Titans Face Off at CX Worlds; Tough Times for Media; Safety in the News Again; Transgender Sport Controversy Continues; Who is the Trendiest Sports Federation?
● Clash of the Titans at CX Worlds
● Tough Times Continue for the Media
● Safety Back in the News Again
● On-Going Debate Around Transgender Participation in Sport
● Who’s the Trendiest International Federation?
The professional road racing calendar was packed over the weekend, but the biggest event took place on Hoogerheide’s dirt paths, with Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert once again going head-to-head in a duel at the Cyclocross World Championships in Hoogerheide (the two riders account for a remarkable eight out of the last 10 world titles). As predicted, it was a hotly contested race where the two legendary riders marked each other pedal-stroke for pedal-stroke until Van der Poel unleashed an explosive sprint inside the final few hundred meters that Van Aert simply couldn’t match. The title, which gives MVDP five championships vs. WVA’s three, may settle the debate as to who is the better cyclocross rider – though Van Aert didn't seem to be too worried about the statistics. More importantly for fans, it foreshadows a thrilling upcoming competition during road season where Van der Poel will attempt to pull even with Van Aert – who has had more success on the road over the past few seasons. (But enough with the endless cute pictures of the two as young boys and teenagers – which seem to be ubiquitous on social media.)
While overshadowed by the cyclocross showdown, there was also notable action on the road racing front. At the five-stage Étoile de Bessèges, Neilson Powless continued a promising early-season run by American riders when he won the overall title by a single second on the final stage. Over at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, the 36-year-old Rui Costa reminded us that the youth movement isn’t all encompassing, by outfoxing his much-younger competition to pull out an unexpected win inside the last two kilometers of the final stage. Despite Costa’s triumph, however, the sight of 20-year-old Arnaud de Lie outclassing strong competition to win two stages at Bessèges reminds us once again that the phenomenon of wunderkinds stepping up to the pro ranks and immediately winning is far from over – in fact, it may be accelerating.
Unfortunately, Étoile de Bessèges won’t be remembered for its on-road action as much as a massive crash with 25 kms to go on stage 2 that left TotalEnergies rider Valentin Ferron dangling from the side of a bridge over a ravine. The crash impacted so many riders that the rest of the stage was canceled – due to the race medical staff being overwhelmed. On one hand, the decision to cancel the stage reflects progress for pro cycling, which just a few years ago saw one of its biggest races, Paris-Roubaix, continue without a hitch, even after one of its riders, Michael Goolaerts, had actually died during the race. (Compare this with the NFL’s decision – perhaps forced by the players – to cancel the recent game between the Bengals and Bills after a player collapsed on the field.) On the other hand, however, it once again highlights a pattern of poor course safety regarding bridges. For example, Remco Evenepoel was seriously injured after riding off a bridge during the 2020 Lombardia, and a large crash during stage 2 of the 2022 Tour de France put riders uncomfortably close to the risk of going over the barriers of the Great Belt Bridge in Denmark – a more than 200-foot fall, which is too catastrophic to contemplate.
We recently summarized challenges facing the current media landscape in niche sports like cycling. Although some have argued that the cycling media has a distinct set of problems and challenges, broader media businesses across the board continue to suffer ill effects from the current economic situation. The Washington Post is on track to lose money again this year and has just announced further layoffs. More and more mainstream media companies cut back on operating expenses and staff, primarily in response to declining advertising revenues. In January alone, Spotify, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce and Amazon have laid off a combined total of nearly 50,000 workers, and each day brings news of additional cutbacks. Twitter, under Elon Musk, has gone from 7,500 employees to only 2,300 since October. Adweek – a publication which actually covers advertising in media – itself laid off ten percent of its staff. The former President of Hearst Magazines concisely summarized the situation, saying, “the whole thing shows how digital media is stuck in an existential quagmire between a fading promise of an old model and a wildly speculative rendering of the future.” He surmises that the only sure bets seem to involve video, good data, and advertising performance, adding that “profit is the necessary oxygen” for survival.
