July 21, 2010 2 Comments
I don’t often say this about the Murdoch-owned media behemoth that is Sky, but I have been quite impressed by their investment and involvement in cycling in the UK. Nonetheless, they face two enormous challenges if they want to transform British attitudes towards cycling: nurture and develop a British Tour de France winner, and force the sport into the mainstream media consciousness.
Of course, the tip of the Sky iceberg – and the aspect that receives the most media attention – is the pro racing Team Sky. Led by David Brailsford, the mastermind behind British cycling’s unprecedented success at the Beijing Olympics, the team aims to achieve the following three-point plan:
- Create the first British winner of the Tour de France within five years
- Inspire people of all ages and abilities to get on their bikes, through the team’s positive profile, attitude and success
- Add further support to competitive cycling in Great Britain
In total, Sky is providing £30m in sponsorship for the team – as well as being a magnet to attract other big name backers such as Marks & Spencer, Jaguar, Gatorade and Oakley – and will remain as the title sponsor until (at least) the end of 2013, a four-year commitment. It is no small investment.
Getting people cycling
Putting aside the primary sporting aim, these are wide-ranging and lofty ambitions, particularly given the less than friendly nature of British roads – and road users – when it comes to cycling. (See Gaz’s blog here and here for two examples of the kind of rough ride cyclists get in this country.)
And they do appear to be putting their money where their mouth is, working closely with British Cycling (website here) to encourage both competitive and public participation in cycling. This includes a series of 11 high-profile Skyrides, in city locations which close their streets to traffic to allow cyclists to ride in a safe and controlled environment, and a further 400 organised local events across the UK. (For details of the various Skyrides, go here.)
Last weekend’s Skyride in Ealing, West London, attracted 13,000 riders. Impressive.
Where will we find a British Tour de France winner?
Team Sky themselves are currently preoccupied on a three-week jaunt around the French countryside, taking in the odd hill or two. You may have heard about it.
It is here that the task in hand starts to become tricky. Sky brought in Bradley Wiggins, fourth at the 2009 Tour, as their marquee signing, but the 30-year old has struggled on this year’s more gruelling and mountainous route, and has slipped out of the top 20. The team has enjoyed some notable successes: Geraint Thomas was at one stage second in the overall classification and wore the white jersey as the best young rider, Edvald Boasson Hagen had two top-three finishes on consecutive days, both Steve Cummings and Juan Antonio Flecha featured prominently in ultimately unsuccessful breaks, and Thomas Lofkvist is also in the top 20 overall. For a first year squad this is a decent if unspectacular return, and in reality – Wiggins’ poor form aside – is probably not far short of Brailsford’s expectations.
The problem is more about managing the expectations of a British public who are casually interested – at best – and relatively unknowledgable about the vagaries of road racing. To the man in the street, Sky is the company that turned the Premier League into (supposedly) the best football league in the world, and Britain is the country that dominated the track cycling events at the Olympics. So why shouldn’t Team Sky just waltz in and lay waste to a field sponsored by an eclectic mix of companies which include an Italian wardrobe manufacturer (the Servetto of Footon-Servetto), producers of pre-coated steel (Lampre) and laminate flooring (Quick Step), and a coalition of state-owned Kazakh companies (Astana, which is the name of the capital of Kazakhstan)?
The reality is that you do not just recruit a top rider and expect them to win the Tour. Only eight men have won the Tour in the past 19 years. And no Briton has ever finished higher than fourth. Winning a Tour takes a lot of time, and no small amount of good fortune. Top riders such as Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck have extremely strong teams around them, any of whom could generally be stars in lesser teams.
And the other harsh truth is that, at the moment, there is no obvious potential British Tour winner. While Wiggins is world-class in the time trial discipline, on this year’s more numerous big climbs he has struggled to keep up with the leaders and found a consistent level a notch or two below that elite level of performance. There is no guarantee – indeed there has to be a large amount of doubt – that he will ever be good enough to hang onto the very best climbers. And for all Thomas’s potential – he is still only 24, positively callow for a cyclist – and strong results on the early flatter stages, he suffers from vertigo once the road starts pointing upwards.
We are currently a long way from finding that elusive British Tour winner, but that may actually be the least of Sky’s problems.
Educating the mainstream media to educate the public
Media coverage of the Tour falls into one of two camps.
Among UK newspapers, there is a fairly clear split between the broadsheets, which provide good coverage, and the tabloids, which provide little or no coverage, even in a year where Britain can boast a new, high-profile team with a genuine front-runner, and Mark Cavendish, winner of an incredible six stages in 2009.
TV coverage is provided by ITV4 and Eurosport, with both stations providing live daily broadcasts. ITV’s line-up is particularly impressive, with Gary Imlach, a highly experienced front man, flanked by former stage winner and yellow jersey Chris Boardman, and ably supported this year by Matt Rendell, Ned Boulting and Jill Douglas. However, this level of comprehensive coverage is enjoyed by only a small minority, with BARB ratings numbers showing that ITV averaged around 400,000 viewers per day for their hourly evening highlights during the Tour’s first week, with Eurosport’s typical audience being about a quarter of that. That’s just half a million people watching on a daily basis, or about one-fortieth the number of people watching England’s recent World Cup matches.
Simply put, the Tour de France is not mainstream.
On those rare occasions when, say, the BBC has devoted more than ten seconds to a daily update from the Tour, it has been to focus on one of the more sensationalist stories from the race: Mark Renshaw‘s head-butting of Julian Dean on stage 11, say, or noting that stage 13 winner Alexandre Vinokourov was previously thrown out of the Tour for blood doping. Remember, folks, these cyclists are all thugs who spend their lives injecting themselves with all manner of illicit substances.
Yes, I’m exaggerating. But actually not by very much.
This is the lot of road race cyclists in the eyes of much of the media: ignored for the most part, and occasionally the subject of snide headlines and scandals. Cavendish scraped into the shortlist of ten for BBC Sports Personality of the Year last year, but despite winning six stages at the Tour and riding roughshod over the world’s best sprinters all year, he barely merited a 10-second mention on the night and stood about as much chance of winning the main award as I do of beating Usain Bolt over 100 metres.
It doesn’t help that stage races are incredibly complex beasts which do not lend themselves to 30-second soundbites and a straightforward league table. How can Cavendish win six out of 21 stages and yet still finish 131st overall? Why don’t all the leaders try to win every stage? How can you win the race without actually winning a stage?
But that lack of audience understanding is never going to change while our biggest broadcaster cannot be bothered to take the Tour seriously just because it doesn’t enjoy any broadcast rights. Perhaps the best route forward is for Sky to pick up the broadcast rights themselves, and start throwing their weight behind the coverage of the sport to make it more accessible to new followers (as they have done for many other sports), as well as the promotion of it.
Before I finish, let me just state that I am not some raging, evangelical two-wheeled nutcase. Indeed, I neither own nor ride a bike. I just happen to love this sport. It pains me to see the way so many of our major media outlets choose to cover it (or just ignore it outright), and the influence that has on the general public’s (lack of) understanding of one of sport’s greatest spectacles. We deserve better. And so do the cyclists themselves.