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Canadian race organizer sees potential in cycling if teams, riders and organizers all take their pulls

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Dec. 27, 2012
Canadian entrepreneur Serge Arsenault says there's plenty of potential in cycling if only it would be run professionally, with team owners, riders and promoters working together and the UCI restricted to umpire status. Photo: Mark Johnson | Ironstring

Serge Arsenault understands professional sports. But he can’t understand why cycling won’t act like one.

The 64-year old Canadian WorldTour event organizer and network television entrepreneur has been involved with cycling since 1974, when he covered the Montréal world championship road race as a young broadcaster with Canadian television. Today he calls the sport “my mistress; I forget everything because I love cycling and I love the riders.”

Since that August day in ’74 when Eddy Merckx out-sprinted Raymond Poulidor for the win on Boulevard Edouard Montpetit, Arsenault has continued to closely observe the sport as he built his television network and production companies in Quebéc, as an organizer of pro races in the 1980s, and as the president of the Grands Prix Cyclistes Québec–Montréal, the only UCI WorldTour races in North America.

Arsenault’s perspectives are unique because he experienced the sport both from the sell side as a race producer trying to create a product international television networks will pay for, and from the buy side as a TV-network owner who understands what type of products he needs to license to satisfy viewers and advertisers.

Asked by VeloNews where pro cycling goes next from the Lance Armstrong implosion, Arsenault replies, “We either die of that cancer, or we survive and we have to go the opposite way.” And for Arsenault, the cancer is the sport’s chronic short-term thinking and inability to get riders, team owners and race organizers together to plan a rational, stable and mutually beneficial economic future.

Referring to Bernie Ecclestone, the Englishman who manhandled Formula 1 into a multibillion-dollar business at one time largely owned by himself, Arsenault says the Tour de France-owning ASO is the “Ecclestone of cycling.” By that he means that because it controls the one race that really matters, the ASO wields Ecclestonian power over the sport.

“If a team doesn’t make the Tour de France the team is dead; the sponsors won’t be there,” he says. “Tell a team today that they won’t participate in the Tour de France and they will have a heart attack.”

Arsenault points out that he is not criticizing the ASO’s management of the Tour. “The ASO, and I don’t blame them, exists because it is a for-profit enterprise. And I will never say to anyone who has an enterprise, ‘Don’t do everything to make profit.’”

However, because the ASO effectively runs the sport with a command-and-control relationship over cycling’s other stakeholders — the teams and the athletes — unlike other sports, such as tennis and baseball, “we have a sport that is not organized at all,” he says.

Arsenault says one reason the sport remains imbalanced is that “a guy like myself doesn’t fight and say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Beyond the ASO, Arsenault feels the Union Cycliste International has held the sport back by overstepping its charter. He explains that the UCI is a governing body that also acts as an organizer, and that is a conflict.

“The UCI shouldn’t be making deals with the ASO or anyone else,” he says.

The fact that the governing body is also organizing and promoting races is, in Arsenault’s mind, unprofessional.

“The only thing that is pro in cycling is the name. That’s all,” he says. “We are all amateurs. We don’t look at cycling as a business.”

Looking at the relationship between the riders and their teams, Arsenault feels because riders lack representation, their de-facto leaders are the team managers. That represents another amateurish conflict of interest.

Mentioning Jonathan Vaughters, who has represented team owners as president of the Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels (AIGCP), and also at times stepped up as the defender of rider interests, Arsenault asks, “How can you represent the riders when you are a team owner or a team director?”

“This whole business of cycling is a complete failure for nearly 50 years,” Arsenault explains. “The lack of money is a cancer, and the reason you have that cancer is small minds in a small world. No one was clever or independent enough to organize that sport.”

As a result, cycling has not capitalized on its potential (in the form of events, athletic stars and profound fan passion) as have other, better-managed sports like tennis, soccer and auto racing.

“The lack of money makes people like slaves. What can we do to have a penny?” he says, placing himself in the rhetorical shoes of both scrounging teams and desperate riders.

Because he has decades of experience broadcasting sports that do have their professional acts together, Arsenault is frustrated with cycling’s inability to recognize its own obvious potential. In the United States, the number of regular cyclists eclipses snow skiers, golfers, and tennis players combined, yet the pro side of the sport hasn’t prepared itself to appeal to that enormous latent interest.

