The complicated case of women’s cycling and minimum wages

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The UCI recently released a joint agreement by the Professional Cyclists Association (CPA) and the International Association of Professional Cycling Groups (AIGCP) that shows the minimum wage for men’s WorldTour and Pro Continental riders is set to increase in 2018. This is good news, of course, for those receiving a pay rise, but for women’s cycling it’s a reminder of just how much one side of the sport has yet to grow.

For the men, WorldTour riders are set to receive an increase of almost 2,000 euros for a minimum of 30,839 Euros (AU$46,500) per year, while pro Continental riders got a smaller 605 Euro increase to 25,806 Euros (AU$38,842) per year. In women’s cycling there is currently no minimum wage, and many female ‘pros’ compete unpaid.

That’s why the announcement of a boost to the minimum wage on the men’s side didn’t go over well with everyone.

“Hmmm so men get a pay raise & still no minimum salary for the women in 2018…,” tweeted Sunweb rider Leah Kirchmann.

“I agree…Before going for a raise for the men, what about creating a minimum salary for the women uh?” responded Denmark’s national coach and four-time world champion Catherine Marsal.

The topic of minimum wage in women’s cycling resurfaces regularly, as it’s far from a straightforward issue.

During his campaign to become UCI president in 2013, the recently replaced Brian Cookson named the development of women’s cycling — minimum wage included — as one of the main pillars of his platform. He soon came to the conclusion, however, that a minimum wage would be “counterproductive,” pointing to the UCI Women’s Commission cost-benefit analysis that showed that half of the women’s UCI teams would be unable to meet such a standard and would fold in the process.

The bottom line: the money isn’t there (yet) and a minimum wage standard would be “premature”. Until enough teams and sponsors can actually afford to meet a minimum wage standard, it cannot be set … or can it?

“There is no doubt that we cannot ask for the same minimum wage for women as the men get; it would harm too many teams. But we need to start somewhere, even if it’s 8-10k per year as a minimum,” Marsal told Ella CyclingTips. “I think this figure is realistic. What is important is that when we talk about professional women’s cycling, we can’t have riders without salary. Not in in 2017, not at any time.”

A two-tiered system?

For a few years now there have been those who believe women’s cycling is ready for a two-tiered women’s system, similar to the men’s WorldTour and Continental system. As it stands currently, the top 20 ranked UCI teams are automatically invited to compete in Women’s WorldTour events (the top 15 teams for stage races and top 20 teams for one-day events), but there are 44 registered UCI teams.

A huge gap in both resources and results exists between the teams at the top of the rankings and the teams at the bottom, and so some advocate for splitting the field. The true WorldTour teams would have expectations and regulations that developing teams would not have to adhere to. These would include a set number of race days, riders per roster and a minimum wage.

It’s important to note here, how a minimum wage standard comes about. The UCI is not the riders’ employer and therefore can’t set any contractual standards or employment conditions; that includes minimum wage standards. The current minimum salary (along with other employment conditions) in men’s cycling is actually set through a joint agreement between the Professional Cyclists Association (CPA) and the International Association of Professional Cycling Teams (AIGCP). The UCI then accepts the joint agreement and ensures teams are adhering to it.

So while the UCI could perhaps mandate a minimum wage, the amount of said standard would be set by a joint agreement of some sort between team and rider associations.

But a women’s chapter of the CPA wasn’t added until this summer. However, sources have told Ella CyclingTips that a new women’s cyclists union is in the process of being formed to better serve female athletes and their working conditions — more on that soon.

Strictly commercial

While a more professional approach to contract negotiations will certainly help, the ongoing problem in women’s cycling is the lack of financial sustainability. Sponsors are hard to come by and teams are operating on shoe-string budgets.

Often, the issue of a minimum wage isn’t a moral one. It’s strictly commercial.

Professional cycling — like any sport — is an entertainment business. Money is generated through ticket sales, merchandise, TV rights, brand exposure, etc. Most sponsors invest in the sport for one simple reason: an economic return. Their investment needs to generate a profit and that’s tough when there’s limited exposure. And that, without a doubt, is the biggest barrier to growing the sport of women’s cycling.

It is difficult for the sport to improve under the current economic model. There is little to no broadcast or content licensing to allow fans to watch even half of the Women’s WorldTour, which makes it hard to reach new (and existing) fans and – for the sponsors – potential consumers.

Photo by Tim Bardsley-Smith.

For sponsorship interest to grow, women’s cycling needs to be promoted and marketed better. And that is the responsibility of the UCI. Cookson had aimed to elevate the profile of women’s cycling during his tenure, and now, incoming UCI President David Lappartient promises to do the same.

Speaking to CyclingTips about women’s cycling and salaries, Lappartient said:

“I think that the economic model around women’s cycling is not very high, and is sometimes very poor. Some ladies in the WorldTour have no official salary for this. I want to give them a better situation. This is something very important, to improve the economy around this [wing of the sport]. We have some strong new races in the WorldTour, but we need to have them on live TV.

“… It is not like this that you can say, ‘Okay, you will be paid’ because the money will not arrive like this. But just to have new sponsors, a new company involved in promoting cycling, you must be sure that the TV coverage, the interest, will be become higher and higher. And this is the job of the UCI … If you do this, if you have a big race on live TV, then I am sure some more sponsors, some more [potential] teams will be interested in bringing a new team at the top level. And then if you have more sponsors, then you can have a salary for the ladies.”

In 2013, during his campaign, Cookson had promised a minimum wage for women cyclists by 2018. This did not come to fruition, so one can only hope Lappartient will have more success with this issue during his time as president.

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