Rapha Roadmap, chapter 1: A road less traveled

There is one conclusion that echoes most loudly from our research, in interview after interview; professional cycling is broken.

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Rapha has commissioned the creation of a major research project that aims to assess the state of professional road racing and shape the apparel manufacturer’s future involvement in the sport. The Rapha Roadmap is an in-depth report which took almost two years to complete. The project stemmed from a belief that professional cycling could and should be more engaging and more popular. The report analyzes the various challenges and opportunities facing pro cycling and presents a series of bold reforms that could bolster the economic prospects of the future of the sport. It was supported by information and perspectives from in-depth interviews with more than 50 of the most experienced stakeholders in the sport.

The report invites constructive debate around the economic, governance, competitive, and organizational issues and challenges that must be considered in terms of strengthening the future of cycling as a spectacle, a career, and an investment. The study also led directly to a number of major steps Rapha has taken in the last six months, including its decision to return to men’s WorldTour sponsorship in partnership with EF Education First, and will continue to shape its involvement in the sport.

VeloNews will be exclusively publishing this new report, in a serialized format of 10 installments over the next few weeks. The study was researched by independent cycling business writers Steve Maxwell and Joe Harris of The Outer Line, the Belgian cycling economics professor Dr. Daam van Reeth, and Rapha Head of Content Oliver Duggan. [Maxwell is a part-owner of Pocket Outdoor Media, the parent company of VeloNews -Ed.] The report concludes that there is a great opportunity to grow the sport and increase its overall value by converting more cyclists into fans, and by connecting them to the sport.

The initial chapter follows, with continuing installments to be published on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout April and May. Footnotes and detailed citations documenting the findings and recommendations of the report will not be included in the edited serial publication of the report, but will be included when Rapha makes the full report available online to the public later in May. VeloNews and Rapha will be actively seeking constructive feedback and opinion from interested readers on the findings and recommendations of the report as it is published. (Please send us your comments and ideas.)

Cycling stands apart. It is a means of travel; a mode of transport ubiquitous around the world, unbound by creed or class or gender that connects millions of people to their communities every day. And it is an elite sport; a global entertainment industry built on an unparalleled history of perseverance, suffering, and achievement. In sport and activity, these two identities collide. Arenas erupt on roadsides in Europe, the Americas, Asia and beyond as cyclists — professional and amateur — gather to ride and race. Occasionally, they create enough noise that the world takes notice. Grand tours, great races and gold medals are won or lost; new feats of human achievement are written into history and old scandals return to undo them; stories of personal triumph, collective commitment and sheer force of will are written and cycling’s incredible appeal is restated.

Rapha was founded with a deep respect for that appeal. The company believes cycling can and should be the most popular sport in the world and has worked since 2004 to demonstrate its commitment to the activity, inspiring participation, and loyalty around the world. We love the sport and have dedicated significant energy in our business to working within the professional sport to promote its growth. For 15 years, through sponsorship of numerous professional teams and dozens of individual elite riders at the top of the sport, we have sought to connect with and champion the best of professional cycling. Since 2016 onwards, Rapha has embarked on an unprecedented research project in an effort to further refine our relationship with elite road cycling and define our strategy moving forward. The Rapha Roadmap was commissioned to help the business understand the state of the professional sport, and inform our involvement in the future. We believe there is an incredible opportunity for growth in the sport, and this research is our attempt to chart a radically new path for Rapha within a radically reformed sport.

We also want to encourage honest and open debate about the state of the sport we love. Thousands of riders within our community are deeply passionate about the future of the sport and with this research, we have sought to find and reflect opposing views on the opportunities and challenges facing cycling. We hope interrogation, counter-argument, feedback, and robust debate will reveal new, unexplored areas of contention and potential reforms inevitably overlooked in this work. It is our belief that we can help to create momentum behind that discussion, ensuring the voice of the fan is heard when considering the future of the sport.

There is one conclusion that echoes most loudly from our research, in interview after interview; professional cycling is broken. Despite the obvious passion of countless stakeholders in the sport, and the hugely impressive strides made towards modernization in some areas, the sport has failed to find new audiences or inspire younger generations of fans. Cycling has struggled to keep pace with the changes that have upended broader sporting, leisure and entertainment industries. The basic structure, format, and presentation of the sport has barely changed since its inception. It is regularly argued that those involved have stuck too closely to the sport’s heritage, missing opportunities for innovation. And as a result, the health of cycling has been left to wither on the vine. As the same tired narratives are retold and the same events replayed every year, the sport has failed to create new stories and elevate characters that capture the attention of fans around the world. That seeming inability to evolve is starting to show in its audience. While the number of people on bikes is increasing in every major region of the planet, engagement with professional cycling is stagnating.

