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The Great Game: UCI vs ASO

James Witts
8 Mar 2016

Pro cycling’s two biggest players, the UCI and ASO, are struggling for control of the sport. Cyclist examines the strategies of each side.

On Friday 18th December 2015, the organiser of the Tour de France, Amaury Sport Organisation, issued a press release that sent shockwaves through the sport of professional cycling. It read:

‘Amaury Sport Organisation has informed this day Union Cycliste Internationale it has opted for the registration of its events on the Hors Classe calendar for season 2017. UCI has actually recently adopted, from season 2017, a Reform of the WorldTour calendar characterised by a closed sport system. More than ever, ASO remains committed to the European model and cannot compromise the values it represents: an open system giving first priority to the sporting criterion. It is therefore in this new context and within its historical events that ASO will continue to keep these values alive.’

For those unfamiliar with the machinations behind the scenes of pro cycling, this statement won’t mean a lot, but in short it was a message from the organiser of the sport’s biggest event to the sport’s governing body stating that it doesn’t want to play by the UCI’s rules any more. In theory, it could mean the Tour de France, the jewel in cycling’s crown, could be be made off-limits to the world’s best teams, including Team Sky. 

The announcement resulted in a stream of ‘what if…?’ discussions in cycling’s corridors of power, so Cyclist decided that the bubbling politics and ramifications needed proper investigation. We set out to talk to the protagonists… and came up against a wall of silence.  

‘I’m sorry to tell you that there will be no comment from our side on this topic,’ an ASO spokesman told us despite having previously intimated otherwise. ‘We decided not to answer as there’s so far nothing more to say that we didn’t mention in our December press release.’ 

Next we went to the pro teams, who are most likely to feel the immediate effects of the power struggle, to get their reaction to ASO’s announcement, but again they were strangely reticent.

‘I’m sorry to do this to you,’ said one press officer after agreeing to an interview, ‘but the team manager has already said a lot on this one, and as you know things are pretty sensitive around the topic. In this case he’s going to have to pass on talking about it further. I know it’s a disappointment. Our team has burnt a few matches here already though. Sorry.’ 

ASO’s press release had led to teams riding on eggshells, but why? What are they afraid of? 

ASO carte blanche

Let’s start by clarifying what ASO’s pronouncement means before analysing those UCI reforms. As it stands, all 18 WorldTour teams are obliged to enter the Tour de France because it is a WorldTour race. Twenty-two teams make up the Tour field though, leaving ASO carte blanche to pick four Pro Continental teams, of which at least half are historically French. In 2015, ASO had to pick five Pro Continental teams, and it selected three French teams – Bretagne-Séché Environnement, Cofidis and Europcar – plus Germany’s Bora-Argon 18 and Africa’s MTN-Qhubeka.

By making the announcement that it is registering its events in the UCI’s second-tier Hors Classe calendar for 2017 – which can’t feature a racing field of more than 70% WorldTour teams – no more than 15 WorldTour teams can be invited to the 2017 Tour, although the entire field is up to ASO’s discretion. The same limited numbers of top pro teams will be the case for ASO’s six other WorldTour events: Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, La Flèche Wallone, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Critérium du Dauphiné and Vuelta a Espana. What this means is that at least three WorldTour teams will miss out on next year’s Tour de France, although it could be more should ASO be inclined. 

Now let’s look at the reforms proposed by the UCI, specifically the ‘closed system’ mentioned in ASO’s press release. We spoke to the UCI president, Brian Cookson. ‘The issue that ASO seem to be annoyed about is the fact that we’re offering WorldTour teams three-year licences instead of the current one,’ he says. ‘ASO want a promotion and relegation system or what we call an “open system” like in football. Effectively they’d like to see two teams going up and two teams going down every year.’ 

Why does the UCI want to offer three-year licences? It’s to do with helping teams to achieve financial stability. The UCI has 18 WorldTour places, but on occasion it can’t fill them all. In 2015, for example, there were only 17 teams in the WorldTour (hence ASO picking five Pro Continental teams for the Tour). The reason for the shortfall, and why teams such as Vacansoleil DCM and Euskaltel-Euskadi have folded in the past few years, is down to money.

