Velon interview pt I: CEO Bartlett on how group can transform cycling

by Shane Stokes


Launched yesterday in what the group hopes will represent a major step forward for the growth and stability of the sport, first details of the Velon project were finally unveiled.

Comprising eleven of cycling’s top WorldTour teams and targeting goals of making the sport more dramatic, introducing new technology and building a more sustainable and credible future, the group aims to transform the landscape of the sport.

It hands member teams new negotiation power in discussions with the UCI and with race organisers such as ASO, thus strengthening the hand of one of the most important stakeholder groups in cycling.

However while the launch document introduced Velon to those who follow the sport, many important details were not explained due to its brevity. CyclingTips spoke in depth to the group’s CEO Graham Bartlett, who previously worked with UEFA and Nike and was commercial director for Liverpool Football Club, getting greater detail on a variety of topics.

In part I of this interview, Bartlett fields questions on the group’s goals and finances, speaks about the teams who have not yet signed up and discusses some of the technology already employed such as on-bike cameras and whether that footage could become a revenue stream.

He also talks about Velon’s dealings with the AIGCP, the UCI plus Tour de France organiser ASO, who many anticipate could be the group’s biggest challenge.

CyclingTips: First off, can you explain what Velon means for the teams involved?

Graham Bartlett: We are very much about facing the same direction now. This is a joint business venture of eleven of the teams. It has got three founding principles, really – make the sport more exciting, bring new technology too it and that this all has to be underpinned by sustainable and credible teams.

This has to be a long term business shift, because you are not going to do anything overnight that is going to switch on massive big revenue streams. You have to build this slowly and shift that economic model. The teams want to be sustainable and credible in the long term. That has got to be better for the sport and better for the fans.

The teams have locked together in a company in their own joint business, they have put their rights and business in it and off it goes.

CT: Is that figure available, in terms of how much each team is contributing to it?

GB: No, it is not. The reason for that is not so much secrecy, but more to do with the fact that it will change and alter. What has happened is they are funding the company, and that company’s job is to go out into the world and bring back opportunities. With some of those opportunities the teams might decide, ‘well, actually, we will invest the funding in that, and upscale our commitment.’ Or they may say, ‘no, we need other expertise and other funding for that, so bring that.’

So how much more they put in and how that would work will flex according to the opportunities and change. As a result if I give you a figure it is fairly meaningless, to be honest, as it depends on what new business this company generates and on what basis. It also depends on what partners are involved. It is a flexible business model.
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CT: There are a number of other WorldTour teams who haven’t come on board. Have they given a reason for that? Do you think that will change over time?

GB: I think all teams have got different objectives in what they want to achieve. We have had conversations with some of them to a large extent and some lesser so. What we did is we decided that rather than trying to keep taking, we will show what we are doing and what we are about, and then keep the door open for them to come on board later. And that door is very much open.

In deciding to get out there and do things, we did some good stuff this season in the on-bike camera space. That’s just a start; that is only one thing. We have got to do a lot more than that, but that showed that the group can act together.

CT: Do you see a possibility of selling that on-bike footage to the big broadcasters as a possible revenue stream?

GB: Well, the interesting thing about the on-bike camera footage is that you need both the teams and the organisers, as obviously the organisers have already sold a lot of their media rights.

What we are doing at the moment with the organisers is to see where that can fit to best effect. At the moment it is going out to the broadcast rights holders, and some of those are very long-term deals. As a result you have not got a huge amount of potential to get a massive revenue from an isolated one camera feed which is being shown on a delayed basis. You would be foolish if you thought that would be worth millions of pounds.

But what you do with it is to say, look, how do we improve the experience in the broadcast? How do we use it in a clever way? And how do we join it with other things? There is a lot of other technology that you can bring into the race.

So you round out your relationship between a group of teams and the organiser and see what you can build together. You can create new, exciting things that people haven’t seen before, then you figure out your best route to market direct to the fans with the sponsor, with an advertiser, with a broadcaster. Over time you can build that model up.

If you look at the examples from other sports, it takes a long time to change things. This economic model has been around in cycling for over 100 years. So you are not going to be able to change it overnight, but you want to be able to set off in the right direction.

