To date, we have shied away from making any comments on the tragic story of the Moriah Wilson murder in Texas last May. The unfortunate story – involving one of the country’s top and most popular female gravel racers, a former boyfriend who is (was) also a top cyclist, and a supposed “love triangle” – was perfect fodder for the tabloid press. However, the story also got significant coverage on CNN and other mainstream news platforms, bringing widespread and unwelcome attention to a fast-growing and increasingly popular sector of the sport. After Kaitlin Armstrong, the alleged perpetrator of the crime, was tracked down and charged with murder after fleeing to Costa Rica, it appeared that officials had a pretty open-and-shut case.
In an overly melodramatic and excruciatingly long two-hour special that recently aired on NBC’s Dateline show, the defense seemed to lay out its plan for the case – arguing against many of the apparently damning assertions that have appeared in the press to date and claiming that government actors have made inflammatory comments and contributed to a “carnival-like media storm.” Other “true crime” types of television specials are apparently also in the works. And cycling insiders suggest that other people and facts may emerge as the trial unfolds – which may not reflect very well on the sport. The cycling community should brace itself for a long and sordid public saga as the case winds its way through a public trial, perhaps starting as soon as mid-October.
The World Road Racing Championships officially kicked off this past weekend in Wollongong, Australia, with 25-year-old Norwegian Tobias Foss taking a surprise win in the men’s individual time trial, and Ellen van Dijk taking her third career win in the women’s. The victory of the little-known Foss – over superstars like recent Vuelta winner Remco Evenepoel – and a subpar performance from the usually dominant Annemiek van Vleuten indicate the toll that simply getting to these far-flung events has taken on some of the sport’s major stars. The road racing events this coming weekend could also produce some surprise winners, though most riders will have had more time to acclimate by then.
Despite the world championships currently in progress, most of the attention in the pro cycling world the last few days has been on the lower-level races back in Europe, like Grand Prix de Wallonie, Giro di Toscana, Coppa Sabatini, and Primus Classic. Normally, these races would attract a hit-or-miss field and fail to generate much general interest. However, as the hotly contested UCI points battle starts to wind down, relegation-threatened teams are sending their top-tier talents to provincial races like these, to collect on their relatively prodigious UCI points offerings. In some ways, having their place in the spotlight for a few days is a positive development for these smaller, oft-forgotten races, but the poor quality and lack of safety of certain courses can be jarring to watch. For example, inside the final 10 km of the Giro di Toscana last week, the leaders were forced to navigate a road with a significant amount of normal traffic headed the opposite way on what appeared to be a semi-open road. Outside of the extreme danger posed by this situation (see: Marco Pantani’s near-fatal accident on the semi-open course at the 1995 edition of Milano–Torino), the sight of some of the world’s top riders competing for road space with routine automobile and pedestrian traffic makes it difficult for the sport to project a professional image.
The hotly contested and increasingly contentious relegation battle was thrown yet another curveball this past weekend when the Memorial Marco Pantani, offering 125 UCI points for the winner, was canceled at the last minute due to extreme storms in the Emilia-Romagna region. While it was good to see the extreme weather protocol effectively enacted, the cancelation raised further questions about the fairness of cycling’s relegation system. Relegation-threatened teams like EF and Cofidis sent particularly strong squads, only to be forced to eat the massive opportunity cost of having those high-value riders stranded at a canceled event and hence unable to score points on a critical weekend. Assuming the UCI’s controversial promotion/relegation system does go ahead as planned, it will be fascinating to see if the teams that are finally and actually relegated will call attention to the inherent unfairness caused by recent cancellations. And it is looking increasingly likely that some may to legally challenge the process. Israel Premier Tech’s Sylvan Adams has already said he will do so if his team is relegated (as looks almost unavoidable now).
