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Key Takeaways:

  • How Will a Climb-Heavy Course Affect the 2023 Tour?
  • Continuing Evidence of the Boom in Women’s Sports
  • Colbrelli – Better Safe Than Sorry
  • Sportswashing as “Soft” Political Power
  • British Cycling’s Continuing Woes
  • Qatar’s Orwellian Plans for the World Cup

Last week in Paris, to much fanfare and with many of the sport’s top stars in attendance, ASO unveiled a climb-heavy route for the 2023 Tour. Race director Christian Prudhomme, unlike his predecessor Jean-Marie Leblanc and Giro director Mauro Vegni, has seemingly eschewed the idea of a true tour of the host country, instead cutting out the supposedly “boring stages” (time trials and transition/sprint stages) and concentrating primarily on what he considers to be the prime racing terrain – France’s main mountain ranges. Most pundits believe that the decision to make the 2023 edition so climb-heavy and geographically condensed will produce action-packed racing that favors climbers and penalizes those who prefer to sit and wait for the time trials. However, without the reference point of an early time trial for contenders to see where everyone stands, the racing has the possibility of becoming stale, as team leaders act to conserve their positions. The high-value nature of a top 10 TdF finish leaves little room for aggressive risks to claw back time and/or build up a buffer to hold off competition for a late time trial. But before critiquing Prudhomme's decisions, the predictable formula of recent Tours for riders to sit tight and defend rather than risking attacks can also lead to surprise endings, as in 2020 when Jumbo-Visma and Roglič defended well only to lose it all to Pogačar in the stage 20 TT. No matter how interesting or innovatively ASO designs the route, it's the riders who make the race.

Perhaps the biggest news coming out of Paris was the revelation that the future of star sprinter Mark Cavendish is apparently still up in the air. It had been widely assumed that the B&B Hotels Team was going to announce the acquisition of Cavendish – and his likely return to the Tour to challenge Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of total wins – during the festivities in a widely-hyped press conference. However, the week came and went without any word about the British rider’s future. More concerning is that just before the team canceled its presentation, it was also revealed that it was missing from the UCI’s list of teams who have applied for ProTeam status for next year. Omission from the UCI’s preliminary list is sometimes caused by simple administrative delays; however, the team has also been linked to potential big-name sponsors Amazon France, Carrefour, and Cdiscount in recent weeks, and nothing has been announced in that regard either. This means that time is running out for the team to secure riders and staff before pre-season training camps kick off next month, and Mark Cavendish may join Nairo Quintana in late-season limbo – aging stars who have recently delivered strong results but who seem to be having significant trouble finding teams for 2023.

Last week as reported by multiple news outlets, Angel City FC principal investor Alexis Ohanian stated that the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is on the cusp of a major broadcast deal, well above its current rights valuation. According to Ohanian – and at least backed up by the U.S. terrestrial distribution metrics from CBS – the NWSL competed favorably with the bigger men’s MLS even with less favorable time slots. For example, the top men’s match last season had 593,000 viewers in a Saturday 3PM Eastern time slot, while the top women’s match was 525,000 but at a less favorable noon start (metrics from Saturday’s NWSL championship match were not yet available).  The highly competitive NWSL media metrics closely match those observed for cycling’s coveted Spring Classics, in which the women’s Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix are pulling similar views, on standalone dates as compared to the established men’s races on successive weekends.

Similarly, FIFA recently turned back several bids for the 2023 Women's World Cup broadcast rights, citing the 2019 tournament’s strong performance across all markets. The sport currently has sky-high potential, particularly after this past summer’s record-setting women’s UEFA Cup finale. While follow-up bids have not been publicized as yet, the $100 million dollars spent by advertisers in the U.S. markets in 2019, for example, are expected to be much higher for the ‘23 edition. The continued growth of women’s soccer is leading the way for women’s sports in general, most of which have been rapidly growing in participation, investment, fan popularity, and media valuation. Soccer’s successes indicate a bright future for women’s cycling, which begs the question of whether or not the sport is undervalued even with the Women’s WorldTour still in a development model. There are sustainability models, emerging markets, cross platform partnerships and formats which could help the sport accelerate its trajectory, especially given the strong showing of the 2021 Tour de France Femmes in mid-season, and many opportunities ahead to diversify the calendar’s competitive and economic narrative.

