There’s little doubt women’s road cycling is on the upswing. Major new races have been added to the calendar in the past two years and when you speak to riders in the elite women’s peloton you hear over and over again that the standard of racing is improving rapidly.
And while these improvements seem to coincide with growing public interest in women’s racing, it’s still rare to find live women’s racing on TV. So why is that? What are the roadblocks? And what might the future hold? CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef investigates.
As it stands there are only a handful of races on the elite women’s calendar that are broadcast live on TV. These include the newly added La Course by Le Tour de France, the World Championships road race, the Olympics road race and the Ladies Tour of Qatar. If you add online live-streaming to the mix you get another small handful of races, including several rounds of the Women’s World Cup, the US national championships, the Tour of California invitational ITT and a couple more. But that’s about it.
If women’s road cycling is going to continue to grow then increased media coverage will be required. Media coverage creates exposure for sponsors; sponsors that inject much-needed funding into the sport. And given broadcast TV is still the most effective way of reaching a mass audience — for the moment at least — it makes sense to focus on getting more women’s races on TV.
Women’s races with a men’s equivalent
In spotting opportunities for the broadcast of women’s racing it makes sense to consider the low-hanging fruit: women’s races that are held alongside a men’s race that already has a live broadcast. La Course by Le Tour de France is a good but rare example — Paris’ Champs-Elysees is closed for the final stage of the Tour de France anyway; holding a women’s circuit race ahead of the men’s make sense and presents minimal logistical challenges.
Other races appear to have the right conditions for a similar set-up but haven’t managed to take that step, much to the chagrin of social media commentators. Such races include Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, Fleche-Wallonne, Strade Bianche (new this year), the women’s Tour of California and, from an Australian perspective, the women’s road race at the national road championships.
Many frustrated fans took to social media during this year’s Tour of Flanders, in particular, to ask: “if the cameras are already set up on the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs and at the finish to capture the men’s race, why can’t they be turned on to show the women’s race live as well?”
Indeed, there is a period of several hours in which both the women’s and men’s Tour of Flanders are both in progress, with the women’s event tending to finish during a quiet period in the men’s race. So why not cross to live coverage of the closing stages of the women’s race, particularly given there’s a lull in the men’s race at the time?
To answer this question and many others, we spoke with James Venner, senior producer at Vsquared TV, a production company that specialises in cycling coverage, having produced the Tour de France — among other races — for UK broadcaster ITV for the past 20 years.
Why not just switch the cameras on?
According to James Venner it is “technically feasible” for the host broadcaster of the Tour of Flanders to show live footage from the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs and from the finish of the women’s race during the broadcast of the men’s race. Fixed cameras and other necessary pieces of infrastructure are already in place for the men’s race. The reason it doesn’t happen? The host broadcaster doesn’t seem to believe the demand is great enough to warrant spending time and money to overcome the issues involved in covering two races at once.
“You can imagine: you’ve got a director who’s trying to watch about 35 cameras covering the men’s race, and following the story of the men’s race,” Venner told CyclingTips. “And you’re now saying to him ‘by the way, every now and again we want you to keep an eye on the women’s race and cut up anything that’s interesting.
“‘And while you’re on the women’s race, keep an eye on the men’s race to make sure we’re not missing anything.’ You can pretty soon see that someone would go mad doing that.”
A broadcaster could appoint a second director to focus on the women’s race, but as Venner told CyclingTips in the case of the Tour of Flanders, the women’s Tour of Flanders is currently considered by the host broadcaster as little more than a curtain-raiser.
“Belgian TV is on site covering the men’s race as they have done for years. It’s their big event of the year; their Cup Final”, Venner said. “You can imagine that they are totally focussed, 100%, on covering [what is] the main event, as far as they’re concerned.”
Even if this reluctance could be overcome, the live coverage of the women’s Tour of Flanders would be little more than a few minutes from three sets of fixed cameras: one on each of the two main climbs, and one set at the finish. Better than nothing perhaps, but far from a full live broadcast. Putting the entire race live to air, and not just the sections shot with a fixed camera, is another story altogether.
How to broadcast a race live
While there are camera motorbikes out on course filming during all the Women’s World Cup races for highlights packages (see more below), turning this into live coverage is an expensive exercise.
“If covering live, you’ve got the signal from the camera on the motorbike which has to be fed via radio signal back to the finish point,” Venner said. “You usually see on the TV motos there’s a great mast on the back of the bike — the signal goes from there and it gets picked up by a helicopter hovering above.”
An average bike race might have three camera motos out on course, providing, say, shots of the peloton, a breakaway group and another rider or riders of interest. Ideally, each moto would have its own corresponding helicopter to broadcast the signal to the finish line. And then there are the helicopters used to capture overhead shots of the race.
In an ideal setup, overhead shots and signal relaying are done by different helicopters — the former requires hovering close to the ground while the latter needs greater elevation to send signals effectively. But when you consider that it costs in the vicinity of $3,000 per hour for each helicopter, it’s easy to see that the costs add up quickly.
