When a cyclist signs a contract with a professional team, they aren’t just agreeing to race their bike and get paid for it — they’re signing up to become an ambassador for the team’s many sponsors. From the title sponsor(s) to the nutrition provider; from the team’s car brand right down to the pillow sponsor — the rider is now an ambassador for far more than just their team.
But for many riders, sponsorship and endorsement responsibilities go beyond those that come with the team they sign for. Successful riders can often pick up additional endorsement deals or personal sponsors, allowing them to increase their earning potential throughout a season.
Many riders have a personal shoe sponsor, for example, and others might have a particular brand of sunglasses that they always wear. And some riders have endorsement deals that aren’t directly related to cycling, such as Simon Gerrans’ association with a Volvo dealership in Melbourne or Peter Sagan’s endorsement of Slovakian organic food company sun-root, Citroen and Telekom Slovakia.
At the height of his powers Lance Armstrong famously had a bevy of personal endorsement deals with the likes of Nike, Trek, brewing company Anheuser-Busch, nutrition company Honey Stinger, and many more. As a result, Armstrong reportedly earned around US$17.5 million in 2005, his last season before retiring for the first time.
In the wake of his doping admission, Armstrong lost many of his sponsors in one fell swoop — a day he described as “a $75-million day”. In all, it’s estimated his fall from grace cost him as much as US$200 million in then-current and future endorsement deals.
Of course Armstrong was almost unique in his ability to attract personal endorsements. But that’s not to say there isn’t generous money on offer to riders these days as well.
The Turbine is a so-called ‘nasal dilator’ that, its owners claim, can increase airflow through the nose by 38%. In the past few years The Turbine has attracted attention from the cycling community by aligning itself with various professional riders. CyclingTips understands that one Australian WorldTour professional made between $5,000 and $10,000 by wearing The Turbine during races and endorsing it via social media.
Another Australian, Jack Bobridge, surprised some onlookers and fans earlier this year when he wore The Turbine during his attempt at the UCI hour record in Melbourne. CyclingTips understands Bobridge was paid $10,000 in cash and received an allocation of shares in Rhinomed, the company behind The Turbine. An additional bonus was also on offer had he achieved the record.
But The Turbine’s biggest coup thus far has certainly been getting Chris Froome to wear the device on the first stage of the 2014 Vuelta a España and in the early stages of the 2015 Tour de France — a race he went on to win.
While the exact details of the those deals are unclear, CyclingTips understands there was a further deal on the table for Froome to wear the Turbine in the second half of this year’s Tour de France; a deal that was valued at six figures but that didn’t come to fruition.
— Chris Froome (@chrisfroome) July 4, 2015
Spreading the word
A crucial component of any modern endorsement deal is the need for the athlete to post about the product on social media. Getting images of the product onto a cycling website such as CyclingTips, or into a cycling magazine, will often attract an additional cash bonus for the athlete. CyclingTips understands that these bonuses can be worth as much as $10,000 per image, depending on the context, the stature of the athlete involved and the publication.
Of even greater value to the brand is cost-free editorial coverage of the product in question.
At the time of Jack Bobridge’s hour record attempt, Fairfax Media published a largely uncritical article about The Turbine, answering the question “What’s up Jack Bobridge’s nose?” Cycling Weekly ran a similarly uncritical piece during this year’s Tour, asking “why is Chris Froome wearing a nose ring at the Tour de France?”
Free coverage of this kind is of far greater value to The Turbine than any banner advertising or advertorial they could pay for. This is because such coverage suggests a product is worthy of coverage on its own merits, rather than appearing simply for commercial purposes.
Avoiding sponsor clash
While many riders have their own personal sponsors, it can often be challenging to ensure such deals don’t clash with those acquired when signing a professional contract.
Jamie Barlow is a rider agent at Trinity Sports Management who counts Nicolas Roche among his clients. Barlow told CyclingTips that managing riders’ personal endorsement deals is “tricky” and that team sponsorships result in riders “get blocked on so many potential deals”.
“Nico was at Tinkoff-Saxo last year so there is no way we could have got him a deal with Bank of Ireland or AIB [Allied Irish Bank],” Barlow explained. “You have restrictions in place.”
Sometimes though, personal endorsements that look like they might clash, actually don’t. Such is the case with Bora-Argon 18 sprinter Sam Bennett who is an ambassador for Irish health food brand Chia Bia.
“Chia Bia is a funny one in that it is not considered a rival product to a Powerbar, SIS or whatever Bora use,” Barlow said.
While most riders have to balance their personal endorsements with those that come with their professional contract, some riders are big enough to be able to bring a sponsor they’re associated with when they change teams.
Others are so important to a sponsor that the sponsor will agree to foot a substantial amount of their wages. This happened when Alberto Contador moved to Saxo-Tinkoff prior to the 2011 season. He had been riding Specialized bikes since the previous year. While the team was itself already on these machines, the importance of Specialized’s association with the Spaniard was such that it agreed to pay a large chunk of his annual salary. This was reportedly to the tune of 2 million euro per year — a substantial sum.
Cycling: a sporting minnow
But there are only a few cyclists in recent years that have been able to command such lucrative endorsement and sponsorship deals. In other sports, big-name athletes routinely command endorsement deals well into the tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars.
Last year, American basketball superstar Kevin Durant reportedly signed a 10-year endorsement deal with Under Armour worth between US$265 million and $285 million. Irish golfer Rory McIlroy’s five-year deal with Nike is believed to be worth in the vicinity of US$100 million for five years. And tennis star Roger Federer reportedly earns more in endorsement deals than any other athlete on the planet, thanks to deals with Nike, Credit Suisse, Mercedes-Benz and Rolex, among others.
So why can’t cyclists command such lucrative deals? For a start there simply isn’t as much money in cycling as there is in other sports. And, again, it often comes down to a clash with a rider’s team-related sponsorship obligations.
“If you look at golfers or the F1 drivers, the first thing they will do is put on the [sponsor’s] hat,” Jamie Barlow said. “In cycling you can’t do that. You put your team hat on, your team jersey or your team t-shirt. They can’t give the same exposure.”
“It is not like [the golfer] Shane Lowry who can wear a Bank of Ireland t-shirt and a Bank of Ireland hat. Nicolas Roche can never do that.”