Confusion reigns, inside and out, over Mitchelton-Scott’s new sponsor

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Fans, the media, and even those within Mitchelton-Scott are scratching their heads about the team’s new title sponsor, the Manuela Fundación. At a quick glance, the partnership comes across as an act of desperation; a deal with an essentially unknown entity, designed to keep the team afloat in the choppy waters of financial uncertainty.

Multiple sources close to the team tell CyclingTips that all riders and staff are currently being paid 30% of their regular salary, and that that arrangement will remain in place until the end of the year. And that’s in spite of the new sponsor coming on board.

So what’s going on?

Manuela Fundación

Normally, when a new sponsor takes over a WorldTour team, that sponsor has a public profile of some significance, or at least a functioning website with information about the organisation and those behind it. The Manuela Fundación has neither of those. Indeed, the Spanish not-for-profit isn’t even officially in operation yet.

Much mystery surrounds the organisation and the man behind it, Francisco Huertas. Here’s what little we know about Huertas so far.

He’s a car dealership and construction company owner from southern Spain who has been involved in sports sponsorship in one way or another for more than a decade. Just as with the Mitchelton-Scott deal, his past sporting ventures have featured no shortage of intrigue.

Huertas’ name began appearing in Spanish media in the 2000s, when his construction company Hufrago stepped in to sponsor third-division football team Granada CF, which was dealing with financial issues. In 2008, Hufrago apparently missed hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to the team, albeit in the midst of a major financial crisis. Shortly thereafter, Hufrago was again in the news (in the Granada newspaper Ideal, at least) for incurring hefty unpaid debts for floats at the local Reyes Magos parade.

Nearly a decade later, in 2017, Huertas made headlines as part of a group working towards a takeover of football club Real Jaén. Even then, years after his prior involvement in football sponsorship, Huertas was referred to in the Andalusian media as a “mysterious investor”. Although the Real Jaén talks went on long enough to generate media coverage over several weeks, they evidently fell apart.

Recently, Huertas and his wife María Angustias González began work on the Manuela Fundación. According to El Mundo, the foundation is named after the couple’s daughter, who passed away five years ago, just two days after birth.

The nascent foundation, funded entirely by the couple, already sponsors an under-23 cycling team in Spain.

So what will the organisation actually do once it gets up and running? Here’s what Mitchelton-Scott’s press release says on the matter:

“The aim of the Manuela Fundación is ‘to help create a more supportive world’. The Manuela Fundación will officially launch on the 4th of October with an overly ambitious project in aid of social work. In these early years it will focus on Spain.”

If that sounds nebulous to you, you aren’t alone.

Francisco Huertas (second from the right) with former pros Stefano Garzelli, José Manuel Moreno, and Manuel Calvente.

A bright future?

Looking at things through a positive lens, it’s encouraging to see that the team’s future seems to be safe, at least for the moment. Mitchelton-Scott has long been looking for title sponsorship from a company that isn’t owned by Gerry Ryan, and Ryan himself has seemingly felt the effects of COVID-19, via the entertainment and tourism industries in which he operates.

For several years Asia was seen as a land of potential opportunity for GreenEdge Cycling. A new title sponsorship from China or Hong Kong would have come as little surprise – and certainly less surprise than the title sponsor they’ve ended up with.

It’s not clear exactly how long the partnership with the Manuela Fundación will exist for, but in the announcement press release Ryan did describe it as a “long-term deal”. The foundation has reported a similar thing — in an interview with Spanish paper El Mundo, Emilio Rodriguez, the foundation’s director of sporting initiatives, said: “We know where we are going and we have a very big project here, it is not just finishing out the season and maintaining the level.”

Which is good, because as noted, the current “level” means all riders and staff being paid 30% of what they normally are, and that’s not expected to change before the end of the year. Could this have been a selling point for the new title sponsor?

Rodriguez told Cyclingnews that the foundation was planning to join the WorldTour in 2021 but ultimately shuffled that commitment forward by more than six months. Doing so might have represented substantial added value for the organisation — significant public exposure for an extra six months, at a time when the cycling world will be keenly focused on a return to racing, and all at a fraction of the regular cost.

Meanwhile, multiple sources close to the team tell CyclingTips there’s a sense of frustration among the riders about the current wage conditions, which isn’t terribly surprising.

Australia’s team no more?

So what does the new title sponsorship mean for Australia’s only WorldTour team? Well it seems to depend on who you ask. Some sources suggest Ryan and general manager Shayne Bannan will retain ownership of the team’s WorldTour license, while others suggest that the Manuela Fundación will take ownership of the license.

At the very least, it seems likely that the license hasn’t yet changed hands. Such a transfer would need to go through the UCI License Commission (as per UCI rule 2.15.043) and the lack of an announcement from the UCI on this score suggests it hasn’t yet happened. Transferring the license to new owners would require a thorough review of the foundation, its financials, and the new structure of the team and its management.

If the license is eventually included in the deal — from next season onwards, perhaps — what then of Ryan’s involvement? What then of his legacy? It would be an odd way for his (and Australia’s) first foray into the WorldTour to come to a close, after so long.

Regardless of who owns the team’s license and Ryan’s involvement, it’s clear that the team’s identity is about to change. GreenEdge started in 2012 as Australia’s team and while the percentage of Australian riders has dropped since then, it has always been viewed as an Aussie outfit. As one source told CyclingTips this week, “You can’t call this an Australian team now.”

Emilio Rodriguez from the Manuela Fundación’s sports department confirms this. “It’ll be a Spanish team,” he told Cyclingnews, “and we have to be proud of that.”

There are reports the team’s service course will move from Italy to Spain (although that depends on who you ask as well) but even if it doesn’t, the team’s Spanish leanings are already starting to become clear. The sponsorship announcement article on the Mitchelton-Scott website appeared in both English and Spanish late last week — a portent of things to come?

With the majority of the men’s team out of contract at year’s end, it seems reasonable to expect more Spanish riders on the roster in 2021. And as for the women’s team, well, all 11 riders appear to be out of contract at the end of 2020. Hopefully Huertas and others at the Manuela Fundación are as committed to the development of women’s cycling as Ryan and co have been.

Clearly, many questions remain unanswered about the future of the team now formerly known as Mitchelton-Scott. And that certainly isn’t limited to those of us peering in from the outside — even those within and closely aligned with the team have been caught off-guard and left confused by the new deal.

At face value it’s an odd fit. A team with Australian DNA and a history of Australian title sponsors, taking what seems to be a lifeline from an almost entirely unknown Spanish organisation that doesn’t fully exist yet, headed by a mysterious individual with a less-than-inspiring history of sports sponsorship deals.

It’s all a bit strange, but then again, nothing in cycling has been normal this year.

What we do know is that when racing returns in the next couple months, the riders of Mitchelton-Scott will be in the pink kit of Team Manuela Fundación. What happens from there is anyone’s guess.

Dane Cash and Caley Fretz contributed reporting to this article.

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