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Ever since its announcement in November 2014, many asked how Velon was going to deliver on its stated intention of generating a new income stream in cycling. According to its CEO Graham Bartlett, that mission has now taken a big step forward with the announcement today of a major partnership with Infront Sports and Media.
Infront is an international sports marketing company which was purchased by Chinese colossus Dalian Wanda in February 2015 for a figure slightly north of one billion euro. Based in Switzerland and having offices in 13 countries, is it one of the world’s largest producers and distributors of sports content.
It already represents FIFA’s World Cup, the Ironman series, all seven Winter Olympic sports federations and several of the summer federations too.
The new agreement is a ten year commitment and should give Velon, a business venture owned by eleven shareholding WorldTour teams, greatly increased clout.
Bartlett spoke at length to CyclingTips about how he believes the deal could change the sport.
“This is an agreement which effectively unlocks the investment and expertise that is necessary for Velon to take the lead in delivering the full athlete experience for the fans,” he says, speaking in advance of Monday’s announcement. “That is something that we have been talking about since we started.”
Velon was launched in November 2014 and had the backing of 11 of the sport’s WorldTour teams. These are BMC Racing, Etixx – Quick-Step, Lampre-Merida, Lotto-Soudal, Orica GreenEdge, Cannondale, Giant-Alpecin, LottoNL – Jumbo, Team Sky, Tinkoff and Trek-Segafredo.
When it was announced, it listed a set of three main goals. It wanted a more exciting sport which would be better understood by a growing international fan base; it emphasised the need for a better economic future for the sport, achieved via sustainable, credible teams collaborating together and with other stakeholders.
It also said that it would embrace new technology, bringing the race alive by showing fans what it was like within the bunch.
Thus far the latter target has been the most visible. Velon regularly releases delayed on board camera footage from the peloton, giving a riders-eye perspective which hasn’t been seen before.
Bartlett states that the stepping up of this coverage would be the first benefit of the Velon-Infront partnership.
“The initial manifestation of it is all about the technology,” he explains. “We want to bring out everything we can from the centre of the race, whether it is delayed footage, live footage, rider data.
“It’s basically everything that shows people the experience of the riders in the race. So, it will be the technology to do that, the platform on which that will sit and the opportunity to experience the race from a totally different perspective.”
Given Infront’s experience and expertise, he believes that this will greatly assist this gathering and distribution of data and images.
“The game-changing thing that they will see in the first part is the fact that we are bringing them closer to the race and the riders by bringing out all the stuff that people have talked about doing for ages.”
When, what and how?
The obvious question is, what can we expect, and how soon can we expect it?
Bartlett is reluctant to give a clear date, noting that if he names a day and month at this point, it sets up an expectation that might not be realised if there are any issues that arise.
What he will say is that Velon has been busy working in the background prior to signing the deal, and that he hopes that the cycling world will see the results in the coming months. The ballpark timescale is this summer.
As regards what will be seen at that point, he believes that live data will be the first new addition.
“When we did the camera stuff with Go Pro last year, the response we got from the fans was very much, ‘like the pictures, can we have them live, can we see the data, can we see what the riders are doing?’
“So we really want to respond to that. We are trying to create something here, which is a fan experience,” he says.
“The live camera feeds will take a little bit more time. The focus at the moment is the live data feed, which is very possible.
“We don’t want to paper the screen with numbers. We want to show people something that is insightful, exciting and interesting. That is what we have been working on, seeing how do we distil this in the right way, present the live race data, present the athlete’s experience in the peloton.
“That’ll be the focus in the next few months in order to get that right before the launch.”
In a statement announcing its plans, Velon said that that there was a willingness amongst teams to release data, albeit with constrains where necessary. What would appear will also depend on the agreements reached with stakeholder such as those teams, riders, event organisers, the UCI and broadcasters.
“We are working with the teams and their riders to share more key rider data that the fans can relate to; riders really want to get their data out as it aids transparency and believability in their abilities and accomplishments, but we fully understand the need for race and rider sensitivity to makes sure neither are compromised in any way,” it said.
“This data will be aggregated, interpreted and made available to race organisers for their broadcasters for use in the race coverage. Data will be handled sensitively so as to respect rider privacy rights and will use filters to ensure that live usage does not deliver a competitive advantage or disadvantage during a race.”
Live on-bike images are also something that viewers are calling for. Data will come first, but Bartlett says that work is ongoing to develop the systems needed to capture and broadcast images during events.
“We have got a very exciting development project on live camera feeds,” he says, adding that he can’t go into details at this moment.
“As you know, Velon and RCS were the first people to do a live camera feed from a men’s race, which was at the Abu Dhabi Tour last year. So of course we want to keep pioneering in that space. It will take a little bit more time before you can sit there with your app and pick your camera. But perhaps not as long as some people think. It’s definitely one for the future.
