David Lappartient confirmed this week that the minimum wage would equal approximately $50,000AUD, the same amount that currently applies to men’s Continental teams. This will come into effect from 2020 and will apply to women’s teams which decide to register as WorldTeams. The rest of the peloton will be classified as Continental teams.
Given the somewhat dire financial situation of many female riders, the intentions behind the UCI’s latest reforms are to be applauded. A survey conducted by the Cyclists’ Alliance late last year reveals that almost half of the female peloton earns less than $8,000AUD per annum, and almost one quarter receives no salary at all. As a result, 50 per cent of riders have found themselves needing to work a second job.
In theory, introducing a two-tiered system appears to be a structurally sound approach to legislating the minimum wage requirement. As with the men’s sport, the new system will essentially operate on the principle of incentivisation. The more teams are willing to invest in their riders, the more they will be rewarded, predominantly with guaranteed invitations to high-profile races. A seemingly sound approach.
That is, as I said, only in theory.
In women’s cycling, it’s not necessarily that teams aren’t willing to invest more into their riders, but rather that they’re not currently able to do so. In such a situation, incentivisation loses its effectiveness.
The average women’s team has a roster of around 12 riders. If each were to earn only the proposed minimum salary, that would total $600,000 alone. In reality, many teams would struggle to meet this increased financial outlay. And those that are able to pay may well be forced to drop riders to make ends meet. A pyrrhic victory if there ever was one.
Through its reforms, the UCI may have also unwittingly created a problematic chicken and egg scenario, and it again ties into the system of incentivisation.
The plan, according to Lappartient, is to have five women’s WorldTeams in place for the 2020 season. In exchange for their increased salary outlay, these teams would be guaranteed entry to the top races in the calendar.
The problem is that a race can’t be run with only five teams. Race organisers will invariably still need to invite a significant number of Continental teams to their events.
This could significantly reduce what is the most significant incentive behind registering as a WorldTeam. Several teams would presumably find themselves better off avoiding the expense of Lappartient’s minimum wage and instead relying on what will in all likelihood be incredibly widely disseminated invitations to big races.
This is a tricky situation, attributable in no small part to the fact that the timeframe for reform is perhaps a little too ambitious.
To transform the proposed dual tier system, with its fully-fledged minimum wage, from a lofty and potentially unworkable egalitarian aspiration into a viable prospect, women’s racing must first be able to generate favourable marketing metrics.
There are several ways to work towards this, and the UCI was in a prime position to legislate any number of these into its recent reforms.
Publicity is perhaps the most obvious place to start. Women’s cycling is chronically afflicted by a lack of mainstream media exposure.
For it to become a more commercially viable and lucrative site for investment, it requires a greater audience share to lift its profile. And the largest audiences are to be found at major men’s races.
Just as women’s tennis profited significantly from the promotional synergies provided by combined tournaments, jointly held and broadcasted races would similarly enable women’s cycling to benefit from the wide media exposure surrounding men’s races.
Through increased television time, teams could both capitalise on new viewership markets and also generate increased sponsor visibility and return on investment for financial backers. This would, in turn, further incentivise sponsorship and thereby promote organic growth within the sport. The UCI is in a unique position to legislate incentives for men’s race organisers to make this happen.
Mandating minimum broadcasting standards for women’s WorldTour races, partially bankrolled by the UCI, is yet another possibility.
Other options could include incentives, or perhaps a requirement, for all men’s WorldTour teams to also run a women’s team. And with almost 40 per cent of top-tier teams already seeing the benefit of running a women’s team, the prospect of exclusively jointly run squads may not necessarily be an impossibility.
Whichever path it takes, the UCI would be wise to focus on a strategy to achieve sustainable growth in women’s cycling before legislating extensive changes.
As it stands, the recent reforms have unfortunately offloaded the responsibility of raising more expansive budgets primarily onto individual teams, with no corresponding vision or sustainable structure being put in place to support them in achieving this goal.