UCI says men's pro cycling in good health; money problems for some teams and races suggest otherwise
Governing body highlights increases in team budgets and riders' salaries, but is it just papering over the cracks?
World cycling’s governing body, the UCI, has claimed that new figures released by auditors Ernst & Young show that men’s pro cycling is in rude health, but doubts have been expressed over whether the sums quoted reflect the true state of the sport. The UCI announcement coincides with news that doubt surrounds the future of the Tour of the Basque Country and Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian due to lack of funding.
According to Ernst & Young in its report on the economic situation of the professional peloton, the total budget for the 39 men’s pro teams in 2009 was €235 million, while in 2012 that figure has risen to €321 million for the 18 UCI ProTeams and 22 UCI Professional Continental Teams, an increase of 36.5 per cent.
However, as well as the impact of an additional team now compared to three years ago, Cervelo co-founder Gerard Vroomen and Jonathan Vaughters, CEO of Slipstream Sports and Directeur Sportif of Garmin-Barracuda, were among those to highlight that additional money coming into the sport resulted largely from the investment of private individuals rather than corporate sponsorship.
Writing on Twitter, Vroomen, whose own Cervelo TestTeam was disbanded at the end of the 2010 season with a large proportion of riders and staff going to Garmin, said: “Pro cycling "revenue" goes from 235M to 321M. A lot of that increase is from 4 individuals, not sponsors. Sustainable?”
While he didn’t name names, those four individuals are presumably Andy Rihs (BMC Racing), Flavio Becca (Leopard Trek), Igor Makarov (Katusha) and Gerry Ryan (GreenEdge).
Attracting and retaining sponsors remains a key challenge for teams involved in the sport against the background of economic turmoil and the continued succession of negative headlines due to high-profile doping cases, both highlighted by HTC Highroad owner Bob Stapleton as reasons behind his decision to close down the team at the end of the 2011 season.
Last Autumn also saw the Geox-TMC team collapse after withdrawal of sponsorship, while Euskaltel-Euskadi has also been reported to be facing an uncertain future with its current sponsorship coming to an end in 2012 and reports that the telecommunications company that backs it will not renew.
Problems in the Spanish Basque region, home to some of the sport’s most passionate fans who are a perennial presence on the Pyrenean climbs of the Tour de France, don’t end there.
Organisers of the Tour of the Basque Country and the Clasica Ciclista de San Sebastian, two of Spain’s four UCI World Calendar races, have said that unless they can find an additional €150,000 by next Monday 5 March, both races will have to be cancelled.
Quoted in The Guardian, Jaime Ugarte, chairman of Organizaciones Ciclistas Euskadi which runs both races said: "Right now, it's difficult to find a sponsor for even €1,000 euros.
"We can't face up to [paying] that kind of amount. It's not huge, but we haven't got it. Nobody here is paid a wage, we're all volunteers.
"There was an agreement which the Basque regional government - until this year the main race sponsor - cannot fulfil because of the economic situation. We're waiting for a solution, but right now, we've got nothing.
"The races' total budget is €1,000,050, but we're lacking the €150,000 for 40 per cent of the main prize money," he continued.
"Nobody earns a single peseta here, not even the men who put up the barriers at the starts and finishes.
"If a moment comes where you have to say 'we've enjoyed the experience, we've lived through it, and it's over', then that moment comes.
"But right now, in any case, I don't enjoy it, I spend too much time wracking my brains working out how the races can possibly continue," he concluded.
According to the English-language website of Basque broadcaster EITB, fans on Twitter have been leading calls to save the races, although time of course is very short.
Should August’s Clasica Ciclista de San Sebastian, a race whose past winners include Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong and Paolo Bettini, disappear from the calendar, that could benefit the Olympic legacy road race planned for London and Surrey, the first edition of which will be held in 2013.
When plans for that race, also to be held in August, were announced last month, UCI spokesman Enrico Carpani said: “for 2013, it would be really impossible to have a new race in the WorldTour calendar.” Presumably that situation could change quickly if a gap for a one-day race presented itself.
Meanwhile, with the UCI intent on globalising the sport – it organises the Tour of Beijing, and earlier this month announced plans for a second stage race in China, the Tour of Hanghzhou – it could be argued that few tears would be shed at its Aigle headquarters for the disappearance of a week-long European race such as the Tour of the Basque Country from the calendar.
The €150,000 being sought in the Basque region is not much more than half of the average salary of a professional cyclist with a UCI ProTeam, which stands at €264,000, according to Ernst & Young.
That figure represents a near-40 per cent increase on the €190,000 recorded in 2009, but again it presents a somewhat misleading picture, most obviously because it will be skewed by the seven figure salaries commanded by the sport’s biggest stars such as Mark Cavendish and Philippe Gilbert.
Riders of that stature also command lucrative commercial endorsements that are entirely separate to their earnings from their teams, and their success on the road means that their team mates also benefit from a share of prize money.
Moreover, while big-budget teams such as BMC Racing and Team Sky will have big wage bills, the same is not true of other outfits on more limited budgets, with French teams among those to have lamented their inability to compete on budget.
UCI rules stipulate a minimum annual salary for a ProTeam rider of €30,000, or €24,000 for a first-year professional, the latter figure being less than a tenth of the €264,000 cited by Ernst & Young; in all likeliehood, that’s a salary that most riders in the peloton can only dream of earning.
Commenting on the Ernst & Young report, UCI President Pat McQuaid seemed unfazed about the struggles some teams and races are facing over attracting and keeping sponsors
“It is very pleasing to see that the men`s professional cycling is prospering in these difficult times," he said. "Most of the cyclists within the professional peloton can live very well, or at least comfortably, on their salaries thanks to the support of sponsors who invest in this sport. These sponsors are attracted by the extremely good visibility cycling provides them throughout the year.”