Sponsorship-heavy model

Funding a professional cycling team is expensive. Team Sky’s end-of-year accounts for 2014, for instance, saw their operating costs come in at £24,424,000. Along with Tinkoff-Sport and BMC Racing, Sky is one of the more costly outfits on the WorldTour but they’re in the enviable (or not, depending on how you look at it) position of being bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch’s empire. However, as Cannondale Pro Cycling’s CEO Jonathan Vaughters says, ‘The median team budget is $20 million a year… and the problem with that is revenue from sponsorship accounts for 75% to 95% of a team’s budget. There’s a small amount from merchandising and race fees from the odd organiser, but this sponsorship model is at the heart of what’s wrong with the sport.’

Cycling teams don’t own their own stadia, so there’s no revenue from ticket sales. Because of that, teams have become increasingly interested in receiving a share of TV revenues, which we’ll come on to later. For those teams without a sugar daddy (Oleg Tinkov, Andy Rihs at BMC) or government funding (Astana), funding comes mainly from sponsorship. The importance of sponsors can’t be understated. In 2002, the US Postal team’s accounts showed total revenue of $10.24 million with sponsorship accounting for $9.90 million, or 98% of income. The same 98% figure can be seen in RadioShack-Nissan’s 2012 accounts, while for Team Sky in 2013 it was 93%.

And this is where the Tour is so important for the teams. ‘For many teams, the Tour is credited for 70% of their annual media coverage,’ Vacansoleil-DCM’s former general manager Daan Luijkx says, before rather profoundly adding, ‘It’s why many teams are reticent to openly talk about a different future direction. They don’t want to upset ASO.’

Expanding sponsorship opportunities for teams is why the UCI wants to offer WorldTour teams three-year licences and why it’s against the ‘open’ model touted by ASO. ‘Our view, and that of the teams, is that for many, relegation would mean a team disbanding,’ says Cookson. ‘The Tour holds such a strong appeal for sponsors that without that guarantee, they’ll withdraw. Three-year contracts will give teams more leverage to bring in bigger, blue-chip sponsors.’

It’s a convincing argument. After all, which other sport would see the world’s number one ranked team fold through lack of sponsorship, as happened to HTC-Highroad in 2011? According to website Business Insider, an ASO source counters this, saying: ‘We understand the argument of people saying it will secure the sponsors, but for ASO, it’s better to allow teams to upgrade [to be promoted]. If there’s no possibility to upgrade, there won’t be any sponsors at all for teams on level two or level three.’

A system similar to the one in NBA basketball would certainly create a target for ambitious Pro Continental teams such as Drapac and One Pro Cycling, who have both made public their desire to race at WorldTour level. How would their respective bike sponsors – SwiftCarbon and Factor – react to remaining in division two with almost no chance of racing in the global arena that is the Tour?

‘If we had 10 ProContinental teams pushing to go up, it might be a different matter, but we don’t,’ says Cookson. ‘In effect, we want to give the teams the same stability as many of the organisers. ASO hold a different view.’

What about the workers?

Many of those teams have gone public with supporting UCI reforms through Velon, a body set up in 2014 ‘to create a new economic future for the sport’. Eleven professional teams signed up, including Team Sky and BMC Racing. Notably, French teams Ag2r La Mondiale and FDJ didn’t, leading many to suggest they didn’t want to upset ASO. Cyclist asked Velon for its views on the UCI/ASO stand-off. A spokesman says, ‘From a Velon perspective I’d reiterate that the AIGCP [another group representing professional riders] represents the teams in the reform, all stakeholders were consulted, AIGCP backed reform and Velon teams back AIGCP. As regards race classification, that’s a decision for the race organiser and, ultimately, the UCI.’

It’s a pragmatic answer, so we went to a man we knew would have no problem speaking his mind: Oleg Tinkov, owner of Tinkoff Sport pro team. ‘The announcement by ASO to withdraw its races from the WorldTour in 2017 validates what I’ve been saying during the last three years. The sport of cycling is in a dire situation and this development will only make matters worse,’ he says. 

Tinkov has long argued that the sport lacks money and is dangerously unstable, telling Cyclist two years ago, ‘ASO need to share TV rights with the teams. It’s crazy that the riders, who are the main actors in the theatre, don’t get paid. They basically perform for free. I think it’s bullshit.’ 

While the latest football Premiership TV deal will rake in £5.136 billion between 2016-2019, much of that flowing into the clubs’ bank accounts, revenue from cycling’s TV rights goes straight into the organiser’s pockets. According to ASO’s website, more than 100 TV channels in 190 countries now broadcast the Tour de France with global broadcasting rights for the Tour estimated at around €50 million (£39 million) a year. Data from Bloomberg has ASO’s reported revenue in 2013 as €179.9 million and
a profit of €36.1 million.

