What Cycling Australia concluded from its NRS review and what happens now

by Matt de Neef


It was in early June of 2015 that Cycling Australia announced its comprehensive review of the National Road Series (NRS), the highest level of domestic racing in Australia. Since that time the national body has remained silent, choosing not to speak publicly or answer questions about the review.

But now, with the 2016 National Road Series complete, Cycling Australia has completed the first stage of the review, and charted a course towards what it hopes will be a stronger, more sustainable future for the National Road Series. CyclingTips’ Australian editor Matt de Neef spoke to Cycling Australia’s general manager of sport, Darren Harris, to see how the review played out and what might come next.


A long time coming

It’s been a long 17 months for those with a vested interest in Australia’s National Road Series (NRS). In the wake of widespread concerns about the health and future of the series, Cycling Australia’s “comprehensive review” promised to “shake up” the NRS and get things back on track. But progress was slow, even appearing to stall entirely, and with Cycling Australia keeping mum on how things were progressing, frustration only grew.

And then, when two more men’s events were omitted from the 2016 calendar – the Battle on the Border and the Tour of Toowoomba – it was hard not to think that Australia’s National Road Series was in free-fall.

Darren Harris, Cycling Australia’s general manager of sport, admits the review process has been “drawn out”, but not without reason.

“We’ve put additional resourcing towards the series this year, but we still don’t have a dedicated staff member, solely responsible for the NRS,” Harris told CyclingTips. “The review was happening at the same as we were trying to get 2016 up and running in what was a difficult environment.

“It was a challenging process to work through, but we’ve come out the other side of it now.”

Reviewing the NRS

The NRS review process began with a “working party” of 14, comprised of riders, team managers, event promoters and state body representatives, set up to discuss the biggest concerns with the NRS. That group met face-to-face on just one occasion, with only half the party in attendance, while follow-ups were done by email.

“It’s a very shallow dive, I suppose, into a stakeholder engagement process,” Harris said. “But that coupled with anecdotal conversations and just talking and engaging with the event promoters throughout the year and the other teams, you get a bit of a sense of where the shortcomings are, or where the pressure points are for different stakeholders.”

Following those discussions, Harris worked with the Australian Sports Commission to develop a list of seven recommendations that, Cycling Australia hopes, will help improve the health of the NRS and ensure its longevity.

Among the recommendations are:

  • a focus on rider safety, an ongoing concern at several NRS races
  • the need for modern management and administrative processes, including clear guidelines on what’s expected of event organisers, teams and so on; and
  • a consideration of race formats, to ensure an ideal mix of one-day races, tours, criteriums and kermesses.

Cycling Australia is also recommending a significant change to the NRS calendar.

A change of season

The National Road Series currently runs through Australia’s cooler months, typically starting in March or April and finishing up in October1. But from 2018 onwards, the NRS could move into the warmer months, starting in spring or even summer.

The idea is for Australian road cycling to consolidate its place on the busy sporting calendar and to build upon already-established and successful events.

“We’ve got this beautiful summer of cycling — the Road Nationals is obviously part of it, you’ve got the Bay Crits, you’ve got Tour Down Under, Herald Sun Tour,” Harris said. “The thing that I noticed … coming off the back of the Herald Sun Tour – there was just radio silence. There was some domestic stuff going on, but everyone just wanted to continue the momentum.

“So that lends itself to a very good opportunity to launch into the NRS.”

While the calendar change has been recommended “as a conversation-starter more so than ‘this is the answer to it’”, Cycling Australia will consider two potential options when it comes to moving the NRS:

1. Starting in the spring, pausing in January and February for the international summer races, then continuing after the Jayco Herald Sun Tour; or
2. Starting directly after the Sun Tour.

As Darren Harris explains, the former would free up autumn and winter entirely, potentially giving the NRS teams more chances to race overseas.

“We didn’t have any real racing for the teams in those winter months [this year] and a few of the Conti teams had to sort of then look for a ride overseas that they hadn’t planned for,” Harris said. “So potentially if we structured our domestic calendar up to free up that winter time, then teams could budget and plan for and give their sponsors something actually meaningful to be taking out into the local global audience.”

Expanding the NRS

Also among Cycling Australia’s seven recommendations for the NRS is a proposal to look beyond Australian shores when considering the series’ future. In the same way that other Australian sporting codes have New Zealand-based events and teams — e.g. Wellington Phoenix in A-League soccer and the New Zealand Warriors in the NRL — a future version of the NRS could be open to teams from New Zealand2 and could include races in New Zealand.

Asia, too, has potential with Cycling Australia keen to make the NRS a compelling prospect for our northern neighbours. The attendance of such teams could open the door for Asian broadcast deals for the NRS, providing exposure opportunities for the teams and riders, opportunities for racing fans in Asia to watch their favourite teams in action, and a possible revenue stream for the NRS.

But as Darren Harris explains, such expansion plans are still several years away.

“We’re not talking 2018, 2019 …,” Harris said. “We’re looking at 2020 and beyond, and getting the balance right, and making it attractive for our Asian counterparts to look across at us and see that we’ve got well-run, safe events … seeing them wanting to come across and race.”

