A matter of scale: Why the UCI is combining most of its world championships

Every four years, the UCI will bring together all of cycling’s disciplines, except cyclocross, for two weeks of rainbow chasing. Why?

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Every four years, the UCI will bring together all of cycling’s disciplines, except cyclocross, for two weeks of rainbow chasing.

The UCI announced the new format, which it calls the UCI World Cycling Championships, in a press release Friday. The first edition of this new Super Worlds will take place in August 2023. Road, mountain bike, BMX, indoor cycling, an amateur gran fondo, and more will run over two weeks on a series of courses built in and around Glasgow, Scotland. It’s not a giant cycling onmium, it’s just almost all cycling’s world championships in one place at one time.

We believe that the three years in between each collective worlds will see normal championship schedules, but this wasn’t actually spelled out in the press release and the UCI hasn’t yet responded to a request for clarification.

Regardless, the concept will result in quadrennial upheaval for the calendars of most of cycling’s disciplines. The Super Worlds road race, for example, will have to sit in between the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana, which currently starts in late August. Mountain bike world cups generally run into September, too. Track worlds are usually in spring, on quite literally the opposite side of the calendar, and this will be a pre-Olympic year, vital for Olympic selection.

So why is the UCI making the change?

The press release sent out on Friday is light on real details, and absent a true explanation of the UCI’s thinking. But digging into the UCI’s books offers a few clues, and indicates that the major factor could simply be a desire to increase the scale, and thus profits, of the governing body’s premier product.

A single line in Friday’s press release points at the UCI’s incentive: “Images broadcast worldwide will showcase the region to all corners of the globe, while the tens of thousands of visitors will boost tourism.”

There are two pieces to this puzzle. The first is “images broadcast worldwide.” The second, “boost tourism.”

This first edition of Super Worlds has been helped along by a close and growing relationship with the city of Glasgow, which hosted the 2014 Commonwealth Games as well as the disciplinary European Championships in 2017. “Over several weeks, the host city and/or region will become the true cycling capital of the world,” the UCI’s statement reads.

The UCI’s specific mention of “images broadcast worldwide” points to a desire to scale the UCI’s premier product, the world championships, so be more desirable to potential broadcast partners.

The whole concept behind a combined worlds was originally floated by UCI President David Lappartient during his election campaign. Lappartient pointed out the obvious connection to, and success of, the Olympic Games. Super Worlds will take place a year prior to the summer Olympics every four years, and borrows the multi-disciplinary format that is the hallmark of the Olympics. That tie-in to the world’s largest international sporting event, which rakes in billions of dollars every four years, is certainly no accident.

The UCI’s coffers are filled in large part by a few key sources. The first is Olympic Movement payments. Governing bodies are paid out in Olympic years (or can have the cash spread over four years, if they want) based on the Olympic revenue. In 2016, the year of the Rio Olympics, the UCI nearly doubled its revenue relative to 2015, from 34,967,000 CHF to 67,441,000 CHF. That was largely due to a 20 million Franc infusion from the Olympic Movement. But this cash only shows up every four years.

In between these influxes of Olympic money, the UCI relies primarily on hosting fees, when cities or countries pay for the honor of hosting a UCI event, and the sale of media rights. The world championships, and road worlds in particular, are the UCI’s most important product. In 2017, the UCI brought in just under 11 million CHF in hosting fees and just over 11 million CHF through the sale of media and broadcast rights at its major events.

Overall, roughly 50% of combined hosting and media revenue comes from road cycling. The next highest share is mountain biking, at a bit under 20%. All of the UCI’s world championships combined brought in about 20 million CHF, of which 10 million was profit, but disciplines like track and BMX were marginally profitable, even though they’re crowd favorites, and in the past have even lost money.

What’s the point here? By combining the UCI’s many world championships into a single event, folding in the smaller and less profitable disciplines in with road cycling, the UCI creates a media product with a wider, more diverse, and thus more valuable audience while also guaranteeing greater fan attendance, which ups the incentive for potential host cities.

This isn’t to say that the idea doesn’t have other merits. Getting all of cycling’s disparate disciplines together under one roof, so to speak, is great for fans of the sport and will almost certainly create the sort of cycling festival atmosphere the UCI desires.

The concept also offers up either an interesting opportunity or a definite setback, depending on one’s perspective, for multi-discipline athletes like Jolanda Neff, Mathieu van der Poel, Peter Sagan, and Marianne Vos. They would only have to peak once, rather than multiple times, but back-to-back multi-discipline racing might prove too high a barrier in today’s hyper-specialized racing world.

There are unanswered questions. Will the winner of Super Worlds get to wear some special rainbow jersey for four years? Or maybe just a rainbow helmet? What happens if a rider wants to cross disciplines? Why wasn’t cyclocross included?

And the biggest: will it work? Well, the UCI’s not off to a smashing start in the branding department. The average fan will have no idea what is new or different about the UCI World Cycling Championships. If they want to borrow Super Worlds, we’ll license it cheap. Plus the requirements for a host city have now gone up tremendously; we’re yet to see how much difficulty the UCI has in finding a host after Glasgow. But the concept is well conceived from a media distribution perspective, and it’s great for bike racing fans. That still counts for something.

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