Inside the business of women’s cycling: Until it’s profitable, wages are lacking

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From the Ella archives:
Every weekend we bring back one of our archived stories just in case you had missed it the first time. As the best cyclists in the world compete for the ultimate prestige next week –to be crowned World Champion– there’s something you should know: few of the female athletes make a livable wage. The reward, much like the World Champion title, isn’t financial. It’s about the honour, the competition and the love of the sport.

Original article as published on March 13, 2015.

Salaries amongst the professional cyclists have proven a popular topic on CyclingTips. We’ve talked about factors that determine a rider’s wage and the ways in which the UCI minimum wage is broken – yet both of these articles focused only on the men’s peloton. What about the women?

We set out to explore the salary issue within professional women’s cycling. The topic is particularly timely given recent revelations about the UCI’s plans to slowly introduce requirements over time within the top tier of the proposed two-tiered division of the sport. With changes in regulations around wages unlikely until 2018, it is possible for women to find financial stability while racing full-time?

Loren Rowney

Professional: an adjective meaning to follow an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain.

In women’s cycling, what does it mean to be a professional? With no minimum wage standards in place, limited sponsorship dollars and under-exposure, the gain isn’t financial. Being professional primarily means competing at the highest level of the sport. Making a livable wage comes second.

“I’ve always wanted to be a professional athlete. Since the day I tied up a pair of running shoes at the age of seven, I had a complete fascination and fixation on the Olympics. I still remember watching the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and I thought to myself: ‘This is what I want to do’. So I guess as a kid and even a teenager I never thought about the money aspect of it. I just wanted to be Olympic champion,” said Loren Rowney (Velocio-SRAM).

Even the best (female) cyclist in world, 10-time world champion Marianne Vos, considers herself a “full time hobby cyclist” and expressed gratitude for being able to participate in her sport full time.

“As a little girl I never imagined I’d be able to be a full time athlete,” Vos said. “So I am very aware of this unique opportunity.”

The majority of athletes, it seems, do it for the love of the sport.

“I guess when I first started, I didn’t realise that professional female cyclists don’t make anything near any other professional athletes,” commented Tayler Wiles (Velocio-SRAM). “But I just knew I loved the sport and I didn’t care so much about the money. As I’m getting older I realize that, given the finite amount of time you can do this, it’s not sustainable. But I love the sport and the lifestyle. It’s incredible whether I make money or not. For the meantime it’s great.”

What Does It Pay?

In cycling, athletes make money through a combination of salaries, performance bonuses, sponsorship and prize money.

Yet despite the sport’s progress, the majority of female cyclists support themselves with a part-time job, a supportive spouse and/or frugal living. Only a small percentage makes a livable wage, and an even smaller percentage makes a comfortable one.

Champagne celebrations. Elisa Longo Borghini douses Megan Guarnier with champagne.

“The pay is a very difficult amount of money to live on. Even though I started racing with TICBO in 2008, I wasn’t able to fully turn pro until 2012. Up until then I was working 30 hours a week,” said Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans). “I was fortunate enough to have a supportive husband who financially allowed me to race full time. Now, I’m making it work but let’s just say I want my kids to be soccer players.”

In men’s cycling, UCI regulations clearly define what a team must pay its athletes: 36,300 euro for WorldTour squad (29,370 euro in case of neo-pros); 30,250 euro for Pro Continental squads (25,300 euro for neo-pros). Top athletes meanwhile make upwards of half a million euros per year.

In women’s cycling, with no UCI wage regulations in place, athletes make only a fraction of the men’s minimum wage and many athletes compete unpaid.

“I managed to save a bit of money in the years after school. When I turned pro in 2012, I wasn’t on a salary, so I was pretty much self funded,” said Rowney, who got picked up by Specialized-lululemon that year. “The first year I got $5000 USD. With the Australian international license and insurance costing $2800 and flights to the USA costing $1800, I wasn’t left with much.”

But, as a last-minute sign-on, Rowney knew what she was getting into: an opportunity to get exposure and ride with an international team.

“I am forever grateful to Kristy Scrymegour for taking a chance on me, a virtually unknown Aussie rider, with no international results to date,” said Rowney. “When I got re-signed for the 2013/14 season, I got offered a salary. Everyone on my team is paid, and we are paid quite evenly. There isn’t as much disparity.”

Le Samyn 2015 women

Due to the constant shoveling around of funds and sponsor instability, Great Britain’s Lucy Martin has had to find a new team at the end of every season she’s been cycling. She also learned that even when contracts are in place, they don’t mean much.

“Last year was the worst year for me in my cycling career. I only received three months pay for the whole season despite having a binding UCI contract,” said Martin who was riding for Estado de México-Faren Kuota at the time. “It really opened my eyes to the unfortunate side of women’s cycling, something that I had been blind to in the past.”

