The Tour de France wrapped up this weekend in Paris after a grueling week in the Alps. The British cyclist, Chris Froome won.
The Tour averaged over 40 million viewers a day over three weeks. Doping scandals or not, it’s has always attracted die-hard cycling fans, but Tour organizers are increasingly keen to attract the interest of more casual viewers.
And to do that, the business of cycling may have to change — specifically the way cycling teams are named and are able to engage with fans.
Here’s why: Life for even a casual cycling fan is a lot different from being a fan of, for example, baseball. In the great American pastime, if you’re a Yankees fan, “you would follow the Yankees and they would be the Yankees forever and a day,” says Scott O’Raw, host of a pro-cycling podcast for the broadcaster, Eurosport. As a result, you’d have a strong emotional attachment to the team.
In cycling, teams are named after the companies that give them millions of dollars in sponsorships, and pro-cyclists are as plastered with ads as a Nascar racecar. It leaves fans routing for distinctly unemotional line-ups like teams RadioShack and Europcar, the car rental company
Now consider what happens when a business decides to stop sponsoring a team. O’Raw says that’s really when a cycling squad’s troubles begin.
“If the sponsorship changes, the name of the team changes,” says O’Raw. “And I totally disagree with that because if you’re a casual viewer you come in and you watch the Tour in July and you think, ‘I really like the team that’s called, blah blah blah.’ The next year the sponsor could change and you show up, unaware that that business decision has been made, and you think, ‘Where’s my team?’”
He says casual cycling fans are left confused and with no one to root for. Take the team that was named after the Dutch lender, Rabobank, for the past 17 years. Last year, the bank withdrew its sponsorship over doping concerns. “So suddenly we found ourselves without a sponsor and without a name,” says Richard Plugge, the team’s manager, who is currently following his riders in the Tour de France by car.
Set adrift, the team decided to call itself Team Blanco — as in “blank slate” — until the American electronics company, Belkin, finally stepped in just a few weeks ago.
“So that’s why we have three names in less than a year’s time,” says Plugge.
Too many name changes like that are a problem for any team that wants to build a stable cohort of fans. Back in the ’90s, Plugge’s squad was known as WordPerfect — not exactly a winning legacy. He says the group will now try to turn “Blanco” into a moniker that sticks with the team no matter who the sponsor is.
Joel Seymour-Hyde of the sports marketing firm Octagon says such a move could initially cost teams in sponsorship dollars. “But obviously the ultimate long-term goal would be a stronger and more engaged fan base, which you can then leverage in other ways,” says Seymour-Hyde.
For example, the ability to develop team merchandise and loyalty programs could turn out to be even more valuable to sponsors. Or if cycling teams don’t want to upset the people writing the checks too much, former Tour cyclist Jonathan Vaughters has another idea.
“What I’d like to see is if each team could come up with a color, a pattern, something that defines that team permanently,” says Vaughters.
For example, he now manages the cycling team Garmin-Sharp, which he says always wears argyle. “It allows people to say, ‘Okay, this is the argyle team. No matter what sponsors they have, these guys wear argyle,’” says Vaughters.
But without a real name, Scott O’Raw of Velocast says even the seductive crosshatch of argyle may not be enough to create a cycling team that fans can actually fall in love with.