Rouleur Classic

Sponsorship and professional cycling

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Photographs: Timothy John

Sponsorship is the lifeblood of a professional cycling team. But what’s in it for the sponsor?
The cost of running a ProTeam is high – the most successful teams run on an annual budget of €20m and more – and the rewards comparatively meagre.
Even for team owners like the vastly wealthy Oleg Tinkov, however, the contribution of sponsors is not insignificant, and makes a substantial reduction to running costs.

From a total staff of nearly 80 people, Tinkoff-Saxo’s personnel at the Giro d’Italia extends to nine riders, six masseurs, four mechanics, three sports directors, two chefs, one doctor, one therapist and a visiting coach for the time-trials. Professional cycling is many things, but it ain’t cheap.
Sponsorship places an onus on both the team and the backer to “activate” – in short, to ensure that the sponsorship does everything possible to satisfy the commercial ambitions of the companies signing the cheques.
To no small extent, it is in this unromantic area – far removed from the glory and suffering of the peloton – that the future of the sport depends, despite the ambitions of the Velon group to develop alternative revenue sources.
It is a subject on which at least two senior figures at Tinkoff-Saxo believe the sport must improve exponentially if it is to attract long-term support from commercial giants like Coca-Cola. And it is an area that at least one of the WorldTour’s more established sponsors is pursuing with renewed vigour.

Pro life
Saxo Bank is in its eighth year of ProTeam sponsorship. Saxo’s support, based on the friendship of Bjarne Riis and Lars Seier Christensen, one of the Danish bank’s two founding partners, has survived Riis’ sale of the team to Oleg Tinkov and his subsequent departure.
Its continued backing is founded on the passion for cycling of Seier Christensen and senior executive Matteo Cassina, a former elite rower and owner of the high-end Italian bike brand Passoni.

Their Ride Like a Pro programme is Saxo’s ambitious attempt to activate its sponsorship; inspired, after past failures, by a philosophy of “if we’re going to do this, we might as well do it properly”. Jesper Riis, son of the team’s former owner, administers most aspects of the programme on a day-to-day basis.
Thirty riders have been selected for the programme in London from 1,000 qualified applications, and there are 60 more participants in Denmark. It includes coaching, weekly rides often attended by visiting Tinkoff-Saxo riders, and opportunities to ride the courses of the stage 14 time-trial at the Giro and the opening stage of the Vuelta, hours before the professionals.
The application component is critical, ensuring that the participants have a passion for the sport and value the opportunity. They are not bored executives as likely to accept an invitation to a post-Tour party for the chance to visit Paris as to meet the riders. Their passion makes them ambassadors for the project and – ultimately, Saxo hopes – for the bank.

Team thinking
Ricardo Scheidecker and Gabriele Uboldi, in separate interviews, salute the Ride Like A Pro programme as an example of the standard to which things must be done if cycling is to compete with other sports for corporate backers. They are, respectively, Technical Director and Sponsorship Manager for Tinkoff-Saxo.
Scheidecker says that a cycling team is obliged to invest in its sporting performance – fail to understand that modern cycling is a science and hire accordingly, and you are “flipping a coin” he argues, quoting colleague Bobby Julich. But he believes that the same insight is often lacking in serving the sponsor.

“Why don’t big companies like Coca-Cola invest in cycling? Our product has to be sold and should be sold, and we’re not able to do that. The bar has to get higher. We have to be more professional.”
Uboldi has joined the sport from a position as chief operating officer with an America’s Cup team and readily admits that he does not follow cycling with the passion of a fan. He shares Scheidecker’s views on the importance of professionalism throughout the team, and is specific in how this might be achieved.
“A lot of the team-members in each team are ex-riders – sports directors, for sure, and I think that this is correct because they have experience.” In other areas, however, Uboldi believes that the recruitment of ex-riders might not be as appropriate.
“We have a lot of ex-riders in marketing, communication, logistics, hospitality. I think that in a normal company, they hire the best worker in their position. When we need a communication manager, we have to find someone who has studied for that, who is experienced in that work, not always ex-riders.”

