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There has been much debate in recent years about the future direction of the sport and how to make cycling stronger and more stable for teams, riders and other stakeholders. Many ideas have been proposed, including the UCI’s own WorldTour reforms. However no strong consensus has yet been achieved in relation to the way forward and further debate is warranted. In the opinion piece below, Benjamin Fitzmaurice, a lawyer in commercial law, sport and litigation, and a registered rider agent, gives his personal view on how he believes cycling and its stakeholders could, and should, move forward.
At the moment we are witnessing decreasing financial strength in the World Tour and Pro Continental teams. Sponsors are not attracted to the sport as they should be and riders are the ones who are playing the price. The riders need a ‘team orientated’ equitable WT/UCI points system and a governing body that becomes a dominant commercial player in the development of the sport.
Change needs to happen now for the sustainability of professional cycling. Whilst there is change afoot, those changes are not popular or properly explained. Too much is left to chance, which is not the hallmark of a properly-organised professional sport. If there is a lack of forward planning and the details are either unclear or ambiguous, how does a professional team sell the sport to potential sponsors?
Sponsors looking at cycling also have experience with other professional sports that have a clear structure and you can easily understand the product you are investing in. Good examples are WorldTourP Tour, Premier League football and Formula 1.
I can well sympathise with Doug Ryder who has supported the UCI cycling system from the national and Continental level, through to the Pro-Continental and World Tour levels. In anyone’s view of success, Team Dimension Data has had a great year. However in recent weeks it became clear that it could be knocked out of the World Tour by another licence application from a new team. The latter has no history in the development of the sport but offers an open wallet to riders with WorldTour points.
The system is flawed for many reasons but it is within our collective power to address it and change it for the better.
WorldTour points system
The WorldTour points is completely flawed. It only benefits those named as the leader for each race and able to challenge for the overall victory. But overall victory is a team game and we do not reward those riders that suffer and work for others. There are no rewards for those that control the start, middle and ending of a race. Only a domestique that can hang on for some minor placing has a chance of picking up any points.
However, it could not be said that a domestique is worth any less than a nominated leader. The leader would not be in the right place for a chance at victory without them. Yet, in the current system, it is not in the self-interests of the domestique to lay down all efforts for the nominated leader. It is better that he shows two faces, one being as the hard-working team worker and the other as the Machiavellian rider saving what he can to try and gain some points without threatening the leader.
If a WorldTour points system is to continue then it must change. Points should also be awarded to domestiques based on the quality of service provided to the team. This would need to be determined by a single judge or panel and in the end would suffer criticism at some point if the hard work of an individual goes unnoticed and unrewarded.
My personal view is that the WorldTour points system should be scrapped. The reason for this is related to the proposal of a different system for the conduct of professional cycling below. You cannot have a system for individual reward when you essentially have a team-based competition. In football terms it would be to award the striker with points for goals but provide nothing for the defenders and have a system that teams only stay in the Premier League based on individual player points. In that system the defenders (team players) would never prosper.
A change in system
Two fundamental shifts need to be achieved for the future prosperity of professional cycling. Firstly, the UCI has to be the commercial leader of the sport. It has no choice. The UCI can no longer just administer rules and be a licencing body. It is the only stakeholder that has the power, position and potential ability to lead real change for sustainable commercial success and popularity of the sport.
Personally, I do not have any confidence that the current personnel at the UCI or the leadership have the ability to lead any significant commercial change. However, key commercial personnel can be recruited. Ideally, a taskforce of five members should be brought in to build and roll out the plans. These members should not all come from professional cycling. We should also look to experienced professionals from other sectors and sports such as broadcasting, legal, finance, the NBA, NFL, NHL, ATP and WSL (namely because of the new ways it is packaging and broadcasting world surfing events online).
The second issue is that the discretionary nature and inequity of the current system for awarding a WorldTour licence needs to be avoided. It allows for discretionary values and assessments that are not transparent or easily understood.
Admittedly, to address the two critical points above is no easy fix but to do otherwise will lead to the continual degradation of the sport. I will set out the end result of the preferred system and then later it would require the UCI and relevant stakeholders to address the critical path to achieve the result (assuming there is a will to get there).
Professional road cycling should maintain the three tier system of World Tour, Pro-Continental and Continental teams. This structure, in theory, provides a pathway from national level cycling to the professional peloton. However, the World Tour and Pro-Continental levels should be administered under a franchise system similar to examples in US professional sport, i.e. the NBA.
This is not a new idea. It is a view that has been discussed between colleagues and industry members and occasionally discussed publicly. However, it is now time for those ad hoc discussions to be properly addressed collectively amongst us in the industry.
Any rules or framework needs to be drafted with clarity. It would be preferable that documents did not begin life being drafted in a philosophical French language style to be later translated into English. It does not work and creates ambiguity that breeds confusion and, potentially, mistrust. Our goal should be for transparency and clarity in any written document regardless of language.
