MILAN (VN) — The future of cycling is being discussed in Brussels, and it’s taking the shape of soccer’s Champions League. By 2016, in three years’ time, if a working group has its way, cycling will look entirely different, with an elite group of teams and races managed in a way that is easy for the public to follow and delivers revenue to all the players.
Garmin-Sharp, BMC Racing, Cannondale, Omega Pharma-Quick Step and about five others are working hard over the winter to take advantage of a changing climate in cycling. On the heels of the Lance Armstrong doping case, they may have found their golden opportunity.
“The sport is in troubled times,” Omega Pharma team owner Zdenek Bakala told Het Nieuwsblad. “The Armstrong case was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The UCI is under tremendous pressure to replace some famous people at the top. Rabobank pulled out its sponsorship after 17 years. The situation has even had a dramatic impact on some riders’ lives.
“The sport is facing all these challenges and it’s time for a new system. We have world-class product [to offer].”
Bakala took over ownership of Patrick Lefevere’s Omega Pharma team three years ago. The team boasts Tom Boonen and, starting next year, Mark Cavendish. The wealthy businessman from the Czech Republic, however, wants to contribute more to the sport.
Belgium’s Het Nieuwsblad and Italy’s La Gazzetta dello Sport newspapers detailed his plans in Saturday’s editions. Bakala is willing to kick in 10 million to 20 million euros, ($12 million to $25 million) to kick off a Champions League of cycling.
The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has organized one of the most prestigious tournaments since 1955. Thirty-two teams play in the elite group level and their matches draw huge crowds.
Cycling also draws huge crowds. But as Bakala explained: “Financially, the teams are unstable. It’s not normal that in November some teams don’t know where they stand for the next season.”
Teams are fighting for TV money, there are no stable income streams allowing for long-term planning, and the complex WorldTour ranking system also needs reform, Bakala continued.
“Therefore, we must make a Champions League,” he said.
Bakala suggested 18 top teams, similar to the 18 first-division ProTeams. They would compete in a set number of races, around 20, including the grand tours and all the major historical races.
“The top teams, with the best riders, in the best races,” said Bakala. “A high-quality format, easy for the public to follow and to sell to the big TV players, receiving rights that can be distributed to all the actors.
“It’s a project to take forward, hand in hand with the teams, sponsors, investors and the UCI. A league managed by a company, with me at the top.”
Bakala’s plan is different from the ill-fated ProTour kicked off in 2004 by former UCI president Hein Verbruggen. The governing body in Bakala’s league would simply regulate, rank and organize some races. He already has backing from investors and around eight to nine teams on board.
He is continuing to try to win over the big organizers — Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), RCS Sport and the Flanders Classics — to get them on board. His job is to convince the ASO that his league could in fact bring it more money and that it could safely share part of their TV revenues.
The UCI is to hold a stakeholder consultation in the coming month, but Bakala is pushing ahead with the organizers, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport. He hopes to have their signatures within six months and over the next three years, transition to the league.