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Worlds Wrap Up, With Economics Uncertain; Sportswashing Hits the Mainstream Media; Do More Dollars Create More Competitive Success? Sports Content Increasingly Driving Media Survival Strategies
● World Championships End With a Bang …
● But Will They Make a Profit?
● Sportswashing Hits the Mainstream Media
● Big Budgets vs. Competitive Success
● The Need for Stronger Youth Cycling Development
● Sports Content Is Increasingly Driving Media Strategies
The 2023 combined World Championships couldn't have ended on a higher note – with Belgium’s Lotte Kopecky taking the women's road title in one of the most exciting races of the week. The victory capped off an incredible week for Kopecky, as she also took rainbows and golds in two track events and demonstrated that her great form from the recently concluded Tour de France Femmes (six days in yellow and a stage win) was the start of a great peak, not the taper. The women’s road race was every bit as tough and technical as the earlier men’s event, but the more evenly matched field and skillful riding made for a thrilling finale. While crashes and mechanicals prevented protagonists like Annemiek van Vleuten from playing a bigger role, the top ten was a mix of both youth and experience. But as we discussed last week, it further underlined the outsized influence of a handful of major sponsors in the women’s sport – with three SD Worx commercial team riders in the top five, and only Christina Schweinberger (Fenix, fifth place) coming from one of the smaller development squads in the WWT.
Elsewhere at the Worlds, the mountain biking events suggested that cycling fans should be paying more attention to the sport. Tom Pidcock took a convincing gold in the Men’s XC race, after a controversial bronze finish in the short track event, while Pauline Ferrand-Prevot took gold in both the women’s short track and XC races. Mountain biking events – particularly short track and multi-lap XC events – are more amenable to broadcasting and on-site fan engagement; it will be interesting to see what Warner Bros.-Discovery has in store for the sport in the coming years now that it has exclusivity to the sport’s key UCI events. Despite fluctuations in the number of annual events and being overshadowed by road and cyclocross racing in recent years, the sport could rapidly take center stage with dedicated programming, given its appeal to a wide swath of both riders and fans.
With the combined World Championships experiment complete, attention will now turn to the sport’s less enjoyable post-race analysis: how much money the event made or lost when all the bills are tallied. While prior UCI Worlds in obscure locales predictably tanked (Ponferrada and Bergen come to the fore), the financial outlook for Glasgow and its neighboring regions seemed brighter, as they are all well-connected with air and rail transportation. But on closer examination, the event’s already impressive budget was under strain and in controversy as early as April this year, when it was reputed to be £10 million over cost estimates at that stage, with local counties being pressured to front more contributions to shore up necessary road repairs. However, whether or not the ambitious event ends up in the “black” may eventually be a moot point; like many World Championship investments, the implicit bet is that – quantitative analysis aside – the publicity and goodwill generated will have an overall positive economic impact for the region.
Saudi Arabia’s recent binge of sports-related investments has come under increasing scrutiny from all corners and now the mainstream media seems to be hitting the topic with a vengeance. And varying conclusions are being drawn. A report on Yahoo News concluded that the recent acquisition spree “isn't about image cleansing. It's about building a new economy.” Meanwhile, the left-leaning The New Republic concludes that “This will change global sports. It will change global culture. But Saudi Arabia doesn’t really care about that. This is about power and money, and little else.” Bari Weiss’s right-leaning The Free Press suggests that “Beneath all the cries of sportswashing, one senses a gnawing anxiety in the West over the dynamism and ambition happening in the Gulf. The Saudis are thinking strategically about where they fit into a global future …. Sports are a fast way to get noticed and build soft power.” Finally, the influential Council on Foreign Relations weighed in recently, pointing out that sportswashing is nothing new, and saying that various countries are getting more involved in “global discussions about sporting, tourism, trade, and education – not by building vast militaries, but through increasingly savvy cultural and financial forays far beyond their borders.”
This coming week, many of those Saudi bets will come due, as its professional soccer league kicks off its 34-match schedule for 2023. A slew of foreign talent has been recruited into the league – up to eight spots per team – and the league’s director has publicly stated an intention that the league will soon become a place for “exceptional players only.” This means that efforts to buy up even more of the world’s top footballers will only accelerate, and at greater scale over the next year (Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar is apparently closing in on a nearly $300 million transfer to the Al Hilal team, for example). The context is clear: if the sport’s biggest names are locked into one league, that league will own the eyeballs, marketing direction, and influence of the sport. Lionel Messi may be making big waves in the U.S. with his storybook MLS debut, but the Saudi Pro League, by virtue of its massive investment and market dominance strategy, may eventually come to dominate the sport.
