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SBJ/April 11 - 17, 2005/SBJ In Depth
Life after Lance
Published April 11, 2005
Considering the way that Lance Armstrong has dominated the sport of professional cycling for the last few years, you’d think the people whose livelihoods are attached to the sport would be a little more worried about life after Lance.
While Armstrong hasn’t announced his retirement, there’s a strong feeling among those in the sport that he will do so soon. Perhaps this year, after he tries for his seventh consecutive Tour de France victory. Or perhaps next, after he’s taken the time to ride in a few international races that he’s missed out on over the years because of his intense focus on the French event.
Whenever it happens, we’ll begin to find out the answers to some important questions. For example, how many of the viewers who watch Armstrong in the Tour de France every summer on Outdoor Life Network will continue to tune in once he’s gone? And will the interest he’s helped generate at every level of cycling in the United States drop off when he’s no longer on the scene?
There’s a lot riding on the answers to those questions, for the media, for sponsors and marketers, and for events such as the 3-year-old Tour de Georgia, a six-day race that begins this year on April 19.
Last year, the Georgia race received a welcome boon when Armstrong not only entered but rode to win, surprising the many people who thought he would use the race simply as a training ride for the Tour de France.
He’s back this year to defend his title, but there’s no guarantee that, win or lose, he’ll return in 2006. Does Tour de Georgia title sponsor Dodge worry about the post-Lance era?
“We do and we don’t,” said Robbyn Shulman, communications manager for the company. While Armstrong’s presence helped launch the race into the public consciousness, leading organizers to expect as many as a million spectators for this year’s race (up from an estimated 250,000 in 2003 and 748,000 last year), it’s the climate and difficulty of the course that have world-class cyclists excited about its value as a Tour de France lead-in, Shulman said.
“Lance has certainly added a lot of credibility and exposure,” she said, “but whether he’s there or not, people now know that this is a credible race.”
Shulman’s thoughts about the future of the Georgia race pretty much sum up the way most people in the industry think about the prospects of cycling as a whole. Sure, Armstrong has made a tremendous difference, they say, but when he’s gone, the sport will be able to stand on its own.
The Lance era
Armstrong’s rise has had a ripple effect throughout the cycling world.
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Bicycling magazine has seen readership rise from 282,000 in 2000 to 411,000 this year, said publisher Chris Lambiase, while revenue in 2004 was up 12 percent over the previous year, and revenue in April 2005 was up more than 20 percent over last year.
“He has had a huge effect in ridership and at the corporate level,” Lambiase said. “And, in general, in introducing Americans to the sport of cycling.”
He’s also helped teach them about the sport, said Gerard Bisceglia, CEO of USA Cycling, the sport’s governing body. A couple of years ago, novices to the sport didn’t know much about it beyond Armstrong’s name, he said.
“Lance, because of his brilliance, has brought the broad sports fan into the sport,” Bisceglia said. “The more they watch, the more they will understand the sport. The more they understand, the more they will watch. It’s a very complex sport.”
When Bisceglia took his job in 2002, USA Cycling had 27,000 registered road racers. That number is now up to 36,000, many of whom are youngsters gravitating to the sport because of watching Armstrong and other top American riders compete well on a world stage.
If there’s a rap against cycling in the Armstrong era, it’s that non-endemic companies, the ones that don’t make their money selling bikes and helmets and other cycling necessities, haven’t fully embraced the sport.
Sure, there are plenty of examples of corporate involvement. Dodge’s title sponsorship of the Tour de Georgia is one. But despite the success of the event, the company still commits itself only from year to year, and seems satisfied with the opportunities the race gives to local dealerships without having any interest in expanding beyond Georgia’s borders.
Dodge has considered other events, Shulman said, but “we’re probably gonna stay put.”
There are other companies whose involvement extends to multiple races across the country — financial services provider TIAA-CREF was cited by several people interviewed for this story. But there is still no company that has made cycling an important part of its national identity.
“We’ve had some success in kind of a one-off area,” said David Chauner, CEO of Threshold Sports, a top cycling marketing and event management company. But what the sport needs, he added, are visionaries who recognize the potential returns and make the strong commitment to cycling.
“I think cycling is about ready to explode in the U.S.,” he said. “You’re going to see a real benefit to the visionaries who take ownership of the sport.”
Bisceglia said corporate interest is growing, but companies are still trying to figure out how to get the best return on investment in the sport. “Some of them are just slapping their name up there, and then they’re not sure what the return is,” he said.
Bisceglia said he recently talked with executives at a company that sponsors a top-level cycling team. He wouldn’t reveal which company they were from, but said it has become obvious to them that they have to do a better job of getting value out of the sport. “More people know about their cycling team than know about their company and what it does,” Bisceglia said. “If you tell people the name of the company and ask them about it, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s a cycling team.’”
But Peter Maneri, vice president of marketing and communications for Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC), said companies like his can reap plenty of benefits from being involved with cycling.
CSC sponsors one of the premier teams in the sport, led by Bobby Julich, who many people believe will contend to fill the role of top American rider once Armstrong retires. For its investment in the team — some published reports put the cost of running a top team in the $10 million to $15 million a year range — CSC, a $15 billion company based in El Segundo, Calif., gets plenty of worldwide exposure.
“We’re a global company,” Maneri said, “and we look for billion-dollar and multibillion-dollar contracts. The more people who recognize your brand, the better off you are when it comes time to sign a contract.”
