Thursday, December 11, 2008

How to Save American Cycling

Hangin' with RC last night. Usually gets the brain turning.

The recent hap's in the US Pro cycling seem to underscore cycling's status as a minor league sport (at best), and show why it's going to stay that way, unless someone steps up with some organization . As usual, I solved the problem pretty much completely. The money necessary to do all this can be deposited in my personal account, I'll take care of it. Just shoot me an email.

1. There really is nothing 'professional' about cycling in the US - As Rock racing is currently exposing, there is really no distinction between amateur and pro cycling. Some guys just happen to get paid. Rock basically has two full teams worth of pro caliber riders. It looks like they're going to be spending the year sending one squad to UCI stage races, and then another to NRC races which any Elite rider can enter. It looks like Rock is going to keep this huge squad and switch guys between squads to get their ideal team for races.

2. Americans don't get the sponsor/team thing - Ever explain how a cycling team works to your Uncle from the midwest, he probably just won't get it. "So even guys with the same sponsor race against each other?" or "Do they always have the same sponsor for every race?"

3. USA Cycling is one of the worst run national sports organizations in the world. Incompetent does not begin to describe them. The most recent dropped balls:

Exhibit A: Leaving Chris Horner off the World Championship team, when the race suited him to a T. He's the only American that can come close to hanging with guys like Valverde and Cunego. He was fit as fuck, he got left out for a bunch of kids and TT specialists.(No disrespect to the kids on the team, but get some mid-week classics under your belt, at least.). Horner was also the American best suited for the Olympic Road Race, though his fitness may have been a (tiny) question mark due to his mid-summer collar bone break.

Exhibit B: Leaving Tom Peterson off the U23 World's team. Tom is the fastest U23 American, hands down. Maybe Phinney might be up to his level, but he doesn't have any of the Euro experience. Tom has, by far, the most Euro racing experience of any U23 and he got completely shafted. USA Cycling wasted a top-10 and sent a bunch of teenagers to the race.

Exhibit C: The 2004 Olympic MTB qualifying debacle.

Exhibit D: Do they even do drug testing anymore? Anywhere?

USA Cycling looks like the AAU did in the '60s when they ran track and field. Political, corrupt, looking out for themselves rather than the sport.

4. Too many fake pro's - Similar to problem #1. There's too many twentysomethings like myself running around saying we might almost be able to be pro. Yes it's cool to race against them a couple times a year, but really, the NRC being ProAm is really not good for the sport.

Being the problem solver I am, here's the solutions:

1. Races are run like the Nascar Circuit - The season's gonna run from March to September. Each team's home city will host a one day race, let's say there will be 15 of'em. Stage races will be on Neutral turf, 4-6 a season. Points awarded accordingly. Only the Pro teams race. Pro Teams have limited rosters of about 20 guys, no goofy age requirements. Crits would stay local and carry on the ProAm tradition in American cycling.

2. Americans like saying 'Los Angeles Lakers' or 'New York Giants'. Now the relation between the team and the place they say they're from is tenuous at best, team members might live in their team's hometown if they choose to, but it really doesn't matter. So think of it like this, we'll use the English Soccer model here: The teams will be identified by their hometown and a mascot they think is cute/tough/cool whatever or a club name. Sponsors will get the jerseys/bikes/same stuff they're always on. Kind of like how a soccer team from Manchester is called Manchester United and has AIG on the front of their jerseys.

3. USA Cycling will be crushed like a toad in the road, we'll develop a transparent process for picking national team members. USA cycling can focus on grass roots development.

4. No fake pro's. I know it might hurt some of us never-were's, but it will be better for the sport.

What this will take:
- MONEY! But not that much. Teams are responsible for paying their costs and hosting their 1 home race per year. The league will host the stage races. There will be TV revenues to split, just like all pro sports. Realistically, you could find a title sponsor for the whole league for as much as it costs to run a Pro Tour team ($5-10 million). If we can find sponsors for pro lacrosse, there's gotta be money for bike racing.

-Teams! Teams will be given like any pro sport, you've basically got to buy a franchise from the league. Prove that you've got the system in place to run it at a high level and the local support to make it fly.

- Testing! Yes, gotta keep it clean. TV revenues will fund the anti-doping before money is split up among teams.

- USA Cycling to do what's best for the sport, rather than what's best for themselves! We can all dream, can't we? When this league takes off and USA Cycling benefits at the grassroots level, we'll all be happy.

Will people watch cycling on TV?
Yes. 2 hour broadcast. First 30 Minutes - recaps, standings get to know the course, riders, whatever. 2nd 30 - Recap the first few hours of the current race. Last hour - live to the race until the finish.

What about the Tour?
Euro cycling will still be the top tier. The population is so much more dense, the sport is better suited for Europe, but that doesn't mean Pro Cycling in the US can't be legit. What could be developed in the US is a cleaner peloton with more dependable teams and more predictable race schedule. More and more Euro pro's have been coming to America for a steady check, maybe this will net a few more. Potentially, a US team could have a TdF squad while competing in the US circuit, if they wanted. I would be like the Manchester U playing in the Premier League and Champions League at the same time.

Will there ever be a Tour of the US?
No! That race they were proposing a couple years ago was rotten from the start. Too big a country, stages are too long. America is full of long straight highways. BORING! 5-6 day stage races are the way to go. Maybe stretch a couple out to 8.

So, I think I'm on to something here. Or maybe I just wasted a good portion of my afternoon. Either way.


Bilko said...

Didn't Franco Harris already beat you to the punch?

Brian Sather said...

