"Unchained" Spawns a New Cottage Industry; Tour Preparation Races Wind Down; UCI Points Change Impact? Lessons from Global Basketball and Women's Soccer ...
● Reviewing the “Unchained” Reviews
● Tour Preparation Winding Down
● UCI Points Changes: Important or Not?
● Learning from the Globalization of Basketball …
● … And From Women’s Soccer
Now that the Netflix Unchained documentary has been available for a couple weeks, critiquing, scrutinizing, dissecting and otherwise appraising the long-awaited series has become nothing short of a cottage industry for the cycling media world. Everyone has felt compelled to weigh in on what one and all hope will be a transformative moment in the sport. Interestingly, many of the “mainstream” cycling media sites have given Unchained a bit of a ho-hum response. This is perhaps not unexpected, since many of the primary media sites cater primarily (if not exclusively) to hardcore cycling fans – who may view the series as simplistic or redundant with other recent cycling films, or who are simply tired of the repetitive de rigueur in-car shots of race directors yelling obscenities into their mikes. For example, veteran blogger The Inner Ring opined that it felt like “a tub of vanilla ice cream. It’s enjoyable but it’s not got much inside, it feels factory-made and relies on industrial additives for flavouring.” Ouch.
On the other hand, reviewers more removed from the core of the sport have been far more enthusiastic. Veteran golf journalist Will Kent (who had “never seen a minute of bike racing before”) on special assignment to Rouleur, was “eagerly anticipating the possibility of a second season. As someone totally new to the world of cycling, I would give this a solid nine out of 10.” Our own totally unscientific survey of friends and family suggest that more casual (or non-) fans are finding the series more compelling. At the end of the day, this is of course exactly what the series was intended to do – expose the sport to more people and pull in new fans; not impress existing hard-core fans. Nonetheless, as Inner Ring put it, “This feels unsatisfying, a great sports documentary should appeal to everyone.” Our gut feel is that it’s unlikely that the series will have any immediate or earth-shaking impact, but it has been generally well-received by the target audience. In a few weeks time, we will be able to calculate just how much impact it will actually have on TV audiences for this year’s Tour.
This past week was the final chance for riders preparing for the upcoming Tour de France to get valuable stage racing kilometers in their legs, with four stage races – the Tour de Suisse, Tour of Slovenia, Belgium Tour, and La Route d'Occitanie. All of these events feature key riders looking to tune-up their fitness and racing skills prior to the Tour, which kicks off in less than two weeks. While Suisse has traditionally been the headliner of the bunch, the age profile of the GC competition made this year’s event look more like a U23 event than a duel between the sport's top Tour de France contenders. Mattias Skjelmose, the 22-year-old prospect on Trek, won the overall, with the 20-year-old emerging star Juan Ayuso coming in a close second. Along with 23-year-old Remco Evenepoel rounding out of the podium, the average age of the top three finishers was just 21 – and didn’t feature a single rider likely to podium at the upcoming Tour de France (Evenepoel isn’t currently slated to start the Tour). Meanwhile, veteran superstar Mathieu van der Poel won the overall at the Tour of Belgium, while Matej Mohorič pressed Italian national champion and eventual overall winner, Filippo Zana, at the Tour of Slovenia, and Israel Premier Tech’s Mike Woods won La Route d'Occitanie. This trend toward veteran racers using smaller races to prepare highlights how much the modern racing landscape has shifted the balance of power amongst national Tours – challenging the presumption of some being more important than others.
The racing at all of these events was overshadowed by the death on Friday morning of 26-year-old Gino Mäder on the Bahrain-Victorious team – who died after crashing on a high-speed descent on stage 5 of the Tour de Suisse. By all accounts, Mäder was one of the most respected and articulate up-and-coming young riders in the peloton. His tragic death, like those of Fabio Casartelli (1995) and Wouter Weylandt (2011), serves as a brutal reminder of the risks that professional cyclists routinely take while descending in races, the inherent danger involved in the sport, and the pressure they face to race at the fastest possible speed down technically demanding alpine roads. We could dive into this controversial topic in more detail, but at this point it doesn’t seem appropriate.
