Blanco ticking boxes, but will it be enough?

Al Hinds

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Same, same.. Blanco's success this year and HTC-Highroad in its final season before disbanding, have been and were remarkable - but it did little for the fortunes of the latter. (Getty Images)
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Early-season success has Blanco making headlines for all the right reasons, but will it be enough to stop the team going the same way as Bob Stapleton's Highroad project? Al Hinds takes a look at the sponsor hunt so far, and the parallels between Blanco and Highroad.

'We’re talking with a lot of companies who are interested in our team, but it’s still only talks. It can be a ‘no’ one day and a ‘yes’ another day.' -- Blanco's GM Richard Plugge

Blanco's start to the 2013 season has been emphatic. From the Santos Tour Down Under with Tom Jelte-Slagter to the Clasica de Almeria with Mark Renshaw, the team has taken an impressive nine wins. That's eight more than it had by the same time last season when Michael Matthews took its maiden win for 2012. It's also one more win than Belgian super team Omega Pharm-QuickStep.

The victories have also been diverse, coming from all over the world and from a handful of different riders. Overall titles at Down Under, and the GP de Mediterranean have been punctuated by sprint wins in Malaysia, Spain and Portugal. Blanco is delivering across the board, and looks a tighter and stronger unit that it's ever been. Rather than drive it a part the team has been galvanised by the pressure that is confronting every rider and staff member - unemployment.

Blanco is of course without funding for 2014 after Dutch bank Rabobank pulled the pin late last year. Richard Plugge, the team's general manager and former press officer, is the man who will need to solve the impending financial demise of Blanco if the team is to stick around, and has been reportedly very busy in the effort to do so.

In a recent interview on Cyclingnews Plugge said that the start to the season had been promising in the sponsor hunt but there had yet to be anything concrete to come of it.

"We’re talking with companies all over the world, and we could see that their interest in cycling got bigger because of his (Jelte-Slagter) win in Australia," said Plugge. "We’re talking with a lot of companies who are interested in our team, but it’s still only talks. It can be a ‘no’ one day and a ‘yes’ another day."

That all sounds very encouraging for cycling fans that would rather not see a repeat of the mess left by Highroad after 2011, and the team is certainly ticking all the boxes. But then, so did Highroad.

In fact the lead-in to Highroad's ultimate collapse in August of that year seemed to be anything close to alarmist. On several occasions general manager Bob Stapleton assured media outlets that the search for a new sponsor was on track, and even suggested that talks were so well-progressed with HTC and one other backer, that he expected not just an extension to the team's current existence for another year, but another four.

In July, Stapleton told Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet, only days before the announcement that the team would indeed fold, "I can't confirm (talk of a new sponsor). I can only say that there are good, intelligent talks under way. But simply, nothing is in place before we have a signed contract."

Sounds a little bit familiar, doesn't it?

Aside from Stapleton's bullish comments throughout the year, there was also a general perception in the media, and even from the riders themselves, that Highroad had to be able to find a new sponsor.

This was a team that boasted one of the hottest commodities in cycling in Mark Cavendish, that espoused all the right values when it came to anti-doping, that had pioneered internal testing programs, that was cosmopolitan in a feast of squads which were anything but, and that was enviably successful to boot. Surely it had all the ingredients to bring on new backing? It was marketable beyond belief.

But in one of the more sobering press conferences a general manager will ever have to give, an exhausted and visibly emotional Stapleton told assembled journalists via video link that, no, things hadn't worked out and that the team would be folding.

“We went public with our sponsorship search just before the Tour. We were frustrated by the indecision of our title sponsor HTC, who, after many months of assurances, had not come forward with a commitment to the team," Stapleton said.

"We had an agreement in place in principle with a new partner ... but this deal abruptly collapsed on Sunday night, when I received an email and subsequent phone call from our intended partner. That led us to the conclusion to release our athletes and staff to pursue their career options."

The news left us again to debate cycling's financial fragility, over the unsustainability of its current sponsorship model and what might work in the future. But ultimately it was a reminder as to how delicately balanced even the top tier of the sport is. The biggest teams can disappear overnight.

My own conclusion when it comes to the WorldTour is that very few teams that have existed in the long term do so without some sort of personal philanthropy. If Highroad couldn't prove its worth as a commercially viable project for sponsors despite generating "more than $400 million in positive brand image and media", well let's just say, it doesn't set a great precedent.

What does this mean for Blanco? It might mean nothing. Bjarne Riis has shown an uncanny knack for finding sponsors when others have not, and perhaps where Stapleton failed, Plugge like Riis will succeed. But it's no easy road ahead. And it's hard to be enthusiastic in the current economic climate.

"There will be no news on (the sponsorship question) until at least the Amstel Gold Race," Plugge concluded.

Let's just hope that when such news comes, it is positive.


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