40 team licences
The UCI should sell 40 professional cycling team licences. 20 at the World Tour level and 20 at the Pro-Continental level. A price tag should be set for the purchase of each franchise. It is important to set a price on the franchise as it has and will have a real value going forward. Franchises can be sold or traded by the owners subject to the consent of the UCI. Ultimately, the UCI is the franchisor in control of the sport and the administration of the franchisees. The target revenue from the initial sale of the 40 franchises should be EUR40 million which can be invested by the UCI into the development of the road cycling calendar and sustainable commercial success.
Additional 10-race program
From the EUR40 million pot generated from the initial sale of franchises, the UCI should establish a company dedicated to the construction of a 10 race program on a fixed circuit harnessing the excitement of the example set by the Richmond road world championships. A fixed loop circuit will make it easier for broadcast companies and keep a local crowd entertained. Logistics for the teams, entourage and organisers will be simplified and a multi-event carnival can be properly planned. The race program for these ‘Formula 1’ type events will be controlled by the UCI and the event will maximise the monetisation and TV based revenues and retain those benefits for distribution to the franchisees at the end of the year.
The race program will also be run over a weekend and cater for multiple events including a WorldTour TTT (men and women), Continental team race and Women’s WorldTour race. This means that local Continental and Women’s WorldTour teams will have a world-class platform to sell to its sponsors and the UCI may also share TV and other revenue with the Continental and Women’s WorldTour teams. Each program event needs to be treated as a festival of cycling. Each race program must also be run in prominent places around the globe with at least one in each confederation territory.
The 10 race program will add events to the current calendar. All WorldTour teams will be invited to the road race plus 10 Pro Continental teams with six riders per team. There will be 30 teams in total with 180 riders. The Pro Continental teams will participate in a maximum of five events each, so 10 teams go to one event and the other 10 go to the next event.
At the end of the season, the bottom two WorldTour teams in ranking will be relegated to Pro-Continental status and the top two Pro-Continental teams will be automatically elevated.
Franchises can be extinguished
If there are three doping positives from a team during a calendar year, the UCI will have in its discretion the right to terminate the team franchise and offer it to the open market.
Draft system for young riders
In October of each year, the UCI will operate a draft system whereby U23 and senior cyclists can nominate themselves to be considered for a WorldTour or Pro-Continental team licence. Each WorldTour and Pro-Continental team must take two riders from the draft. Teams can sign riders from other pro teams for competition in the next calendar year in the usual window from August but two spots must be left clear for the draft system. The relegated WorldTour teams will gain the first draft picks, followed by the two Pro-Continental teams being elevated and then picks will be selected at random by the remaining teams. This system ensures that 80 new riders are coming into the professional peloton in each year.
Professional cycling needs to lift the minimum salaries for riders. We need to address the disparity in contract amounts between team riders and leaders. It is perhaps a left-leaning notion but we need to make sure all cyclists at the WorldTour and Pro-Continental levels are truly professional. This may alleviate some temptations by riders to cut corners in training and look for unfair advantages.
As such, franchises will operate and provide salaries for the riders under a salary cap. The total salary cap would need to be determined but conceivably it should be no more than EUR8 million. The minimum salary for a draft rider in the first year should be EUR50,000, while the minimum salary per rider at the WorldTour level should be EUR120,000. It should be EUR80,000 at the Pro-Continental level.
These limits are suggestions but should be continually addressed each year by the UCI for the benefit of the riders and franchisees based on the return from revenue streams and other commercial/fiscal considerations.
The traditional two naming rights sponsor positions would be maintained as this is the heritage of the sport. However, every aspect of the 10 race series under the control of the UCI would be monetised to the extent practicable.
The company controlling the 10 race series would be a not-for-profit organisation. The 40 franchisees and the UCI would be shareholders of the company. At the end of the year, a dividend will be issued to each of the 40 franchisees and the UCI. A financial reserve will also be allocated for the future development of the sport, namely further TV rights or additional events.
With this proposed framework we create the opportunity for a commercially sustainable professional structure that could be beneficial to all stakeholders. Importantly, the 10 race series would also sit within the current calendar and not directly conflict with the strong commercial interests of the Amaury Sports Organisation.
Perhaps over time the singular commercial focus of teams to attend the Tour de France may wane and be replaced by a commercial view looking at a series of strong professional cycling events within a system of parity.
About the author: Benjamin Fitzmaurice is a lawyer with 17 years of experience in the fields of commercial law, sport and litigation. As principal of the Swiss-based firm Herbert Mear, he provides advice and counsel to companies offering products for sport, and to professional cyclists and teams, cycling groups and federations. He is a registered rider agent representing riders such as Zak Dempster, Martin Elmiger and 2016 Vuelta a España stage winner David de la Cruz. His other roles include being part of the Swiss Arbitration Association and the disciplinary panel for the International Skateboarding Federation. He is a former Panel member for the Olympic and Commonwealth Games Selection Appeal Panel for cycling.
Note: the views reproduced here are part of a wider debate and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of CyclingTips.