Ask Not What Pro Cycling Can Do For You... (part 1)

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Since I'm sometimes seriously freaking long-winded, this is going to be part 1 of a 2 part deal.  Most of this had been sitting in my head, causing me headaches, until I got it down and could start to look at it and bat it around. 

We (Mike and I) have an uneasy relationship with pro cycling.  On the one hand, personally, we're both fans.  We do pools with our team mates before the big races, and we certainly spend enough time on the trainer watching races we've recorded.  I might have a bit of a man crush on Gilbert, but we don't get too tied up in it at all.  On the other hand, professionally, it's a more difficult story.  There's a "tail wagging the dog" thing that goes on there, as well as the obvious elephant in the room.  Was it the refined carbon layup in the frame or the needles in the ass that proved the difference in the last big race?   As Mike's pointed out pretty convincingly on several occasions, despite all the "15% more aero" this, and the "20% stiffer" that, and the "8% more vertically compliant" that, the evidence points to absolute parity in equipment.  Cavendish has dominated on a Giant, and he's dominated on a Scott.  The big story will be if he doesn't dominate on a Specialized this year.  Same thing with Cancellara - does anyone like their shot against him riding on any bike?  Every time the merry-go-round stops and everyone winds up on different bikes than they rode last year, the pecking order stays about the same. 

It doesn't take much digging to find that we think pro sponsorship is something that winds up costing consumers too much dough, but the other day we were faced with an entirely new perspective on the subject.  It came in the comments following an online review of a product that's very (very) similar to one of ours, only several times more expensive.  One commenter called out the product as being too expensive, which was in turn met with a response about the costs of doing business, including sponsorship costs (the company offering the product in question sponsors a pro - lower case "p" - team).  The commenter made the point that without sponsorship, there'd be no pro cycling, and no print media covering pro cycling.  Marketing money passed onto consumers as sort of a cable bill, or entertainment tax.  We were both fascinated with this concept. 

Pro cycling obviously doesn't have many chances to sell tickets.  There are some, but not many.  TV revenues and sponsorship dollars are the sport's only income streams.  German TV is pulling the plug, and we've seen how bountiful the sponsorship market is for the top teams, so neither stream is particularly secure at the moment.  Without gate receipts, pro cycling is at a significant revenue disadvantage to other pro sports.  I don't think that many sports are managed in a way that could be considered textbook or ethical, but cycling's leaderships seems particularly at sea.  Selective justice, cronyism, and whatever else we're going to find out in the coming weeks and months, this crew can't seem to get or keep their act together.  Granted, their task is a challenging one.  They need heroes, and heroes need to win, and be charismatic, and be good looking, and be from large market countries, and not get caught with strange things in their blood.  Yes, the races are a critical component of the spectacle, but the racers are certainly as important.  However you feel about him, the Lance Armstrong story is why we currently have so much cycling on TV - but if he was dominating the Three Days of de Panne for seven straight years, he would be a minor curiosity.  Racers and races, both important. 

Anyhow, that was more to set up the point than to make it.  The point is, do we need professional cycling, and if so, why?  Would your enthusiasm for riding your bike be diminished in the absence of the pro game?  Mine might dip a percentage point or three.  Would I quit?  Don't joke.  Would I do one less race a year?  No.  But something might be lost.  We're spectators of one of the few sports where the spectators are more likely than not to actually participate in the sport themselves.  In the US, that likelihood is staggering - do you think that even 10% of the Tour's annual US audience is something other than regular cyclists?  In Europe, the demographic is far more widespread (witness the roadside crowd at any race) but there is still a far greater audience of participants there than, say, the NFL has in the US.  Clearly, if the NFL ceased to be, football in all of its forms would suffer as its cultural relevance would wither.  In US cycling's case, there basically is no cultural relevance for the pro sport outside of participants who are otherwise engaged with the sport anyway. 

The great snake's tail that wraps me back to my original dumfoundedness at the review comment is this: the commenter willingly and even enthusiastically gives cycling participants the obligation of perpetuating professional cycling - an institution which is readily proving unable to support itself.  It's a bizarre concept for me to even consider, but do the participants in a participatory sport owe anything to the pro component of their sport?  It actually seems like Pat McQuaid's greatest fantasy come true - a self perpetuating income stream based on a choose-able, controllable (he's the gatekeeper, right?) cast of suppliers, who pay him a share the revenue stream that they get, from the consumers, in return for marketing themselves to those same consumers.  I think my head just exploded even considering this one...

So in the next part there's some stuff on tap about what pro cycling does for the sport, and the people who play it, on all levels.  You might be surprised to find that it's not all grim and gloom.  Neither will you be surprised to find some of that. 


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