A few weeks ago, we touched on the UCI’s revised points system – which now gives greater weight to stages at the sport’s biggest grand tours. At the recent Giro, these changes allowed the second-division Israel Premier Tech team to rack up a significant number of UCI points, due to Derek Gee’s ability to finish high on several stages. However, and unlike others, we don’t foresee that these changes will materially change the strategy for how teams and riders race the sport’s biggest events. It seems unlikely that any rider will now attempt to win – or finish inside the top 15 – at Tour stages who wouldn’t have already been attempting to do that anyway. The fight for the top places at the Tour is so difficult, and the potential personal reward so high, that riders are not now suddenly going to go for wins just because of a few extra points. For example, in the case of Derek Gee at the Giro, he was getting into breakaways because they represented his only viable way to get personal results and raise his profile in the marketplace. The fact that he scored more points for IPT as a result was just a secondary result. And while in theory, one could make the argument that the new rules might convince a rider to go for stage wins instead of, say, 9th on the GC, in reality, the financial incentive for a rider to finish top ten in a grand tour is much greater. In short, while the new system will more accurately reflect the best teams and riders in the sport, it will actually be more difficult to “game” than the previous system. The strongest riders and teams will naturally rack up a larger share of UCI points – but not because they have a specific strategy to do so.
The recently concluded NBA finals, won by the Denver Nuggets, highlighted the transformative global change of the league since the Dream Team won the 1992 Olympic basketball tournament. Evolving from the global impact of that event, the league has diversified from a largely North American talent pipeline to one that has a significant percentage of top tier players from Africa, Europe, Oceania, the Far East and beyond. While football/soccer remains the most profitable and ubiquitous global sport, basketball is not far behind – due to its accessibility factors for players of any age and gender, and the fact that its league ambassadors are among the most recognizable sports personalities on the planet. In the case of cycling, since professionals entered the Olympics in 1996, the sport has experienced wide swings in popularity. However, it has remained largely a European sport. One difference is that cycling lacks the ability to develop talent due to the cost of equipment, while accessibility, safety, and rideable conditions of paved road infrastructure add to the obstacles. Efforts across various iterations of the UCI’s leadership have yielded success in fits and jumps, such as globalization of the original ProTour, and multi-tiered racing and rider development investments in national federations. However, the sport still lacks an “Air Jordan” caliber ambassador (Lance Armstrong is still the sport’s most recognizable name), and many of its sponsors are even divisive due to national affiliations and environmental reputation. By tending to withdraw into a more European-centric competitive calendar, despite its widely-hyped 2030 Plan, competitive cycling’s global outreach is blunted. From a macro-economic perspective, the sport’s global stakeholders would do well to study the NBA’s successes to potentially introduce meaningful, actionable, and measurable strategies for future growth.
Women's professional sports continue to grow globally, and perhaps nowhere faster than in soccer, particularly the U.S. market. Most recently, FIFA announced that it has signed broadcast agreements with key European markets for the upcoming Women’s World Cup, and drastically increased the rewards for players in the tournament. While not at parity with the men’s prize pool, the jump in broadcast licensing will underwrite tripling the women’s tournament prizes over the last Cup. Also, a second top tier U.S.-based professional league called the USL Super League was announced to launch in August 2024, and will add a different dimension to the sport's North American footprint. The new league will be composed of eight new city hosts, some of which already host a men's MLS team and an existing NWSL team. The major differentiator will be that the NWSL plays a schedule from spring through the fall, while the USL Super League will align with international leagues and play from fall through the spring.
Cutting to the chase, is there enough fan interest and enough pro-caliber players to sustain two top-division soccer leagues in a single region? And will fan fatigue reach over-saturation with a year-round schedule of matches and championship chases? The USL is incredibly well funded and masterfully pursuing municipal and business commitments in locations where the NWSL doesn't have a presence, and where MLS relationships can be leveraged to immediately connect a fan base. But going back to the parallels with U.S. pro cycling, we must revisit the situation where four "premier" criterium series have been announced and many are already running full steam. Is there enough talent to fill the fields across this landscape? For soccer, the answer may be yes, because of the massive upswell in the sport's popularity. But in cycling, the oversaturation may create problems, given the economic conditions and the sport's niche market appeal. Similar to the NBA’s macro-economic strategic lessons noted above, USA Cycling and other national federations could do worse than study the micro-economic market approaches enabling soccer's growth – particularly, the women's divisions – and use key pointers to refine the development model.
With last week’s cancellation of a major women’s race, and the death of Gino Mäder fresh in mind, there was an announcement this week of a new cycling safety-oriented committee to be named SAROC – for Safe Road Cycling. Although little is known at the moment, SAROC is apparently an informal collaboration between a number of teams and race organizers – similar to the MPCC, which has worked on a non-governmental basis for years to try to control doping within the peloton. According to the Escape Collective article, the project was apparently started three years ago, following Fabio Jakobsen’s terrible crash at the 2020 Tour of Poland. While this is an encouraging sign, it remains to be seen how this emerging group will work with the CPA, or the UCI, in attempting to address the critical issues of safety, and what advisory or enforcement powers it might have.