I'm glad you presented a solution here. I'll challenge 1 point, the drug testing is just too expensive so there will have to be a lot of money made to cover this. Perhaps just make it clearly a no-testing-but-we-expect-you-to-be-clean race organization and put in salary caps for each rider. If someone really wants to dope, they'll get good enough and move on to where they can make money and actually get tested. Testing is just too expensive and not reliable enough to catch people anyway.

Also, somehow US pro cycling needs to be unique. We don't have the tradition or many of the other characteristics Europe has like the signature races. Perhaps a system to ensure more equity in the teams would be good, like the NFL does with a draft and their disparity techniques. It was awfully boring to see Healthnet v Toyota United in every race a couple years ago. Another thing to borrow is NASCAR's emphasis on developing the characters, the drivers. The average fan of any sport only cares about the characters and the drama, not the intrinsic nature of the sport itself. No one knows any of the NRC guys, so that has to be marketed. In this regard, Rock Racing has helped. The Tour of CA and Tour of GA both have shown that people will show up for bicycle races in the US, but these races bring in the established names. Or, maybe the minor league baseball approach is good, because that has been rather successful in the US. Your idea about setting up hometowns might be the best one you have because it could add an intimacy that people like about the minor league games. Pick out some nice average size towns that don't have other professional teams, and have them adopt the cycling team and sponsor a major race.

Amit said...

The city team idea was tried in the past (NCL), but basically in this post I think you're just indulging in a fantasy.

People like you need to stop thinking that cycling needs to be made into a pro spectator sport and also you need to take your attention away from the teams and start looking at the events (ie. organizers).

(US) Cycling teams do not make money. They can't win enough prize money to pay for themselves and they don't generate enough exposure to offer a great return to the sponsor - that is why they always disappear. Only events can really generate revenue, and they can do this two ways - by entry fees and by providing exposure to a sponsor.

One place this is happening is 'cross. Cross will never capture the imagination like road races do, but there is a growing and sustainable system in place. The top events have very large non-elite fields which generate fee revenue, and the participants themselves are a potential market for a sponsor of the event. In the case of UCI events the elites are also guaranteed a minimum purse - which is good for them and in places where 'cross is very popular (like Belgium) the organizers will also be able to generate a lot of ticket revenue.

We hosted two C1 cross races this season and two local races. We were able to do this because the cost of an event is relatively small compared to a road race and it is relatively easy to secure access to a course. The cost of two days of access to the 'cross facility was about the same as the cost per hr of road closure for a road race.

Even though 'cross is a niche sport, our UCI 'cross races come close to paying for themselves which guarantees their future.

For road races and crits to be sustainable they have to be able to do the same, which means boosting participation (esp. in the non-elite ranks) so that you not only collect those fees to pay for the higher cost of the event but that group if it's big enough will seen as an attractive target for a sponsor (24hrs of Adrenalin is already able to do this, as well as most running events).

What is needed are not just sponsors who will act as patrons, but rather organizers who are willing to put in the work to put on quality events, market it and also assume some risk. The governing body body and local clubs should work to grow the number of participants so that more than a handful of quality events are financially feasible.

Relying on a more widespread media coverage and attracting a decent number of viewers/spectators (the pro sport model) is something that is still a long way off.

Aaron Coker said...

Great ideas. Don't get discouraged.

jza said...

"Cycling teams do not make money. They can't win enough prize money to pay for themselves and they don't generate enough exposure to offer a great return to the sponsor"

There would be no prize money. Unless teams wrote performance based bonuses into their riders' contracts. A schedule of high vis' races would ensure sponsor exposure.

"Cross will never capture the imagination like road races do, but there is a growing and sustainable system in place. The top events have very large non-elite fields which generate fee revenue, and the participants themselves are a potential market for a sponsor of the event."

Even at their biggest, 'cross races are largely amateur affairs with a few pro's thrown in the mix. These races have nothing to do with a pro sports league.

"For road races and crits to be sustainable they have to be able to do the same, which means boosting participation"

SPONSORS AND TV MONEY! Amateurs can still race, but it won't be at these races, just like your local little league team doesn't play their games in Yankee stadium right before the Yankees play.

"What is needed are not just sponsors who will act as patrons, but rather organizers who are willing to put in the work to put on quality events, market it and also assume some risk."

This is what good amateur races need to have. I'm talking about a pro league here. Different business model altogether.

fixgear said...

I personally like it that we aren't mainstream, or NASCAR or the NFL or whatever...Im not sure what 'we' gain from all that.
I'd agree that the governing bodies need work...But as far as how cycling fits into the popular psyche...I doubt it ever will, so long as 'we' are focused on the stick and ball in a yard model...Even soccer which involves a ball and a field doesn't hold US attention- too subtle, nuanced, lacks scoring, etc. I guess I don't think American Cycling really needs saving...Maybe we take back Madison Square Garden and run a six day there, put McDreamy on a track bike and partner him up with Nelson'll be cycling with the stars..awesome.

Paul Shirkey said...

I'd say the real reason that cycling is weak in the USA is that most states are missing a awesome organization like ORBA.

Have you ever checked the racing schedule for states off the west coast? They are pretty much zilch because without a OBRA-like organization in every state, hosting races is a very big task that few are willing to tackle....forever damning bike racing in the vast majority of the US to the dedicated few (willing to drive 100's of miles for races everyweekend) ....preventing any growth in the sport.

When every state has a OBRA-like organization...the pro scene at the top will naturally flourish. There will be never be mixed catagory races because there will be so many riders and then the money will naturally follow to execute your project.

You have ProAm today because the Pro scene and support is weak - because in most areas in the US the amateur scene is weak. Cycling in the US can only be built from the bottom up...just like any other sport. Start with teams in every high school.