A winning formula
“For us, from a sponsorship point of view, the formula works.”
Cassina identifies three areas in which the bank’s sponsorship of Riis Cycling, latterly Tinkoff-Saxo, has paid dividends: boosting brand awareness, inspiring employees, and associating the bank with cycling’s values of teamwork, competition and physical fitness.

Ten years ago, he says, Saxo was a small Danish bank, online and with no offices, and in need of recognition. Cycling delivered.
“The reality is that as a result of the media exposure, through TV hours and articles about the riders, the brand recognition is very, very high. If you ask people, ‘Do you know Saxo Bank?’ they say, ‘Of course I know Saxo Bank: Alberto Contador.’”
As a student of the sport, Cassina is aware too of the long-term benefits of a champion’s association with a sponsor. He offers Molteni’s indelible link to Eddy Merckx as an example. Saxo Bank’s connection with Contador may enjoy similar longevity in the public imagination.

Audience appreciation
Cycling’s television audience is dazzling for the Tour, but even for lesser races offers volume: thousands of hours of brand exposure. Cassina believes that this is the correct balance for Saxo Bank’s commercial objectives.
“For us, from a sponsorship point of view, the formula works. If we had another billion people watching it, it would be good, but for the price we would have to pay for that, we would not get the same exposure. We would probably be a secondary sponsor and it would completely dilute the value of it.

“If you think about the final of the Superbowl, or the Olympics, it would cost for one minute what it costs us to sponsor a team for a full season, when you’re on the television for 1,000 hours. It’s incredible.”
For other ProTeam sponsors, selling high volume products, a larger television audience might be beneficial, but for Saxo, described by Cassina as a niche bank serving a niche, but global, customer base, professional cycling is the ideal sponsorship vehicle.
“If you sell soap and your ambition is to sell one billion bars of soap, that’s fine. But for us, we have an audience so much larger than the clients we can have, it’s irrelevant.”

Rider meet mentor
Cassina has one more ambition for the bank’s association with Tinkoff-Saxo: that the Ride Like A Pro participants become mentors to the riders. He stresses that this is still an aspiration, but the concept is interesting.
A rider’s professional life is often short and tough. Would access to the experience and networks of senior professionals benefit the men who frequently leave a career in cycling with little idea of what to do next?

If Cassina’s ambition is realised, he need look no further than Ride Like A Pro participant Chris Welsh. Welsh is CEO of asset management firm Mako and already mentors Toulouse fly-half Toby Flood, a former England rugby union player.
Flood visited Mako during last year’s autumn internationals. Welsh describes him as charismatic and outgoing, but humble and curious, and says that his familiarity with working in a team environment is another advantage. “He’s got one eye on what happens when rugby finishes, and rugby is a dangerous game, so he has no idea when that is,” Welsh says. Sound familiar?
Welsh describes Cassina’s ambition as “incredibly worthy” and says he would be delighted to mentor any Tinkoff-Saxo rider with post-career ambitions in international commerce. The benefits are two-fold, he admits: his team are likely to value engagement with the rider as much as the rider might gain from joining a valuable professional network.

The bottom line
For all the benefits that professional cycling delivers to its sponsors, tangible or otherwise, the bottom line is the bottom line.
Key sponsors leave the sport with alarming regularity and even established teams can face a desperate battle to secure sufficient funding for the following season: Richard Plugge’s team – now known as LottoNL-Jumbo – was conducting a crowdfunding campaign as recently as last season’s Tour de France.

“Cycling is professional in terms of the organisation of the team and anything that is related to competition,” Scheidecker concedes. The challenge, he believes, lies in other aspects of the business.
While some teams are more organised than others, Scheidecker says that most are cruising in this vital area and draws a comparison with the relentless pursuit of marginal gains on the sporting side.
“I think the professionalism has to improve in everything related to commercial and marketing, which is what potentially increases the visibility of the sponsors.
“This has to be, in my opinion, the reform and the investment that the teams have to make to improve their capacity to attract resources.
“In simple words, the team makes the sponsor happy; the team makes them understand the worth of the investment.”

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