What is Velon?
The company's CEO Graham Bartlett is clear on what it is not. It is not an attempt to break away from the UCI. Nor is it an organisation that exists solely to sell on-bike footage to race organisers and television networks.
Exactly what Velon, which represents the commercial interests of 11 ProTeams, exists to achieve, however, is more complex. Bartlett will not be pinned down to a single goal for the organisation he heads on behalf of shareholders like Team Sky, Etixx-QuickStep and Tinkoff-Saxo, but offers the following yardstick.
“If you’re watching cycling in five years time and it’s exactly the same as it is…we will have failed. We need to show the sport in a different way.”
He offers other measures too by which Velon’s success might be judged. Fewer teams going bust. Greater investment attracted to the sport, for Velon’s teams and others. Greater stability, of which a recent global partnership with GoPro is the clearest example to date. And - a key phrase for Bartlett - “a better product”.
Meet the new boss
Velon has risen from the ashes of previous attempts to redefine professional cycling’s commercial landscape, one in which race organisers receive the revenues from TV broadcast rights and teams depend entirely on sponsorship, the largesse of sugar daddy owners, or both.
Bartlett is a lawyer by training and has held a number of commercial posts in other sports, including senior positions with UEFA, Nike and Sky. He is a self-confessed outsider to cycling whose first contact with the sport came while working for Sky Sports, tasked with, among other things, investigating what transpired to be short-lived proposals for breakaway league, World Series Cycling.
Bartlett says credit for bringing Velon to its current position belongs to key leaders from its member teams. He says he was surprised when they asked him to stay on after helping to establish the company, given his comparative inexperience with cycling, but was told that his appeal lay in an absence of “baggage”.
Velon operates a fluid strategy, representing its own members in negotiations with broadcasters, sponsors and race organisers, and, when mutually beneficial, others too. For instance, Velon reached a joint agreement with Movistar during the Giro to broadcast onboard footage from the Spanish team’s bikes.
On-bike cameras are only the most visible aspect of the Velon project. It does not propose a complete replacement for sponsorship, and its alternative revenue streams are unlikely to account for even half of a team’s income “within my lifetime,” Bartlett admits, though he is adamant the company is heading in the right direction.
Instead, Velon aims to develop a more saleable product that will generate an income from the team and so reduce the investment required of sponsors and team owners. Additionally, by "improving the product" - footage from the bikes and perhaps even "telemetry" of the riders' data - the popularity of the sport will grow. Where previously teams have demanded a greater revenue share from broadcasters and race organisers, Velon seems intent on showing it can increase the amount to be shared. This is a more subtle ambition than placing cameras on bikes, but no less important.
“Five years from now, it’s not whether Velon pays 20 per cent or 30 per cent of a team’s bills,” Bartlett says. “It’s a question of, ‘Well, hang on a minute, BMC, Sky, Tinkoff, the other investors, all want to stay. It’s being watched by more people, it’s a sport that’s grabbed the public more, that’s doing better than it was.’” He paraphrases the sport’s would-be investors: “‘I like it. It’s a good place for me to put my spend.’”
Bartlett offers a comparison with Premier League football clubs, each of which has three income streams: broadcast revenues, matchday revenues (gate, programmes etc) and sponsorship.
“If you dropped one of those, pretty much any of them would struggle,” he argues, “so even they are a little fragile in that sense, but they would still be in business. But the difference with cycling is that you’ve only got one [income stream].
In the long term, Velon’s income might prevent a team that lost its sponsor on Monday from being “dead” on Wednesday, Bartlett continues. Teams currently exist “on fumes”.
“If Manchester United decide to give away their shirt sponsorship for five years to a charity, would they go bust? No. Because they can compensate from the other sources.” Implicit to Bartlett’s argument is that cycling teams have no other revenue source. Or do they?
Two articles on the excellent Inrng blog listed the wealthiest people in professional cycling, many of whom are the ultimate owners of UCI ProTeams. The majority are the playthings of extremely wealthy individuals. Coal magnate Zdenek Bakala owns Etixx-QuickStep; Russian oligarch Igor Makarov owns Katusha, Andy Rihs owns the BMC bicycle brand as well as co-owning the team. And of course, Oleg Tinkov, the highest profile of all team owners, owns the Tinkoff Sport team co-sponsored by Saxo Bank.
These are men who love cycling. Are they concerned if their passion turns a profit? They have other, less interesting businesses to do that, surely? Bartlett agrees, but questions why team owners should be obliged to fund the entirety of their team’s budget, since no other sport operates the same model.