It took tennis a lot of time, it took Formula One quite a long time. Even football. It is something that you have got to grow and get right at the beginning and move forward with, seeing where you can take it.

CT: Are there major obstacles to this footage going out live? Is being able to do that still a few years away?

GB: It is an interesting question. It is actually not a few years away. You could do it now, but the difficulty with it is doing it economically. It can be very expensive to extract live feeds of audio visual on a constant basis from lots of bikes. That gives you a lot of transmission challenges, it gives you a lot of expense challenges. You have to consider the weight of the cameras and so on.

What we will do is to move as quickly as we can in a good way. The worst thing you can do is to start to promise to do everything tomorrow and then deliver a bad product. It is better to deliver stuff that you think is good, do it in a right way and then build on from there.

I don’t think live transmission is two or three years away. It is closer than that, but it will be decided by what is economically possible, makes sense and also what, what the fans want.
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CT: How are Velon’s dealings with the AIGCP, the teams’ association? Is there a cooperative relationship there?

GB: Very much so. All of our members are members of the AIGCP. So we sit within that organisation. AIGCP is a group that Velon as an entity relates to very strongly and very closely. We share common interests in what happens to a lot of teams, particularly on the political stage, which is where the AIGCP are obviously very important.

Velon has a very open dialogue with the AIGCP, and our members are their members.

CT: Is there any potential for Pro Continental teams to get involved in Velon, or is this a WorldTour-only initiative?

GB: It has not been set out as a WorldTour-only initiative, and we are open to having conversations with any team who can share our common objectives and deliver to those common objectives. I think some Pro Continental teams would find it difficult to join with us on what we are trying to deliver, others maybe could do that. But certainly there is no bar on the basis that you are not in the WorldTour.

We are happy to have a conversation with any team that shares the objectives and the vision and can contribute to the business.

CT: Let’s look at a couple of other stakeholders in the sport. What have the reaction been thus far from the UCI?

GT: A really good reaction. Funnily enough, I was just on the phone to the UCI a minute before this interview. We were just aligning on a point on season-long narrative. We have got a very open dialogue with the UCI, and we want to continue that. We have involved the key members of the UCI in what has been going on in Velon for quite a while.

The UCI were great, by the way, because they were the ones who changed regulations and allowed derogation of relegations in order to permit the cameras to go on bikes this season. So fair play to them…a governing body that works so quickly around making amendments and changing regulations is to be applauded. They helped make it happen.

CT: And what about ASO?

GB: ASO are a fantastic organiser for cycling in what they do and how they promote the races. We have had discussions with them where we are keen to partner with them. We have partnered with them twice this season already, because we did an arrangement with them for on-bike cameras for the Tour and we did it again for the Vuelta. We are seeing where that partnership can develop and lead.

They are a huge organisation and we really want to work with them. So far there have been some good discussions and it is very open, so let’s hope it continues that way.

CT: In the past ASO appeared to see teams looking for revenue as a threat. You say there is a better relationship now with ASO. Is it simply the case that ASO realises, ‘okay, we have 11 big teams pulling together in the same direction, so it is really something we need to pay more attention to them?’

GB: I don’t know necessarily if they have changed in that way. What everybody wants is to bring some new technology into the races. For the fans you need to give them stuff that they actually want. If you are going to do that, we need to work together – it needs the organisers and the teams.

In terms of sharing revenue, what we are about is creating a new upside and actually generating new interest from different areas that haven’t been seen in the sport before. And how that can benefit both sides.

In terms of ASO, they have got wonderful races and they want to make them even more exciting. One of the ways of doing that is partnering with the teams.

It is good business sense, really, and I think that’s true for everybody. It is not about taking away from people, it is what we can add and bring to everyone. It’s what we can make better together that we can all benefit from.

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In part II of this interview, Bartlett gives his opinion on a range of topics, including the UCI’s proposal to restructure the sport, its plan to cut down on team sizes and race days, and anti-doping matters including as Garmin-Sharp’s previous call for higher investment in the biological passport by teams.

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