Rapha Roadmap, chapter 5: Attract new fans with personalities and broadcast technology

Cycling can build its fan base by telling compelling stories about the personalities in the races and by harnessing modern broadcast technology to enrich the viewer experience.

Photo: Getty Images

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In contrast to spectators that watch other sports in stadiums and on closed tracks, road cycling fans can experience the live action of an event for only a brief moment. They then have to turn to media platforms to find out how the race develops and to learn the eventual winner of the event. It comes as no surprise then that throughout its history, road cycling has been closely linked with mass media. Many races were in fact originally created as marketing tools to promote the circulation of newspapers – the dominant media platform in the early 20th century. Later, other forms of media took over part of the storytelling of cycling. The first Tour de France radio broadcasts were aired in 1929, while TV broadcasting started in the 1960s and became the dominant platform for the coverage of pro cycling.

In this chapter of the Rapha Roadmap, we discuss how professional road cycling can reach out to a wider and younger audience by enhancing coverage, with the adoption of innovative direct-to-audience broadcast models on a variety of different platforms, and other ways in which the sport can experiment with and adopt new technology to make races more compelling and interactive. Please send us your thoughts at roadmapreport@velonews.com.

Professional cycling’s viewership has consistently declined over the past 20 years, even though the sport has retained its traditional fanbase in Western Europe. While there are regular reports of increased audience numbers for prestige events, particularly the Tour de France, there is little evidence that the global rise in cycling participation has been matched with meaningful engagement with the professional sport, especially beyond its most well-known races. Several high profile event organizers have complained of the poor value of television broadcast rights and cited the parallel challenge of maintaining in-person attendance at bike races as a major challenge for growth. On the women’s side of the sport, these problems are even more pronounced despite a general uptick in the fanbase from an extremely small base at the start of the 21st century. This trend highlights one of the sport’s key strategic weaknesses: Cycling has simply not done enough to become more understandable, exciting and accessible to a wider and younger fan base.

Where the sport has been successful in growing its audience, it has failed to document that success. As a result of the extremely fractured organization and governance of professional cycling, there is a lack of reliable data on which to judge performance in terms of audience growth. The information poverty even among the most senior stakeholders in the sport was cited in numerous interviews for this research as a significant problem. But taken as a whole, the below changes to the structure, focus, and marketing of professional cycling could start to revitalize the sport, positioning it as a leader in forging strong links between fans, participants and the racing community. As we discuss in this section, by increasing the entertainment value of broadcast content, presenting this content in newer and more compelling ways, more strongly promoting diversity in racing and creating real-life opportunities for access and participation, we can enhance the chance for growth in the global popularity of cycling.

Numerous examples pepper sports business literature as to the organic growth in popularity of team sports. The obvious example of soccer set aside, volleyball, basketball, cricket, baseball, and field hockey are among the most recognizable team sports played globally; each grew out of a regional version of the sport originating in a nation and spreading to the rest of the world. In many cases, a sport’s popularity in a satellite region can overshadow the region in which the sport was first incorporated, which is true of cricket (developed in England, but most popular in the Indian subcontinent). Each of these sports offers lessons from which cycling can learn when seeking to develop a more exciting and easy-to-understand offering. Throughout the research conducted for this work, there was a near universal acceptance that the sport had failed to capitalize on its potential in this regard. Teams, event organizers, governors, and sponsors have all experimented with better models for fan engagement, some of which have been successful. But many interviewees agreed a more holistic, systematic and global approach was needed, aligning those stakeholders around one plan for growth. Fundamentally, the sport must refocus on an audience-first strategy, judging its success by how it enhances a fan’s connection to cycling. In so doing, each of those stakeholders could capitalize on the above structural reforms to build more and more reliable revenue streams based on monetizing that engagement.

The viewers at a glance

Outside of the Tour de France, professional cycling does not draw many fans to their TV sets or the roadside. Media revenues for other ‘prestige’ races, such as the Critérium du Dauphiné or Paris-Nice, are limited — to sell media rights to these races, the rights owner often bundles them in with the rights to broadcast the Tour de France, thereby ensuring that they make the airwaves. In the U.S., the Tour averages a Nielsen Rating of 0.3 to 0.5 – meaning only +/-300,000 tune in to the race each day. The highest daily Nielsen ratings in the U.S. were 1.2, at the height of the Lance Armstrong years — about the same rating expected of a weekday afternoon baseball game. U.S.-based TV executives tend to view any race before July as a warm-up for the Tour, and post-July races as second chances for riders who failed to impress during the big event — while this may be an exaggerated characterization of their views, the Tour does hold an outsized importance for broadcasters, often at the expense of smaller races.

The Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), owners of the Tour, claims that 10-15 million people see the Tour in person every year, roughly 500,000 to 700,000 per stage. Belgian media researcher Prof. Daam van Reeth puts the per-stage TV viewership of the Tour between 20-30 million, and from these numbers, we can infer that around 98% exposed to the Tour de France each year do so through TV coverage. A complicating factor in these calculations is the availability, or lack thereof, of the Tour on TV outside of its traditional heartlands. Free- to-air broadcasters cover the Tour in Europe, but fans in the U.S. have had to negotiate hard-to-access programming on niche channels and the demise of the much-bemoaned online race-streaming channel Cycling. TV has further contributed to this. In light of Eurosport’s 26% increase in Grand Tour viewership in 2017, the question remains as to what the state of cycling viewership in the States would be if the market was served by a high quality, reliable broadcaster. The former Coors Classic race organizer, Michael Aisner, who experienced notable success in broadcasting his race in the 80s, stresses the importance of human interest stories and behind the scenes footage in interesting U.S.-based fans.

Just as teams could do more to promote the most appealing characters in the sport, so too can those involved in the broader presentation of professional cycling. There are countless examples of compelling storytelling throughout the history of cycling. But the combination of under-resourced and funded media organizations, overly-managed athletes incentivized to prioritize performance over engagement and a generally sluggish response to the challenges of new content platforms and formats has seen much of that storytelling disappear. Save for noteworthy innovations in podcasting, prestige publishing and a handful of YouTube content creators, the media around professional cycling does little to promote the sport.

The reform of that promotion must, therefore, be based in better broadcasting the personalities and characters in the sport, creating and reporting more habitually on the “human interest” stories of racing. It should seek narratives across a season, building an entire entertainment package around the sport and its stars with an ambition for cycling to break beyond its traditional confines. The collective ambition should be for cycling’s biggest riders to transcend the sport, engaging new fans on new platforms, and media and athletes should seek to forge season-long partnerships to achieve this. Organizers, teams, and brands should work to build the media around major events and races themselves, recognizing the power to self-publish allotted by digital innovations and prioritizing mobile content. Ultimately, it should be possible to be a fan of the sport on any platform and at any time — before, during, and after events, during the on and off-season. Cycling should further seek paths to broader cultural relevance, including partnerships with non-traditional entertainment formats such as E-sports and gamified training platforms, both of which can already be seen around the fringes of the professional peloton. Finally, in seeking greater diversity in media offerings, organizers/license holders should operate on the principle of a more relaxed usage rights model, sowing the seeds of a more profitable product by subsidizing the creation of digital content that caters to modern viewing habits. Under such a system, highlights and short, pre-approved clips of race footage could be made available with free-usage rights with a requirement to credit or link to the event or teams main channels. Riders themselves should create more content to build the value of their personal brands and reforms at team and broadcast level should be based on monetizing that content. A fundamental refocus on the marketing of professional cycling should see a major commitment across the sport to creating far more engaging media content.

Enhance the coverage

It’s not just live racing itself that needs to be more exciting. Much of the coverage of professional cycling has proven not to be very interesting or inspiring. While there are instances of compelling content in live coverage, and a clear appetite to innovate as emerged from interviews for this research, live cycling media as a whole lags behind most other major sports in the 21st century. Beyond traditional television broadcast coverage and some basic internet streaming services in established cycling markets, live presentation of the sport is often prohibitively difficult to find. Where coverage can be easily accessed, it remains overly traditional in its format and styles. As a result, there is an overall failure to reap the potential value of the media and access rights around the live sport and opportunities for more sophisticated monetization of content are not being exploited.

Television remains how about 98% of fans watch cycling and yet despite the popularity of the Tour de France and certain other events, overall cycling TV ratings have been going down. Many stages in multi-day races are four or five hours long, often with little drama until the last few kilometers and the sheer length of the broadcast, with relatively little intrigue for the vast majority of it, is regularly cited by fans as a disincentive to watch. Hence, we suggest that the sport refocus one of its greatest untapped assets to revitalize race broadcasting — the personalities and experiences of its riders. An emotional connection to the individual athletes could better capture the imagination of viewers, particularly casual ones, helping them to identify with the sport’s personalities and encouraging a deeper interest in the sport. At the same time, it could help to create sporting celebrities that transcend cycling, finding new audiences and offering riders new sources of income. Television has thus far largely failed to bring the personalities of cycling to the viewer. By and large, there are very few human interest stories produced in television coverage of cycling. Opportunities are frequently missed during incidents, for example the Chris Froome vs. Bradley Wiggins controversy in 2012’s Tour de France; or emotionally charged episodes like Alberto Contador’s recovery from a broken kneecap to win the Vuelta a Espanã in 2014; reality segments which follow the experiences of several first-time Grand Tour riders over the course of the Tour; or similar stories from inside women’s professional cycling.