We have frequently written in the past about the relationship between big budgets and winning teams in cycling – typically drawing the conclusion that money helps, but that it certainly isn’t everything. Now there is convincing new evidence from baseball that the same is true in other sports. Last week, the New York Mets began systematically dismantling the MLB’s most expensive roster ever – $344 million in annual payroll – sending the league’s most expensive player, Max Scherzer off to Texas and establishing the rather dubious honor of spending more on former players’ salaries (over $150 million) than on its current remaining roster. And it's not just the Mets; there are numerous examples of low returns resulting from unprecedented spending across the league that will surely have major implications for the future. Three of the league’s biggest spenders are all out of playoff contention, while “four of the bottom six are solidly contending. The No. 29 team – the $69 million Baltimore Orioles – in particular have soared to the top record in the American League.”
Looking ahead in cycling, the European talent pipeline seems to be in a halcyon period – with both young male and female riders rapidly adapting to the pro ranks and dominating the sport’s myriad disciplines. But not in the U.S. Despite a huge population that regularly turns out thousands of Division 1 athletes across a wide variety of sports, there are precious few channels for developing young riders into Tour and Classics winning riders at similar scale. We examined a number of these issues in our Velo series last month, but we can also look to other sports for cues on how to inspire kids to take up cycling. The NFL will dedicate a broadcast of the upcoming season’s Super Bowl specifically for kids that merges CBS visuals with Nickelodeon’s network presentation talent. On one hand, the strategy controversially opens up advertising opportunities that often exploit the outsized effects kids have on family purchasing habits; on the other hand, it tailors a popular and exciting sport for kids in a way that can inspire them to put on the pads and try it for themselves. Given the continued and growing popularity for NFL play worldwide, why shouldn’t cycling try to make a version of its content more accessible and understandable for kids today, if only to bolster the strength of the sport tomorrow?
The shift from cable subscriptions to self-managed streaming choices is reshaping the broadcasting market – and one key driver for all the rapid change is sports content exclusivity. Sports content license rights packages and exclusivity have become a cornerstone for streaming service viewer acquisition, but the strategy hasn’t worked as well for entertainment conglomerates who still rely on cable to reach the majority of their viewers. Disney hauled in a huge number of subscribers into the Disney+ streaming platform in 2019, when it bought out Star India’s network and the rights to cricket's powerhouse India Premier League (IPL). But Disney elected to only retain the terrestrial (cable) broadcast rights when the IPL auctioned its licensing in 2022, losing the streaming rights to rival Viacom18 – along with 9 million Disney+ subscribers (to date) as loyal IPL fans switched services. These kinds of subscription losses undoubtedly impacted Disney’s recent layoff decisions.
On the other side of the coin, Netflix has deliberately avoided live sports, focusing instead on a vast, unbundled, on-demand entertainment portfolio. Netflix has greatly benefited from popular sports and has bolstered its subscriber base without airing a single live event. And one of its strongest performers is a broad selection of sports docudrama programming, including the runaway success of the Formula1 Drive to Survive series, and a number of knock-off series on other sports. Still, the trend is towards sports as the "hook" to acquire and retain consumers, and one could ask why every big player hasn't bet the bank on sports broadcast rights and exclusivity to fuel growth targets. The answer is proving to be complicated, and with Warner Bros-Discovery Max launching a live sports tier that could drive UCI mountain bike World Cup and GCN+ coverage, we will continue to watch this space as cycling's media rights evolve and hopefully reach the more profitable and higher echelons of the broadcast marketplace.
And we’re not sure if this is a “feel-good” story or a comedy in the making, but … here goes. Coming out of left field and almost sounding like an April Fool’s prank, a concept called The Enhanced Games has been launched by sports entrepreneurs to provide an open forum for “scientifically enhanced” – i.e., doped – elite athletes to compete for victory in several Olympic-style sports. While the concept has been treated as laughable by the sports establishment, the actual Olympic track record is filled with such doped athletes, who have steered the event’s narrative over much of its history – including numerous gold medal take-backs following positive tests, and fallout from the infamously successful Russian doping program. The wide-ranging implications of such an event stir up controversial topics like transhumanist evolution and the ethics of chemical enhancement from personal choice and medical professional oversight perspectives. On one hand, it could be a panacea for sports scientists to truly test the limits of athlete preparation and physiology, but on the other hand, many athletes could be irreparably harmed, and reputations burnished. Should the event go on as planned, it’s not hard to imagine that cycling could one day be on the agenda too. Perhaps an April 1st opening ceremony date might soften the impact of The Enhanced Games, but we doubt it.