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Op-ed: Cycling TV needs a big change for the sport to survive

  • By Michael Aisner
  • Published Mar. 1, 2013
Michael Aisner argues that with so much focus on pedal-by-pedal racing coverage, we miss the chance to tell cycling's most engaging stories to potential new fans. Photo: BrakeThrough Media | VeloNews.com


People say we have a lot of work to do in cycling now, but this is nothing new.

Explain football in a sentence: Two teams, most points win.

Cycling? Twenty-two teams, first guy across the line wins unless it’s a stage race, where the winner may actually win the race without ever crossing the finish line first.

And that’s just the start of a litany of idioms and lingo we imagine everyone just gets, but they don’t. All sports have their “stuff” people have to learn to some degree, but some, like NASCAR, have completely synchronized their sports with the current taste for pace and drama and technology, and boy, the results have been extraordinary! Stockcar racing undertook its renaissance into the new world with one goal: to make the sport much more accessible to people who were not tailpipe sniffers.

Cycling television in the U.S. is templated after the Euro style; the only trouble is, this isn’t Europe and cycling is not our no. 2 sport. Americans did not grow up with cycling as a soundtrack for their lives, yet somehow we imagine that the uninitiated are willing to sit for hours, days, or weeks to watch a single event in real time. Americans and patience? Look at what they watch. Do we program for viewers or just let them watch us in hopes they see something they like?

Americans are keyed to tune into series, little vignettes that each have the structure of a stage play: start, middle, and finish. And we decided somehow that the very best way to showcase our sport was to show them every minute, regardless of whether anything is happening or not. It was different when we had rock star Lance Armstrong with the celebrity few other sports had, who was articulate, brash, charismatic, and doing uber-confident “superman” feats. He was our spectacle and we enjoyed extraordinary attention during those fertile years. He even dated a real rock star with a no. 1 song. There were no boundaries to his media and mass appeal.

So, with Armstrong towing us along, we gathered some fans from the fringe. But he was the center of attention and there was a compelling reason for them to endure the hours of non-activity just to track this can’t-look-away athlete in progress. The crash on Luz Ardiden. The Beloki-field incident near Gap. It was Jesse Owens times a thousand — Lance defeated the dusty Euros at their own game. He embodied the new America: strong, broad-shouldered, aggressive, and confident. Compelling. Americans love a great story.

But poof, like the Russian meteor, he’s gone in druggy vapors and we ponder our next move in the vacuum. If this were a corporation, the CEO would rally experts and stakeholders, create a post-dope game plan, a strategy to emerge from this a winner. First, they’d set a clear mission and then vamp the strategy to accomplish it. They’d research public attitude and forge a comprehensive, integrated all-parties effort to address our need to build a healthy, growing, and cultivated fanbase.

It’s not about more events or more teams. The mission is all about the fans for us, because they in fact are our commodity. Our audience is what sponsors desire, both in quantity and quality. The greater the audience, the greater the value. And with more value, the more marketers are willing to pay teams and events to gain access to our fans, and with it, our shared imagery.

Sponsorship is our golden egg. We are perhaps the only sport that is almost entirely beholden to corporate and state and venue sponsorships — because we have no participant or fan revenue. No tickets are sold. We live the YouTube model: we’re free to watch and with critical mass, we become a very attractive platform for sponsors.

Sponsorship is not advertising. In fact, when sponsorship really blossomed in the 1970s and 1980s, the basic tenet was that companies were not just showing product features in a 60-second monologue, but rather, they were sharing an experience with their customers. They could really talk to them long-form and engage them in a dialogue; they used the event to express the soul or “why” of a company, not just a hard sales message. Amgen wants to ingratiate itself to doctors, so a week of client entertaining is why it spends millions to sponsor a race. Every sponsor has a different intention or market need.

So what we in cycling cannot do is act like advertising, throw up a few banners and PA tags that only a fraction of the spectators can hear, and do nothing to reach the bulk of road fans, many of whom are out for a day of — well, they’re not sure, but probably fun with a beer and friends. For the most part, our attendees are not accountable, or measurable. We just do not engage our roadside fans; they are just empty numbers, while impressive in size, that do not provide the critical elements sponsors require: a meaningful engagement or dialogue with attendees.

So with this amorphous on-site fan base, our desirable exposure really comes from the much bigger television viewership that sits in one spot, watches the race, and is exposed to embedded editorial sponsor content and advertising.

It’s not quantity, it’s the quality

There is actually a lot of cycling on television. In an annual media coverage survey conducted by the sport’s governing body, the UCI, the U.S. carries more cycling hours than any country in the world. The bad news is that it is also the fifth lowest viewership in the world. This tells us that there is no dearth for content, but somehow it just is not striking a cord with mainstream American sports viewers. I must say this is hard to comprehend living in Boulder, Colorado, where cycling is more mainstream than football.

