What's Cool In Road Cycling

Visma and UAE Look Even More Dominant, Where is Sports Streaming Headed? Off-Season Race Acquisitions, More on the Media, Doping: Good News and Bad News

In this week’s AIRmail newsletter, The Outer Line takes an in-depth look at Visma and UAE look even more dominant; where is sports streaming headed? Off-season race acquisitions; more on the media; doping: Good news and bad news.

# Catch up on pro cycling – and its context within the broader world of sports – with AIRmail … Analysis, Insight and Reflections from The Outer Line. You can subscribe to AIRmail here, and check out The Outer Line’s extensive library of articles on the governance and economics of cycling here. #

Stade Bianche 2024
UAE domination in Strade Bianche

Key Takeaways:

  • Visma and UAE Look Even More Dominant in Early 2024
  • New Unified Sports Streaming Service Begs the Question ….
  • …. Where is Sports Streaming Headed?
  • Off-Season Event Acquisitions
  • More Commentary of the Media Markets
  • Doping: Good News and Bad News

Kuurne 2024
Visma | Lease a Bike dominated the Opening Weekend

The running of the spring’s first cobbled classic, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – considered by many purists to be the “real” road cycling season kickoff – took place on the weekend. Visma-Lease a Bike broke up the race early, whittling down the front group, and easily delivered domestique Jan Tratnik to victory while Wout van Aert took third. The off-season seems to have done little to loosen the Dutch team’s iron grip on the sport. And this was solidified on the following day at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, with Van Aert’s jaw-dropping decision to ride clear nearly 100 kilometers from the finish line with a small group, and then easily outsprint them at the end. Richard Plugge’s team has apparently shrugged off its slightly chaotic off-season and entered 2024 ready to pick up where they left off.

Omloop 2024
Vos is back

In the women’s road show, Marianne Vos (Visma-Lease A Bike again) roared back into the limelight with a scintillating sprint win in the Omloop ahead of World Champion Lotte Kopecky (SDWorx, while Kristen Faulkner (EF) took out the other Omloop — van het Hageland — the next day with a gutsy 50-kilometer solo effort. Lauren Stephens (Cynisca) rounded out the weekend women’s racing with hard fought sprint victory in the Clasica Almeria over two Human Powered Health teammates – an encouraging win that may have softened the blow of a UCI disciplinary ruling against the team that landed in Monday’s news cycle.

Kuurne 2024
Lazkano was the only non-Visma/UAE rider to show much

It is already becoming apparent that the only team able to truly challenge Visma is the team that beat them in the UCI Points Team Rankings last year – UAE Team Emirates. In fact, out of the six total podium spots available in cobbled Classics over the weekend, only one team other than Visma and UAE – Movistar – nagged a single place, with Oier Lazkano’s strong ride at Kuurne. Indeed, Visma and UAE won a total of seven professional-level European-based races over the weekend, with the only teams to register a single win in the top two levels of the UCI race rankings being Soudal-QuickStep (Tim Merlier winning UAE Tour Stage 6) and second-division Lotto-Dstny’s young talent Lennert van Eetvelt, who pulled off a thrilling upset to win the final stage and overall at UAE’s home race. In short, anyone wishing for pro cycling parity in 2024 should lower their expectations. Despite promising performances from traditionally mid-level teams like Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale in the first few weeks of the season, it appears that UAE and Visma have actually increased the distance between them and the rest of the teams over the past few months. This again highlights how the current structure in cycling allows the teams with the biggest budgets to hoard the top talent, making it tougher and tougher for the rest of the teams to compete. This will undoubtedly lead to new calls for a salary cap, or another means of incentivizing at least some level of parity between the teams.

GCN+ a fading memory

With GCN+ now just a fading memory, the announcement of a joint venture sports streaming service by Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), Fox and Disney might have seemed like a potential landing zone for pro cycling’s many races. But an antitrust lawsuit filed by pro cycling’s longtime suitor, FuboTV, may throw a legitimate spanner in the works. According to lawyers representing FuboTV, the big three joint venture partners in the as-yet-unnamed mega streaming service have been engaging in manipulative anti-competitive practices that has, for many years, stifled competition and driven higher consumer pricing. FuboTV CEO David Gandler said that the new joint venture will have the power to create “insurmountable barriers that will effectively block any new competitors from entering the market” – a sentiment echoed by other streaming analysts. There are several outcomes to consider, such as further erosion of the terrestrial cable market for live sports, and the potential that regional sports networks might get a second wind.

Fubo TV

Another example to watch is the turmoil currently affecting the European football media rights market, where geographic restrictions and European anti-monopoly statutes may be cooling what the clubs can demand for broadcast rights. These laws favor smaller streaming operators seeking to build market parity, by economically and competitively bundling live sports in their consumer-friendly pricing tiers. Big operators, like the new U.S. joint venture mentioned above, can’t simply outbid everyone else; that could lead to a suppressive market which would restrict choices for consumers. While that may not always be the outcome in every market, such factors (and fan backlash from news leaks, if that sounds familiar) may have led venture capital behemoth Blackstone to withdraw from talks with the Bundesliga over media rights investments that were rumored to be in excess of one billion dollars.

ESPN Fox Warner Bros
US big operators

The implication is, that while media rights have been selling for exorbitant fees, there is undoubtedly a ceiling to that growth, which we may be beginning to see – especially since the cable operators and streamers who have driven up the price of those rights are beginning to face tough economic realities. Still, we wonder: will a single streaming platform juggernaut force consumers to buy loaded and expensive bundles to get cycling content in the future? Or will it be offered as an economical and delightful standalone option for cycling’s purists? On the other hand, the more that streaming bundles begin to resemble the cable bundles we ditched a while back to get great cycling content, everyone might lose out in the end.

