So I am part of the minority in America that actually follows professional cycling. One of the main reasons I own a Tivo is to record Versus cycling coverage every Sunday afternoon. In fact, right now all 20 stages of the Tour de France are hogging up my Tivo’s hard drive. For those that know me, I’ve always been a sports nut (even worked as a sports writer in college) so it was natural that I gravitate towards professional cycling with my relative new love of recreational cycling. In fact, Jess, Grant and I went to California this year and followed three stages of the Tour of California. I have been to NBA Finals games, NFL playoffs, MLB playoffs, Final Fours, etc. and nothing compared to the TOC experience. The access to the athletes in cycling is unlike any other sport. Plus, can you imagine walking out on the field of the Superbowl (just hours before the game) and playing a game of flag football with your buddies? That’s essentially what you can do at professional cycling races since the course is normally open to the public before the race. Half the people you see at the race will be walking around with their bike and in full cycling gear, earlier that day climing the same hills that the pros would later fly up in an attempt at winning the stage.
So for my non-cycling friends, I have become the answer guy for all things cycling. This includes what I think of the Tour de France and all the recent doping scandals. I was one of the people that was inspired by Floyd Landis last year only to later be crushed when the doping accusations came out against him. In fact, Jess sported a very cool “Free Floyd” T-shirt at the Tour of California last year. Having several of the top riders kicked out of the Tour this year for doping will have a huge impact on the viabilty of the sport going forward. I think there will be some lean years ahead for professional cycling for one reason – corporate sponsors. Cycling is like NASCAR in the sense that the teams are totally dependent on corporate sponsorships. The big European teams are sponsored by everything from parquet wood flooring (Team Quickstep) to lotteries and home pregnancy test (Predictor-Lotto). More and more these companies aren’t going to want their brands associated with all of the negative PR that follows the doping scandals and basically permeates the entire pro peleton right now. I have a unique perspective on this since I am in marketing. In fact, when I ran marketing for Blockbuster Online I evaluated and made decisions on how are marketing dollars were spent. I evaluated or executed sponsorships of NASCAR, Indy Car, sponsorship of NBA games, TV spots during the SuperBowl and college bowl games, events like the Sundance Film Festival, etc.). Wearing my “Marketing Cap” I wouldn’t touch professional cycling with a 10 foot pole right now. I think other potential sponsors will feel the same way and the budgets that pro teams have to work with will decrease over the coming years. As a result, there will be fewer races, probably less TV coverage and less prize money for the racers.
It’s going to take the effort of innovative teams like Slipstream to really change the perception of cycling. Slipstream spends $500,000+ a year to test their own athletes to prevent any doping. They are the only team that can confidently say that they are 100% drug-free when they line up at the start of any race (they also have the coolest kits anywhere -they’re argyle).
The good news is that none of this will have an impact on the “soul” of the sport. Weekend Warriors and amateur racers like myself that can appreciate the pain, skill and devotiation needed to race at the highest levels of the sport, but are in no way influenced by their doping affairs. The only “doping” I do is taking Clif Bloks with caffeine instead of standard Clif Bloks on a ride.