When asked about Oleg Tinkov’s Grand Tour Challenge (the Russian had issued a €1m challenge to the so-called Fab Four of GC contenders to tackle all three Grand Tours in a season), he argues:
“Why should he [Tinkov] have to put the money in? Why can’t he have a situation like every other sports team where he says, ‘You know what guys, it would be nice if we turned a bit of profit back into it in some way, so I don’t have to fund every single centime, every time. Why aren’t we making something here that generates a bit of money? Every other sports team in the world does.’ But the team can’t do that. The economic model in the sport doesn’t allow for it. Oleg Tinkov knows that very well and he’s as keen as we are to change it.”
“My communications to the team were, ‘Great idea. Why your money?’ And the response back, was, ‘Well, yeah, there should be other investment.’”
Team Sky is widely regarded as professional cycling's gold standard: proven and consistent winners, led by household names on the bike and off, and backed by a host of blue chip sponsors. Their annual budget is a reported €24.5m. Bartlett argues that the commercial imperative is as strong for them as other teams.
"If you're making an investment of that size, even if it's compartitively small for a company of Sky's magnitude, you want the sport to move in the right direction. They want the same things we do - a healthy, credible sport that's offering more excitement to a growing fan base. That's why they helped to found the company [Velon], along with the other 10 shareholders."
The new snooker?
The interest of sponsors is only one aspect for diehard fans of the sport to consider, Bartlett believes. The interest of the wider sporting public is another. He offers snooker as a case in point: hugely successful in the mid to late 1980s when any schoolboy could name each member of Barry Hearn’s “Matchroom mob”. Now? Viewing figures are stronger for the sport than they have been in recent years, as the sport expands rapidly in China, but matching previous heights might be difficult. Additionally, cycling is competing for fans in a digital landscape, where choice is broad and attention spans are short.
The window of opportunity opened by British dominance at successive Olympic Games and the coincidence of road talent like Wiggins and Cavendish is short, and could close as quickly as it opened.
“What’s the conversion?” Bartlett asks, rhetorically. “How many of these weekend warriors on Box Hill know what Liège-Bastogne-Liège is, and who won it? If you’re growing wonderfully well in a certain sector, but the elite product is not capitalising on that by taking that following into loving the sport, and understanding the sport, and getting hooked on the sport, you’ve got to be careful. Because if you miss that wave, there are plenty of sports that were popular and boomed, but didn’t sustain it.”
Conversion. Product. The language of commerce is jarring when discussing a subject usually described in more romantic terms: love, passion, obsession. Yet Bartlett is adamant Velon’s priorities and those of the aficionado are the same. “If you haven’t got your diehards, you haven’t got a sport,” he says, bluntly. “They are the lifeblood and the beating heart. If we lose them, we’ve done the wrong thing.”
He paraphrases to contrast the traditionalist – “‘We race without helmets and Eddy Merckx wins. Don’t you dare touch my sport’” – with the evangelist: “‘It’s amazing. It’s beautiful. You just don’t understand it. Let me show you.’” A degree of convergence will be required from both sects if the sport is to grow, he suggests.
It will be interesting to watch Velon’s attempt to change the commercial landscape of professional cycling. Bartlett is right when he says that no other sport operates a model in which teams depend entirely on sponsorship, and hopes to offer a more attractive alternative. But how? If cameras on bikes are not the whole story, what is?
“The best way to show people it’s a lot more than that is to do a lot more than that. We have a policy, which is absolutely correct, that we’re not going to talk about X, Y, Z, we’re going to do it. You’ve got to talk a little bit about it, otherwise you just stay silent but more than that, you’ve got to prove it.”
A global partnership with sports camera brand GoPro, signed-off shortly before the Tour de France, is the most significant for Velon to date, Bartlett says.
While the footage generated during the Tour provided a refreshing contrast with more traditional perspectives (scenes from the huge crash on stage three, captured on a camera worn by an Orica-GreenEDGE mechanic being the best example, attracting 1.8m views), a wider significance lies beyond the pictures.
“A global sport should be attracting global investment, and GoPro are a global company. That’s a good breakthrough. It shows that we can create the right investment model as a group. I think that’s important.”
Working with GoPro’s team of film-makers was important too, he adds. The fresh perspectives offered, and the speed at which footage was processed was impressive, Bartlett says; so too, the size of GoPro’s social media reach. Fresh perspectives from the creative team and a fresh audience made it a win-win for Velon’s teams.
The GoPro partnership might be taken as the clearest example to date of Velon’s “don’t talk about it, do it” policy. “I’m not going to say more until I can show, otherwise you’re just talking about stuff instead of getting it done,” Bartlett concludes.
Watch this space.