Rapha believes that cycling is the toughest and most beautiful sport in the world. That it should be introduced to more people and that in so doing our sport can transform lives. Professional racing is the shop window of cycling and at its very best, can inspire huge swathes of fans to embark on a lifelong journey through the sport. This report was written with that aim in mind, designed to answer the question of how the sport can be made more engaging, more exciting and more accessible to better connect with fans and better encourage participation in the sport.

In so doing, the Rapha Roadmap seeks to guide Rapha’s involvement in contributing to a better future, one built on engagement with opportunities afforded by technical, commercial and social innovation to drastically change how the sport is consumed. The following pages identify the primary obstacles to the sport’s growth and offer solutions that would radically reimagine its offering. Based on the latest analysis of cycling and other sports and informed by dozens of interviews with industry influencers and experts, it seeks to build on cycling’s current position to create the environment for even greater reach and value. The format and structure of professional racing, the economics of the sport, its media distribution and broadcasting, sponsorship and ownership as well as amateur, club and geographic dynamics will all be considered. It should at once offer potential routes for realistic, meaningful reforms across the sport and encourage debate about its future. We have conducted this research in the hope that we might contribute and by way of inviting much broader participation in that discussion.

Our research was compiled over more than 18-months and draws on the experiences of the sport’s most established stakeholders. As well as interviews with current and former leaders in the sport (a full list will be made available in Appendix 1 when the full report is released), it was researched by Daam Van Reeth, a sports economist at the Research Centre for Economics in KU Leuven University, Joseph Harris and Steve Maxwell, part owner of VeloNews and together co-editors of The Outer Line, a US publication dedicated to the advancement of professional cycling, and Oliver Duggan, Head of Media and Copy at Rapha. The recommendations for reform and commitments for action from Rapha outlined below are based on our research for the Roadmap, but they are not universally endorsed by all interviewees. Their thoughts were invaluable but these are Rapha’s conclusion alone. The work identifies and addresses a broad set of problems for the sport:

  • A failure to grow the sport as a whole, resulting in far too little revenue across the board and therefore a lack of investment in initiatives that could make professional cycling more exciting and more accessible to more fans.
  • A weak financial model that is almost entirely dependent upon unpredictable commercial sponsorship, leading to a constant state of economic instability and ultimately creating an extremely poor model for meaningful growth.
  • An out-of-date and regularly changing competitive structure, with an overloaded and overlapping calendar of races at the elite level that make it increasingly difficult for fans new and old to enjoy the sport.
  • Outdated models of broadcast production, content accessibility, viewership measurement, and media distribution systems, as well as failure to champion characters and narratives within the sport on new platforms and a challenging media cycle focusing on doping and safety.
  • Under-investment, under-development, and inconsistent focus on women’s professional cycling and youth development programs, as well as a staid approach to team and athlete management with a lack of emphasis on engagement.
  • Systematic failure amongst almost all stakeholders in the sport to encourage and facilitate fan access and participation in the spectacle of professional cycling.
  • A confusing and often conflicted governance structure, which does not have the resources necessary to oversee the sport and which has given rise to conflict at the center of the sport’s organization.

Recommendations for reform of the sport are therefore focused on five main topics that seek to stimulate debate over its potential future; 1) alterations that could be made to the format and structure of the racing calendar, 2) changes that could be sought to better connect teams and athletes to their fans, 3) improvements to the sport’s organization and governance to facilitate deeper connections between professionals and amateurs, 4) transformation of the media produced around the sport to better broadcast the personalities within it, and 5) reorientation of the economics to reduce instability. Each of these suggestions has been designed to work both together or individually to create an environment for growth within the sport. The central findings of the Rapha Roadmap suggest:

  1. Professional cycling must fundamentally reform and shorten its calendar to create a season-long series of linked races that reward individual triumphs throughout the year
  2. It must find new ways to judge riders’ success, revolutionizing traditional models of racing and winning to promote combative and aggressive racing across the season in new locations and formats
  3. It must promote team structures that elevate rider stories, rewarding riders as much for their roles as ambassadors as athletes and moving beyond performance as the sole motivation
  4. It must become the most transparent, media-friendly sport in the world, creating content that champions the human stories of the sport at every conceivable opportunity and building communities out of fans
  5. The production and distribution of entertainment must be integrated into the heart of the sport, giving fans more access, creating more content and evaluating success by engagement
  6. Teams, events and stakeholders must pursue solid links with wider participation in cycling, integrating with clubs, infrastructure lobbyists and broader fitness initiatives and taking on leadership roles on safety and environmentalism
  7. Coverage of the sport must be enhanced with the adoption of cutting-edge direct-to-audience broadcast models and episodic, free-to-view content creation on a variety of platforms
  8. Women’s racing must be promoted as aggressively as men’s, with greater emphasis on building and promoting characters and commitments to parity to capitalize on a huge untapped opportunity
  9. Events and teams must urgently pursue diverse revenue streams, monetizing opportunities around gate fees, marketing opportunities, merchandise, public rides, tiered-access content, fan access and more
  10. The sport must better monitor and develop its sponsorship proposition locally and globally, and the main costs associated with the sport — team budget, event organization, television broadcast — must be reduced through shared resources and modernization
  11. The UCI’s role must be reconsidered in relation to the friction with events organizers as leaders in reform of the sport
  12. Long-term plans for youth development, including a radical approach to talent programs that promote careers in the sport beyond riding must be developed.

