In the midst of a great Vuelta, some disappointing news emerged. Cannondale Drapac was left at the altar by a big sponsor for next season and now faces a $7 million funding shortage. If Vaughters can’t find another sponsor to fill the gap, the team will fold.
Cycling’s Business Model
First, can I just say how absurd it is that teams can offer multiyear contracts with no guarantee that they will exist in the future? There’s been lots of talk about how unsustainable/stupid/fucked the pro cycling funding model is, so I won’t beat that decaying horse carcass (plus, that would just be disrespectful and kind of gross). But jesus, it’s crazy. Clearly, something needs to change so there is a modicum of consistency from year to year and greater competitive balance. Or maybe it doesn’t, and this Darwinist reality is just the way pro cycling has been and always will be. After all, it’s existed for a hundred years this way. I can’t help but think there’s a better, healthier alternative for the sport and its riders, one that won’t throw out a bunch of guys on their asses without jobs only months before the season.
All that being said, $7 million isn’t that much. Not for a big American company. It’s actually a pittance. Off the top of my head, here are some potential sponsors: Tesla (coolest team cars ever), Whole Foods, Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook, Nike, Wal Mart, Nestle. I’m sure any of those big dogs could chip in. Yes, they are beholden to their shareholders, and it might be hard to justify the expense. But how do all the other corporations that sponsor cycling teams justify it?
What is a Team?
Coming from a traditional team sport background, it baffles me how fluid the contingent of teams in pro cycling is. Some baseball teams have been around since the 1800s, in the same city, with the same colors and uniforms. Cycling teams change names and kits from year to year, following the corporations that take pity upon them (the advertising revenue can’t really be worth it, can it?). They arise and vanish with the lifespan of fruit flies. The “old” teams have been around for years, not decades.
It raises a question: what is a team? No, seriously. What makes a pro sports team a distinct, recognizable entity from year to year? Consistent names, the same colors and logos, home cities, stadiums. Cycling has none of these. It’s easy enough to identify when a team folds completely, turns out the lights and shuts down. Likewise, it’s easy to identify one that starts from scratch with a clean slate of sponsors and a first edition kit. But what about the other, more common cases? If Argos-Shimano changes sponsors and colors and some staff and riders and eventually evolves into Giant-Sunweb, when did it cease being one team and become another? What do you even call it, independent of the sponsor du jour? That’s tricky. I don’t know the answer.
The Cannondale news mostly sucks for the riders, who are now forced to scramble for nonexistent jobs. It also sucks for American cycling, which has been severely underrepresented on the World Tour level since the U.S. Postal days. It sucks for fashion, since Cannondale’s weird but cool argyle green/red thing combined with POC helmets was a welcome addition to the exceedingly boring collection of pro kits at the moment.
There’s got to be a better way. But maybe there isn’t.