To save money, it’s possible for one helicopter to relay signals and capture footage, but as viewers of the Ronde van Drenthe World Cup livestream found out earlier this year, the risk is signal breakup or worse.
“At the start of the live feed of Drenthe this year the pictures were very choppy. We had very low cloud and the helicopter at its furthest point away from the finish where it was picking up the coverage … couldn’t get high enough to properly see the receive point at the finish because the cloud was too low,” Venner said. “So it was hovering right on the boundary of being able to transmit and not being able to transmit. So we had pictures which were not particularly solid.”
With race organisers generally unwilling to spend big money on live coverage, it’s a case of compromise.
“At the moment for a women’s race you go ‘ok, the money’s not there; that will have to do,” Venner told CyclingTips. “You take the risk and you live with a few of the problems.”
While live TV coverage of races is the ideal situation, James Venner spoke of another option that could provide a stepping-stone to live coverage of women’s races: same-day highlights packages.
For the past two seasons Vsquared TV has been responsible for producing the highlights videos for the UCI Women’s World Cup; highlights that are published on the UCI’s YouTube channel. The next step, Venner says, is to produce these highlights packages on the same day as the race (rather than a few days later) and to push for their broadcast on TV stations around the world. Getting women’s racing into more homes, even as highlights, Venner says, will show broadcasters and sponsors that there is an audience for this content.
“In the first instance let’s get it on [TV] and let people see for themselves that it’s good stuff, “Venner said. “Obviously there’s that wall of resistance to get past with people saying ‘no-one wants to watch it’, or whatever. You’ve got to get past that.
“We can do that by giving [TV networks] a show that they haven’t got to do anything do with — they can take it and put it straight on air; the commentary’s all done for them, and if they want to add their own commentary, we make it as easy as possible for them to do that.
“You try and make their life as easy as possible so the number of excuses they can offer for not doing it is reduced.”
While broadcast TV has been the big player for many years when it comes to covering bike races, there are several other options in the works that could be particularly useful for covering women’s racing. The internet, of course, is becoming a major player in this space.
“I think, very much, the online arena and using YouTube and other things like that is going to be the way forward, “ James Venner told CyclingTips. “Obviously where you crack broadcast TV you can get a bigger audience but a lot of broadcast stations are pretty set in their ways and cracking them might not be that easy.
“We may find that the internet revolution has actually bypassed the problem before we’ve solved it.”
One of the cost-savings associated with livestreaming has to do with the way the content is delivered to consumers. In a terrestrial TV broadcast, race coverage is transmitted from the finish line of the race to TV networks via a satellite uplink, at a cost of roughly $1,400 to $1,600 per hour. (This price can be reduced in races where the same signal is sent to multiple broadcasters, such as at the Tour de France. In that case the cost per broadcaster can be reduced by roughly $400).
A live stream, by contrast, is much simpler and much cheaper — the race feed is simply pushed online through a reliable online streaming service, and then users can load the stream directly at their end.
While the internet is already being used to deliver cycling broadcasts to consumers, it can also be used at an earlier stage in the production process. Rather than beaming images from a motorbike-mounted camera to the finish of a race via a helicopter (at great expense), 4G mobile technology can be used instead. As James Venner explains, there are various systems already on the market, including one called LiveU which Vsquared TV used at the Open de Suede Vargada World Cups in Sweden late last year.
“[LiveU] basically is a box that will go in a motorcycle pannier or sling over your shoulder … that’s got six or nine sim cards,” Venner said. “It splits the signal up and squirts everything back using 4G signals and then you receive them at the finish and bingo, you’ve got some live pictures. In theory.”
There are a few challenges that, at the moment, are preventing more widespread roll-out of this technology. For a start, LiveU signals are delayed slightly because it takes the system time to split the video up and recombined it at the other end. This can pose challenges when combined with footage from traditional broadcast signals, which don’t carry such a pronounced delay.
“You’ve got be very careful about how you cut and when you cut”, Venner said. “But it can be done.”
The other challenge relates to the strength of the internet connection at both ends of the LiveU link-up.
“You need an area with good 4G signals … which aren’t being used by too many other people,” Venner explained. “And combine that with the finish point has got [to have] super-fast broadband.”
While 4G is being rolled out more and more, coverage is not yet widespread enough to guarantee a consistently strong signal, particularly in rural areas. But when the conditions are right, systems like LiveU provide a cheaper option for race organisers, without the need for expensive helicopters and other live-linking infrastructure.
As an example, how much could a LiveU system have saved broadcasters at the recent Energiewacht Tour in the Netherlands?
“To cover live with, say, two motos and one heli would be in the range of £45,000-£50,000 (AUD $90-110,000),” Venner said. “Using LiveU would save approximately £10,000 (AUD $20,000).”
Ultimately, and predictably, the issue of broadcasting women’s bike races comes down to money. Putting bike races on TV is expensive and in the case of most women’s races, there’s simply not enough money coming in to justify the prohibitive cost of paying for a broadcast.
But there are options on the horizon. With any luck, the growing interest in and support for women’s cycling will continue to push things in the right direction.