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Is relegation good?

There are clear problems with how the men's WorldTour relegation system has been set up. But maybe it's still a good idea?

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Sylvan Adams, the billionaire behind Israel-Premier Tech, said this week that relegation is “death.” Getting chopped from the WorldTour would be the end of his team, he said. He could be right, if not for his team, then certainly for those without a wealthy backer. Relegation adds uncertainty to an already uncertain sport. 

At the same time, Israel-Premier Tech is, objectively and collectively, not super great at bike racing. This is despite having access to enormous resources, despite having some quite good bike racers on the payroll, and despite a three-year warning that, by the end of 2022, it needed to figure out how to be good at bike racing. Except in a few notable moments, it has not done so. 

What do we do with these two realities? After much pondering, considerable reflection, and excessive deliberation, I have decided that I can’t decide whether relegation belongs in professional cycling, which may be an answer in itself.

Come with me on this journey, as I describe a lack of decision in great detail. 

Today, we straddle the Atlantic, since the relegation question is fundamentally a choice between two systems, one bound to each side of the pond. 

There is the “American” system, which is predictably commercialized, financially risk-averse, and designed first and foremost to keep rich owners rich. Actual winning is an admirable but not wholly necessary objective (from a profits perspective) in this closed franchise system. Think American football, with the same teams every year, no matter what. Cycling was never a full franchise model of the NFL variant, but it was close for a long time. The only way to get a WorldTour license was to take the spot of a folding team. One out, one in. No direct consequences for failure on a sporting level. 

Then there is the relegation system, a pyramid of aspiration, with severe consequences for sporting failure and windfalls for success. European football is the example here. The bottom teams drop down to a lower level of the sport, and top teams move up, until they’ve reached the very top. It is possible for a team in, say, the sixth tier, to eventually make its way into the upper echelons, and it is also possible for a top team to drop all the way down in successive seasons. It is possible for a team to eventually drop to its death. 

As evidenced by both football and other football, both systems can be wildly successful from business and sporting perspectives.

Yet there are enormous philosophical differences between the two, considerable practical benefits and issues with both, and somewhere in the great big mess of it all lies professional cycling. 

Cycling’s version of relegation is poorly structured down to its very bones. It does silly and avoidable things like award too many points to small races and too few to the Tour de France, but this is not its worst problem. Its worst problem is that cycling doesn’t have a pyramid. It doesn’t have shared TV broadcast revenue. Half its teams are barely surviving as it is.

When Adams says relegation would be “death” for his team he isn’t being entirely truthful, because he’s a billionaire and he could decide to just keep paying up anyway, but relegation could mean death for many teams without such a benefactor. 

This isn’t inherently bad. Relegation sometimes kills football (soccer) teams as well. But generally not at the first relegation. The multi-tiered system, with TV revenues for the top tiers, ensures that even a poorly managed team has some financial fallback. Only when they fall down and down and down again do things get truly dire. 

Cycling teams are all sponsor- or benefactor-funded. If either source of backing disappears, the team disappears. There is no fallback, particularly for teams with true commercial sponsors. Many of those sponsors are on board largely to gain access to Tour de France audiences. WorldTour status guarantees a team will be at the Tour de France. So a single relegation, removing that Tour guarantee, could truly be a death sentence for many of them. 

They can’t share TV revenue like football (soccer) does. Tour de France organiser Amaury Sport Organization (ASO) has an annual revenue figure in the €230 million range. That includes things like the Dakar Rally, not just cycling. Profits, depending on the year, hover near €60 million. Split that amongst every single WorldTeam and ProTeam and they each get enough to cover one decent climbing domestique. It just doesn’t work. 

For context, Aston Villa, the extremely average Premier League football club that counts esteemed individuals like our own Jonny Long among its diehard supporters, was handed £157 million in TV revenue in 2021. The financial scale is in a different universe.

So the points allocations are stupid and the effect of relegation is dramatically more detrimental than in other sports with a healthier tiered system and more diverse revenue streams. This is all bad. Relegation is bad for cycling, right? 

Ah! But the alternative is pretty uninspiring. The irony of the closed, franchise system preferred by most American leagues is that it holds a less-than-flattering mirror up to the massive gap between the bootstrapping, meritocratic mindset we Americans like to think we believe in and the systems we actually develop. 

The sporting jewels of a nation that prides itself on an often brutal form of capitalism are somehow untouchable. They are sanctioned monopolies. They cannot die, even when they up and move cities so the owner can get a new stadium on tax payers’ many dimes. They profit largely irrespective of sporting achievement. 

Here’s an example randomly plucked from a Google search for “worst NFL team of the last 20 years.” The answer, it seems, is the 2008 Detroit Lions, which checks out. The Lions, perennially terrible, were extra terrible in 2008. They won zero of their 16 games, making history (congrats!) by being the first-ever team to lose that many games in one season. They lost to the Tennessee Titans 10-47 and the New Orleans Saints 7-42. They also pulled in $206 million in revenue with a profit of $17.2 million. They fired their coach and came back roaring in 2009 and won two whole games, raking in $210 million in revenue for owner William Clay Ford Sr, a grandchild of Henry Ford. 

American League franchise owners love this. Owning an NFL team is predictable and largely risk-free. You can try to be good, and maybe make a bit more cash by selling out stadiums and hawking lots of jerseys, or just hang out and be bad, and still make lots of money off TV revenue. Whatever floats your boat. 

This is why relegation is good. Jeopardy is good and healthy. Giving a shit is good. Don’t be the 2008 Detroit Lions.

I keep returning to an obvious observation: The competent and interesting and dynamic professional cycling teams are not in this relegation fight. The teams that win bike races are not in the relegation fight. The teams we talk about often, with riders we talk about often, are not in the relegation fight. Quick-Step is not worried. Ineos is not worried. Crucially, even poorer teams like Intermaché-Wanty-Gobert aren’t worried at all. The team ranking does have some loose correlation to team budget, but there are plenty of outliers. It is possible for a team with fewer resources to be successful through strategy and guile, just as a rich team can find itself scrapping at the bottom.

Does that mean … it’s working? 

I have a hard time feeling sad for Israel-Premier Tech when it has three times the budget of Intermaché-Wanty-Gobert and 5,0000 fewer UCI points. You can identify the inscrutable points allocations and other technical issues with the system, but that gap in performance is real. ISN has, barring two spectacular days at the Tour this year, been a bad bicycle team. 

Lotto Soudal has had a shocker of a year. So have BikeExchange and Cofidis. EF has too often been invisible. Is this mean? Yes of course it’s mean. Good people put their hearts and souls and bodies on the line for this sport, for our entertainment. I personally love them for it. But sport is mean. It has winners and losers and consequences.

In an ideal world, relegation would not be the “death” Adams says it is. There would be a healthy second tier and even third to drop into. Relegation would be a season (or a couple) to reassess, figure out what went wrong, rebuild, and make moves back to the top. 

Relegation could be good, driving innovation and narrative and making the sport less stale. Yet it is definitely also bad, utilizing a patently absurd points allocation system to drop a guillotine on three teams with nowhere to go. 

So here we are. I remain undecided. What about you?

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