Fresh Brew: What's Really Wrong with Pro Cycling
- by Chris Brewer

Like most former fans of Teams USPS / Discovery Channel and current Astana Cycling Team supporters, I was personally shocked by the Giro and ASO announcements effectively banning Astana from all of their events in the 2008 season. As far as I can see the rationale provided - to punish the team for past indiscretions - simply doesn't hold water. I'm not going to even go into it here because 1] that position has been spelled out quite clearly by our team and many others and 2] as I have sat and thought about it, the reality is that this is only a symptom of a much larger problem with the sport at the highest level of competition.

And what is that problem?
Professional cycling has got to stop feeding on itself and
must unite if it has any hope of reestablishing its credibility with its fans and sponsors.

Let's start by looking at a similar sporting structure here in the United States: NASCAR stock car racing. While some of you may be surprised by this comparison, it is actually very close to pro cycling. Individual drivers race for teams owned by management companies, with their primary identity comprised of a title sponsor and many sub-level sponsors. These drivers compete for both individual successes at specific races as well as an overall title from points accrued along the season. However, NASCAR does not own any of the speedways where the racers compete nor do they put the actual event on, the race venue does. And at these venues the drivers, equipment, and support staff are very available to their fans.

So what's the difference? NASCAR gets it, pro cycling does not.

  

NASCAR truly understands that the greater good is worth more than any one entity's individual needs, and they are all literally laughing as they drive happily to the bank with billions in television and related product revenue and positive sponsor identity. But despite their clean cut All American marketing, the NASCAR boys aren't saints by any measure. They have had their share of before-race cheating scandals, in-race positioning incidents, and plenty of rival personalities enough to fill a book. But when these things come to a head , they handle it. Fines are levied, people are suspended, and they press on.

Case in point: Last year at the 2007 Daytona 500, arguably the "Tour de France of NASCAR", superstar driver Michael Waltrip's team was caught red handed using a fuel additive to boost performance. David Hyder, his crew chief, was thrown out and fined $100,000 and team director Bobby Kennedy also was kicked out. Waltrip's reaction? "This is my fault," he said. "You can't be skeptical of (my sponsor) Toyota. You have to look straight at me." End of story. No way in hell would you then see future venues banning Waltrip to pile onto the penalty already levied, it simply wouldn't happen because NASCAR is a united front.

So what lessons can a relatively new multi-organization, multi-billion dollar entity like NASCAR teach a 100 year old establishment like professional cycling? I spoke with Spencer Lueders, a solid amateur cyclist and Competition / Patent Counsel for NASCAR. I came away with two key lessons that I think would make a major difference in pro cycling:

  • Power must flow from the top down and no one should be able to usurp that power arbitrarily. In NASCAR that power comes from President Mike Helton. There are "police" in the form of pre-race inspections, race rules during the event, and post-race inspections. Infraction enforcement is meted out by the NASCAR Vice President of competition - period. Yes, there is an appeal process if warranted but once that is accomplished the decision is the decision: race on. And this power to punish stretches across to the race venues as well in terms of pre-agreed sanction ability, and as you'll see in the next point there's a real reason to do what's right, and it's spelled m-o-n-e-y.

    Think about all the folks who get their fingers into the pie in cycling: The UCI, doping agencies, the ProTour, the event organizers, Olympic committees, national cycling federations, justice departments, and on and on. Just like other top pro-level sports, cycling needs a Commissioner that everyone believes is working in the best interest of the sport and the buck stops at his desk when a major decision has to be made.

  • Teams and racers will follow the money, and the venues they race at will benefit greatly, too. NASCAR literally hit gold when the Daytona 500 was shown on TV start-to-finish back in 1979; thanks to a huge snowstorm it was truly the only game in town for the American public to watch and a big hit. But that didn't mean success across the board until they came up with a way for everyone involved to get a piece of the financial pie.

    NASCAR garnered the support of all the racers and race venues to negotiate a season long TV deal on their behalf. This group deal provided a huge financial windfall as significant percentages were returned to the sanctioned venues and then to the teams and racers via an overall season points hunt (and yes, a small percent goes back to NASCAR itself).

    Think about this for a moment. Race venues know that they must be in line with NASCAR rules or they risk losing their status as a sanctioned event (and the associated money). Teams will want to send their best racers to these events because their interest is twofold: the prize money associated with the actual race, and the accrued points towards the overall season championship. It all comes down to the points because they equate to money - and in NASCAR that is big money. Last year Jimmie Johnson took home around $8 Million dollars for his season winning effort, and that money flowed downhill to any and all associated with his team.

    *** One way that NASCAR makes sure that the top drivers get to appear in their races is the "Top 35" rule. This basically says that any driver in good standing ranked in the Top 35 of the season points must be allowed to race at a sanctioned NASCAR event.

    *** While racers and their support staff can be penalized in terms of cash or suspension, it's often having points taken away from them that hurt the most.

    *** Even though the NASCAR calendar is full, there are always venues ready and willing to become NASCAR sanctioned events. This known competition once again keeps those accepted venues in line with NASCAR goals and rules as they know there are others ready and willing to take their place.


    Popular races like the Tour of California could gain even more stature
    if they were part of a signficant season long series.

    But this article is not about how to effectively punish those around you, far from it. As I said, all the NASCAR players get it: they are in this fight for the almighty dollar together. And you can say what you want about the spirit of competition and thrill of victory (heck, add in the agony of defeat for good measure) but we're talking PROFESSIONAL sports and at the end of the day the goal is to make money. I encourage you to attend a NASCAR event sometime and take in the whole experience. Everyone's happy, everyone's loving the competition, and that flows from the league, the venue, the teams and has created driver and sponsor loyalty amongst its fans in an unprecedented manner.

    So my dos centavos to get cycling on a similarly successful track is simple in nature but will take a lot of will and desire to work together. First, the UCI must establish a position of leadership that has final authority for all matters at the top level of cycling. This position has to be filled by someone that the industry across the board feels has the credibility and best interest of the sport in mind. And second, the cycling season should be turned into a points based series that has significant financial rewards for the teams involved. This series can be marketed to lucrative TV contracts as well as sold to a large presenting sponsor and supportive cast, and serves not only as a positive catalyst for racing but as an effective hammer for those not willing to comply with the rules. Revenues from such a deal - and related deals - must be shared proportionately with those who have a vested interest, namely the venues and teams making it happen.

    At the end of the day cycling must stop its bickering and power struggles if it wants to regain the credibility it once had. The time is now to unite under one banner. The time is now to take these steps but those at the top must be willing to do so. And here's hoping they do, or you better settle in for more of the same for a long time to come.

    - Thanks for checking in, and if you like you have my permission to reprint this article in its entirety as you see fit - Chris Brewer.

    * You can write to Chris Brewer any time at chrisbrewer62@gmail.com