“I think we will see some live cameras this year, but I think it will be more in tune with testing and figuring out what we need. I don’t think it will be radically different from what we saw in Abu Dhabi. I do think it will be better and improve, but I think the big shift in that will more likely come in 2017 rather than 2016.
“The exciting new development in 2016 is going to be about live race data in a really 3D way. We are not just talking about position here, we are talking about performance and what the riders’ experience is in the peloton.”
Generating a new revenue stream for the sport
Another important question is, of course, how will the business model work? Thus far, teams have invested money in developing the systems. The Infront deal will see that company add its own investment to that. Each of the partners will want a commercial return, although this will take time to grow.
Bartlett said that Velon and Infront will create the front end of the system, while at the same time continuing discussions with the various race organisers and the broadcasters.
“Now that we have got Infront announced and public, we will be able to do that a lot more effectively,” he says. “Then the revenue stream position comes out of our joint investment with the race organisers and the broadcasters.
“We really believe we can create something that broadcasters and race organisers want, because the fans will want it.
“There is a business model behind it, of course, otherwise you can’t generate the necessary investment. It is a long-term position. At the moment it is all about spending that money rather than generating that revenue, but of course in the long room we hope that we can build something to generate a new revenue stream for the teams.”
In terms of the package, Bartlett states that Velon is looking at both supplying broadcasters directly and also providing directly to viewers via an app system.
However, he dispels previous speculation that the latter will be required to pay for that.
“With the business model that we have got for it, the funding proposition, the first port of call for us is the race organisers. We want to work with the race organisers. We want to bring the race alive with them. We are very open and we are discussing with all of the race organisers about how this can happen and work,” he states.
“Then obviously that takes you very quickly into the broadcasters of the race and what they want and how they want it to look and shape it. And very important is the fans. We want a twin-track strategy where you can see this live in the race feed, in the broadcast, but also as part of a direct to the fans application position.
“As regards funding, we are not looking at the fans for this. We are looking at the businesses who want to become involved and invest in it with us.”
But what about the bigger picture?
The involvement of Infront is something that might raise eyebrows for some. In December Italian publication Milano Finanza reported that China’s richest person, Wang Jianlin, and his Wanda Sports group was potentially interested in buying the three Grand Tours.
Jianlin has an estimated fortune of almost $30 billion. In addition to many other business interests, he owns a 20% stake in Spain’s Atlético Madrid football team. More significantly, early in 2015 he purchased InFront.
After that acquisition the new Wanda Sports group was launched in November.
Jianlin said then that the company had major ambitions. “Wanda has a very high expectation for the development and prospects of the sports industry.
“The significance of establishing Wanda Sports is not only to integrate Wanda’s interests in sports, but also to truly expand and strengthen Wanda’s businesses in the industry, while at the same time grasping the rapidly growing opportunities in the Chinese sports market.
“We want to truly impact the development of sport around the world.”
Interestingly, the company’s president and CEO is Philippe Blatter, the nephew of embattled former FIFA head Sepp Blatter.
Speculation about the purchase of the three Grand Tours has been played down for now, but Wanda is already involved in race organisation. It owns Ironman, which in January purchased Lagardère Sports’ endurance division.
The latter owns the Hamburg Cyclassics WorldTour race plus the Velothon Gran Fondo events.
Given Wanda’s ambition, and in light of the previous rumours about Grand Tour ambitions, does the Velon deal with Infront Sports and Media represent the beginning of a big push into cycling race organisation?
“Velon’s relationship is with Infront Sport and Media,” Bartlett answers. “Of course, I think going forward there will be a lot of conversations around the wider group that Infront sits within. Part of that is Wanda Sports, of course. But it is too early to speak about wider-ranging opportunities that may come about.
“For the moment we are really focused on the core partnership with Infront.”
Time will tell if the Velon deal is an end to itself or the start of something bigger. But whether or not that is the case, Bartlett believes that the agreement with Infront could transform the sport, boost the fan experience and create the additional revenue stream that Velon and its member teams have been trying to build.
“The live data and images from races are the first part,” he says. “There is another part too. Infront are a massive global sports and media agency, so there is wider part, more on the business side of it.
“That is looking for other investors to come in and be partnered with this technology platform, which is something that they do in their expertise. So there is a wider business angle.”
First off, though, it is about getting things in place.
“Everybody has talked about the technology and bringing technology to the races, to the sport and to the fans. Well, because of this deal, we are now in a position to do it, to make it a reality. So we are really excited about it.
“This partnership is a significant step forward for Velon in achieving our core goals.”