• The peloton at the Tour of Dubai. (Getty)Source: Getty
It’s been with some envy that I’ve been watching as other sporting codes experiment with new formats to engage and excite fans while attracting new audiences.
By
Source:
Cycling Central
15 Feb 2017 - 1:12 PM  UPDATED 15 Feb 2017 - 1:21 PM

While enjoying some of the updated action in Cricket, Tennis and Athletics I’ve been wondering when or if professional road cycling will do anything to break out of the traditional box it finds itself.

Cricket, that most traditional of sports, has been the most adventurous in slicing and dicing its long game to attract and suit new audiences with formats like the Big Bash.

And while there has been some outcry by traditionalists, the fact remains that old and new fans are responding by putting their bums in stadium seats and delivering TV networks bumper ratings.

Tennis too has brought something new to the table with the Fast-4 stirring things up as a tasty morsel before a big feast like the Australian Open.

Athletics is the latest to play with its format, bringing Usain Bolt to Australia to launch the Nitro series which uses a team format to energise the sport.

The TV ratings and audience engagement for these events easily surpassed those of the cycling events run in January.

What are they doing right that professional road cycling is not?

The sport has hardly changed and racing at the WorldTour level is increasingly formulaic with the start - break - catch - finish, a largely predictable exercise except for a changing cast of characters.

Of course, for aficionados, none of this matters. We already enjoy watching a break form or be engrossed in the intermediate sprints before well-drilled lead-outs jostle for position as they attempt to set up a sprinter for victory.

Mountain battles also have us leaning forward in our seats as Chris Froome parries with Nairo Quintana in a Grand Tour or Peter Sagan lights it up in a punchy classic with Alejandro Valverde or Greg van Avermaet.

Those are the key moments in a race which get everyone excited but it’s the points in between a 200km race which put everyone to sleep.

Watching cycling takes commitment, one that is in increasingly short supply in a fast paced world demanding hundreds of 140 character pieces of your attention daily.

There is little room today for long-term contemplation today, it’s all about the big and decisive moments. Audiences want their action and they want it now. The growth of short fast highlights packages, quick clips and on board action attest to what cycling fans are really engaging with.

“The break is away with four minutes and 150km left to race? I think I’ll have a nap. Wake me up with 10 to go.”

"The pressure on available leisure time and selling that available leisure time has increased from two sides," the Dean of Victoria University College of Sport and Exercise Science Hans Westerbeek recently told the AAP.

"One, there is more competition for the time itself. And two, there is more offerings that can fill the time. So you get a double-whammy of restricted time in which you can choose from so many options.

"So for traditional sports that have largely been locked into time and space, based on the requirement of the sport, they started to lose significant market share."

It’s no secret that professional road cycling is a sport not only locked in time and space but in search of a sustainable business model. So what does it do with traditional events which last some five hours over 200km? How does it make itself a compelling offer to wider audiences?

I don’t claim to have all the answers but I think a lot can be done right now with little investment. The really big changes can come later. One of which is a compressed season with fewer races, the opposite of the current approach employed by the International Cycling Union and its stakeholders.

Stages need to be shortened. Finishing times compressed. The early season races are great because there isn’t a huge time commitment. It’s over in 150km. But more can still be done.

Give the break a real break. Perhaps with escalating time bonuses for a break at multiple checkpoints as an incentive to dig deeper and beat the chasers. Nitro calls these incentives “Power Plays”. Let’s have some.

Arrive at checkpoint one with a three-minute advantage on the peloton and you get an extra minute. Make checkpoint two with a two-minute advantage and you get that minute you lost back. Anything to force the chase and break to work harder.

How about engineering the time bonuses in a way that give a sprinter a real chance to win a general classification? It’s true that have their own jersey to fight over but that often gets lost in the fight for yellow. Let's throw more riders into the mix for a title rather that the usual cast of characters playing to type.

"Growing a sport, you either need to get new audiences or new products, so there's a bit of a conundrum," RMIT University's associate professor Con Stavros said.

"It's always challenging for sport. We call them the hardcore brand loyals, these passionate partisans that don't want rules changed ... (they) are always up in arms about 'leave the game alone, it's great where it is'.

"The problem with that is, you have got to cater for that group and make sure they're looked after. But there is also new waves of entertainment in the marketplace, new audiences."

And that’s where professional road cycling is today. Catering to a well-established base with a near 100-year-old format but unable to attract new audiences with a refreshed entertainment offer. It's well past time for a change.