Eleven WorldTour teams, Sky among them, have come together to create Velon, a commercial joint venture that aims to provide greater stability to professional cycling, reduce reliance on sponsorship, and overhauling the calendar to tell "a season long story." It also aims to build a long-term fan base for teams, who it says will get closer to the action including through telemetryand the use of cameras showing racing from the riders' viewpoint - bringing cycling closer to sports such as Formula 1, which appear to be part of the inspiration.
The venture has already been involved in the UCI-approved trial of on-bike cameras at several major races this year, one of the initiatives aimed at increasing teams’ non-sponsorship revenue, and says it will work with the governing body on calendar reform.
Velon says it “aims to make the sport more accessible to all, to bring technology to the races and to promote stable, credible teams that fans can support long-term.”
Underpinning that is the desire to make teams less vulnerable to decisions of sponsors to withdraw their support, which has led to founder members such as Belkin Pro Cycling having to find new backing for 2015.
The joint venture’s roots lie in the proposed World Series Cycling initiative that was being explored a couple of years ago, with a number of top-flight teams continuing to meet in France to continue their discussions once that project floundered.
While that proposal was initially widely viewed as a type of ‘breakaway league,’ there’s no suggestion at the moment that the teams comprising Velon will seek to sever ties with the UCI and set up their own competition.
However, in the world of professional cycling where the governing body, the teams and race organisers including ASO and RCS Sport all have different and at times conflicting interests, the creation of Velon could see some clashes particularly over the thorny issue of sharing TV revenues.
Added to that is the fact that around a third of the UCI WorldTour teams are missing – the French outfits AG2R-La Mondiale, Europcar and FDJ.fr, plus three big names in the shape of Astana, Katusha and Movistar.
Velon says it “is open to working with other teams that share their objectives and values, either to join Velon or partner with the company on new business,” but for now its membership comprises 11 WorldTour outfits.
Besides Sky and Belkin, the founder members are BMC, Garmin-Sharp, Lampre-Merida, Lotto-Belisol, Omega Pharma-Quick-Step, Orica-GreenEDGE, Giant-Shimano, Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo and Trek Factory Racing.
The absence of the French teams may be explained in part by them wishing to avoid creating a rift with ASO – as the biggest event in the sport, the Tour de France is crucial for all teams and their sponsors, but more so for those in the race’s home country.
The launch of Velon comes at a time when there are already tensions between major race organisers and the UCI over its planned reform of the calendar, due to be fully implemented from 2017.
The changes include no overlap between races top-tier teams compete in, meaning a reduction in squad numbers, and earlier this month UCI president Brian Cookson raised the possibility of the three Grand Tours being reduced to two weeks’ duration from the current three.
Such a move would be strongly resisted by the organisers of those races, ASO, RCS Sport and Unipublic, with Vuelta director Javier Guillem having said earlier this year that the business, owned by ASO, would fight hard to keep the Spanish race at three weeks.
It’s not clear from Velon’s press release announcing the joint venture how any additional revenue generated by the teams might be split.
Looking at sports such as Premier League and Formula 1 – where Marussia and Caterham both entered administration in recent weeks – there is clearly a gulf in earning power, even from pooled arrangements, between bigger teams and smaller ones within the same competition. Many fans of both sports would argue however that the latter are vital to the competition.
Velon’s CEO, former UEFA and Nike executive Graham Bartlett, acknowledges that the way professional cycling teams are currently funded creates its own issues. He said: “The existing, sponsor only, business model is fragile for all teams.
“We need to change this to a more rounded one with fans at the heart of it, investing in new technological initiatives to generate greater excitement from the races and bring the sport closer to its fans.
“The company will look to use the combined commitment of the teams to create new revenues.
“This combined commitment can help to deliver more of what the fans want to see from the sport – exciting races brought to life with great technology.
“What we’re trying to build will hopefully create a virtuous circle where it’s easier for fans to engage with the teams and riders and gives the teams even greater incentives to maintain credibility.”
Velon says the “core ideas and objectives” of the teams that comprise its members, each of which has a seat on its board, are:
- More exciting sport: looking for a race calendar that tells a season long story, and is better understood by a growing international fan base, with more entertaining racing for the fans.
- New technology: bring the race alive from the rider’s perspective, showing the fans what it’s like from the saddle.
- Underpinned by sustainable, credible teams the fans can follow now and long into the future. Creating a new, better economic future for the sport, through collective action and increased co-operation between the teams and other stakeholders.
Jonathan Vaughters, CEO of Slipstream Sports which manages Garmin-Sharp, racing as Cannondale-Garmin from next year, has been one of the prime movers in the campaign by a number of leading teams to change the sport.
He said: “This group of teams have been talking for some time about how to better shape the future of the sport by collaborating with all other stakeholders.
“Now, we’ve formally come together to help develop ways for professional cycling to grow, to create long term stability for teams and credible and comprehensive racing.
“We’ve already made a difference, giving fans better insights and exciting views from inside the race. We want to bring the sport where it belongs in the hearts and minds of the fans.”
Sir Dave Brailsford, team principal at Sky, added: “Collaboration is the cornerstone to positive change and as such this is very exciting for professional cycling and a big step towards the sport reaching its full potential.
“The teams involved in creating Velon have come together with a powerful shared vision to optimise the sport and develop new ways for professional cycling to grow.
“If the teams unite and work collectively with other key stakeholders to make cycling better to watch, easier to understand and get guaranteed commercial support it’s to everyone’s benefit and will encourage even more fans to follow the sport we love.”
Former world champion Mark Cavendish of Omega Pharma-Quick Step believes that the venture will make cycling more accessible to new fans.
“It will be important to make our sport even better, more understandable, and more marketable for people outside the cycling world,” he said.
“I believe that this kind of project is important to enlarge our fan base and to increase the awareness of our sport internationally, using, for example, technology as we show in the recent past with on board bike cameras.”
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