Explainer: ASO wins again in latest reform agreement

The ASO comes out on top in latest reform agreement

Photo: TDW

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Thursday’s announcement of a detente between the UCI and cycling’s most powerful player was big news short on detail.

Reading between the lines, it was easy to see that the Amaury Sports Organisation (owners of Tour de France and a large chunk of the WorldTour calendar) came up the big winner.

The long-running effort to “reform” elite men’s cycling has been watered down so much that its latest incarnation is little more than status quo on how elite men’s professional cycling looks today. Anyone hoping for a major restructuring of the sport will be disappointed. There are no permanent licenses for teams looking to create NFL-style franchises. There is no streamlined racing calendar without overlapping races. No new rights for teams or racers. And certainly no restructuring of the economic model, and sharing of TV rights and other revenue streams.

The agreement approved by the UCI’s Professional Cycling Council averts a potentially disastrous “war,” but at a relatively high cost to teams and even the UCI itself. ASO comes out even stronger, with its position at the top of the sport more consolidated.

Here is a quick explainer of the key points of the agreement, and what it means for teams, the UCI, ASO, and fans:

What does this agreement do?
In the short-term, it avoids the immediate threat of a permanent break between ASO and the UCI. There are several key points. First, it maintains, and expands the WorldTour calendar, with the presence of all of ASO’s events. That right there is huge, especially in light of ASO’s threat to pull its races out of the WorldTour. Another key point is that it also trims the WorldTour league to 16 teams by 2018, and also creates a “challenge” system in that the top-ranked second-tier team bounces up to the WorldTour, and the bottom-ranked WorldTour team drops down. The more radical ideas in the initial reform were already long off the table. This is “reform light,” with ASO coming up aces.

Who wins?
ASO is the clear winner here. The French company gets largely what it wanted, and sees a tighter grip over its catalogue of races. (ASO’s portfolio includes the Tour de France, Vuelta a España, Paris-Nice, Critérium du Dauphiné, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Roubaix, Arctic Race of Norway, Worlds Ports Classic, and Tour of Yorkshire, among others, and has links to the Amgen Tour of California, Santos Tour Down Under, and the Tours of Oman and Qatar). The agreement gives nothing away, other than agreeing to continue to allow the WorldTour-level teams entry into all of its races and for ASO to remain under the guise of the UCI. With this agreement, ASO effectively neutralizes all threats to its monopoly-like control of its races. After all, ASO is a private, for-profit business, and with this deal, it will continue to operate that way unchallenged.

What does the UCI gain?
The UCI can take satisfaction in that it avoids a costly and potentially disastrous stalemate or even a split with ASO. New races will be added to the WorldTour calendar (no official list yet, but likely the Amgen Tour of California, a new Tour of Germany, perhaps one or two of the Middle East races, and some key European events). The biggest surprise is the inclusion of a “challenge” system.

Who loses?
From the teams’ perspective, they do. Under the latest agreement, teams are guaranteed two-year licenses through 2018, and even if a team is relegated in the first challenge season going into 2019, it will have a “soft landing” and be allowed to race in all WorldTour events. That means today’s top teams will have, according to Thursday’s announcement, “stability for the three seasons from 2017 to 2019.” Teams certainly won’t be happy about that clever wording, however. Teams quietly sense they’ve been sold out, and as one team manager posted on Twitter, “business interests and entrenchment of monopoly won out over athletes’ rights and team stability.”

Why cap at 16 teams?
Another major point is to cap the WorldTour-level teams at 16 by 2018. That’s down from the original idea of 20 teams initially floated a decade ago when the “ProTour wars” started with then-UCI president Hein Verbruggen. The number of 16 also reflects the economic reality that it’s more difficult to find sponsors to pony up at least $15 million per season to underwrite a title sponsorship of a major team. (Teams will argue the current structure undercuts their ability to engage long-term sponsors). With such teams as IAM Cycling and Tinkoff folding at the end of this season, and other teams barely hanging on, it could prove difficult to keep the WorldTour at its current level of 18 without eroding the quality and depth of the “super-league” concept, at least how the sport is being run now. Sixteen teams also gives race organizers plenty of room for wild-card invitations, opens up more space for new team structures to have entrée to the sport, and provides some wiggle room on reducing the size of the peloton for safety reasons.

