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SBD Global/January 22, 2014/Marketing and Sponsorship

UCI's Cookson Wants To Change Cycling's Underdeveloped Commercial Potential

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Spanish pro cycling team Euskaltel-Euskadi folded at the end of '13 after it failed to find another major sponsor.
Int’l Cycling Union (UCI) President Brian Cookson said that cycling has to do something about its very poor economic model. The sport has been hit hard by the withdrawal of long-time team sponsors such as Rabobank and Deutsche Telekom, as well as the recent demise of the Euskaltel-Euskadi pro cycling team. Deutsche Telekom and Rabobank both ended their cycling sponsorships because of the sport’s numerous doping scandals. The Euskaltel-Euskadi team fell victim to Spain’s economic situation and had to close shop after 20 years, as it was unable to find another major backer. Cookson told SBD Global that he is "very concerned" about these developments. "I think we’ve underdeveloped the commercial potential of our sport." Cookson is already working on ways to improve the sport’s economic situation. The UCI has set up a working group and is working with Tour de France organizer ASO, teams, riders, national federations and event promoters, among others, to put the sport on a more viable economic path. "I think the potential is great out there, but we have underdeveloped it massively in the past and we are going to do something about that," Cookson said. "We don’t argue so much about who’s going to have the biggest slice of the cake, which is getting smaller and smaller. We want a bigger cake altogether, so that everyone gets a bigger slice. I’m confident that we can do that." To make this vision a reality, cycling has to find ways to improve its product and restore its damaged reputation. If it is able to do those things, Cookson is certain that more sponsors will join the sport because of its links with health, environment and transportation.

THRILL RIDE: One of the areas Cookson believes has a huge growth potential is broadcasting. TV broadcasts of road cycling races have not really changed a lot in the last 20-30 years. There have been some technological improvements such as HD, but it basically is still the same sort of coverage. Cookson: "I’m very keen to start looking at things like cameras on bikes and that kind of thing. What would be more exciting than having a camera on Mark Cavendish’s handlebars when he’s sprinting down the Champs-Élysées at the finish of the Tour de France, or on a rider coming down an Alpine descent during the Tour or in a world championship?" Those and other technological advances could make a six-hour Alpine stage during the Tour de France a viewing spectacle. Cookson said that people who love sports sometimes do not like to talk about the value of these kinds of things. However, sports actually depend on commercial and economic aspects at the professional level. "There’s a clue in the name, it’s professional sports. Therefore it needs finance to survive, and we’ve got to look at ways of doing that much more effectively than we’ve done in the past." Making the sport more viewer-friendly could also bring back networks, which have decided to eliminate cycling from their programs due to its doping culture.

CULTURAL SHIFT: German public broadcasters ARD and ZDF did not only pull the plug on its viewers during the 2007 Tour de France due to several doping scandals, they also have not aired the most important cycling race in the world since ’11. While Cookson is not happy that ARD and ZDF took such harsh measures, he thinks that it has been one of the things that influenced a change in behavior in recent years. "I think nothing hurts people more than hitting them in the pocket. Finally, individuals, teams and certain perpetrators have realized that actually doping is damaging the financial aspects of the sport," Cookson said. Cycling’s doping culture has hurt the sport economically as it lost sponsors and broadcasters. However, Cookson is convinced that the sport, helped by things like the biological passport and better testing, has seen a cultural turnaround over the last few years. The UCI’s task is now to take advantage of this shift by making sure that people once again have confidence in the integrity of the sport. The governing body is already seeing some promising signs. "I do think we are seeing a much cleaner sport in cycling now, and sponsors are starting to return," Cookson said.
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