The outlook for 2023 remains pretty bleak as well. Plummeting ad sales have also forced Big Media to reckon with an even bigger problem — cord-cutting and a slowdown in consumer spending on subscriptions. The pay TV (cable and satellite) market is shrinking at a rate of 6% per year; consequently, some of the world's biggest entertainment companies – including Netflix, Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros. Discovery – have lost billions of dollars in market value. And there is little new capital available - Substack scrapped its plans to raise money; BuzzFeed today is valued today at just 16% of where it was in 2016; other digital players like Vice Media and Vox are exploring ways to either sell or generate enough short-term cash to keep operations afloat. There are still some points of optimism in the industry, but they again underline the criticality of absolute scale: the behemoth New York Times continues to grow its subscriber base, while News Corp. revenues rose to a record $10.4 billion.
Transgender inclusion in sports like cycling came to the forefront again when a recent scientific meta-analysis, commissioned by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports, found that there is “no evidence to indicate that trans women have a consistent and measurable overall performance benefit” over cisgender women (those who were born as and identify as female) after 12 months of testosterone suppression therapy. The report discussed a number of other factors which negatively affect women’s sports today, including lack of funding, social biases and persistent sexism, and it concluded that much of the science used to enact trans participation policies is hampered by insufficient experimental methodology and measurement criteria. These flaws indicate the need for broader study pools and increased funding to better define the parameters for trans inclusivity, rather than exclusion without sufficient cause or policy scope. The authors also suggested that ideological posturing and claims that trans women are somehow stealing opportunities from cisgender women and destroying women’s sports are not supported by scientific, economic, and population measurement facts.
Response to the Canadian study was swift and critical and underlines the fact that transgender participation in sport is likely to continue as a cultural flashpoint until there are more long-term, objective, and science-based studies to settle key points of contention. The number of transgender participants in cycling and many other sports seems likely to increase in the coming years – which could finally enable scientific studies with the broader pool of participants needed to measure the issues more definitively and lead to more thorough and impartial future trans competition policies.
According to various sports analytical firms, there are a number of key emerging sports technology trends to watch for in the future. These include an on-going market consolidation; the opportunity to convert casual bettors into more engaged experts; sports property rights holders will double-down on the Drive to Survive “bandwagon” and model to attract new fans; teams and rights holders will seek new ways to monetize fan bases; new applications of AI will make revolutionary changes for the fan experience; computer-assisted virtual coaching and AI-powered biometric analysis will allow more consumers to take control of their health and wellness; sports tech funds will continue to raise money, but the pace of investment is slowing down; and Web 3.0 has emerged as “both a force and a farce.”
BCW Sports recently published its 2022 social media ranking for International Sports Federations. Published annually since 2016, this ranking attempts to capture the social media footprint of international sports federations and provide insights on social media use trends within international sport. Following the down years of COVID, social media engagement was judged to be up by around 25%. Leading the way with almost 100 million followers on the major platforms was the International Cricket Council, up 16% over last year. Next were FIFA (soccer) and FIBA (basketball). In terms of the roughly 40 Olympic sports, cycling’s governing body, the UCI, ranked seventh in terms of overall social media engagement, with over 4 million followers. In terms of personal followers on Twitter, UCI President David Lappartient ranked ninth, but with just some 7,200 followers – a fraction of what various popular riders can lay claim to. Most federation leaders tended to favor LinkedIn or Facebook as their media interaction platform of choice.
Peloton finally snuck back into the news cycle last week, but (finally) in a positive way. After two years of post-pandemic financial faceplants, the connected fitness pioneer registered its third straight quarter in which recurring subscription revenues outpaced sales of its hardware which include its stationary Bike and Bike+ platform products. While the quarter was still ‘down’ from net loss perspective, that redline was narrower and emboldened investors and the company CEO to say that Peloton had turned the corner towards profitability. But Peloton’s stability in the fitness marketplace – particularly in light of its vast presence in indoor cycling – may not bode well for cycling’s native connected riding market. It’s no secret that Wahoo and Zwift are at loggerheads over Zwift’s low-cost entry into the smart trainer market. But with Wahoo continuing to sue Zwift (and Wahoo rumored to be in a precarious cash-poor status at the moment), both brands may be losing valuable momentum and market share, especially with other supply chain whiplash impacts reshaping the entire cycling market. Hopefully both parties can settle their differences before their consumers – primarily Wahoo Kick’r owners using the Zwift platform – get locked out or otherwise impacted by this drama.