In light of the today’s merger announcement between RadioShack and Leopard-Trek, Anthony Tan ponders the effect of a quartet of 'super-teams’ in 2012, and the sustainability of the current cycling team model.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:37 PM


In this day and age it is astonishing that these cyclists and teams put their reputations, bones, skin, and more on the line in races that are multi-million dollar affairs yet reap no direct financial gain from those very races. Until this changes no team is immune from sponsor whim and there can be no financial stability in the sport The very thing HTC-High Road owner, Bob Stapleton, lamented about last
month – the rise of the 'super-team' – and probably now despises, since
next year, his team will be no longer – has now multiplied, like a meme.
Or, depending on whom you speak to, like a virus.

"If you look
at the super teams, there are wealthy individuals behind each one and
you've got a sport that's been destabilised by events," Stapleton said
on 4 August, in a teleconference with journalists, telling what most of
us already knew weeks earlier – that HTC-High Road would be a non-entity
in 2012.

"For example, the points structure where teams are
desperate to make sure they're in the top 16, and these are the sorts of
things that are not helpful to creating a structure for the sport.

"I
don't want to blame anyone or suggest anything," said the Californian
entrepreneur, "but there are some destabilising factors in the sport."

While
Stapleton didn't want to name names, it was blindingly obvious BMC
Racing was one of those 'super-teams' he was referring to, whose
billionaire owner, Andy Rihs, seems to have a bottomless pool of cash in
his back garden. Or a ridiculously large pool.

Apart from
re-signing Tour de France champ Cadel Evans till 2014, where he will
most likely end his career, and veteran American, George Hincapie, for
another season, where he too will most likely end his career, in Thor
Hushovd and Phillippe Gilbert, BMC Racing acquired the signatures of two
of the sport's biggest (read: most expensive) names – thereby
propelling it from 'super' to 'stellar'.

The irony is that
Stapleton is a very 'wealthy individual' himself, and almost certainly a
billionaire, for in 2000, when his communications company, VoiceStream
Wireless, was bought by Deutsche Telekom, the former later renamed
T-Mobile USA, the original purchase price was a cool US$50 billion.

Surely Bob, at least some of that went to you…

Regardless,
Stapleton isn't one to keeping pouring in $20M of his own each year to
fund a cycling team. Because unlike Rihs, who, as a result of the
exposure, is arguably selling more BMC bicycles – of which he is the
company owner – to cover his investment, Stapleton's cycling operation
was founded on the traditional sponsor-pays arrangement.

And without a title sponsor, no-one gets paid.

* * *

However,
BMC is not alone. Next year, there will be three other mega-teams: Team
Sky, Omega Pharma-Quick Step and RadioShack-Nissan-Trek. (If you count
GreenEdge, make that four more.)

Based on a guestimate, between
these three super-teams, you probably have close to half of the world's
top 100 riders. To quote a Cycling Central reader's pithy remark today, "So... RadioTrek vs BMC next year, and everyone else to get the crumbs?"

In response to the pull-quote at the top of my blog, a VeloNews
reader replied: "There should be a scheme in place to share TV rights
and race proceeds with the teams. The constant ebb and flow of team
sponsors is very hard on pro cycling. I can imagine, though, that ASO
and the other successful races would be loath to share their bounty.

Plus,
other races are break-even or losing propositions. There are problems,
but the sport would be a better sport with more team continuity, (which I
think would lead to a bigger fan base), if there was a more stable
revenue source for the teams."

And another, from the same thread:
"Why should there be 'financial stability' in the sport? Why should
teams be immune from sponsor whims? If the publicity they offer is
affordable and positive, sponsors buy it, just like they do with NASCAR,
etc. If it's not (as of recently with constant doping scandals) they
don't.

Why should it be any other way? The corruption throughout
the sport is simply 'coming home to roost' helped by the worldwide
economic slowdown. I think it'll get worse before it gets better,
especially if/when 'Il Pistolero' gets a two-year vacation and 'Big Tex'
gets indicted."

All good points, although the revenue sharing
argument is a double-edged sword, since aside from the Tour de France,
very few other events in cycling actually turn a decent-enough profit to
share with 18 other ProTeams – unless teams are keen to have a share
the losses, too…

The 'corruption' point is also valid, given
Stapleton said that in his discussions which eventually came to nought:
"I don't think there has been a single discussion with a potential
sponsor where one or the other wasn't talked about," referring to both
the federal investigation into alleged systematic doping at the US
Postal Service cycling team, as well as 'caso Contador', whose hearing is now scheduled for November. (Though exactly which November, I'm not quite sure.)

"It's been a factor in everyone's view of cycling in the last year," said Stapleton.

* * *

Based on a revealing story on the ABC's 'Four Corners' program a fortnight ago, investigating alleged systematic malpractice by the News of the World
– what was once the world's largest circulating newspaper, and
signalling what many regard as 'the beginning of the end' of the Murdoch
empire – Team Sky may also be on shaky ground over the next 12 months.

Should
there be a salary cap in place, I asked Garmin-Cervélo owner, Jonathan
Vaughters, when I was at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado last
month, to mitigate against the very situation that exists today?
"I
don't actually agree with an individual salary cap, regarding any one
rider, but a total team budget cap, would be more interesting," he began
by saying.

"Singling out one rider… I mean, Contador, getting
paid five million Euros or whatever a year, okay, he's worth that. But
my greater point is that if you're going to pay a rider that much, in
order to have an equilibrium in the sport and to have sponsors say,
'Okay, if I pay eight million or 10 million Euros, I'm going to have one
of the best teams in the world', you need to have an overall budget cap
on teams.

"This is the way all top sports are in the United
States, in that it keeps an equilibrium. If you look at NFL, there's a
total salary cap of the entire team, and the lowest-ranked team always
gets the first pick of the college-level drafts – it keeps an
equilibrium, and it puts a premium on intelligent training, intelligent
strategy, and really working with young athletes to develop them.

"It puts a premium on that, versus putting a premium on simply purchasing a good team," said Vaughters.

"I
feel that will lead to greater long-term stability – and better racing,
because it's going to be tighter, more interesting, closer racing."

Nonetheless,
no more than five teams are set to dominate the 2012 season, and teams
like Vaughters, if they're to survive, are going to have to find a way
to beat the best.

Or another multi-million-dollar sponsor/benefactor, so they too can become a super-team.

As the old adage goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Follow Anthony on Twitter: @anthony_tan