There has been a growing crescendo of opinion voiced over the last few weeks amongst the cycling Twitterati concerning team ownership, team loyalty and, it would seem, a team fandom. And this crescendo seems to have reached a natural apex this morning with the emerging news that Leopard-Trek will be no more next season. In many ways this is hardly surprising given its history: it has always been essentially a personal project for the Schelcks, a means to “escape” the Riis empire and do things their way; the team has had high ambition and been overly confident despite the poor return in terms of results; and importantly it has always lacked a headline sponsor. In sport the first two of these have always been a fact of life. In professional sport it is the latter which is crucial – it is a business.
The initial discussions I followed were linked to the fluidity of team identities and the fickleness of team benefactors. Whilst the criticism of these discussants appears to be levelled at team directors for accepting the “gifts” of seemingly capricious backers, the implicit issue seems to be one of “who do we support”. This is an interesting issue given the fluid nature of cycling teams but raises an interesting question about the relationship of cycling fans to the sport. For me, one of the attractions of cycling is the far less partisan nature of the support. Growing up in England the peer pressure to pick a football team to follow was immense. Choosing the “right” team even more so. It took a move to Wales before I realised that my Father’s instilled belief in me that I was Welsh was incorrect. This tribalism has been largely absent from cycling: yes, we all support various stars and have preferences for one team over others but by and large we give our support to the entire peloton. One of my good friends used to say at the time Welsh rugby adopted regional “super teams” that she was “a fan of rugby at Rodney Parade”. At the time this made little sense to me but looking back on the days I’ve spent on hillsides watching racers toil against the gradient I can see exactly what she means. And cycling has always had this.
For team backers this is part of the world that they are entering into and to describe their decisions as fickle or capricious belies the economics of this business environment. It is also in danger of comparing apples with pears. Cycling is not football or rugby or any other sport with a fixed location. It attracts crowds who the vast majority of the time do not pay any entrance fee to watch. Even where teams do build a following, there is only limited financial return for the backers and much of this is indirect return through sales of their products. Of course, this can turn quite mundane products (e.g. adhesives and sealants) into glamorous sports sponsors (e.g. Mapei) but I’m sure I’m not the only cycling fan not to know or even care what some of these sponsors do. You see, as humans we are fickle too and care only about what we want to take from the occasion. As cycling fans we want the race to watch (and for some, to moan about). Therefore team backers are reliant on exposure in the media where a recognisable brand catches the attention of the wider public. It is amazing how HTC phones and Skoda cars have become popular amongst cycling fans but the economics of this business mean that they have to reach beyond that audience. HTC pulled their sponsorship of the “world’s most successful team”.
And so for a team whose major backer has no visible identity in the team’s name, its brand or its jersey, what is the point in being involved. For the backer of a World Tour ranked team the costs run into 7 figures. True, cycling sponsors in the past did enter the sport for the love of it thought the costs of entry and involvement were much lower in an often nation-based calendar. And if we compare this with football at least the club chairman/owner has some tangible return on investment, if not in a net profit on gate receipts then through the returns available on property in and around the ground, as well as the personal ‘honour’ which goes with the position. Again, cycling is simply not the same and offers few such opportunities.
It is therefore little wonder that in the jungle, the leopard is about to sleep. Whilst some will deride Flavio Becca for his involvement he gave rise to a potentially great team. That it didn’t reach the heights that might have been expected of it are the result as much of the nature of sport as to any deliberate flaw in the riders. Becca gave it a chance and it didn’t work. Shouldn’t we as cycling fans be grateful for that? Equally, many deride the UCI for its World Tour (for which I am as guilty as the rest) yet this is precisely the type of certainty which sponsors want in order to commit large sums of money to backing a team. The fact that neither the ProTour/World Tour nor “philanthropic” team sponsors is as much to do with economics as it is to do with organisation and bureaucracy. It is difficult to see how professional cycling can buck a trend in wider global economics on its own.