In each of these areas, there is potential for Rapha to actively work towards potential reforms that could encourage change within the sport. Based on the research within this report, the business has committed to several major initiatives that will help shape the future of Rapha. As well as continuing to develop products and services that perfect the average rider’s cycling experience, it will endeavor to promote the characters and personalities within the sport with major investment in its own media creation. Launching for the first time during the 2018 World Tour, Rapha’s editorial content will go on to contribute rich, entertaining content around cycling that connects new fans to the sport in new ways.

Rapha has also overhauled its approach to team and athlete sponsorship from 2019 onwards, completely changing the way it has previously invested in the professional sport. Working with the most exciting riders, men and women, and combining with the passionate advocates for the sport, we will seek to create a new model for a professional cycling team that fundamentally changes fan expectations and ultimately the sport itself. The team approach will change Rapha’s relationship with the sport to better promote storytelling and reform within the World Tour. Starting in the 2019 World Tour through a ground-breaking media partnership with EF Education First Pro Cycling, Rapha will seek to engage millions of new fans by creating and publishing the most innovative portrayal of pro cycling. The approach will see riders race beyond the traditional confines of World Tour events, exploring the outskirts of the sport as it currently exists to expand its horizons.

Following publication of the Rapha Roadmap, the company will make a sustained effort to lead innovation to build a better future for professional cycling, building on the research herein by inviting criticism and contributions from stakeholders and fans around the world and providing the space for those discussions.

In the sections that follow, the Rapha Roadmap will expand on the problems facing the sport and its position within an evolving social, economic and technological landscape, and offer specific suggestions on how cycling could evolve in the 21st century. Cycling must be revitalized to become more widespread and more popular and it must prioritize meaningful engagement with the audience above all else. A new direction and more robust viewership for the professional sport can lead to greater visibility for cycling across the board, and can help to draw in new participants. Cycling should endeavor to become the world’s most inclusive recreational and widely accessible sport, in which all can participate. To do that, it must reform.

Eight lessons from professional sports

Throughout the Rapha Roadmap there will be examples of reform in other sports from which professional cycling can learn. These appear where relevant in the text, but there are a number of key innovations that have broadly informed the research and our conclusions.

  1. Formula One has successfully reformed its racing calendar since its inception, evolving the structure and geography of motor racing to improve fan engagement and eliminate the inefficiencies and distractions caused by overlapping competition.
  2. NASCAR sought to reform the internal points system of its sport in a bid to encourage inventive tactics and enhance suspense to create excitement for fans. A new points system introduced to the sport helped keep spectators engaged over long periods of competition that has historically seen few points of interest.
  3. Major League Sports throughout the U.S. have pioneered strategies to connect teams to specific regions and communities. Teams are moved to, or created in, strategic locations, chosen through an assessment of local heritage, the size of the available media market, local competition, and other factors. The result is invariably a sound economic base, contributing to their longevity.
  4. Media distribution, particularly via social media and brand-owned channels, is a major tool of modern fan engagement. The collaboration between the NBA and Twitter to deliver timely, exclusive content to the platform helps the NBA capitalize on fan engagement and reactions.
  5. In 2017, Amazon secured the rights to broadcast ATP events and NFL Thursday Night Football, while Netflix have upped their investment in over-the-top content for a variety of sports. These investments signal the increasing importance for cycling to be broadcast on the internet, supported by human interest stories and behind-the-scenes footage.
  6. The rise of women’s tennis shows that equal pay and gender equality is achieved by a combination of action by race organizers, riders, and governing bodies. The reward of investment in opportunities for women and equal prize money is a healthier sport with a deeper talent pool.
  7. The potential of merchandise as a major and consistent economic driver for teams, athletes and races, has been demonstrated by major developments in the marketing of on-the-road sports, such as marathons and triathlons.
  8. Streamlined broadcasting — with a regular cast of presenters, crew, and content segments — is necessary to create consistent, high-quality broadcasts, as shown by the success of F1’s race coverage. Compared to the current approach to broadcasting races, with race organizers having to coordinate their own coverage, a streamlined approach would offer significant cost savings in terms of personnel, equipment, and online broadcasting.

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