Opinion: Does pro cycling need a Marvin Miller?

Miller, an economist and union organizer, helped give major league baseball players a power voice that pro cyclists still lack


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Jonathan Vaughters’ recent doping confession in The New York Times revived a question that has ticked at my conscience since 2011, a year I spent with Vaughters and his riders while writing and photographing a book on his Garmin team.

Do pro cyclists need a Marvin Miller?

In 1966, a handful of pro baseball players asked Miller, an economist and union organizer, to help them create a players’ union. Under Miller’s leadership, the Major League Baseball Players Association shifted a balance of power that until then rested securely in the hands of wealthy, politically connected team owners.

Miller gave the baseball players more than a trade union. He provided something they lacked over the first century of their history, that Vaughters didn’t have when he doped, and that today’s 900 UCI ProTeam and Pro Continental riders still don’t possess: a resource to represent their interests when they are scared, alone, conflicted and facing, as Vaughters puts it in his Times piece, “the boss.”

But before diving into that, let’s look at some of the ways a Marvin Miller-like figure — a cycling outsider with a keen set of business, negotiation and listening skills plus a selfless passion for helping groups identify and rally behind their collective self-interests — might change the pro cyclist’s life.

A union would give riders a chance to negotiate issues of mutual interest with race organizers like the Tour de France-owning Amaury Sports Organization (ASO), which currently does not share proceeds from its television licensing with the riders. This is not meant as a criticism of the ASO. The Tour is one of the world’s most-watched annual sporting events, seen in 190 countries and distributed by 100 license-paying television networks. ASO is in the business of making money, and there is no incentive for them to change a status quo that benefits them enormously.

Yet, compared to other entertainment and sports enterprises, this is a fundamental misallocation of rewards that keeps teams dependent on fleeting sponsor contracts. As Garmin-Sharp team owner Doug Ellis pointed out to me, the certainty a guaranteed revenue share provides allows the value of a sporting franchise to rise.

“Knowing that I’m here today, I’m here next year, I’m here five years from now” gives sponsors confidence they are investing in a marketing platform built to last, he said.

In 1966 the then-49-year-old Miller discussed television contracts with the commissioner of baseball. At the time, televised baseball was quickly expanding, and like the ASO today, the baseball owners enjoyed a position of absolute, government-sanctioned power and were loath to share TV revenue.

Miller negotiated terms that sent one-third of television licensing revenue back to the players — a deal that, as baseball broadcasts grew from a single nationally broadcast game of the week in 1965 to today’s multichannel, multimedia global extravaganza, dramatically enriched the players’ take-home pay and benefits.

Today, three U.S. television networks pay more than $700 million per year for Major League Baseball television rights. And that’s only a fraction of the licensing revenue, as millions more come from international and digital media distribution contracts.

While the privately held ASO does not publish detailed income statements, French television reportedly pays the organization some $30 million a year for broadcast rights. Even if the 99 other broadcasters pay a fraction of that fee, the sum still represents a serious chunk of change that, if shared with teams and riders, could help stabilize a fragile existence that is, in the words of Vaughters, “cash in, cash out.”

In 2011 Vaughters proposed to the ASO (which also owns other pro cycling monuments like Paris-Roubaix, half the Vuelta a España, and the Paris Marathon) that they explore sharing television revenue with the teams. He argued that the resultant improvement to teams’ financial stability would draw bigger, longer-lasting sponsors to the sport, which in turn would benefit both the teams and the ASO.

Vaughters, who also leads the Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels (AIGCP), an organization that represents team interests, said the ASO rejected the overture. Should the riders demand a share of the TV revenue, the ASO said, it would run the Tour with French riders alone.

A well-managed union could call the ASO’s bluff. In the United States, the NBC Sports network recently inked a 10-year deal to broadcast the Tour. Would Americans really be interested in waking up at dawn to watch a bunch of French pro-am riders race? And could NBC sell that product to advertisers?

The ASO’s own words suggest not. During this year’s Tour, ASO president Jean-Etienne Amaury said he was “very happy” to see English-speaking riders like Cadel Evans and Brad Wiggins excelling at his race. Amaury, who has a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University, knows increasing interest in his Tour property in places like the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia means more revenue for the ASO. With the Tour owner itself admitting to the importance of viewers beyond the borders of France, the power for riders to demand a share or strike has already shifted in their direction. If only they had a Marvin Miller to help them crystallize it.

Beyond television revenue sharing (which is limited because, beyond the Tour de France, many races lose money or just break even), unionizing would benefit riders by creating value from group licensing.

When Miller took over the baseball union, he saw that baseball card manufacturers had been exploiting players by locking them into lifetime image-rights contracts with little or no financial compensation. He changed this by establishing a group licensing system. In December 1966 Coca-Cola was the first company to license rights to use the athletes’ images and collective endorsement to sell its drinks. Today, when Major League Baseball cuts a deal with a Coke or Gatorade, those revenues are funneled back to the players equally.

Without a group licensing agreement, riders lack the ability to broker lucrative league-wide deals with product manufacturers. Anyone with a product to shill can find a couple of pros, cut them checks and proudly advertise that professionals endorse their product. That shabby reality squanders a greater opportunity.