An interesting recent piece on the Danish Play the Game website delves into the increasingly cited phenomenon of sportswashing, and concludes that there is much more there than meets the eye, and that we need to develop a clearer understanding of the political and economic strategies at play. There is really no broad agreement as to what is or what isn’t sportswashing, and how it should be defined. And although in most media accounts the term implies a very negative connotation, democratic regimes tend to utilize or exploit sports just as much as authoritarian ones.  Author Stanis Elsborg suggests that we might better understand and analyze sportswashing by drawing on the seminal 1990s academic work that defined the concepts of “soft power” – first discussed by political scientist Joseph Nye in the venerable American publication Foreign Policy. Nye postulated that (contrary to Chairman Mao) power doesn’t just come out of the barrel of a gun but can also result from “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcome one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment.” The ability to create this soft power in the information age may ultimately be more about who is the best storyteller. Those who have a better story gain support and influence, while war and coercion will meet resistance. Elsborg uses this framework to discuss the current investment strategies of the Gulf States, and in particular, Saudi Arabia saying “sport is politics and part of well-orchestrated national strategies.”

British Cycling made headlines throughout October but mostly of a negative variety; first with a head-scratching headliner sponsorship agreement with Shell Oil, and now, with the resignation of CEO Brian Facer. Rumors of simmering discontent inside the management structure may now have been confirmed by this move, in light of criticisms over policy changes, organizational disconnects and public relations gaffes that put it at odds with its constituent membership. But no one should overlook the significance of the Shell deal, which doesn’t cover the full budget of the highly successful national governing body despite primary naming rights – and which alienated a significant portion of its license holders. Considering the high visibility of that deal, against the perspective of cycling trying to embrace a greener image, it may be that the arrangement had deleterious impacts on other partnerships British Cycling may have had in the pipeline.

Sonny Colbrelli officially announced his retirement from pro cycling over the weekend. After a close brush with mortality following Stage 1 of the Volta a Catalunya earlier this year, he underwent a battery of testing, ultimately resulting in the placement of an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD), should a repeat event occur. The potentially life-saving amulet turned out to be a hard stop to his competitive career, since Italian law prohibits elite athlete participation with such a device (although the UCI has no policy on this). Colbrelli considered racing under a Swiss license or perhaps having the device removed, but ultimately (and wisely) chose his life and family above a risky and perhaps foolhardy return to racing. He also cited the unique nature of cycling as a sport, played over miles of open roads rather than in a comfortable stadium; he clearly recognized his situation as being different from fellow arrest survivor Christian Eriksen, who returned to the professional soccer pitch after receiving an ICD. In an article earlier this year on VeloNews, we highlighted these differences as well as the potential danger to other riders should he collapse within a charging peloton.

On the eve of Qatar’s World Cup, the nation’s authorities have instituted a vast array of media, personal, and now technological restrictions on visitors that are almost Orwellian. First, the Islamic nation has set strict guidelines for clothing, alcohol consumption, and personal relations – no unmarried male/female contact in public, and no LGBTQ expression will be permitted without risking fines and confinement. But the country will also obligate visitors to download two government-sponsored apps in order to use a smartphone on the country’s networks. Both apps have been flagged as spyware by leading security experts, as they have the capability to send data from and rewrite data on the users’ devices. While it is unclear if Qatar’s authorities would bother checking three million visitor smartphones during the event, the capability to target specific individuals and visitors inside an authoritarian nation is unnerving to say the least. For example, Rwanda, which will host the 2025 UCI road world championships, has employed invasive smartphone surveillance tools on its economic and political rivals, citizens, and journalists. All of this underscores the uneasy alliances which sports like soccer and pro cycling negotiate when staging global events in controversial nations.

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Steve Maxwell / Joe Harris / Spencer Martin

The Outer Line

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