HTC Highroad faces meltdown as cycling's doping problems deter sponsors
Cycling's most successful team set to disappear as Armstrong and Contador affairs dent sport's image
Bob Stapleton, owner of HTC-Highroad, has said that the team will cease to exist at the end of this season unless a new title sponsor can be found by the end of July, just a week after the Tour de France finishes. HTC appears unlikely to renew its sponsorship for 2012, and the American entrepreneur attributes the difficulty of finding a replacement to the impact on cycling’s image of doping investigations, notably those involving Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong.
To borrow a word from American sports parlance, HTC-Highroad in its various guises has been cycling’s ‘winningest’ team in recent years, across both its men’s and women’s squads. The team has racked up 462 wins since 2008, those victories spread throughout more than half the 36 men and women who make up its rosters, which have an emphasis on young talent.
That success, and the media exposure guaranteed by the incorporation of the sponsor’s name into that of the team itself, should guarantee a queue of potential sponsors. The fact that no such queue exists for such a high-profile team should sound alarm bells throughout the sport.
"If we haven't secured a sponsor by the end of the Tour de France, we will have to sit down and start considering how to wind down operations," Stapleton admitted to AFP. "The world's best team, a leader in the sport for the past several years, needs a title partner."
Stapleton, who built his wealth in telecoms, confesses that he has spent "many sleepless nights" as a result of the failure so far to persuade HTC to renew or find an alternative backer.
"Cycling is unique in that you have valuable naming rights,” he points out. “Sponsors can be on Manchester United's jersey for a lot of money, but the team is still going to be called Manchester United.
"It's literally hundreds of thousands of repetitions of your brand name on the internet, on television, and in global media.
"Our total return is unmatched in cycling, and I think in sports. We're going to generate a 20 plus times return for a title partner. The gold standard is more like 10.
"We have a lot to offer. But we have to shout that story out over the controversy that seems to surround the sport."
While not one Highroad cyclist has been drawn into a doping scandal since Stapleton took over the former T-Mobile in late 2007 after that outfit was hit by a series of drugs scandals, he says that the sport’s image makes it difficult to attract sponsors able to commit €10 million a year for three years.
"The consistent feedback we get is that they (sponsors) love cycling and the fundamentals, but they're concerned about the sport, and the non-stop drama around misconduct and doping," he explained.
"Be it (the investigations into) Alberto Contador, be it Lance Armstrong, be it Riccardo Ricco, whatever. And in a tough economy, with multiple sponsorship choices to make, people will see cycling as a challenging environment.
"What we need somebody to do is look past that at the great fundamentals and this kind of leadership position this team offers.
"We want to come through for the team,” continued Stapleton. “It's been such an unqualified athletic success but it's important for me that we get it on a stable, long-term economic footing."
It already looks certain that Mark Cavendish will be departing for Team Sky at the end of the year – only UCI rules barring riders or teams from commenting on transfer speculation before 1 August appears to have prevented confirmation of that – and it’s likely that other riders will already be sounding out potential employers.
Stapleton, who has said that riders and team staff will be free to look elsewhere for work should no sponsor be secured by the end of July, admitted, "Cavendish is compelling, but what title sponsors would much rather have is a stable of performing athletes who are constantly reinforcing your core values.
"Our proposal is: we're gonna always be competitive, represent your brand, and for any given country or race we're going to have a compelling athlete who can perform.
"We crave that longer term commitment. The Tour (de France) provides that narrow window of opportunity for us to get something done," he concluded.