It’s a cold October morning in Paris and Christian Prudhomme is unveiling the 2010 Tour de France route in the Palais des Congrès. All over the world millions of fans are watching the event through a live video stream, with each stage announced to a rapturous round of applause. A few hours later in California, Andrew Messick, the organiser of the Tour of California, will be sipping his morning coffee as he puts the finishing touches to his own 2010 race, having announced earlier in the year that the event will move to May and will be televised live on Eurosport for the first time.
As of next year, cycling will have three races – the Tour of California, the Tour of Italy and the Tour de France – set over a 90-day period and with it, the sport will grow exponentially as it ties up more television and media rights across the globe. The globalisation of cycling, as Messick calls it, is well and truly under way.
In racing terms cycling has never had it so good, as team managers juggle their rosters and aim to compete on as many fronts as possible. Fans of the sport are almost spoilt for choice. For the real money makers – the organisers – it’s another triumph, as they broaden their audiences to new territories and attract the best riders. The sponsors, too, will enjoy the ripples sent through the sport as they gain valuable airtime and entry into what Bob Stapleton describes as cycling’s three biggest racing spectacles.
“California has the ninth biggest world economy,” says Stapleton, who owns the Columbia-HTC team. “It’s just behind France in that regard. The Tour of California will be televised in over 100 countries and the concentration of these fantastic races in a 90-day period is fantastic for the sport.
“You’re going to see the world’s eyes on cycling,” the entrepreneur says.
And Stapleton is right. With cycling appearing to clean its act up and an anti-doping programme set to be the envy of all other sports, cycling is finally breaking out of the doldrums and is becoming marketable on a truly international scale.
“Television rights do matter. The media rights drive value, just look at the Olympics or the Tour [de France],” Messick says. “That’s how you broaden the value of your event to a bigger audience. We had two million people on the roads watching the race in 2009, more than ever before, but you can have many more eyeballs through television and the web if the platform is good enough.” And his stats are backed up in Europe too. Letour.com, the Tour de France’s website, has doubled its audience to 11.6 million visitors in just twelve months; a demonstration that television isn’t the only media portal that has expanded.
So what’s the catch? Well you have to look hard to find one, but it’s there. Cycling is a sport whose tremendous strength lies in its rich history. From Maurice Garin’s victory in the very first Tour de France back in 1903, to Alberto Contador’s triumph this July, the sport has etched a vision of beauty and simplicity that is missing in the commercialisation of many other sports. In what other arena can the public and spectators get so close to their heroes that they can touch their jerseys after a mountain stage?
Those that are seeking to expand cycling would do well to remember that.