WorldTour reforms are on their way, but what do they mean for rider contracts and the transfer market?
An overhaul of the UCI WorldTour slated for 2017 has impacted on the transfer market this season with “scared” team managers already downsizing in reaction to a vague proposal.
Leading rider agents have almost unanimously acknowledged that more one-year contracts have been agreed (over the standard two-year deals) to in lieu of the long-debated reform that was partly ratified overnight.
The UCI Management Committee endorsed “key principles” of the proposal, which was presented at a meeting during the World Championships in North America on Tuesday, approving three-year licences, internal operation requirements for teams, a limited number of new races and a broader world ranking system.
The specified changes however do not equate to a definitive WorldTour model for 2017, or confirm reports that smaller teams, salary caps and a revised calendar are part of the reform designed to modernise the sport and make it more profitable and sustainable.
Celio Sport & Image founder Paul De Geyter and Trinity Sports Management director Andrew McQuaid have previously questioned the timeliness of the project, and whether any resultant modifications could feasibly be enacted for the 2017 schedule UCI President Brian Cookson has underlined.
However, their skepticism has not appeased apparently hesitant team managers reacting to the uncertainty as they forward plan with rider contracts for 2017 typically being determined now in 2015.
“The fact that reforms are potentially going to happen has come up in nearly every conversation,” McQuaid said of transfer negotiations this season.
“Teams are scared and there have been more one-year contracts.
“Some teams you’ll find they’ll reduce the number of riders they have next year. Not all of them, some still have quite a lot, but some they are reluctant to go past 25-26 [riders] for next year because they think they’re going to have to reduce again in 2017; so instead of having to get rid of eight guys for 2017 they’re slowly reducing [now].”
Longer extensions have also been negotiated with similar impetus. Alex Dowsett in July cited the reform as one of his motivations to re-sign with Movistar for three years.
“I think the UCI are thinking of doing something, changing up the system in a couple of years so my contract gets me through that in case the rider market is flooded, and you just never know what he is going to happen,” the former Hour Record holder said.
SEG International cycling director Eelco Berkhout said reactive fluctuations in the transfer market, stemming from the proposal the Professional Cycling Council was charged with, have been apparent to him for some time.
“I have to say that last year there was more influence on the transfer market because of the 2017 structure than this year,” he said.
The 2016 transfer season could even be affected if a fully definitive strategy is not outlined soon.
“If it continues like this, into early next year, it’s definitely going to be an issue. Teams won’t want to sign riders. Nobody wants to do anything until they know what the 2017 sport looks like, so it could potentially delay everything,” McQuaid said.
A hypothesised reduction in ProTeam roster sizes, irrespective of other projections, like a relegation system, may make it more difficult for less established riders to find employment in 2017.
A&J All Sports agent Alex Carera said such a move would not affect the ‘big names’, like his client Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who is out of contract in 2016.
“An important athlete as Vincenzo Nibali, when he is going to sign a contract he must assess not only the economic guarantees but also the technical ones. That is to say, a team with a staff and riders matching his ambitions and needs,” Carera said.
“The new rules, according to an athlete like Vincenzo Nibali, do not change the procurement strategies of its contracts.”
However, he supported sentiment that riders lower in the hierarchy could struggle to find employment.
“Yes, definitely yes, young riders will have more difficulties because there are less free positions and therefore teams are less likely to invest in young athletes,” Carera said.
McQuaid translated that into dollars and added it would also affect the value of contracts.
“If you’re one of the best in the world you’re looking at this quite happy but if you’re not it will [be] harder again,” he said.
“I think it will drive the value of the bigger guys up further and the lesser guys will decrease because there’ll be more of the latter going for less places.”
The agents Cyclingtips spoke to had different opinions as to whether the general overhaul was necessary but each outlined a similar business model that would offer teams, and thereby riders, more security within an industry popularly considered as too reliant on the whims of sponsors.
“The sport needs to change. There is no stability in the sport, sponsors come and go the teams are living year-by-year. It’s not ideal,” McQuaid said.
“Ideally there are 18 WorldTour teams that have sponsors locked in for five years – big corporates – everyone wins in that situation.”
Carera believes longer licences, he suggested four years over the three that the UCI, along with a maximum 18 WorldTour teams for 2017-2019, approved yesterday, would help attract more sturdy investors.
“It is easier to find a sponsor that the first year makes a low investment – just to understand how the world of cycling works – rather than to find immediately a main sponsor ready to invest millions of euro. After that first experience they can grow,” he said.
It’s understood ground staff, like agents and riders, were not informed of proposal details that powerbrokers, including race organisers, have disputed over.
The UCI, in a press release, did not specify when further changes would be announced, or a definitive model for the 2017 WorldTour presented.