Sky to end team sponsorship after 2019 season

by Neal Rogers


London-based telecommunications company Sky has decided that 2019 will be the final year of its involvement in cycling after 11 years, Team Sky announced on its website Wednesday.

The decision will bring to a conclusion Sky’s ownership and sponsorship of Team Sky, which may continue to race under a different name if new sponsorship is secured to provide funding from the beginning of 2020.

The team will compete as Team Sky for the last time throughout the 2019 road season, aiming to add to its total of eight Grand Tour victories, 52 other stage races, and 25 one-day races.

Sky kicked off its involvement in cycling in 2008 when it joined forces with British Cycling, sponsoring road and track programs.

The WorldTour team launched in 2010, with the ambitious goal of winning the Tour de France with a British cyclist for the first time. Since then, the team has achieved that goal six times, with three different riders. Bradley Wiggins was the first, in 2012. Chris Froome won the first of his four Tour titles in 2013 and became the first rider in over 30 years to hold all three Grand Tour titles at the same time. And in July, Geraint Thomas became the third Team Sky rider – as well as the third Briton – to win the Tour, the team’s sixth victory at the race in seven years.

Throughout that time, the team has been managed by former British Cycling performance director Dave Brailsford.

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According to the announcement, Sky’s decision to step back from cycling comes as the company “begins a new phase in its development.” 21st Century Fox, which owns a minority stake in Team Sky, has also confirmed that 2019 will be the last year of its involvement in cycling.

In September, 21st Century Fox sold its 39 percent stake in Sky to American media company Comcast, ending Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s relationship with the UK-based satellite broadcaster.

Both Sky and 21st Century Fox will be involved in a potential sale to third-parties showing interest in taking on team ownership and sponsorship.

“We came into cycling with the aim of using elite success to inspire greater participation at all levels,” said Jeremy Darroch, Sky’s Group Chief Executive. “After more than a decade of involvement, I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve achieved with Team Sky and our long-standing partners at British Cycling. But the end of 2019 is the right time for us to move on as we open a new chapter in Sky’s story and turn our focus to different initiatives including our Sky Ocean Rescue campaign.

“I’d like to pay a special tribute to Dave Brailsford and the immensely talented team of riders and staff he has assembled at Team Sky. What they have achieved together would have been beyond the dreams of many just a few years ago. We thank you for joining with us on this journey and look forward to enjoying our last season of racing together.”

For all of the team’s success, it hasn’t been without controversy. When Russian hackers accessed the World Anti-Doping Agency’s computers in 2016, they released Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE) forms that showed Wiggins had used the powerful synthetic corticosteroid triamcinolone, claimed to have been used to combat allergies, ahead of his target races in 2011, 2012 and 2013, including the 2012 Tour and Olympics, where he took gold in the time trial.

That led to a 14-month inquiry by United Kingdom Anti-Doping into whether a package delivered to Team Sky at the 2011 Criterium du Dauphine, a race Wiggins won, contained the same drug. However UKAD closed the case without coming to a conclusion, citing missing Team Sky medical records. A separate UK parliamentary investigation condemned Sky and Wiggins for crossing an “ethical line.”

The team faced further scrutiny after Froome delivered an adverse analytical finding for excessive amounts of salbutamol, used to treat asthmatic symptoms, at the 2017 Vuelta a España, which he won. That case hung over Froome’s head throughout the 2018 season, including at the Giro d’Italia, which he won, casting questions as to whether he would defend his Tour title. However on July 2, just five days before the start of the Tour, the UCI closed the case, citing WADA’s decision.

In both cases, use of the substances were restricted by WADA, not prohibited. And while both cases brought intense scrutiny upon the team, which had made a point upon its launch in 2010 to commit to clean spot, neither rider was ultimately sanctioned.

Beyond the issues with restricted substances, Team Sky has also been a polarizing presence among fans for its dominance in Grand Tours, largely attributed to its $50M budget, which is double that of other WorldTour teams, allowing it to recruit the best riders in the sport and stifle competition.

As an example, earlier this year, Team Sky signed Colombian phenom Egan Bernal to an unprecedented five-year contract, locking down perhaps the biggest Grand Tour talent of the next decade to a team that had two riders on the podium of the  most recent Tour de France. What will come of Bernal’s contract after 2019 is unclear if the team folds, however it may prove helpful in helping the team secure new backing.

The team’s utter dominance at the Tour, which it has won six times in seven years with three different riders, has led to ongoing discussions within the sport about the need for a salary cap to level the playing field.

“The vision for Team Sky began with the ambition to build a clean, winning team around a core of British riders and staff,” Brailsford said in the team’s statement. “The team’s success has been the result of the talent, dedication and hard work of a remarkable group of people who have constantly challenged themselves to scale new heights of performance. None of this would have been possible without Sky. We are proud of the part we have played in Britain’s transformation into a cycling nation over the last decade.

“While Sky will be moving on at the end of next year, the Team is open-minded about the future and the potential of working with a new partner, should the right opportunity present itself. For now, I would like to thank all Team Sky riders and staff, past and present — and above all the fans who have supported us on this adventure. We aren’t finished yet by any means. There is another exciting year of racing ahead of us and we will be doing everything we can to deliver more Team Sky success in 2019.”

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