For the current season, the 2012 Olympian found herself a home on the Matrix Fitness Pro Cycling team.

“This is my career, however in the back of my mind, I know it isn’t something I can do long term and I will eventually have to get a real career to support my future. But I am really grateful being in this sport and I do it because I am passionate about it and really hope it will develop more,” she said.

Philip Stoneman of M5 Management is one of Australia’s leading commercial sports and event specialists, and he manages some of the top triathletes in the world. His venture in cycling — with clients like Loren Rowney, Mitchell Mulhern and Paul van der Ploeg — is still relatively new but it’s a growing space and interest for him.

“I guess it’s just me wanting to do my bit in relation to increasing the profile of women’s cycling,” said Stoneman. “I see the parity in what a tennis player gets, what a golfer gets and what a triathlete gets. For example, there is no difference what a female Ironman winner gets versus what her male equivalent gets. Same in tennis. They are certainly not the same in cycling. It’s terrible.”

Just how terrible?

“The very top female cyclists may be getting 10 percent of the top male athletes,” said Stoneman. “Now, I don’t know that but I reckon it’s an educated guess.”

So with that, you’re looking at a top end of $150,000 to $200,000 for athletes like Marianne Vos.

Gooik-Geraardsbergen-Gooik 2014

“The salaries of female riders are way out of proportion to those of our male colleagues,” Vos agreed. “There is still work to do. Fortunately, this is increasingly brought to attention and various races and teams are working for parity. That’s of course where we’d like to go [equal prizes and fair pay], but it takes time.”

A Minimum Wage

During his campaign to become the president of the UCI, Brian Cookson named the development of women’s cycling as one of the main pillars of his platform. He has since changed his tune based on the recommendation of the Women’s Road Commission, set up during his tenure. The commission advised against a minimum wage for fear imposing this standard on all UCI women’s team would disband half the women’s peloton.

“Women’s cycling has evolved tremendously in the past few years and it’s nice to see that more women are able to compete in the sport professionally,” said Vos. “A next step could indeed be setting a minimum wage. The UCI is currently working with a committee to restructure women’s road racing and minimum wage is part of that. Currently, however, not all UCI teams have the resources to afford a minimum wage for all its riders. The point is to make decisions through which the sport benefits and can grow.”

Rowney and Martin agreed that the sport isn’t quite there yet and now is not the time.

“The sport needs to grow exponentially first. It’s all about investment and return. In order for there to be a minimum wage, teams have to have enough money to support a rule like this. If you went and imposed a rule that said minimum 20,000 Euro you would be left with maybe three to five teams,” said Rowney.

“Of course a minimum wage would be fantastic and would increase the level and stability within the sport but it has to be implemented correctly,” said Martin. “And unless enough teams and sponsors can actually meet this minimum wage then it cannot be set. Women’s cycling needs to get bigger and more publicised first.”

The bottom line is that the sponsorship dollars simply aren’t there – yet. As such, teams are operating on limited budgets, balancing the choice of giving all its riders a chance to race and get exposure versus paying some of them a comfortable wage.

World Championships (Women Elite)

“Cycling is a business,” said Wall-Street-banker- turned-professional-cyclist, Evelyn Stevens. “For sponsors it’s business. It has to generate profit. If you focus purely on salaries, you lose sight of the big picture of ‘How do you make women’s cycling bigger?’ ‘How do you get it on television?’ ‘How do you get sponsors to want to be involved?’ ‘How do you get more coverage?’”

The biggest barrier to growing the sport of women’s cycling is the lack of exposure. The women’s race calendar is significantly smaller than the men’s, and although the UCI has put forth a proposal that will change the status quo, TV coverage is virtually non-existent currently. This is a real shame because the sport itself is absolutely engaging and marketable.

“Women’s cycling is like any popular sport. It’s competitive. It’s great athleticism. It’s talent. There are stories. There is drama. There is heartbreak. It’s why you turn on the Superbowl. It’s the same idea but in a very different package. We are doing what we love and we’re doing it at the highest level,” said Stevens.

Rowney argued that women’s cycling is a sport of it’s own, and well worth following.

“You have the same key factors like any sport: rivalry, big personalities, big races, exceptional talents like Marianne Vos, amazing stories like Evelyn Stevens. The races are shorter [than the men’s] and more jam-packed with action,” Rowney said.

But without media exposure, these stories go untold.

“Any sponsor, if they could spend time with these athletes, would see the value in them,” said Stoneman. “They are very likeable, engaging and sponsor-friendly. They have had to work so hard for every dollar and to get where they are. Their ability and expertise in working with sponsors, in saying the right things, and their social media activities are all very good.

“It’s the sport [and lack of exposure] that’s not allowing these women to profile themselves. They have everything going for them, they just need the sport to get behind them more.”

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