numbers by a handful of top wage earners like Primoz Roglic or Demi Vollering. Year over year, these averages have shown a sharp increase; for example, the median WT men’s wage has increased over 30% to about €200K just since 2021. (On the other hand, the median wage at the ProTeam level is just €50K per year.) The median team budget has now risen to about €25 million – up considerably from the last moderately verifiable estimates. While that may appear to be good progress, the article also points out that no fewer than nine EPL football clubs have individual budgets that are greater than the entire sport of WT cycling. While team budgets have increased, the effect of mega-capitalized sponsors like UAE and Ineos have similarly skewed the average figures when compared to smaller, regionally-focused teams. And with 72% of a team’s budget now dedicated to rider salaries alone — the rest going towards considerable operational and staff expenses — there seems to be little room for any kind of reserve funds to cover unanticipated sponsor withdrawals. The article also provides numerous indications of growth in women’s cycling, though it still trails the men’s sport by a large margin; the average women’s team budget is under €4 million. In sum, these new data lay bare the gathering crisis in pro road cycling: if and when the volume of sponsor dollars starts to be exceeded by spending necessary to retain top riders, the sustainability and equitability of the sport starts to be called into question. Many important reforms and strategic paths can be adopted to start building a stronger sport in 2024, and we hope the stakeholders have this in their New Year’s resolutions.
As 2023's abysmal bicycle and accessory sales year wraps up, hand-wringing and debate over the drivers behind the downturn, and the timing for a potential rebound are ricocheting around the cycling media. Everyone – from YouTube content creators to established bike industry analysts – seems to have an opinion about supply chain prioritization changes, demand forecasting mistakes, and the collapse of traditional product distribution channels like Wiggle. However, most agree that the market has been flooded by the late arrival of 2023 products (and even some from 2022) just as 2024 products are being delivered. Fire sales to dump deadstock – highlighted by online retailer purges of Wiggle's Nukeproof and Vitus brands, historic discounts on major manufacturer brands, heartburn suffered by local bike shops, and even a 2-for-1 Kona deal (!?)– seem likely to continue to suppress sales into 2024 as well.
But to get at the root of the current situation, it’s important to focus on consumer behavior, in addition to questions about market channels. During the pandemic, and the supposed 2022 recovery year, consumers who could not procure the bike that they wanted often settled for the bikes which were available at the moment. This led to order cancellations and a soft market suppression as the bikes that these consumers originally desired later became available – as late as early 2023. Consumers were essentially satiated when 2023 bikes began to arrive in showrooms and warehouses – exacerbating the inventory glut and highlighting two symptoms the industry must address. First, the oft-repeated mantra of "N+1” – the lighthearted but misplaced notion that the optimal number of bikes a cyclist must own is always one more – no longer applies. The consumer base is tapped out and no longer willing to purchase the "+1" at any price. Second, given the sport's ongoing lack of television exposure and meaningful structural reforms, few new fans are coming into the sport to replenish the consumer base. More industry right-sizing seems inevitable in the short term, but all stakeholders should be collaborating to address those key structural challenges which still stand in the way of allowing the sport’s overall ecosystem to grow.
Despite its regrettably and often negative reputation over the last couple decades, cycling certainly has no corner on the market in terms of clever approaches to cheating. USA Today recently published a ten-part series on cheating in sports, and beyond the obligatory citation of cycling’s dark days, lowlights include the Black Sox scandal, Maradona’s famous “hand of God,” the kneecapping of Nancy Kerrigan, “deflate-gate” and the Astros’ trashcan escapades. The series examined a variety of techniques of gaining the upper hand – electronic chips in runner’s bibs, carbon-plated shoes, high-tech swimsuits, even MMA fighters shaving down their facial bones to prevent bleeding, and of course the widespread usage of substances like EPO and human growth hormones in endurance sports. The survey also extends beyond physical sports to include competitions like chess – where contestants are alleged to have hidden electronic buzzers in shoes (and elsewhere) connected to remote computers to help determine optimal moves. As in virtually all such reviews, the conclusions are the there will always be some parties trying to cheat, no matter the rules or the level of enforcement. A+nd the next major frontier is likely to be gene doping – more general human genetic enhancement. As our colleague Dr. Roger Pielke, Jr. notes in the article, cheating in sports is like “a never-ending arms race.” In terms of developing new methods for cheating as well as detecting such methods, says Pielke, "science and technology are both the problem and the solution."
Ineos founder Jim Ratcliffe gave Manchester United supporters something to cheer for when he finally completed his long-rumored purchase of a 25% stake in the club. The deal is expected to inject much-needed financial support and operational management muscle into the formerly great, but currently struggling club. Directly after the purchase was announced, Ineos’ Dave Brailsford made a visit to watch Manchester United engineer an unlikely comeback over high-flying Aston Villa – suggesting that the man who led Team Sky to its greatest heights (and a few notable lows) will be charged with the unenviable task of turning around the troubled club. Brailsford has a near-peerless resume in getting the most out of a sporting organization, but he is likely to face unmatched scrutiny at the helm of United. And, as we have noted previously, the expected appointment of Brailsford to a leadership position at United raises questions about the future of the Ineos cycling operation. With Ratcliffe putting over a billion of cash into the club, as well as pledging a minimum of $300 million toward infrastructure upgrades, it remains to be seen if Ineos’ cycling operation will continue receiving the funding necessary to compete with the growing payrolls of their main cycling rivals.
With the heated Christmas-New Year’s cyclocross schedule currently in full swing, cycling fans are again reminded that while this discipline of the sport is difficult to scale outside of its northern European heartland, it may still offer the best in-person viewing experience. It also presents organizers with fantastic unit economics – due to the ability to charge entry fees and move significant food and beverage volume thanks to the contained nature of the courses. However, while the organizers may be executing the financial blocking-and-tackling of the races well, those hoping for a historic three-way duel between Tom Pidcock, Wout van Aert, and Mathieu van der Poel, have been disappointed. Despite all three riders being on the short list of the most talented CX riders of all time, Van der Poel has been head-and-shoulders above the others so far, boasting an undefeated run through the first six races of his season. While Van der Poel’s dominance is impressive, it also begs the question of whether a mid-winter peak is advisable. Van Aert, by comparison, was similarly dominant at this point last winter before having his worst road campaign since 2019 this past summer.
The dispute between Visma-Lease a Bike and Bora-Hansgrohe over Cian Uijtdebroeks was unceremoniously concluded when he showed up at Visma’s official presentation last week. This was apparently made possible by an agreement reached between the young Belgian star and the two teams – likely after Bora was compensated by a sum somewhere between the €100,000 Visma initially offered and the €1 million it was asking for. While Uijtdebroeks seems happy at his new team, the reasons for the move are still not clear, especially since he is likely to occupy a lower spot on the totem pole at the talent-laden Visma team than at his previous squad; the presence of Van Aert at his target 2024 race, the Giro d’Italia, will see Uijtderoeks lack full team support there. Furthermore, Bora chief Ralph Denk said Uijtdebroeks' claims of bullying were never even mentioned to the team. And at a higher level, the transaction raises more fundamental questions about the purpose of longer-term contracts. As Bora director Rolf Aldag alluded to in a recent interview with The Cycling Podcast, if the legal system allows riders, but not teams, to simply walk away from deals essentially whenever they wish, the very worth of a contract between rider and team is called into question.