Eurosport – The Home of Cycling…. in Europe

We continue to monitor developments in the broader media world – and any implications for or contrast with the small pro cycling media business, and an analysis in the venerable New Yorker magazine last week provides a good summary of just how desperate the situation is. “Ads are scarce, search and social traffic is dying, and readers are burned out. The future will require fundamentally rethinking the press’s relationship to its audience.” Presaging an “extinction-level event” in the near future, this article cites the now well-known mass layoffs across virtually every corner of the broader media market in the last year or two, and the fact that the U.S. has lost more than a third of all its newspapers – and two-thirds of its newspaper journalists – since 2005. The outlook for the future is pretty grim for everyone except The New York Times – which often seems to be about the only example of a media operation with both the scale and the diversity of offerings to thrive in today’s market.

cycling media
Cycling media – struggling to survive

And don’t expect major patrons or “benevolent billionaires” to be the solution says another recent article, in The Conversation – underlining just how much money investors like Jeff Bezos (Washington Post) and Patrick Soon-Shiong (Los Angeles Times) have lost in recent years and their limited appetite for continued red ink. “When quality journalism disappears, it intensifies a host of problems – from rising corruption to decreasing civic engagement to greater polarization – that threaten the vitality of U.S. democracy.” The article raises the point that some form of public funding may ultimately be required in order to support the kind of strong and dependable media system prerequisite to a properly functioning democracy. Cycling’s media obviously provides a far more specialized product to a much tinier audience, but it nevertheless suffers from many of the same exigencies and pressures; understanding the reasons for success or failure in the broader market may provide insight to cycling media operations struggling to survive.

tdf23 st21
The behemoth ASO

ASO and Flanders Classics have quietly been beefing up their portfolios over the past few months – by respectively acquiring two of the last remaining independent WorldTour races. ASO stamped its dominance on the underdeveloped German market by acquiring the Bemer Cyclassics (the company already owns Eschborn-Frankfurt and the Deutschland Tour), while Flanders Classics doubled down on their Benelux dominance by picking up the Amstel Gold event. If the One Cycling project ever develops into a proxy battle between these factions (representing two of the sport’s three biggest race organizers) don’t be surprised if the days for the remaining independent events, like E3, Tour de Suisse and San Sebastian, are numbered.

flanders 2017
Flanders Classics VIPs

We recently discussed ongoing strife within Spain’s anti-doping body, CELAD, as the result of the “Ilex” investigation – which documented inaction and compromised processes within the agency’s handling of potential doping cases. Spanish ministers demanded that CELAD’s director resign on January 6th, but it took another twenty days for the government to fire Jose Luis Terreros outright. In response to this turmoil, some 78 Spanish athletes signed a joint declaration demanding that CELAD’s mission be clarified. While Spanish government representatives publicly recognized the athletes’ concerns, they did not offer concrete details on a path forward. Similarly, the list of athlete signatories on the declaration included some who were actively named in the Ilex details – like recently suspended distance runner Mohamed Katir. This intersection of “clean” and “compromised” athletes highlights an ongoing narrative in Spanish anti-doping: that the entire system is inequitable and degrades athlete rights. What we find most interesting in the Spanish affair is the lack of external media coverage for the conflagration; imagine for a moment that Travis Tygart – head of USADA – was called out in an investigative report, refused to resign, and was then fired by a congressional decree which called into question USADA’s core mission? Hard to believe, but that just happened in Spain.

But it’s not all bad news on the anti-doping front – recent swarms of positive tests, Whereabouts violations, and intel cases highlight the International Testing Agency’s (ITA) increasing role in anti-doping – and how its aggressive tactics are changing the anti-doping mission. On one hand, the ITA is carrying out more tests – highly effective targeted ones that caught cheats like Collin Chartier (triathlon). it is also placing a greater emphasis to chase down leads and stop the practice of “active avoidance” – holding athletes accountable for missed tests. On the other hand, this has come with a new lack of transparency, as the ITA has been reluctant to name specific substances when an athlete tests positive (such as Antwan Tolhoek’s recent positive for a “non-specified anabolic” substance or Chartier’s earlier positive for a non-specified type of EPO.) This change in practice blinds medical and police authorities from trends and specific intelligence in the illegal diversion of medication to athletes by healthcare professionals. When we asked ITA about the Chartier case, they replied that privacy laws protect the athlete regarding the type of medication used. This is certainly a paradox, given that not only do athlete waive their privacy in doping case announcements, but many of the adjudication steps would expose the athlete’s privacy in the same vein (pun intended) as any common drug diversion crime. In some ways, the ITA is thankfully taking progressive steps forward to merge intel and targeted testing. Yet in its selective secrecy, it may be providing athletes and enablers with additional means of avoiding detection and dismantling cases. In summary: anti-doping is showing incremental improvement, but there is plenty of room to build greater integrity and reinforce public trust.

Antwan Tolhoek’s positive for a ‘non-specified anabolic’ substance

# Catch up on pro cycling – and its context within the broader world of sports – with AIRmail … Analysis, Insight and Reflections from The Outer Line. You can subscribe to AIRmail here, and check out The Outer Line’s extensive library of articles on the governance and economics of cycling here. #

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