Cycling Clubs are Dying and Teams are Responsible
Cycling, as a sport in terms of the way it is organised and the way athletes compete, is different to pretty much any other sport I have encountered.
In most competitive team sports athletes are members of clubs and those clubs field teams to compete at the various levels. Most ball sports are a very good example of this. Competition is usually organised by a league or an association. The league or association negotiates over-arching sponsorship and media deals which inject money back into the sport from grass roots to elite competition.
At the top level cycling races are organised by private race organisers (ASO for example) which negotiate sponsorship and media rights separately. Teams are also privately owned entities who live and die by their ability to generate sponsorship dollars. The UCI have some control over the structure of the elite competition (World Tour, Pro Continental and Continental) but get no financial benefit from this top tier competition in terms of sponsorship or media rights. This is fundamentally flawed.
Look at the financial success of The EUFA Champions League, The Premier League, The FIFA World Cup or even our own A League. At some stage cycling must move to a structure where the UCI run the league and control the rights and clubs compete rather than trade teams. This will never happen whilst ASO hold all the power through their ownership of the marquee races on the calendar, particularly The Tour de France. ASO have no obligation to put money back into youth or club development, no money (other than prize money) flows to the riders or teams or to the national and state bodies that identify and nurture the talent. They have a responsibility to their shareholders.
This leads me to the main theme of this blog; local clubs and teams and how this will lead to the demise of our sport.
Cycling clubs are the heart and soul of this sport. At the local level the vast majority of the races are put on by cycling clubs. At the races put on by these clubs and their hard working volunteers how many riders are seen wearing the kit of the cycling club they are a member of? The answer is very few. The vast majority of riders are a member of a club simply to have a licence to race (I refer to racing members rather than recreational members).
Even at a local level the phenomenon of a “team” outside of the club construct is common place. This is unique to cycling.
My questions is, what if the time, effort and resources (particularly the sponsorship dollars) that go into organising “teams” was channeled through a cycling club? Imagine the benefit to the sport and to those clubs, to junior development and to gender diversity? I can personally attest to the struggle to get members to volunteer time to assist at races or to even attend club functions, let alone race in our club kit.
New riders to the sport who may initially race in club kit are quickly sucked up into the “team” phenomenon. Officials from other clubs, particularly those with strong junior programs, will attest to the frustration of developing riders only to have them picked off by a “team”. In the junior scenario this often means the loss of additional volunteer labour as the parent goes with the rider. Junior riders are also more likely to be racing in club kit.
What benefit do these riders get outside of maybe a discounted kit? None that I can see. In fact my observation would be that team members are often encouraged to ride a grade beyond their ability as a result of being a member of a team. The inevitable result is a rider who is disillusioned with the sport and who has no longevity. Outside of the impact on the rider the negative impact on the club is significant:
Reduced exposure to club sponsors through lack of riders wearing club kit
Increased difficulty in attracting sponsorship for the same reason
A smaller pool of active members prepared to contribute to the club
Difficulties in developing a real club culture
Now this is not likely to change anytime soon. The fact is at our elite level the vehicle to compete is a team, not a club. Unless this changes it will be hard to enforce change at a local level (I do believe there is a strong case to argue the NRS should be a club based competition from a sustainability perspective). My firm opinion and observation is that the “team” phenomenon is counter-productive and will eventually lead to the demise of the local cycling club from a competitive perspective. Unless those that organise these teams are prepared to start running regular racing the way we participate in this sport needs to change.
Riders, do yourselves and the sport a favour, race for your club and wear the club kit and more importantly, actually get involved with your cycling club. The sport will be better for it.