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Volume 22 No. 3
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Cycling primed for big gains heading into ’20

Could cycling be the next big Olympic sport in the U.S.?

As USA Cycling looks for a new CEO, Chairman Bob Stapleton thinks the next executive’s tenure could be a period of rapid gains in commercial and popular relevance.

First and foremost, the next CEO must stanch a multiyear decline in racing popularity. But there are nevertheless reasons for Stapleton’s optimism. Consider:

Outside of the three giants of swimming, gymnastics and track and field, USA Cycling won the most medals (five) in the 2016 Rio Games of any American sport. In 2020 in Tokyo, for the first time the Olympics will include BMX freestyle, a broadcast- and youth-friendly event in which Americans just won four of the six medals at the World Championships on Nov. 11.

On a basic level, cycling will award medals on 14 of the 16 full days of the Tokyo Games, giving NBC and possible sponsors volume. Also, many insiders think the turmoil facing USA Gymnastics could open the door, if even slightly, for other sports to get a fresh look.

“We’ve got daily exposure, compelling athletes, and are right in the thick of it in medal contention,” Stapleton said, summarizing his sales pitch to possible sponsors. “In terms of return on investment, with any reasonable success in Tokyo, that’s going to beat any other sport hands down.”

Outgoing CEO Derek Bouchard-Hall is widely praised for dealing forthrightly with the legacy of doping and disgraced star Lance Armstrong. He brought in new senior management and shifted gears on elite athlete development — USA Cycling now assigns coaches to work with small groups of promising individuals rather than overseeing entire teams. Financially, the organization is sound, reaching a new high of $15.3 million in revenue in 2017 despite selling fewer annual racing licenses than it did five years earlier.

But the governing body has something going for it that many other second-tier Olympic sports lack: a massive user base. Nearly 73 million Americans ride a bike at least six times annually, according to a 2015 survey commissioned by People for Bikes, suggesting that USA Cycling’s challenge is finding a fit with those riders, not necessarily making the sport more popular.

In an effort to provide value to cyclists outside of the traditionally strong road racing community, the organization recently created new membership tiers for casual enthusiasts and is emphasizing the value it can provide for non-racers. Stapleton eyes a broader role for the group as a safety and recreational advocate.

“We’ve come to the realization that for our business needs we need to appeal to a larger audience and deliver meaningful value to cyclists of all stripes,” Stapleton said.

One barrier for USA Cycling’s commercial growth is lack of media. While NBC Sports airs international competitions, USA Cycling has no nationally televised properties of its own. But the group’s medal contenders will command attention during the Tokyo Games, which then the organization will be pressured to leverage into future media exposure.

To help sell sponsorships, USA Cycling CMO Fuad Hamza has hired Link Strategy Group. Led by principals Jeff Benton and Brett Weinroth, Link has structured and sold major sponsorships for the U.S. Tennis Association, D.C. United and others.

That vast cycling grassroots is an untapped asset, said Steve Upson, president of the Vertica Group, who has sold sponsorships for US Sailing, USA Track & Field, USA Swimming and other governing bodies.

“If cycling is able to figure out how to commercialize and monetize their influence in cycling at all levels, from pleasure biking to weekend warrior racing to mountain biking, then I think it can be a great lifestyle play outside of the Olympics,” Upson said. “It’s a question of how you do that.”