The Lance Effect. It drives merchandise sales, television ratings and roadside interest. It drives brands like Nike and RadioShack. It builds events like the Tour de Georgia and the San Francisco Grand Prix. Potential host cities for the Amgen Tour of California pointed to 3.5 billion media impressions for the race in 2010 when attracting sponsors.
But now that Retirement 2.0 has come, what did Lance Armstrong’s comeback mean for big time American racing? And can the Amgen Tour of California and Quiznos Pro Challenge survive in his absence? One way to answer the question is to look at the effect his presence, or absence, has made on previous events.
Valentine’s Day 2009
Comeback 2.0 started at the 2009 Tour Down Under, but Armstrong’s return to American racing came in February that year at the Amgen tour.
Armstrong’s impact on spectators in California was clear at noon on Valentine’s Day in Sacramento. Glen Chadwick was 90 minutes from opening the prologue and the capital city center was clogged. Parents lined the streets around Capitol Park, their children bundled for the chilly February afternoon. News helicopters scanned the start area.
Almost four hours later, the frenetic energy that greeted the seven-time Tour de France champion’s start at 3:39 p.m. was palpable. The applause was greater than even that for two-time winner and California resident Levi Leipheimer.
Medalist Sports managing partner Jim Birrell works closely with tour organizer AEG in directing the competition side of the Amgen tour. He was roadside in Sacramento.
“It was incredible,” he said. “The success of the tour before (Lance’s) appearance was definitely on an upward spiral. With his availability and presence there, it just really cemented the deal for the sponsor, for the event and the growth.”
For the next week, thousands of fans lined the starts, climbs and finish corrals of each stage. Spectators stood shoulder-to-shoulder in downtown Solvang for the time trial. The scene on the final climb over Palomar Mountain was straight out of the Tour de France, with crowds six-deep narrowing the road high on the mountain to a car width. According to AEG, two million spectators were on hand throughout the week, up from 1.6 million in 2007 and 2008.
Armstrong’s tenth-place rides in the prologue and stage 1 were his best of the race. He went on to finish seventh overall, 1:46 down on teammate Leipheimer. The fans wouldn’t let Armstrong lie in the shadows of his team’s GC leader, though. On the morning of every stage, hundreds of them surrounded the Astana bus and as soon as the Texan rolled away, they were gone, only to reappear at the finish hours later with yellow chalk and placards in hand. So many supporters used the Lance Armstrong Foundation-provided chalk to draw on the streets of Clovis that when Mark Cavendish came through first in the stage 4 field sprint, the town looked in pictures to be on fire.
At home, just 1.5 million total viewers tuned into the Versus television coverage of the 2007 edition of the race— about a half million higher than the per-day views of the Tour de France that year. The number of viewers tuning in throughout the week rose considerably by the time Cav’ edged out Boonen in the Central Valley two years later — around 46-percent per year. According to AEG, in 2010, year two of the comeback, viewership in the United States reached 3 million for the Versus broadcasts.
Getting off the ground
Three million television viewers is a world away from the quiet inaugural edition of the Tour de Georgia in 2003. Armstrong’s RadioShack teammate Chris Horner won the race for Saturn in front of 250,000 spectators. A year later, Armstrong brought U.S. Postal to the race and it exploded.
“When he announced that he was going to compete in 2004 in the second Dodge Tour de Georgia, we swelled,” said Medalist Sports managing partner Jim Birrell. “We grew to 750,000 spectators in one year and that really became the launching pad for the rebirth of pro stage racing in the U.S.”
The next year, Armstrong retired on the podium of the Tour de France, but that didn’t stop the momentum he had built in Georgia. Ford Motor Company came on as the title sponsor with a reported $1 million contribution in 2006 and a year later, AT&T stepped in and expanded the race to seven days from six.
“What he brought was relevance to the sport of cycling,” said Birrell. “We owe a great deal of gratitude to Lance and his success and what he’s done for our sport domestically.”
That tour became the victim of political wrangling in 2008, its final year, and died on the eve of Comeback 2.0. Would the Tour de Georgia have survived had Armstrong stayed in the sport? Birrell isn’t certain, but regardless, he points to Armstrong as the catalyst for the revival of big-time American stage racing.
While Ford was buying into Georgia, AEG was launching a stage race in California. Shawn Hunter, now the co-chairman for the upstart Quiznos Pro Challenge, was the company president at the time.