What does the “challenge system” mean?
The details will be fleshed out about points allocations and rankings, but this is another major coup for ASO. It’s been one of their sticking points for years. In their view, permanent licenses block future investment in the sport from new sponsors (an idea that teams vigorously renounce), but that rationale is also a backhanded way of clipping the wings of stronger unity among teams. How it even got into the final agreement remains unclear, but for the WorldTour teams, the idea of relegation is nothing short of a disaster. It not only means it cannot guarantee its sponsors a place at the top races over the long-term, but it also sets up the nightmare scenario of having one bad season presenting a risk to a sponsorship deal. More than anything, teams want stability, and relegation/promotion is the antithesis of that. An argument can be made that a challenge system could pump a new dimension into the racing season. Much like in European soccer leagues, teams at the back-end of the standings always have something to fight for in order to remain in the top tier. The news must certainly be a delight to Gianni Savio, the veteran Italian manager whose teams are always near the top of the pro-continental standings. Many say the same concept cannot be fairly applied to an endurance sport prone to injuries and illnesses. Critics say look no further to the season-threatening crash involving Giant-Alpecin this winter during a training ride. A half dozen riders were sidelined, and it could have been even worse, yet the incident had nothing to do with performance. Could a team be relegated due to injuries and illnesses to a few key riders? The rules are still to be determined, but the prospect of delegation is maddening to team owners. Teams will be under the gun to race for points, putting riders under all kinds of pressure to perform, and potentially open the boogieman of doping yet again.

Why doesn’t the UCI stand up more?
It can’t. This latest round of negotiations is another reminder of just how little real power the UCI wields. Despite its role as an international governing body, the UCI has little leverage over large private interests such as ASO. Cycling’s organic roots that date back a century manifest themselves in odd ways. Every time the UCI has tried to create something new, ASO has simply threatened to walk away. It played the same tactic with the ProTour concept a decade ago. The only real card the UCI can play is that it could revoke athletes’ Olympic status if ASO did pull its properties, but that would punish athletes, not the backers of a breakaway league. The UCI has little recourse than to govern by consensus, and that means largely singing to the tune of ASO’s demands.

Why does ASO want to stay within the UCI anyway?
From ASO’s perspective, the UCI provides a lot of worthy services, especially with the implementation of rules, regulations, doping controls, and administration within the sport. ASO doesn’t want to walk away entirely, because it would have to assume many of those costly responsibilities if it created a breakaway league or tried to operate under a European calendar. ASO isn’t opposed to the UCI as an institution, but rather is opposed to what it views as over-reach and threat to its business model and profits.

What about riders?
In the short-term, they won’t be impacted. For better or worse, riders operate under a free-market system with limited regulation, and this agreement does nothing to change that (no salary caps, no increased minimum wage). There are no new guarantees for riders, but there are no limits, either. Top riders will continue to draw big-money contracts, so long as the sponsorship is there to support ever-growing salary demands. Lower-level riders and domestiques, however, are getting pinched as top stars take ever-larger chunks of team salaries. Most contracts are still only for one or two seasons for the majority of racers. Riders are starting to flex their collective muscles, however, and are pushing hard on such issues as rider safety and weather protocols. Some believe that the real game-changer could come some day if riders collectively threaten to act as a group. This agreement does little to alter the landscape from a riders’ perspective.

What changes will the fans see?
From the outside, almost none at all. There will be no disruption to the racing calendar, in fact, it will be expanded, which is good for anyone wanting to watch top-level pro racing. The behind-the-scenes tug-of-war between race organizers, teams, and the UCI of who controls the money in sport remains a simmering issue, but beyond a few headlines and intrigue for fans of “inside baseball,” the season’s major races will roll on.

So what’s the takeaway?
The UCI averts a disastrous split with ASO, and takes some satisfaction in expanding the WorldTour calendar. The latest round of negotiations staved off disaster, but also at a certain cost. The last thing the UCI wants is a war with ASO, but its negotiating position could be weakened in the future, and the UCI will see an erosion of its credibility among teams. For ASO, its monopoly-like hold on its racing properties remains unchallenged, so this is nothing short of a major coup. ASO gains a lot, including its cherished notion of promotion/relegation, and gives almost nothing away. The latest compromise further weakens the teams’ position, and riders remain largely at the whims of the marketplace. The ultimate takeaway? Business as usual, with ASO stronger than ever before.

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