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April 5, 2011
Just like every other cycling nut in Australia, I stayed up late on Sunday night glued to the television watching the Tour of Flanders. It was such an exciting race that I found myself standing up infront of the TV as if I was on the side of the road on the Koppenberg yelling and shaking my fists at the riders. And I was alone in my livingroom!
I remember when I was growing up and I needed to wait a month for my subscription of Velonews to arrive before I was able to read about what happened at Flanders, Roubaix, the Tour de France, etc. They were these mythical races in far away Euroland that had held this fascinating mystique. Then came the 90’s when I had a 14.4kbps dial up connection. Being the geek that I was (am), I had the cutting edge of technology of the time. I was able to access Bill’s Cycling News which gave us relatively timely reports from the major European races. Results, news and commentary all the way from Europe within the same week? This was a revolution!
Jump ahead to only a few years ago, the best and most reliable way to watch a bike race was via text updates on Cyclingnews. I still find myself resorting to this from time to time if I’m in an airport or at a boardroom meeting. In 2011 we’re fortunate enough to have many avenues to see almost any professional race we want for free. It’s almost never perfect, but I like to think of it as part of the charm of the sport.
If you look back over the years, it seemed impossible that an Australian broadcaster would ever show a race like the Tour of Flanders. This was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to see Flanders live on television and I was ecstatic. It’s one of the five monuments of cycling, but Australian sporting culture is still far from that of Europe.
I’ve chatted with a few people this morning to get an idea of the historical timeline of cycling coverage here in Australia. This is by no means comprehensive, but it gives you an overview of how far we’ve come in terms of televised race coverage in Australia. I’ve only lived in Australia since 2005, so feel free to correct any inaccuracies or add to this list:
The 80’s and early 90’s: Wide World of Sport on Channel 9 would show 26 minutes of highlights from each week of racing at the TdF over 3 Saturday afternoons (months after the fact). ABC also had a periodic cycling show called Flashing Pedals.
A mate who I spoke with recalls the 80’s and getting his race coverage from a guy Bendigo who sold VHS tapes he obtained from Belgium. The videos were dubbed over by a Flemish guy sitting in his lounge room translating the commentary into English (which was far from being his first language). If lucky, these would come out a month after the race. Later came VHS videos you could buy from World Cycling commentated by David Duffield.
1991: Paris-Roubaix highlights were shown two weeks after the race had ended on Saturday 11am timeslot. The race was won by Marc Madiot.
1991-2002: Half-hour Tour de France highlights were shown on SBS at 6pm. In the early 90’s were still the time of aerial antennas and from what I understand SBS often had very poor reception. Viewers would have to squint to make sense of the picture on the television.
2003: Two stages of the Tour de France were shown live on SBS. One mountain stage, and the final stage on the Champs-Élysées.
2004: Four stages of the Tour de France were shown live on SBS.
2005 onwards: All stages of the Tour de France were shown live on SBS plus the highlights package the following day.
2008-2009: Paris-Roubaix coverage was introduced and shown live for the first time by SBS. Also, morning and evening highlights were shown of the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta Espana as well as full live coverage of the TdF.
2010: SBS shows live coverage of Paris-Roubaix, Tour of California, Tour de France, seven Vuelta stages live and Giro highlights. World Championships and Tour of Romandie were broadcast live by OneHD.
2011: SBS has a lineup of live coverage of Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Tour of California, Tour de France, 7 stages of the Giro, 7 stages of the Vuelta and World Championships. In case you’re wondering, only 7 stages of the Giro and Vuelta has to do with getting the television rights, which is a long and complicated story.
After all the people I’ve spoken with in the Australian cycling media, the same name keeps popping up as the man who is the champion in the background for cycling: Mike Tomalaris. Since 1996 Mike has been pushing SBS internally to give cycling greater coverage. It’s widely agreed that Mike has done more to televise cycling in Australia than anyone else. If people only understood how much impact he’s had he would get nothing but praise. Unfortunately part of being in the media is dealing with criticism after putting yourself out there day after day.
The way it’s explained to me, SBS is a publicly funded network. They have a multicultural charter mandated by parliament. There’s no getting around this. SBS has to balance community considerations and spending tax payer dollars along with pushing as hard as they can for cycling coverage. There were lots of complaints that SBS only showed the race from 10:30pm onwards. The reality is that cycling is not a big enough market to show six hours of it at a time. We’re all extremely passionate about it, but unfortunately it’s not drawing in hundreds of thousands of people on a Sunday night.
To put things into perspective, footballer Lionel Messi €33 million per year. Yes that’s obscene, but it’s enough to support 4 ProTeams. I hate to say it, but in the world of sport, cycling is a niche market. I would love to see cycling get prime television coverage, but I’m not going to pretend that it’s going to happen anytime soon.
I applaud everything that SBS is doing for cycling. I’m appreciative of the small team at SBS who is fighting tooth and nail to bring us the best coverage they can at a time when Australian athletes are at their best. If you can’t get enough and want to see the majority of the big races, there’s always a Eurosport subscription that you can pay for. BTW, Eurosport is showing the Men’s Curling World Championships this Sunday, not Paris-Roubaix…