Everything Changes Eventually
Gate revenue could be just what professional cycling needs.
Sometimes I picture professional cycling like those construction sites with signs that are posted boasting how many days it has been since the last accident. Perhaps that's what the UCI should hang outside their door in Aigle, Switzerland - "It's been 7 days since our last doping scandal."
The one drama that did catch my attention (and remarkably it doesn't involve doping) is the debate regarding the route change for one of the holiest one-day races, the Tour of Flanders.
It's an understatement to say that the Flanderian people are cycling mad. So the race organizers knew they would catch some grief when a change in the 2012 Tour of Flanders parcours was announced. The Muur has been removed from the route and the racers will complete three loops of the Oude Kwaremont and finish in Oudenaarde.
Velonation reported that Flanders Classics director Wouter Vandenhaute said at an assembled press conference, "the reactions were even more emotional than we expected."
In fact locals took to the street and protested the change by holding a mock funeral suggesting that the Tour of Flanders, a race so much part of the region's heritage, was dead.
Velonation quotes Vandenhaute saying, "There's few spectators on the roadside along the long and straight stretches between the hilly zone and the Muur, and between the Muur and Meerbeke. The experience on the Muur is absolutely fantastic, but its location in the course is not convenient."
This means that the iconic Muur, at least for two years, is no more. While the Muur was packed with screaming fans, to get the racers to that location meant traversing through areas that didn't lend themselves to spectator viewing. If you're a fan you're not going to load up your car, drive to some spot where the racers come barreling through for all of about five minutes. Maybe if you're lucky a water bottle gets tossed your way. No, you want to be posted at a climb or some pivotal location where you can see the suffering up close and personal, or perhaps even hold up a "Dirk Hofman Motorhomes" banner for guerrilla marketing purposes. No one is going to see you if you're sitting out on the side of the road in a desolate patch of Flanderian territory.
The next statement from the Tour of Flanders race director caught my attention, ""If the new route is successful, the Ronde could set an example for all one-day classics. To race from A to B doesn't have much longevity no more. With the new concept, spectators have the chance to see the riders three times, right there in the finale of the race. They can settle themselves in the morning for a day of festivities. We're going to put up large TV screens, there's portable toilets installed and other infrastructure."
Are point A to B races a relic of the past like Vandenhaute claims? Some races already use loops as a course design. Events like the Olympics and World Championships are examples. And other races use finishing loops like the Amstel Gold to two laps on the Roubaix velodrome.
The reason for the finishing loops is obvious - to give the spectators in that area another look at the racers. But if that loop is just a few kilometers in distance, the amount of ancillary events such as the publicity caravan, as well as food vendors, restaurants, and various other merchants are limited. However, if there can be a larger loop that means more people can be catered to, or in the case of advertisers, more eyeballs on their product. Like Vandenhaute said, the fans can attend the festivities that are now located in not just one location, but throughout the course.
But you're thinking to yourself, "Neil, this will kill the history of this race!" To that I say get over it. This year's race will be the 96th edition and change is unavoidable. Look through the history of cycling and you'll see races have changed due to a variety of reasons - from courses, times on the calendar to which events qualify for the World Championships. Change happens. You know what didn't change - dinosaurs. Do you see any dinosaurs now? Yeah, I didn't think so.
This change, while an affront to the Tour of Flanders purists, could reap some benefits. In addition to the added "festivals" that will be a part of the race, there's an opportunity to charge an entrance fee for prime viewing locations, or perhaps erect bleachers with reserved seating for a cost.
At the press conference Vandenhaute was asked this very question and Velonation reports that he didn't directly answer. "I do not rule out it always staying a free event though, but it will never be an exclusive event to VIP's only."
I might get a lot of abuse heaped on me for this next statement, but I think there should be a charge at the gate for spectators. The race is entertainment and the athletes are performing professionally. This is not a new idea. At the recent cyclocross World Championships, spectators were charged and why not? The Belgian national team put on a display of 'cross power and they did what they were supposed to do - race hard.
How about a portion of the gate allocated to the participating teams as they are part of the entertainment equation? Think of it as profit sharing. Advertising could be strategically placed, for a price, along the barriers to ensure maximum viability as the riders come by. Yes, I know this is very commercial and what I'm suggesting is blasphemous, but this gives the race promoters some clout when it comes to their event. They can ensure that a sponsor get announced a specific amount of times or, for example, their banner is viewed from a fixed camera every lap as the peloton rounds the corner.
To ensure worldwide exposure, which would in turn attract worldwide sponsors rather than just regional money, promoters could stream their races via the internet hosted on their own website, which would capture even more viewers. Other than the Tour de France and maybe one or two other races (not to mention that you need to subscribe to that cable network), there are not many viewing opportunities for North American cycling fans. You pop onto Twitter any race weekend and you'll see numerous requests from people asking who has a link to a bootleg streaming video of that day's race.
With the gate fees an internet option could be subsidized on the race's site and even running the occasional ad on the bottom of the screen, much like they do now during television shows. Heck, even utilize "GetGlue" to mobilize the social media aspect and viewers will start "checking in" from around the globe. If, for example, a multinational conglomerate sees viewers from around the world engaging with the race they're sponsoring via the web, coupled with quantifiable viewership numbers, that could be the motivation for them to commit to long term sponsorship. Dare to dream professional cycling...
This is the kind of revenue stream that could elevate cycling into the modern era of sports entertainment. Like Vandenhaute said, cycling is a sport of the people, but there needs to be some economic concessions made for the greater good. With a few exceptions, if you want to watch a professional sport in person, you have to pay. Why should cycling be any different?
Other than offending the fans, my only concern would be the UCI involvement in this new revenue idea. Like a mafia boss, would Pat McQuaid demand a cut of the pie? Could he withhold professional necessities, like referees or doping control, if the UCI wasn't paid a cut of the action? This is where it can get tricky and I'm sure several Swiss lawyers would quickly become involved. Regardless, even if the UCI demands a piece of the action, I think this idea, or portions of this concept, is the new reality professional cycling needs. Teams and events are facing tough times. Gate revenue could be one method to raise money.