Zwift CEO: Tour de France Femmes ‘exceeded everyone’s expectations’
Eric Min talks origins, equality, prize money and the future of the women’s Tour.
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Zwift CEO and co-founder, Eric Min has given a resounding thumbs up in response to the first running of the new Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, saying that he was encouraged and a little surprised by how successful it was.
The company came on board as the title sponsor prior to year one of the Tour de France Femmes, making a commitment of at least four years.
Min’s satisfaction with the first edition will provide further encouragement to a women’s peloton conscious that the race’s long-term future is dependent on showing it can work economically.
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The Tour de France Femmes began in Paris on the same day the men’s Tour finished, and concluded eight stages later atop Super Planche des Belles Filles, with Dutchwoman Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) winning overall. Enlivened by dramatic racing, it received strong media coverage and a big spectator turnout.
“This has been two years in the making for us,” Min told VeloNews in recent days, speaking by phone during a trip to South Korea. “There’s been a lot of planning, certainly with ASO, to have this come to life. So it’s been fantastic to see it actually unfold. I think it’s exceeded everyone’s expectations, just in terms of public interest and support.
“A lot has changed in the last couple of years. It’s a big part of what Zwift is today, in terms of equality and inclusion, and accessibility. These are just part of the values that we have at Zwift. And to see that manifest in our partnership with ASO, to bring back the women’s Tour de France is just monumental for a company like Zwift.”
ASO released viewership figures last week which were greatly encouraging for the first year of the event.
The stats showed there was a peak audience share of 5.1 million viewers, or 45.6 percent of the audience, for the Planche des Belles Filles finale of the race on Sunday, July 31.
The company said that the average daily viewership across the eight stages was 2.25 million viewers per day, a share of 26.4 percent.
In total, 75 million hours of the women’s event were watched across seven European countries.
Min said that such figures underline how successful the event has been. But he added that even before the race, there was a clear sign that people were throwing their weight behind the opportunity to have a women’s Tour de France.
“It’s just resonated so well with everyone. Certainly, it’s rallied the troops internally. One of the things that we did was we asked a number of female professional cyclists to come and shoot for the promotion of the event, for our campaign,” he explained. “And we were so surprised at how many wanted to come of their own accord. Because we didn’t pay them to show up. They wanted to be part of this, and they were so supportive of what we were trying to do, in many ways for them as well.
“There’s just so much buy-in from everyone. It’s not just women cyclists, but it’s a lot of men who are really supportive of women’s cycling. And it’s showed in the interest and the broadcast coverage, in the figures that just came out.
“I think it’s exceeded so many people’s expectations, in terms of how interested people are in women’s sports. So I’m super happy about it.”
The origins of a key partnership
The women’s Tour has existed before, albeit sporadically.
In 1955 Jean Leulliot organized a one-off five-stage women’s Tour de France which was won by the Manx rider Millie Robinson. A 29-year wait followed until the Tour de France Féminin run by Tour organizers — who were then called the Sociéte du Tour de France — debuted in 1984.
That ran until after the 1989 edition when, citing high costs and a lack of media coverage and sponsorship interest, it underwent a name, calendar, and format change to become the Tour of the EEC Women. However, it no longer had an association with the iconic French race. It stopped in 1993.
Another race called the Tour Cyclist Féminin/Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale was held between 1992 and 2009, but had no connection to the Tour organizers or indeed to the Tour itself.
ASO came back into the frame in 2014 when, following pressure by professional riders such as Kathryn Bertine, Marianne Vos, and Emma Pooley, plus a petition signed by over 100,000 people, the first edition of La Course by Le Tour was held.
While it was a step forward, the format of one or two days was regarded by some as a token gesture by ASO.
However, the company announced in June last year that it would launch the Tour de France Femmes, which would begin with an eight-day event. Zwift was a core part of making that happen, announcing a multi-year backing as title sponsor.
How did that arrangement come about?
“It goes back, I think, seven or eight years,” Min explained. “Those executives at ASO and people who work there are cyclists. And so when we launched Zwift, guess what? Many of them were using Zwift. And so I got connected with the CEO of ASO, Yann LeMoenner.
“We got to know each other, we did one piece of work together, which was around promoting l’Etape du Tour, using Zwift as a training platform for those events. And that relationship just evolved over time.”
Ironically, it was the COVID pandemic that became the catalyst for what happened next. Zwift organized a charity event called Tour for All in 2020 and, with a lack of sport online, TV channels snapped it up.
“We brought in professional cyclists, both on the men’s and women’s side, and had equal footing in terms of distance, prize money. We supported a charity called Doctors Without Borders (also known as Médecins Sans Frontières – ed.]. We raised like, $125,000, I think it was back then [actually $305,000 – ed.]. It was covered on GCN and Eurosport.
