WorldTour Racing Back in Business; New Red Bull Talent Program; Saudi Arabia Continues Buying Spree; Future Trends in Sports and Technology
· 2023 WT Racing Kicks Off in Australia
· Are Shorter, Punchier Races More Exciting?
· Red Bull Announces New Talent ID Program
· Saudi Arabia’s Continuing and Audacious Moves into Global Sport
· Sports Technology Trends to Watch
The 2023 WorldTour racing calendar kicked off last week with the Tour Down Under (TDU) making its long-awaited return after a two-year COVID-induced break. Fresh off his surprising Australian time trial national championship win, UAE’s Jay Vine won the event overall. This begs the question as to the true capabilities of this talented rider. He only started racing professionally two seasons ago, after emerging from the Zwift Academy program. It also shows that UAE is laying the groundwork to challenge Jumbo-Visma as one of the sport’s deepest teams in 2023. While it is difficult to draw too many conclusions from early-season racing, the big takeaway from this week (in addition to yet another demonstrative example that the “hub-and-spoke” course model is the most economical path for lower-tier professional stage races) is that the modern trend of all-out racing, even a long way from the finish line in lower-tier races, seems to be alive and well for the 2023 season. The TDU, which has traditionally been contested by fast finishers who were able to rack up time bonuses on the multiple sprint finishes, seemed transformed this season – with winning time gaps created far from the finish line for the first time in the race’s history.
The unpredictability and excitement of the Tour Down Under – on even the mildest stages – serves to bolster the argument that shorter and less difficult parcours encourage the most dynamic races. For example, stages at TDU averaged about three hours – which is far shorter than the usual WorldTour race. This mirrors the trend we saw at last season’s Giro, where the most explosive GC racing happened on the relatively short, hilly city circuits in Napoli and Torino, rather than long, grueling mountain stages. The mere thought of shortening races in order to create more excitement and uncertainty is sure to rankle traditionalists, but as cycling’s stakeholders envision ways to evolve or reinvent the sport to create a more compelling viewing product and attempt to appeal to audiences that demand non-stop action, these examples may be a template for where the sport could go.
Speaking of breaking with tradition to great success, Sunday’s UCI World Cup Benidorm Cyclocross race – which took place on the sunny Costa Blanca in Spain as opposed to the muddy fields of Belgium or the Netherlands – produced one of the most thrilling battles of the season so far. Mathieu van der Poel eked out a victory over Wout van Aert, who up until this point had appeared unstoppable. The event may have rankled some purists, but the course, which was dry and exceptionally fast, contributed to the high-octane nature of the race. The unorthodox race location (close to a popular winter training ground) might be seen by some as an admission of cyclocross’s role as merely an off-season hobby or diversion for its biggest talents, but the uber-practical decision of making things as easy as possible for the sport’s biggest stars to attend without compromising their pre-season road training meant that on a day where two early-season road races were taking place (TDU and Clàssica Comunitat Valenciana), cycling’s biggest talents, and fan focus, were focused on cyclocross.
The recently-announced Red Bull Junior Brothers initiative – similar to the Zwift Academy mentioned above – will use technology to find young bike racers who might not be visible within traditional development pathways. This new talent search is connected to the Bora-Hansgrohe World Tour team and will funnel promising young riders toward the team’s junior program. Using not only Zwift data but also Strava segments, Bora will scout around the world for riders born in 2006 and 2007 who ride prescribed segments between February and May. This search takes a “meet them where they are” approach, relying on existing and globally known technology platforms to surface the next potential Tadej Pogacar or Remco Evenepoel. Additionally, the Red Bull relationship brings street cred and relevance for teenagers who may not have heard of Bora-Hansgrohe or even professional cycling. It will be interesting to see where this leads and if other pro cycling teams create similar initiatives.
LIV Golf continues its progression toward mainstream sports acceptance, despite pushback from the PGA and a potentially major legal controversy. After spending an estimated $800 million on its first season with essentially no revenue, the organization is gearing up for an even bigger second season. The Saudi-funded golf series inked a reported multi-year U.S. broadcasting agreement with the CW network, which currently has an approximate audience of 120 million households via its cable, streaming, and local TV broadcast markets. Interestingly, LIV will monetize its planned 14-tournament 2023 schedule via a revenue-sharing mechanism – the tournament owner will front the production and distribution costs, a disadvantage which has historically impacted the pro bike racing market as well.
LIV’s deal with CW may seem lopsided but will likely succeed in the long game for viewership and strategic objectives. Fans will be able to tune in to see their favorites – often among the world’s best players – compete in a season-long schedule and narrative. More critically, LIV now has a stronger foothold for disrupting the PGA’s dominant model by providing players and sponsors with broader exposure, which in turn could attract even more players and sway larger broadcasters – and potential revenue-building licensing fees – towards LIV. While WorldTour cycling does boast the world’s best riders, the lack of a cohesively packaged broadcast schedule limits its licensing revenue model. LIV’s success in trying to convert revenue-sharing models into licensing value streams should be closely watched by our sport.
Saudi Arabia’s investments in sports continues to gain speed – in pursuit of redefining the country’s global image and economic profile. This includes recent rumors that the country’s sovereign fund may be ready to offer $20 billion USD for Formula 1, has a reported interest in acquiring World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), may offer Lionel Messi upwards of $300 million USD to play in the Saudi league, and apparently stands ready to pledge a $500 billion-plus commitment to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in a venue that hasn’t even been built. (We would point out that essentially the entire sport of pro cycling could likely be acquired for about 10% of the amount the Saudi’s are apparently willing to put down for F1.) Yet, despite all of these enormous investments, the Kingdom can’t quite shake sportswashing allegations: it took heavy flak when an investigative report suggested that LIV’s legal team is using its antitrust lawsuit against the PGA to gather intelligence on individuals and families who are suing the Saudi Government over its alleged ties to 9/11 and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
SportsPro Media recently made some predictions about the growing ties between sport and technology, as athletes, clubs, governing bodies, broadcasters and brands use new innovations to improve fan accessibility and grow revenues. Despite the challenging macroeconomic environment, the report estimates that sports technology companies secured over $US 7 billion in new funding through just the first ten months of 2022. Among the major trends highlighted were the use of generative artificial intelligence – which is already being used for everything from digital content creation to predictive injury prevention – and new and different augmented and virtual reality applications.
SPM also points out that, although 2022 was the year that the connected fitness market underwent a painful correction, it is far from dead. The post-COVID return to the gym may have slowed growth, but “all of this will mean greater democratization and (will) put the segment on a steady long-term footing.” Peloton seems to have hit bottom and is working on a deal to sell equipment through Amazon. “Apple Fitness+ is going from strength to strength by opening up to anyone with an iPhone, not just an Apple Watch” and, as we mentioned last week, Netflix is offering fitness content from Nike Training Club. Finally, the report cautions about the splintering of social media and the potential impact that this could have on sports, highlighting the current situation at Twitter. Some sports players are “worried about content moderation, while others lament the job cuts that have impacted Twitter’s sports business. Twitter will still have its supporters and remain an important tool for sport, but the questions raised reflect a wider shift away from the era of unfiltered, public social media.”