Unionizing would also give the riders a mechanism for negotiating something they lack today: a pension plan. While today’s UCI regulations oblige teams to provide health-care insurance, riders do not have post-job security. And as the crash-filled first week of the 2012 Tour de France illustrated, the pro cyclist’s job can be nasty and cut short around any alpine hairpin.

A Marvin Miller could keep pro cyclists focused on things that matter. Historically, pro cyclists have united in protest of issues that, in retrospect, make them look unworthy of the responsibility that comes with a seat at the pro cycling bargaining table.

During stage 7 of the 1991 Paris-Nice, the peloton started the stage without helmets, a collective protest against a sensible UCI rule mandating that all riders wear lids. And the peloton sat down at the start of stage 17 of the 1998 Tour to protest the “Festina Affair” police drug raids, which eventually led to seven teams dropping out or being ejected from the race and came to be known as the beginning of cycling’s dirtiest decade.

Under Miller’s guidance, pro baseball players stayed focused on worthy grievances. In 1972, the baseball players went on strike for the first time. The owners had refused to meet the players’ demand for additional funding for health insurance and for pension contributions to be increased to match the rate of inflation. Sounding like the ASO when daring riders to demand a revenue share, the owners taunted the players, refusing to meet any of their benefit-plan demands and challenging them to go on strike if they did not like it.

To the team owners’ chagrin, the players did. After 13 days of empty stadiums and silent turnstiles, the owners caved, agreeing to all the original terms. The strike changed the imbalance of power that had persisted for over a century. This strike-hardened player solidarity and Miller’s expertise cost the owners a degree of control.

Just as the baseball union called the owners‘ bluff in 1972, and sent them reeling in a direction that they only later discovered was ultimately in their best financial interest, a definitive riders‘ strike at the Tour might wake the ASO from its blissful slumber.

After all, the ASO is in the catbird seat; its reluctance to share revenue is understandable. ASO owns one of the most-watched entertainment properties on Earth and need not share a dime with the two-wheeled performers who parade across France for the world’s entertainment every summer. And why should it? Lacking a galvanized rider union to force ASO’s hand, it makes no sense for the Tour owner to mess with a very good situation.

There is one dark side to a Marvin Miller organizing the cyclists — drug use might go back underground.

If pro cyclists were unionized, it’s likely that Lance Armstrong would not be working to discredit the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which has charged him with a long-term doping conspiracy. That’s because USADA might have no jurisdiction, no grounds to press its case in the first place. Much as corporations deal with employee drug issues internally, and out of the public eye, sports with strong leagues like baseball manage (or ignore) doping issues internally.

In the wake of the early 1980s drug scandals, including one where four players spent 180 days in jail for attempting to buy cocaine, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth proposed that players submit to mandatory, random drug tests. The player’s union crushed the idea. As Miller explained, after the union foiled this attempt to impose strict drug testing, “Ueberroth went ahead and imposed mandatory testing in the minor leagues — there was no union to do anything about it.”

Given that a union could hide doping (or coddle it with slap-on-the wrist penalties like baseball’s one-month ban for the first positive test), an effective cycling-union leader would need to be cognizant of cycling’s drug-scarred past and work with riders to ensure that anti-doping regulations are strictly enforced, even if it meant the sacrifice of some of their rights to privacy.

Which returns us to Vaughters’ confession. When faced with the choice to dope or end his dream, he, like many other riders before and after him, was alone with his struggle. Ideally, a pro riders’ union could offer an enlarged version of the no-doping culture Vaughters has tried to create with his Slipstream organization.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Miller’s baseball union was supporting players when they were alone and confronting fearsome, entrenched power structures. The most-famous case was that of Curt Flood, the first player to challenge baseball’s reserve clause, a rule that essentially made players slaves to their current teams by barring them from changing squads for more money or better working conditions. In 1969, Flood decided to challenge the reserve clause as a violation of both his human rights and U.S. anti-trust laws.

Flood knew that challenging baseball’s reserve clause could effectively end his career by getting him blacklisted. After discussing the decision with Miller and the union’s executive board, Flood decided to press his case. Fighting both some of the most powerful men in American business and a court precedent already upheld by the Supreme Court would be crushingly expensive. But the players’ association stood behind Flood and assumed the cost of his lawyers. Unlike pro cyclists faced with the decision to dope and join the sport’s omertà or abandon the sport, Flood was not alone.

The Supreme Court eventually ruled against Flood, citing its 1922 ruling that denied baseball players free agency as its stare decisis (respect the previous ruling) justification. But the lesson for pro cyclists is that in the face of a terrifying, potentially career-ending decision, Miller’s union gave Flood and other players after him a resource, an ally that would stand by them in their hour of need.

Reflecting on the state of baseball’s athletes before they unionized, Miller wrote that “the players, like other people without leadership, always seem to fail to act in their own best interests.” At a time when pro cycling struggles to shed its drug-darkened past, and in which riders who doped and regret it are forced to remain silent about the who, what and where of their actions for fear of crossing the sport’s most powerful figures and deeply entrenched stare decisis tradition, it seems pros need an outsider like Marvin Miller to guide and organize them now more than ever.

Editor’s note: Mark Johnson’s book on a year with the Garmin-Cervélo team, Argyle Armada: Behind the Scenes of the Pro Cycling Life, was published in March 2012 and is available at booksellers everywhere. He has contributed to VeloNews since 1993.


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