The NCL (National Cycling League, Inc.) announced the launch of a first-of-its-kind professional cycling league. Launching in 2023, the NCL will organize a series of closed-course 1-2 kilometer criterium races in the most iconic locations of major cities around the country including Miami, Atlanta, Denver and Chicago, with a championship team decided at the end of the season and awarded the largest prize in the history of criterium racing.

A million dollar prize: NCL puts money where its mouth is as pros sign up

It's hoped a brimming prize purse will coax top racing talent over to the shores of North America and revamp the US crit scene.

by Jonny Long

“The biggest stages draw the brightest stars,” David Mulugheta said as the prize purse, competition structure and host cities were announced for the upcoming National Cycling League. If there’s one person who knows about big stages and bright stars, it’s the NFL agent turned race organiser who’s negotiated American football contracts totalling more than $2 billion, and Mulugheta’s CV is the sort you’d hope for the person attempting to revamp US crit racing.

Here is the headline figure: a prize purse of $1 million. Teams will consist of men’s and women’s squads (competing separately but points scored count towards a combined total) and the first-placed will take home $700,000, second place $150,000, with decreasing amounts thereafter.

Ten teams will compete, two formed by the NCL and the other eight from domestic applicants, from USA Cycling Domestic Elite all the way up to UCI ProTeam and women’s WorldTeam. The locations of the four rounds of racing are Miami Beach, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; Denver, Colorado; and Washington D.C.

Simple enough. The organisation has teased that Olympians, National Champions and former World Tour racers will all be involved. Whether this means that top UCI-registered American outfits will be present, or that NCL teams have enlisted a bunch of two-wheeled legends hoping for a big payday, it appears we’ll have a blend of riders we recognise in a new, supercharged format.

“Creating the next generation sports community starts with valuing the athletes and their contributions to the fan experience,” is the stated aim of the NCL, according to another co-founder Paris Wallace, the former CEO of a women’s health start-up and currently the ‘Entrepreneur-in-Residence’ at the Harvard Business School.

Fan experience is key. If you build something and the people don’t come, then there are ways to burn millions of dollars that require far less effort. So far, real-time scoring that awards points after each lap is planned to make for an accessible event, while wearable technology will give insight into what the athletes are going through mid-competition. On the ground, public races on city street circuits will hopefully catalyse roadside fans to come out in droves.

Ultimately, it will be the quality of racing and competition that decides the NCL’s fate. But so far, everything is pointing in the right direction for the first majority-minority-owned sports league. The prospect of a showdown in the final sprint between teams vying for either $750,000 or $150,000 in prize money is something quite alien to bike racing and undoubtedly worth tuning in for.

“The NCL is currently working with USA Cycling on sanctioning the 2023 season,” concludes the latest announcement, as organisers press on with their dream of uncovering the “1,000s of Rusty Woods” just waiting out there in North America to turn their hand, or legs, to bike racing.

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