“On the back of that, we knew that the Tour de France was going to be delayed. And so ASO and Zwift together said, ‘hey, what if we put together a virtual Tour de France, across three weekends in the month of July, so we don’t miss a beat about the Tour de France? And we get all the broadcasters to support this.'”
There was a lot of interest across the professional teams, both on the men’s and the women’s side.
“The woman’s teams in particular were so excited to do something in association with the Tour de France. Again, it was important for us to have equal prize money, equal distance, and an equal number of stages. I think we were doing something in a space that was just uncharted.”
The Tour de France was ultimately held that autumn. Aware that the race was likely to return to its usual slot in subsequent years, Min and Zwift pondered how to continue working with ASO and the Tour de France. The answer became clear.
“They had been talking about bringing women’s event to the Tour de France, and certainly there was plenty of pressure, public pressure, to make that happen. And we wanted to support them in that agenda,” he said.
“Sponsorship was a big part of why they were reluctant to make that happen. So we stepped in and said, ‘look, we’ll give you the assurance of a four-year sponsorship, let’s get this thing off the ground and prove to everyone that this is going to be a hit.’”
Two years later, that has indeed come to pass.
A debate over future length of women’s Tour
With the first edition deemed to have been a clear success, thoughts are moving towards next year’s edition and the future shape of the race. There has been debate about what that should look like: many have called for a longer race, including Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo), Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope) and Grace Brown (FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope).
VeloNews asked Min how he feels about this. The race was eight days in length this year; should this increase in 2023?
“I would like to hear from the women’s professional cycling teams,” Min said. “I think it should be, in part, dictated by them. They may not want to do 21 stages, for all I know. What I can tell you is that in the eight stages that they had this year, I was glued to the TV during those eight stages. In many ways, it’s a lot easier to hang on to the audience’s attention for eight days than 21 days.
“I don’t know what the right answer is. It could be eight days. It could be 15 days. Maybe it’s 21.”
Min pointed out that it could prove very difficult for ASO to support two three-week races back to back, noting that a lot of work goes into these races and that there is a huge support crew needed to run both events. Would six weeks of continuous competition prove too much for the organization?
And, even if not, would it hold the attention of spectators and TV viewers for that long?
What he does feel is that the overlap between the events this year was of great benefit for year one, particularly in launching the first Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.
The event began in Paris with a circuit race on the Champs Elysées. The men’s race followed that, ensuring that there was a crossover in terms of spectators, journalists, and others between the two. Min sees the wisdom in what was done but doesn’t feel bound to that going forward.
“It made sense to kick off the women’s event in Paris, where the audience is tuned in. It was a great, smart way to do that,” he said.
“I think going forward, clearly to me it makes sense that the women’s Tour de France could stand on its own. It doesn’t need the support of the men’s event anymore. So I’m super excited to find out more about the unveiling of the course for 2023, which typically happens in October.”
Equality in sport, but what about the prize money?
Speaking with Min, the subject of equality crops up several times in the course of the conversation.
He emphasizes a commitment within Zwift, internally, towards equality. He also says it is vital that Zwift helps promote and encourage equality in its dealings within the sport in general.
So where does this philosophy come from?
“If you think about these athletes, they’re just incredible,” he said. “And they put on a great show. Why should they make a fraction of what the men make, in terms of compensation? Why should they get less broadcast coverage? Clearly, the public wants to see more, right? I mean, the ratings confirm that.
“So I think we need to just keep pushing. Other sports have broken through these equality issues … look at tennis, right? I think you’re seeing small improvements [in sport], whether it’s in basketball or women’s football. We just need to keep supporting this initiative.
“This is societal, right … Across the board, whether it’s in a corporate setting or in a sports setting, I think equality is important because they are doing the same job. So why should women get paid less?
“I think we need to make sure that we live the values that we preach internally. And we love it when we have opportunities to demonstrate that outside of our office.”
This year’s race was a big leap forward in terms of the past. There was no ASO-backed women’s Tour since the 1980s, and even if La Course was introduced several years ago, its one or two-day format was far off what was needed.
Running an eight-day race is clear progress and, given the success of this first edition, the women’s peloton will hope that the Tour de France Femmes will continue to expand.
But given Min’s statements here and elsewhere that equal prize money is important for female athletes, it is worth noting that the amounts received by the Tour de France Femmes riders were considerably less than what the men got for their Tour.
Is there a clear goal there that this will change over time? If so, will it require other sponsors and revenue streams to come on board?
“I think everyone, including ASO, would like to see prize money increase and to eventually equal men’s prize money,” Min answered.
“The popularity of this year’s event should help but this won’t happen overnight. And yes, it will require additional sponsorship and broadcast rights revenues to make this happen. But we absolutely want to be part of it.”