In a minor flap over the weekend, it was revealed that the French cycling federation (FFC) forked over the cash to buy Julian Alaphilippe and his colleagues business class tickets for their long flight to the world championships in Australia, while sticking the women’s team back in the economy section. When this embarrassing information became public, the federation’s spokesperson said it was basically because the men had a better team than the women. “Why did we do it? Because the men are going to defend their title this year.” It can’t have been a motivating comment for the country’s women’s team, especially with Audrey Cordon-Ragot withdrawing at the last minute due to a health crisis, disrupting the country’s efforts in both the women’s time trial and road races. But other than FFC’s public black eye, the bright spot in this unnecessary display of inequity was that the cycling press, observers, and fans were united in their disdain for what should have been better rider support and logistics planning by one of cycling’s world powers. (In other travel news, U.S. cyclist Lawson Craddock missed the Worlds when his Australian travel visa was delayed – for unknown reasons – and reached him only after the last available flight had already departed.)
The sport of golf has seen further developments in the LIV vs. PGA battle for the commitment of players, and the hearts and minds of sports fans. LIV recently staged an immersive, interactive experience in Boston – including live music between holes, exclusive fan zones (LIV Commissioner Greg Norman hucked beers to fans from his perch at the 18th hole), and an exciting playoff hole finale with Dustin Johnson nailing an eagle putt for the win. But other than ticket holders who witnessed this feat on site, who was watching? An estimated 166,000 viewers tuned in on YouTube for the live stream finale according to LIV, with more than 700,000 having watched the replay. These modest showings may not tell the whole story however. LIV is piloting a massive departure from the sport’s traditional format – spending big dollars to strategically hoard a portfolio of talent and event locales that it can quickly pivot into a TV deal.
Norman confirmed this strategy in comments this past week, and several major broadcasters are in the running. Even more intriguing, LIV has started signing top collegiate players before they get caught up in the PGA tour qualifying machine – thus bypassing years of qualifying and bringing exciting and fresh talent straight into top tournament play. (On a side note, this “youth movement” mirrors the trend that is reshaping pro cycling.) The PGA – which has multiple TV deals cut across its different tournament owners – may be in unfamiliar territory by 2023 or 2024, when LIV may potentially sap enough talent to dilute viewership of the PGA’s “majors'' and sell broadcasters the product golf fans demand – the biggest stars, the biggest spectacle, and a fresh presentation that puts all eyes on the upstart’s calendar.
Tennis may be entering a new phase in the sport’s development as well. Much like cycling and golf, it is fractured by multiple, disconnected “Tours'' and Grand Slam events which demand absolute fealty from the players, and which are highly dependent on ticket sales for revenue. Tennis, like pro cycling, lags behind other global sports in that its media rights are poorly monetized when compared to sponsorship revenues. Players are locked in a dangerous spiral of seeking personal sponsorships such that the top end of the sport supports approximately 100 players, and there is no guaranteed income or protection in place in the event of injuries or other competitive disruptions. That handful of top players holds the key to the sport’s future; top pro Novak Djokovic has been unionizing a new coalition under the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) umbrella with an agenda that would (1) organize the players into a single negotiating body, and (2) force tennis’ stakeholders to reorganize the sport into a uniform set of tournaments and events. Ultimately, this would create a platform for negotiating bigger media rights that could have a larger, healthier body of players, and finally force tennis’ multiple organization bureaucracies to right-size.
Yet tennis, for all its promise, is instead gravitating to a model in which the top players like Naomi Osaka create their own marketing agencies and maximize personal earning power – thus consolidating, not expanding the sport’s revenue sources –and tournament owners continue to drive down the sport’s overall value by refusing to cooperate in a joint media model. In a sense, tennis is also waiting for a LIV-like disruptor, and the majority of its pros (although not the top 5% content to swim in the sponsorship earnings) seem ready to jump ship in unison. Compared to golf and tennis, cycling is perhaps in-between the two at present, especially with regard to its failures to fully monetize its media rights potential. But with cycling’s riders over-committed and over-used to chase points in what may be a race for relegation survival, athlete organization and self-determination – like LIV’s first-movers and Djokovic’s PTPA – may again be the key ingredient for change if a disruptor emerges to spark the process.
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Steve Maxwell / Joe Harris / Spencer Martin
The Outer Line
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