“People thought we were a little bit crazy when we launched the Amgen Tour,” said Hunter. “They said, ‘Wow, You’re launching this and Lance Armstrong just retired. Why would you be launching this new stage race in the U.S.?’ It actually turned out to be a really solid decision. The business was built around the sport, the state, a great cycling state, and great courses.”
Between 2006 and 2009, the race grew steadily until it filled the top spot among American events in time for the comeback to take shape.
Armstrong’s impact on the competition side of the 2010 Amgen tour was less noticeable than his comeback debut. He rode questionable form to 12th on GC, 27 seconds down, before crashing out of the race soon after the start of stage 5. Armstrong’s absence was perhaps more noticeable than his presence when Leipheimer fell short of his fourth consecutive title three days later in Westlake Village.
Like the 3 million U.S. television viewers, the roadside crowds did not appear to notice Armstrong’s early exit. Final estimates for spectators again surpassed two million for the week. The final-stage circuit near Thousand Oaks was packed with fans, some who had camped out for days on the Rock Store climb where Michael Rogers secured his title.
Steve Brunner, president of KOM Sports Marketing has worked in the country’s biggest races since the 1980’s and sees the sport in a better position to thrive in the U.S. than ever before. “I thought when (Armstrong) dropped out of the race, there was less of a precipitous effect,” he said. “It wasn’t as noticeable as when I saw (Greg) LeMond drop out of sight in the Tour DuPont and Tour de Trump days.”
Two months after Ryder Hesjedal won the final stage in California, Armstrong was back in the spotlight for an American race, this time launching the Quiznos Pro Challenge on the steps of the Colorado Capitol. Birrell stood 15 feet from the podium behind a sponsor backdrop.
“It gave the event a lot of credibility that it had the vision and endorsement of someone like Lance and former governor Ritter,” he said.
After the announcement, Armstrong led 3,500 fans on a downtown, police-escorted Twitter ride. The event choked streets on the south side of the metro area for nearly an hour. Armstrong may be the only American athlete in cycling with the pull to close down a major metro area for a recreational bike ride promoted only over social media. Hunter acknowledged the Texan’s pull for fans, but pointed again to AEG’s success before Comeback 2.0.
“We think it’s going to be huge, regardless, because (Colorado) is the birthplace of stage racing in our country and the number of people that participate both competitively and recreationally,” he said. “We’d love to see him race, but none of the planning ever contemplated him riding. He would have been an added plus, but everything has been built around the race, the state and the course itself.”
Despite Armstrong’s retirement — and legal problems — Brunner is upbeat about sponsorship sales for the inaugural event and has landed 10 significant backers in recent weeks. “The majority of the companies are looking for the touch point on healthy living, lifestyle, major events. For some of them it’s community,” he said. “The Lance factor is an added bonus.”
When Armstrong announced his retirement Wednesday morning, management at the country’s top events knew it was coming.
“It didn’t throw us off guard,” said Hunter. “He was never a certainty to race. When he helped with the vision and creation of the race, there was never a full promise that he would race and the business has never been built around that expectation.”
Earlier this month, AEG president Andrew Messick said in a conference call that he didn’t think Amstrong’s absence would hurt his race. “We are going to have a fantastic field of athletes,” said Messick. “I believe Lance Armstrong brings a lot of attention to the sport; he has many, many people who believe in him passionately and I think having him as part of the race would ensure that a lot of the media would follow the race and there is something to that.”
Brunner, who works across media and marketing roles with the Amgen and Quiznos races, wasn’t so quick to dismiss the impact. “It would be like Tiger Woods retiring tomorrow,” he said. “It’s natural that the sport is going to take a hit to some extent because he’s not involved.”
While the Amgen tour is six years old and in a position to survive without Armstrong, the Quiznos race does not enjoy that history. Hunter knows it and said that the event is positioned to thrive with or without the sport’s biggest name in the peloton. The ingredients Hunter enjoyed in California — the sport, a great cycling state and great courses?
“I think we have the same thing here,” he said.
When the Quiznos Pro Challenges debuts in August, Hunter expects Armstrong to be there. He is, after all, the man who urged Ritter to back the race last year. The seven-time Tour champion is also responsible, many in the industry acknowledge, for putting stage racing back on the map in the States.
“If anything, the legacy of Lance is more the advent of cycling being more prolific in this country,” said Brunner. “In many ways, the thing that Lance leaves behind is nothing but positive in my opinion. I’ve seen a lot over the years, but the legacy he leaves behind is almost impenetrable.”