Fixing cycling’s TV problem(s)

Pro cycling faces several obstacles to making its coverage more compelling, widely available, and more interesting to the general public.

Photo: TDW

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Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of an article by Joe Harris and Steve Maxwell on The Outer Line.

The growth pro cycling has enjoyed over the past two decades has occurred largely thanks to television. TV is the primary way that about 99 percent of cycling’s audience connects with the sport, and it presents many great opportunities to further grow pro cycling, but there are a number of obstacles that must be overcome.

Cycling is one of the most expensive sports to televise, because it takes place on the road rather than in a stadium. Highly specialized and expensive equipment must be integrated to create compelling broadcast content. This includes helicopters and fixed-wing airborne transmission relay systems, fleets of motorcycles, high-definition cameras, and central production and satellite uplink trucks where the transmission feeds are mixed and rebroadcast out to the networks for the ”play-by-play” announcers to call the race. It’s no wonder that the expenses of broadcasting a race can quickly become overwhelming.

What is perhaps not as widely understood is that many cycling events — particularly those in the United States — must also purchase the air time to actually broadcast their event. While TV channels compete with each other and pay huge prices for the right to televise more popular sports like football, most bike races have to pay their own way. Indeed, the Tour de France is the only bicycle race broadcast in the U.S. that commands a rights payment, but even that is quite minimal. This “pay to play” standard is known as a time-buy, which is essentially an “infomercial” for the sport. Hence, from the race organizer’s perspective, not only are the production costs of organizing and televising a bike race very high, but actually getting the event onto TV represents a significant additional cost. These two costs items are a key reason why profitability is so difficult to achieve in a cycling event.

The underlying problem for the sport is that — outside of the Tour de France — professional cycling does not have a large fan base and television viewing audience in most regions of the world. In the U.S. market, even the Tour itself averages only a 0.1 Nielsen Rating, which means that only about 100,000 people in the whole country actually tune in to watch each day. But pro cycling cannot survive or grow without TV programming, and it desperately needs to get much better at both producing and distributing media content. How can these challenges be addressed and overcome?

First, there are a number of emerging new production technologies that should help to dramatically reduce the physical production costs of televised cycling, in terms of cameras, transmission, and media streaming. “Devices like the NewTek Tri-Caster video production system represent huge leaps in miniaturization and have a one-time cost of $30,000 — as opposed to leasing a full production truck at $25,000 per day,” says producer Kent Gordis. The ability to mix and deliver the video feed on standard laptop computers will continue to bring down the costs. In terms of the all-important aerial photography in cycling coverage, it is widely expected that drones will soon be able to replace expensive combined helicopter camera and fixed wing transmission systems.

One complaint often heard about professional road racing is that much of the coverage — to put it bluntly — just isn’t very exciting. Former race promoter and marketing consultant Michael Aisner says, “We need to think about how to make cycling television coverage more like a reality TV show. Human interest stories are what grabs the average viewer, and makes them more invested in the outcome.” Former NBC Sports announcer Craig Hummer echoes Aisner: “Compelling TV coverage has to be more about the journey, not just how fast they get there.” There are also other structural and probably more contentious ways of making the sport more exciting. One potential idea would be to shorten not only the total days of racing — particularly the often boring and so-called “transitional” stages of the grand tours — but also shortening the length of some individual races, in order to make them more compatible with modern viewing habits.

Technology can also help to make televised racing more exciting. On-board cameras, power meters, physiological monitors, and GPS tracking units to follow individual riders are widely used in other sports, but cycling has largely ignored or misused them. All of the recent talk about efforts by both Velon and ASO to deliver on-bike video streams only demonstrates how far behind the sport really is. In fact, neither of these approaches is really new anyway; on-board digital cameras were used as early as the 1999 Giro d’Italia. Yet, no enhanced and integrated live content has been presented to television viewers to date. It should be fairly easy for pro cycling to make better use of existing and well-known technologies to make the sport much more interesting and appealing to the TV audience.

The real revolution would be a dramatic change in pro cycling’s distribution model. Traditional TV is a blunt instrument for content delivery, and its monetization model was invented when there were only a handful of channels for consumers to watch. Internet live-streaming is emerging as the new model, which could turn the traditional TV model on its head and essentially drive a “gate fee” for the sport’s specialized content. In the same way that pro surfing has built a hugely successful online destination for its events, content archives, and fan interaction, there needs to be a “go-to” place for all pro bike racing content — including live and archived video coverage, but also forums, chats, statistics, and other fan-centric pursuits. There are millions of potential new fans out there waiting to be won over, and multitudes of new racers who have yet to be inspired. By starting to implement some of these changes, the future of pro cycling is bright — and unlike most revolutions, this one may be live-streamed.


An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.