Though Cookson tells us the reforms won’t threaten TV rights, are ASO threatened by Velon’s increasing power? In 2015, Velon ‘secured the first collective race deal of its kind in cycling in the form of the three-year Abu Dhabi Tour partnership. The partnership includes a revenue sharing joint interest in the race, delivering a significant step change for the economics of the sport.’ The UCI has made it clear that they’d like to open up the sport to new markets, like the subcontinents. ‘We also have existing races like the Tour of Turkey and Strade Bianche knocking on the door to be a WorldTour race [both are currently Hors Classe],’ says Cookson.

Is ASO concerned that an increase in WorldTour events will see more deals like Abu Dhabi, which could threaten attendance of the best riders at ASO events, especially the likes of Paris-Nice and the Dauphine, which clash with Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour Suisse? Or is it that ASO is once again wielding its power in a public show of strength? 

‘Anyone who’s been around in cycling for a long time knows that disputes between certain race organisers and the UCI are nothing new,’ says 36-year-old Tinkoff rider Michael Rogers.

Past stand-offs

You only need to look back a decade for a flavour of what Rogers is talking about. In 2005, after several incarnations of a premier road-race series, the UCI decided to remodel the existing World Cup into the ProTour. Then-president Hein Verbruggen aimed to forge a league system where the top teams would race all the top events. Unlike the World Cup it replaced, which comprised key one-day races, the new ProTour would also incorporate multi-stage events including the three Grand Tours. This presented an issue for the three organisers of these events who wanted total control over who competed in their events.

Things reached a head in 2007 when ASO banned ProTour newcomers Unibet.com from its races, claiming that French gambling legislation blocked their participation. The UCI, however, had already happily accepted Unibet.com’s $23,985 ProTour registration fee. A hastily agreed arrangement saw Unibet.com take part in the first ASO race of the season – Paris-Nice – but 12 months later Grand Tour organisers ASO, RCS and Unipublic withdrew their races from the ProTour, meaning the ProTour line-up reduced from 27 to just 16 races.

The Tour de France was held under the auspices of the French Cycling Federation as a national event and cracked down on teams who’d tainted the sport. Hence, ASO refused entry in 2008 to Astana because of Alexander Vinokourov’s expulsion on the second day of the 2007 Tour for blood doping. It meant defending champion Alberto Contador couldn’t defend his title. Eventually, the dust settled, deals were made and the current WorldTour was created.

With much pontificating between the UCI and ASO – past, present and, we’re sure, in the future – it’s easy to ignore what the main commodities, namely the riders, think about the dispute.

‘It’s not healthy for the sport. I really hope that these two big organisations sort a solution as it’s all about cycling. Otherwise I see the future as a little bit dark,’ Etixx-Quick-Step’s Tony Martin tells us. 

BMC’s Rohan Dennis says, ‘If the TdF is going HC then the Giro should move to July. It will possibly see a massive growth in interest from riders…’ 

Michael Rogers has his own take on the battles raging between organisers, riders and administrators: ‘I’m not saying we all have to hold hands along the way – some disagreement is good – but we have to get back to creating opportunities and giving everyone a fair slice of the cake. If the fight goes on and isn’t resolved, strikes will happen. 

‘Ultimately, ASO will probably have the biggest slice of the cake and that’s right as they created [the ASO didn't create, but own] the events. But for anything to stay viable, everyone must be able to cover their costs and have a slice of the action.’

Cookson is at pains to point out that ASO shouldn’t feel threatened, and even highlights how the recent reforms will suit it more than the original proposals back in 2013: ‘They came out around the time I was elected and said that we should reduce the amount of racing days. That would have meant the Vuelta going down to two weeks. But after speaking to teams and organisers, there will be more racing days.’

Extra racing days means extra costs, which means extra reason to increase the chances of teams gaining blue-chip sponsors. But, as ASO would argue, is this befitting the open values of sport, where performance should be rewarded? As it stands, ASO could feasibly turn against all 11 teams of Velon who support the reforms, refusing
to invite them to the 2017 Tour. But would it really not invite the global broadcasters Sky or teams like Trek-Segafredo and Etixx-Quick-Step, whose fanbases are huge? If it doesn’t, it might at least increase the chances of a French winner for the first time in 32 years.

So what happens next? Back to Cookson: ‘Our position is clear and we’ll talk to ASO when we’re good and ready. Clearly we have months ahead to discuss and debate. We wouldn’t want to go into 2017 without a solution and there won’t be a war but we won’t put a deadline on it.’ Watch this space.

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