“We have all the ingredients to make the best meal,” Arsenault laments. “The riders, the number of nationalities, the interest public-wise with the cyclosportifs. Even the TV would jump at it, but we have to guarantee a product for the TV people.”

Adding, “I’m a TV guy,” Arsenault explains what that sort of product would look like. First, key events must have star power.

“The riders and the teams will have to sit down and say, ‘Okay, we will make sure that our top events will be top events, not top events with no-shows,’” he says.

The calendar also needs to be streamlined, because the number and variable quality of races complicate the delivery of a reliable product that showcases the sport’s true superstars.

“You cannot have the calendar starting in January and finishing at the end of October hoping that you will have top races left and right,” he says.

Arsenault points out that cycling is not alone with this problem. Tennis players confronted their sport’s over-extended, athlete-breaking calendar when they asserted control over their sport in the 1980s. And while tennis continues to wrestle with its calendar today, unlike cycling, it confronted the problem and continues to do so with dialogues between the players and the owners, who each share half ownership of their collective sporting enterprise.

Most importantly, Arsenault feels the calendar needs to be overhauled so that the entire health of the sport does not hang on one race in July.

Even with the WorldTour, which aspires to create a top echelon of races, the teams only want to make one event — the Tour de France.

“No sport in the world can live with one event,” says Arsenault. “Golf cannot exist with just the U.S. Open.”

Referring to tennis, he says that sport came to the realization that hinging an entire circuit on Wimbledon was not a foundation for growth. The players also knew that if they had a bad Wimbledon, their seasons were effectively over. So they changed the sport by building a series of high-profile masters events.

“Right now, the riders that have a real bad Tour de France are out. It is the same thing as if I were to say to you that if Nadal or Federer or Djokovic had a bad Wimbledon, he’s dead,” says Arsenault, explaining that tennis realized the sport could not survive with such an imbalanced disservice to both players and fans.

Arsenault is adamant the UCI should play no role in the professional organization of cycling. Baseball umpires do not weigh in on discussions between the players’ union and the owners when negotiating TV and product licensing rights, and Arsenault feels that for the health of the sport, the UCI should likewise stick to enforcing the rules of play.

“The solution won’t come from the UCI; they ought to respect their role,” he says.

Instead, Arsenault reiterates that the way out will come from a meeting of the minds involving riders, team owners and race organizers. Only by sitting down at a table together — in his words, doing what every other mature business enterprise does when working through problems and seizing opportunities — will pro cycling become professional.

“We have, absolutely, to meet together,” he said. “Outside the UCI. Outside the USA, Canadian and whatever federation you can name.”

That meeting, which is seemingly impossible to convene in pro cycling (though the recent Change Cycling Now summit suggests movement in that direction), could, in Arsenault’s opinion, deliver “another ball game for cycling.”

“We have to sit together and say, ‘What’s wrong?’ We know what’s wrong; we are all poor. It’s the greatest sport that could ever be; you understand what I mean? But we don’t speak to each other because everyone believes that the other one is a traitor.”

It takes a strong leader to make this sort of meeting of the minds happen, a commanding presence like an Ecclestone in F1 or a Marvin Miller in baseball. Arsenault says while he is weary of cycling being so primitive and resistant to change, he would like to be among those who push the sport forward.

He holds that the qualities such a leader requires include financial and political independence.

“He has to be independent. He doesn’t have to represent a team or riders,” says Arsenault. “He has to love the sport to understand that the first ingredient is the athletes. And that the second ingredient is, equally, race organizers and team owners — the ones that put their money on the table.”

Cycling will finally move toward being a profession, Arsenault says, “if the real team owners — the strong ones — the riders, and the organizers sit at a table and say, ‘That’s it, now we will organize the sport and go to the UCI and say that’s what we demand, that’s what we want.’

“We have to stop kneeling down and saying we are a small sport. We have everything to make cycling an incredible sport with money for everyone.”

 

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Writer-photographer Mark Johnson's work has been published in titles including VeloNews in the United States, Cycling Weekly in the UK, Vélo in France, and Ride Cycling Review in Australia as well as general-interest publications including The Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His book on the Garmin pro team, Argyle Armada, was published by VeloPress in 2012. A Cat. 2 road cyclist, Mark has bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. He graduated from UC San Diego and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from his home in Del Mar, California. Follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark.

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