While the expansion of the NRS beyond Australian shores has promise, it’s also fraught with significant challenges. For NRS teams based in Perth, travelling to races on the eastern seaboard (i.e. most races) is already prohibitively expensive. Adding races outside of Australia to the NRS calendar would only increase the financial strain on teams that are already struggling to make ends meet.

For these expansion plans to be viable, the entire NRS ecosystem will need to be in a significantly stronger financial position. Indeed, it’s no surprise that the most important of Cycling Australia’s seven recommendations, and the one that underpins them all, is to develop a comprehensive business case for the NRS.

The NRS business case

To see the extent of the commercial problems facing the NRS one need look no further than Avanti-IsoWhey. The Continental outfit has won the men’s NRS team standings for the past six seasons and is inarguably Australia’s most successful team when it comes to helping riders graduate to the WorldTour.

Last week Avanti-IsoWhey Sports team co-owner Andrew Christie-Johnston revealed that title sponsor Avanti was stepping away from the team, the bike brand citing concerns with the NRS as one of the major reasons.

“They thought there wasn’t enough value in [the NRS],” Christie-Johnston told Cyclingnews.

That the title sponsor of the NRS’ most dominant team3 doesn’t see value in continuing its association is more than concerning for the health of the series. Indeed, a lack of commercial sustainability is at the heart of the National Road Series’ woes and an issue that affects all stakeholders.

Even the most dominant teams struggle to attract and retain sponsors, event promoters battle the same issue, very few riders get paid enough to make a living, and Cycling Australia doesn’t have the resources to develop the series as it would like. The hope is that a comprehensive business case will help steer the NRS in a more positive direction.

“[The] business case though will allow us to identify what’s the best time of the year for us to own and maximise the commercial returns we can get from the sport,” Harris said. “It allows us to do a much deeper dive into the stakeholder group as well, to understand the business of the teams vs the business of the promoters, CA’s role in that as the custodian4, and develop a model that’s going to work best for everyone.”

Those critical of Cycling Australia will question why it has taken the organisation nearly 17 months to identify the need for and recommend the creation of a business case, rather than simply getting on with the job. But Darren Harris argues that, doing it right won’t be quick or cheap.

“We’ve probably landed in a place that identifies that there’s an investment that needs to be made around developing a more rigorous body of work,” Harris told CyclingTips. “[This will help us] to clearly identify how we can turn [the NRS] around and make it something that’s viable for everybody that’s involved.

“If you look at the way soccer turned around the A-League — I know we’re comparing apples and oranges — [or] cricket with the Big Bash, taking ownership of a four-week window of the year that pretty much underpins domestic cricket now, all those changes came through time and investing in looking at the right way to go about it.”

At the time of writing, Cycling Australia is still waiting for approval from its board to begin developing that business case, the board having requested more information about what will be involved and how much it might cost.

The road ahead

As work on securing the NRS’s future continues, so too does planning for the 2017 series. Expressions of interest are now open to event promoters and, according to Darren Harris, early indications suggest the series will look much the same as it did this year.

“Already some dates are starting to roll in from the events, and we’ve already been speaking to nearly all the promoters anyway,” Harris said. “I’m not seeing a lot change from this year’s calendar, even some of the events this year that were right on the breadline, they’re talking positively to us for next year, which is really good.”

If some events do end up dropping from the calendar in 2017, others will likely take their place.

“A couple of the other events that have historically just been men’s or just been women’s are also talking really positively about having the other gender race as well,” Harris said. “We had a few conversations with the Amy Gillett Foundation about a men’s race [to run alongside the women’s Amy’s Otway Tour – ed.] but the timing just wasn’t right.

“But that’s looking positive for next year, and the Tour of the Great South Coast is a possibility for a women’s tour event …”

In review

There’s little doubt that Cycling Australia’s review of the National Road Series has been slow going. It’s been frustrating for stakeholders, frustrating for fans, and frustrating for those within Cycling Australia.

Even now, nearly 17 months after the review was announced, significant changes to the NRS are still many months, if not years away. The business case won’t be completed until April 2017 at the earliest and if the NRS is to move to the warmer months it will be late 2018 before that happens.

“We’re not going to turn this ship around overnight,” Harris admits. “We need to just look at what we can fix now; what’s the low-hanging fruit that we can come in and say ‘Right, it’s not resource-dependant, it’s just thinking differently and thinking smarter about how we do a few things.’”

Footnotes

1. The women’s NRS has started earlier in the past two years with the Santos Women’s Tour and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in January.
 
2. This is already happening to some extent. Avanti-IsoWhey were last year registered as a Continental team in New Zealand and raced the Australian National Road Series.
 
3. Avanti IsoWhey finished the 2016 NRS with more than three times as many points (182) as its nearest rival, mobius future Racing (60).
 
4. Earlier this decade Cycling Australia experimented with owning and operating some of the events on the NRS calendar. That experiment proved unsuccessful and came at significant expense, contributing to the organisation’s worsening financial situation. As Darren Harris explains, Cycling Australia now wants to be seen as the “custodian” of the NRS:
 
“We just need to tidy a few things up and get a little bit more perspective in terms of expectations of what CA’s role is as the custodian of it,” Harris said. “Compared to what people experienced four or five years ago when everything was getting thrown at it, which then resulted in … was just one contributing factor to the significant business issues CA had to overcome, which we’re slowly turning around.”

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