A timeline of events and hours of transcripts spread across his table, Anthony Tan discovers that for Pegasus Sports, the alarm bells were ringing weeks earlier than last Friday.
To begin with, Pegasus Sports CEO, Chris White, said he was going to announce the title sponsor of what was believed to be Australia’s first ProTeam during this year’s road world championships in Geelong, Victoria, held from 27 September–3 October.
But during the Worlds, when the ‘Beefgate’ saga involving Tour de France champion Alberto Contador emerged, the official announcement was delayed – or so we thought that was the reason.
It was then expected sometime between the UCI publishing a list of teams applying for a ProTeam licence on 5 October – where Pegasus was not included among the 20 teams, due to incomplete documentation – and the subsequent 2 November release from the UCI confirming the first 15 teams to be awarded ProTeam status in 2011 as well a list of the team rankings that determined ProTeam eligibility, where it was revealed Pegasus was ranked 23rd; not good enough for an automatic ProTeam licence, or to be considered for the three remaining ProTeam places.
Theory vs. Reality
A few days after the 2 November release, White told Cycling Central any team that applied for a ProTeam licence and was rejected automatically receives a Pro Continental licence.
But that was in theory: the “licence” still required registration and approval, which would not be formalised by the UCI till 10 December.
Between then and last Friday, it is now understood that out of a consortium of partners that were to provide the bank guarantee to register as a Pro Continental outfit, at least one started getting cold feet, and at the eleventh hour, withdrew their support for the nascent outfit.
On 4 November, we said to White, “Just to reaffirm – your primary backer or backers will not alter their commitment or budget as a result of the UCI’s decision to grant you Pro Continental status?”
“That’s right,” he responded. “The primary guys are fine.”
That appeared to indicate that at least one second-tier sponsor would join, but only on the proviso that the team receive a ProTeam licence.
The 2 November statement from the UCI already began to leave White, a former chartered accountant, short-changed, it seems.
Asked for a ballpark operating budget, White said: “I’d rather not commit that to writing. I’d rather not comment.”
Then how about a release date for your title sponsor?
“I’d hoping to be in a position by mid-November to provide our full brand, image and story.”
Mid-November came and went.
November training camp: Still no name, still no signatures
Pegasus Sports scheduled their first pre-season training camp and media day in the final week of November, which Cycling Central was invited to.
On 24 November, the Wednesday before flying out to Noosa, Queensland, we pressed White for an announcement date – would it be tomorrow?
“Our branding is not quite ready,” he said.
“A bit like the Luxembourg Project, we’re scrambling to get our branding squared away. We’re very close, but to do something tomorrow would be premature, with a couple of sign-offs required from a couple of those sponsors, in terms of buying in and signing off on the whole process.”
Now note what White said, which, given the situation now, is somewhat prophetic: as late as November 24, he had not yet received the signatures of certain key sponsors – which, in the event of any of them choosing to leave, would offer Pegasus Sports – or the riders they’d signed – no legal recourse.
Would he bank on a wildcard invitation to the Tour Down Under, we asked, slated for January 16-23 next year, and coinciding with Lance Armstrong’s last professional race, do it then, when the world’s media descend into South Australia?
“We won’t wait for an event like that to occur. Right now, the Pro Continental licences are issued before the 10th of December, so I’d like to do it before then.”
A fortnight after the Pegasus camp, when Cycling Central spoke with Tour Down Under race organiser Mike Turtur, he was hesitant to reveal his feelings about offering any wildcard invitations till 10 December.
“Once we get to that process, as an organisation, we have budget considerations to make, and other logistical issues that need to be dealt with before we even consider a wildcard for anyone,” said Turtur, also the president of the Oceania Cycling Federation.
What Turtur did say was that, on face-value, due to the past achievements of Robbie McEwen, the team’s marquee signing, Pegasus represented “a lot of interest for us, because he’s [McEwen] won more stages of our race than any other rider. So that factor would come into play.”
“The UCI was very keen to eyeball me”
Only the week before the late-November training camp, White was in Switzerland and things looked on the up.
The UCI Licensing Commission had asked him to come to Geneva to attend a seminar on the biological passport program and be briefed on ADAMS (Anti-Doping Administration & Management System), a web-based database management system developed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to ensure compliance with their Code.
“I’ve had no time to consider it too much,” he said of the visit, “other than fill paperwork in for the UCI and satisfy their requirements.
“They really wanted to see me. The UCI was very, very keen to eyeball me.”
Ten December came and went – 23 teams were given the green light to run a Pro Continental licence for the 2011 season and thus be eligible for wildcard spots on the 26-event UCI World Calendar. Pegasus Sports was not one of them.
We now know that as late as last Tuesday, 7 November, White was to learn his principal sponsor in a consortium of partners had decided to pull the pin – three days before the UCI made their announcement on the number of Pro Continental licences to be issued in 2011.
Less than 72 hours to make it happen
White now has until 4 p.m. Wednesday CET (Central European Time) to find a sponsor – or sponsors – to make up the shortfall. Meanwhile, White’s told his riders they’d “be silly not to have a back-up”.
“My advice [to them] is to have a look at ‘is there another option?’” he said, but stressed for the moment, “everybody’s committed [to Pegasus] through to our deadline".
“I’m not surprised [they’re looking for another employer] and would expect in their own career management to see if there are back-up plans in the marketplace.”
When contacted by Cycling Central, McEwen replied via a short e-mail: “Mate, nothing further to [Monday’s statement from the team]. “Waiting to hear if the team can meet the requirements and deadline.”
To us, one of the burning questions that remain unanswered is: How does someone like White, with his extensive finance background and three years of running what ended up being the most successful team in America the past two seasons, not force his sponsors to sign and therefore commit to their multi-million dollar offerings well in advance of signing riders like McEwen, Svein Tuft, Christian Knees, Robbie Hunter... In fact, all their riders?
And did the riders or their agents not check that the contracts of the primary sponsors did not have a signature on the dotted line?
It’s hard to be anything other than disappointed and pessimistic in this whole affair, but the good news is that – according to White – Fly V Australia and RBS Morgans, Pegasus Sports’ Continental and development teams, respectively, will continue regardless of the way the UCI votes in their Pro Continental license application.
Has White been in contact with any race organiser since last Friday’s news?
“I’ve only had contact with one race organiser, and that race organisation will provide us with a start when we have a licence.”
Somewhat paradoxically, he added, “This is not, in any way, affecting our ability to race – we just need a licence.”
So, simply put, it boils down to this: Pegasus needs to find the necessary sponsors to bridge the financial chasm created by the exit of a major backer – and within two working days.
If not, no Pro Continental licence, and, of course, no Pro Continental team.
And 24 riders and as many staff scrambling for jobs two weeks before the start of the new year and a month out from the first World Calendar event.
Could this be a tale of bad luck, broken promises and overzealousness at the expense of key business checks, all in an inhospitable global economic milieu?
For some, it may not be a very Merry Christmas.