As much as everyone in the industry has enjoyed the benefits of Armstrong’s success, there’s plenty of concern over what will happen when he’s no longer riding.
“I think interest will certainly fall a little bit when Lance retires,” said Chauner, a two-time Olympian in cycling (1968 and ’72). He looks to history to tell him what will happen in the post-Armstrong era.
“We saw the same thing happen when Greg LeMond won the Tour de France three times [in the late ’80s],” Chauner said. “When Greg disappeared and before Lance came along, there was a little bit of a drop-off, but it didn’t fall back to where it was before. I think the same thing will happen after Lance.”
But Bisceglia sees a couple of differences between then and now.
First, he said, LeMond was an expatriate who went to Europe and rode for a European team in European races. He became a hero for beating the Europeans at their own game, but when he left cycling, there was no one to take his place.
“Today you’ve got more than 20 Americans riding on European teams, but you’ve also got Americans riding for American companies that have significant interest in the sport,” said Bisceglia, among them Julich and the CSC team, and Armstrong and his Discovery team.
Beyond that, Bisceglia sees momentum building on the racing side in the United States, which he believes will translate to even bigger popularity — and corporate interest — for the sport.
Specifically, he pointed to the Tour de Georgia and the Tour of California, a new race owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group that will run for the first time early next year.
“Until you bring the highest level of bike racing to the U.S., it will always be a novelty here,” Bisceglia said. “You can’t have a sport that happens only in Europe. Now we’ve got two significant stage races in the U.S.”
Jim Burrell, a partner in Medalist Sports, an event consulting and management agency that works with the Tour de Georgia and will assist AEG on the Tour of California, predicted that the California race’s placement early in the year on the cycling calendar, as well as the climate and terrain through which riders will compete from San Francisco to Los Angeles, will attract many of the top teams in the world. Riders will enjoy the hotels and hospitality on the tour, which he believes will be better than that provided by many European events.
Bob Colarossi, AEG’s managing director for the Tour of California, said the event will appeal to top athletes by putting them “at the forefront of every decision we make.”
Burrell’s partner, Chris Aronhalt, points to the field attracted by this year’s Tour de Georgia — with six professional tour-level teams and Tour de France veterans — as evidence that the top worldwide teams and riders are receptive to coming to America.
Burrell added, “A lot of sponsors of the teams themselves want to be in the U.S. market. Cycling is a rolling billboard.”
Beyond the number and quality of competitive events available, there are other factors working in cycling’s favor, Lambiase said, among them a growing group of health-conscious, affluent professionals and baby boomers who are finding that cycling is not only good exercise, but is, in his words, “cooler than running.”
“That, coupled with an incredible surge in technology, has made cycling a very attractive sport,” he said.
While sales of bicycles overall have fallen in the last couple of years, sales of the types of high-end bikes sold at specialty bike shops have risen. People with money are finding that they can spend a lot of it — $5,000 to $10,000 in many cases — on a lightweight, high-tech machine.
“There’s a definite eye-candy, toy factory appeal,” Lambiase said.
The people in that affluent group are the ones CSC is trying to reach through its team sponsorship, Maneri said. “This is a sport that has a high level of income following it,” he said.
No company is more interested in the growth of cycling’s fan base than Outdoor Life Network, which this year will again carry more than 300 hours of Tour de France programming.
But where last year’s “Cyclysm” — a word coined by the network to convey the magnitude of the event — was centered on Armstrong’s attempt to win his sixth Tour de France, this year the network is placing a heavy emphasis on building fans for the long haul.
A new program, “Cyclysm Sunday,” appears every week at the same time, giving a roundup of that week’s racing.
It’s part of an effort to prepare viewers for the post-Armstrong era by introducing them to other riders, as well as tutoring them on the complexities of the sport.
“We won’t know what’s going to happen after Lance until we get to the first post-Lance Tour [de France],” said Gavin Harvey, CEO of Outdoor Life Network. “But we can’t rely on that single American gunslinger who is going to rescue the sport.”
The network is by no means ignoring Armstrong. Even though he already has set the record for winning the most consecutive Tours de France, watching Armstrong try to break his own record in July will still make for compelling television, Harvey said.
And OLN this year will give its viewers another heavy dose of features on riders and explanations of strategies and tactics.
“What we’re trying to do is broaden the appeal beyond cycling fans to sports fans in general,” Harvey said. “As more people understand how the sport works, more people will want to watch.”
Bisceglia applauded the industry for working hard to try to make sure that it continues to grow when Armstrong slows his pace.
“When you have a superstar in a sport, everything seems to gravitate to him,” Bisceglia said. “If you talk to a company today about a race, they’ll ask whether Lance will be there. A bike race today without Lance is like a golf tournament a couple of years ago without Tiger Woods.”
But what you’ve seen in golf in the last couple of years, he said, is the rise of other golfers to compete on Woods’ level. The same thing is happening in cycling, he said.
In addition, he said, “It’s my job with Lance to make sure that he stays involved with the sport. If you leave the sport entirely, it doesn’t take long for people to forget you. But just look at the interest in golf that Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have generated over the years.”
Certainly there’s a chance the sport will suffer when Armstrong retires, he said, but in the end, “It’s incumbent on all of us to make sure that doesn’t happen.”