The most compelling moments of cycling’s biggest events, when the sport is covered more widely by the non-cycling press, often give rise to human interest stories that are carried by character rather than performance. Punishing defeats or moments of triumph, shock results, or flared tempers, should be times when the sport capitalizes on its wider exposure. But too often these opportunities are managed away from media engagement. These moments of more compelling dramatization of characters within the sport was promoted in the majority of interviews for this work as a key way to connect with more fans. Journalists and broadcasters in the field, as well as athletes and organizers, regularly reiterated the importance of personality and celebrity in sports promotion and two common themes emerged in conversation. First, non-endemic media has inadvertently created and compounds a narrative around professional cycling that overwhelmingly focuses on rule violations, chiefly the use of performance-enhancing drugs. They have not struggled to find stories to maintain that narrative and there is a significant challenge ahead in attempting to break free of that media cycle. Beyond the emergence of particularly impactful athletes, such as Lance Armstrong or Bradley Wiggins, coverage of professional cycling in the mainstream press looks destined to focus on doping unless a major shift in tone within the sport is promoted universally. Second, access for media to riders is already remarkably good compared to most other major sports. Most interviewees involved in covering major events said access to riders for the generation of content was not a problem. Rather, the content gathered once access was granted was so carefully curated it regularly became uncompelling. That second phenomenon makes the first more likely. For as long as athletes and teams fail to tell compelling stories around the sport, the vacuum will be filled with content that already has a proven pull with audiences; allegations around specific and general use of drugs to improve rider performance. The sport must reckon with that reality, and work to create a more exciting media package to shift focus back to the character of professional cycling.

Embrace technology

There are many new and existing technologies that can be better exploited to make televised racing more exciting and much can be learned from digital innovations pursued by other major sports. In the world of motorsports, NASCAR has done a commendable job of incorporating in-car cameras, pit cameras, audio feeds, and car data to paint a dynamic view of the action for fans. At any given moment, the broadcaster can switch between multiple views inside the action as it happens, overlain on a backdrop of the current race standings for each driver. More importantly, this view is consistent in every televised race, with no variations of the data or its display from race to race. In professional cycling, aspects of these innovations, including biometrics, have been incorporated in some race broadcasts but not in a consistent way. Each race organizer’s production team has the leeway to build its own version of a sports entertainment show, making it difficult to stage a consistent experience for the fans. Onboard cameras, power meters, physiological monitors and GPS tracking units to follow individual athletes during the race are widely used in other sports, but cycling has not uniformly integrated these existing technologies to present viewers with a compelling “racer’s point-of-view” experience.

The recent efforts by both Velon and ASO to deliver on-bike video streams should be celebrated, but only demonstrate how far behind the sport really is. None of these approaches are new; onboard digital cameras have been used around races since the start of the 21st century, and Computer Sciences Corporation developed a true GPS tracking service for the 2007 Tour of California. There were similar technological opportunities made available during European races at a similar time, but these were not — and have not been — exploited to a great enough extent. No consistent version of enhanced and integrated live content has been presented to television viewers to date. Broadcasters presenting other sports have moved vastly further considerably more quickly. Critically, the sport needs to learn from others in creating a consistent standard for the viewing experience — specifically the kinds of camera shots and the display of enhanced data such as dynamic time splits and performance metrics that other sports, like NASCAR and MotoGP, have already exploited and perfected.

Cycling can better connect with an increasingly diverse, young, and digitally-savvy sports entertainment audience by making better use of these kinds of technologies — one which increasingly has less time to watch a full bike race, but which demands more engaging options while viewing the most important content. It is unclear why these steps have not been taken, but it may be partly due to the limited value found in cycling broadcast rights. Event organizers and broadcasters are not incentivized to invest in improving the viewing experience of live bike racing provided the value of the product is low and the cost of improvement high. The fractured racing calendar, the lack of cooperation between event organizers and the dearth of highly-technological skill sets in the sport all contribute to that reality.

NBA and the faces of the sport

The National Basketball Association (NBA) is adept at supplementing coverage of its games with human interest programming. This content takes the form of short segments broadcast during breaks in the game, and long-form programs on NBATV, the league’s affiliated channel, all with the aim of retaining fan engagement, build audiences for future broadcasts and creating a deeper bond between fans and players. According to media researcher John A. Fortunato, the NBA segments its audience on variables that express the fans’ level of interest in the sport, as well as traditional demographic variables – the result is a slate of programming that includes the lighthearted and comical Shaqtin’ a Fool, airings of classic games for diehard fans, and recap program NBA Inside Stuff for casual viewers. Since 2016, the NBA has partnered with Twitter to create content specifically designed for integration into Twitter conversations, with timely delivery of highlight and reaction clips. This strategy developed as a way to legitimize and capitalize on behavior that fans were already exhibiting.

Both Amazon and Netflix have achieved success with sports content, and each are set to invest heavily in both live sports and supporting content for their streaming services. The cult success of cycling-based internet shows such as Beyond the Peloton, focusing on the Cervelo Test Team, and Jeremy Powers’s Behind the Barriers highlights the appetite for behind-the-scenes storytelling among cycling fans.

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.