Analysis: More questions than answers in Mitchelton-Scott deal

Few details available about new backers of Spanish foundation taking over title sponsorship.

Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

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There remain more questions than answers in the wake of last week’s bombshell announcement that a little-known Spanish foundation would be taking over sponsorship of one of the WorldTour’s most successful teams.

VeloNews reached out to various sources who are familiar with the team and the new deal, and a picture — albeit a murky one — is beginning to emerge about the future of the organization. Mitchelton-Scott’s name will disappear from the peloton, with its men’s and women’s teams racing under new colors and an uncertain future when racing resumes next month.

Friday’s announcement that Manuela Fundación — a non-profit created by a Spanish contractor in memory of a daughter who died when she was two years old — will be the new public face of the Australian franchise didn’t answer many of the most important questions about the future of the team.

Early press statements indicated a “long-term arrangement,” but it’s unclear if Francisco Huertas, the foundation president, has purchased the team’s license or if it’s only a deal for exclusive title sponsorship naming rights.

Running a WorldTour team comes with a price tag of about $15 million. Title sponsorship deals can come at a lower premium than that. Lacking details from the foundation or from Mitchelton-Scott officials, it’s hard to get a clearer picture right now of how much of the team’s budget the new sponsor will cover.

Officials assure that both the men’s and women’s teams will not see major changes for the remainder of 2020. What is known is that the team will be racing in new colors, and an uncertain future.

Who is behind Manuela Fundación?

Huertas (second from right, red shirt) with ex-pros Stefano Garzelli, José Manuel Moreno, and Manuel Calvente. Photo: Facebook

It’s not easy to find much information about Huertas.

What’s clear is that he’s not in the same league as cycling’s other major benefactors. Backers such as Team Ineos owner Jim Ratcliffe, owner of a global petrochemical empire, and Israel Start-Up Nation owner Sylvan Adams, a Canadian billionaire developer who recently moved to Israel, often show up on the world’s wealth-ranking lists.

In contrast, Huertas isn’t making any lists of Spain’s wealthiest citizens. He appears to be a local contractor in Granada in southern Spain of relatively modest means. There are no websites linked to his businesses, and there’s no biographical background about him on the foundation’s website. His name is linked to two real-estate holding companies, while his wife, Maria Angustias González, is also a key member of the foundation. Neither appears to come from wealthy families, and information on the foundation website says the money to support the team and other foundation activities comes from their personal funds.

The foundation is named after the couple’s daughter, who died shortly after birth, and says its mission is “create a more caring world.” The foundation promises a wider rollout in October to unveil its goals and projects. So far, it’s been helping with local charities and assisting needy families during the coronavirus crisis.

Huertas’s interest in cycling comes after previous failed efforts to buy into regional soccer clubs. He made headlines in local media in 2008 when he promised to invest 1.2 million euros to help save Granada’s long-running squad. After an initial payment, the rest never came through, and later there were shortfalls in team salaries. In 2017, he tried to buy into a third-tier club in Jaén, but efforts stalled after other club supporters raised questions about the deal.

Following the creation of the foundation, Huertas backed a local U23 and master’s mountain bike team, with local riders Emilio Rodríguez and ex-pro Manuel Calvente running the teams.

Nature of the deal

Reports differ as to whether Gerry Ryan (right) is retaining ownership of the team’s license. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

There are also conflicting reports about the nature of the deal. Sources told VeloNews that Australian businessman Gerry Ryan retains ownership of the team license and that reports that the team’s service course would move from Italy to Spain are not accurate.

A newspaper in Granada, however, reported that the deal includes ownership of the WorldTour license. Officials have already said that it intends to give the team a “Spanish” identity and have a working base in Granada.

It appears that both sides agreed to put out last week’s news release to head off a possible media leak. A deal was finalized June 5, and officials said more details would be revealed at a press conference July 1.

A photo posted June 5 on the foundation’s Facebook page reveals who else is involved. Huertas is pictured with a red shirt, and sitting to his left is Calvente, an ex-pro who raced with CSC and Agritubel in the early 2000s. To his right is former Giro d’Italia winner Stefano Garzelli, and ex-track cyclist José Manuel Moreno, a gold medalist in the one-kilometer time trial at the Barcelona Games. Moreno is involved with cycling groups in nearby Cadiz, while Garzelli, whose wife is Spanish, evidently knows Huertas and played a key role in the negotiations. Garzelli has been linked to a possible move to join the team’s sport management currently headlined by Shayne Bannon and Matt White.

UCI regulations spell out a series of required steps when teams change sponsors or owners, including bank guarantees, documentation, and other information that needs to be reviewed and approved by the cycling federation. Sources close to the deal confirm that the UCI has been notified about the title sponsorship change, but the cycling federation is still waiting for more documentation to present to the UCI’s licensing commission. As of now, the official name remains Mitchelton-Scott on the UCI’s official registry.

At first glance, the team’s trademark colors and sponsors that have been associated with GreenEdge since its founding are gone. Any mention of Mitchelton and Jayco are gone. Bike sponsor Scott remains on the new jersey. The big question is will the team remain in Ryan’s hands and will the team’s key staffers and sport directors remain involved.

Boon for Spain, loss for Australia

The team will assume new colors as part of its new identity. Photo: Manuela Fundación

The team will race in the new Manuela Foundation colors, with angel’s wings set against a purple backdrop, when racing resumes in late July. The team is hoping to start the Vuelta a Burgos in late July in northern Spain if health authorities allow. Staffers are scrambling to get new jerseys and paint team cars in time for a return to racing.

Though details remain to be filled out, many hailed the deal as good news in light of the current economic malaise hitting cycling. The arrival of any sponsor in the middle of a world pandemic is a first for the peloton that’s seen budget cuts and layoffs since racing stopped in its tracks in March.

In Spain, the deal was seen as a boon for Spanish cycling. Once one of the mighty powers of the European peloton, with major teams such as ONCE, Euskaltel-Euskadi and Kelme, and another half-dozen second-tier teams, Spain today sees only Movistar at the WorldTour level, and three squads at the ProTeam level.

If the team eventually takes a Spanish identity, it would be a major loss for Australia. Team owner Ryan has been a loyal backer of cycling in Australia for decades and realized a lifelong dream of creating an Australian team with GreenEdge in 2012. Ryan continued to pour millions into the team through his various businesses, and sought outside sponsorship with Orica. Efforts to find a Chinese sponsor fizzled out with the coronavirus epidemic, and it appears that Ryan was ready to listen to offers this spring. The team was forced to cut wages and furlough workers earlier this spring.

The uncertainty of the team’s future will certainly play out in the rider market. On the men’s side, only seven pros and three neo-pros have contracts with the team for 2021. Among them are Esteban Chaves and Daryl Impey, but the Yates brothers and riders such as Jack Haig and Luke Durbridge are among those off-contract. None of the women’s contracts, including world champion Annemiek Van Vleuten, extend beyond 2020.

Riders and agents close to the team say there is not a lot of clarity of what will happen going into 2021.

Mitchelton-Scott’s sudden exit from the peloton — at least in name — could mark an end of an era. Its Australian roots could be gone, and what’s left of the team’s infrastructure and riders along with it. Along with CCC Team, whose title sponsor said it’s leaving at the end of the season, the men’s WorldTour now faces two teams changing names and facing uncertain futures.

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