These UCI television numbers are concurrent with what we are seeing for our two big domestic stage races (Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Challenge). So, our need to reassess our approach to broaden our outreach is not an exercise, it is a necessity! The handwriting is on the wall: sagging and far-from-impressive TV ratings, the bread and butter of what we have to offer sponsors, is under scrutiny. Without viewers in any admirable numbers, we remain a second-tier “other” sport with second-tier sponsorships and television coverage.

For a sport with no gate receipts, we have little choice than to pay attention and evolve into a better TV sport in this country. These ratings trends are disturbing and the albatross of drugs doesn’t help.

Not to sidetrack this TV discussion with drugs, but they are not the biggest chink in our armor. Other sports populate their games with artificially pumped up athletes and yet are some of the biggest grossing franchises in U.S. entertainment. Fans do not flee because of this; they stay if the sport is exciting and worthy of their time.

Even sports that are not fair competition attract people. “Pro” wresting is a totally staged, scripted sport with actor-athletes pedestaling a multi-million dollar enterprise with rich pay-per-view, multiple TV series, a 3.0 rating for a single mega-event, and millions in ticket sales.

No, our real problem is that we ask too much from viewers when we expect them to watch hours of what might be little or no action. And sadly, our U.S. cycling events’ TV ratings are deflating. Is it drugs? No. Our onsite crowds are as good as anything in Europe.

The Amgen and Colorado races both had comparatively low ratings in 2012. The NBC network weekend coverage of the Pro Challenge pulled the lowest numbers of any sports show on any network for that weekend. Little League baseball beat us by two whole points, 3 million viewers. By all accounts, we appear to not attract many viewers beyond our core, with maybe some curious fringe.

Whose fault is it?

Slumping TV viewership for California and Colorado do not deserve this for any failing of the races. And it’s no fault of the sport. It’s the fault of the way we present it; somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that if it isn’t live, it isn’t important, that a lot of live coverage is more important than winning Emmys and earning high ratings.

So, here are our clear options.

Live: As we do now, turn on the cameras and let the story unravel (or not) as it may. Let viewers see a script written by the racers over hundreds of miles, over days, with the hope that they have the patience and are curious enough to get great moments of payoff through the oft sparse action. And let them continue to edit our shows on their DVRs.

Packaged: Not live, where the story is told by the outcome, extrapolating the best of the best material that matters from the inside-out, expanding our dramatic revelations beyond just the road, and exploiting our real-world racing dramas that are rarely seen. All this carefully bound and presented into a freshly baked genre for us: reality sports drama TV. Cycling is made for just this treatment!

Cycling has decades of history with both of these models. In our first years of getting network TV attention, we were packaged. Without any assumption of knowing the sport, the broadcasts addressed nothing but the interaction and drama of racers and teams and dwelled largely on a few personalities. Anything inconsequential to the story was ignored.

Then we evolved into the Euro coverage approach here in America, taking gun-to-flag feeds and putting great commentators on to hopefully make us interested, recap often for freshly joining viewers, and raise our blood pressure with their colorful approach. Simply put, live is very much a continuous visual with running commentary, and non-live a very strong story narrative. We like stories. This is the brilliant X Games TV approach for ESPN: impossible to fast-forward through, but it’s made up of nothing but compelling action. Cycling is a strategy sport and the narrative approach provides the perfect vehicle to show our greatest asset.

We must only ask one question: which approach will draft the biggest audience, grow our ranks, make our events and teams and racers more valuable, and become the best vehicle for sponsors a sport can be?

Yes, we’ve already done it

David Michaels created the epitome of this leading-edge, documentary-style programming at the 1982 Coors Classic for CBS, with newbie reporter John Tesh’s commanding voice, compelling reality scripting, and a Julliard-stoked custom music soundtrack elevating the pace. After making great TV out of a very unknown secondary sport with “evil” Russians and Alexi Grewal’s empty water bottle, and “Sherpa” Colombians, consummating with a thrilling, live Davis Phinney victory in front of throngs and a typical, amped up Phinney interview, the Michaels/Tesh duet were drafted to do the same for the Tour de France. The Tour had previously had only live Euro feeds with Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin voice-overing via telephone.

The Yanks came in with a very American TV swagger — to reveal from the inside a sport most Americans knew nothing about. They created personalities out of a ponytailed son of a professor and a brash American champ who had been shot turkey hunting by a family member. Phew. We had a vested interest in them; we knew them and cared. Their programming approach helped us find the sport’s dramatic, strategic intrigues and reveal them with all the edgy bravado a wide demographic of American TV viewer thirsted to see.

They created nothing that was not rolling on the streets; they only picked and chose what teased a vast public’s sporting tastebuds. They programmed, not for cycling viewers, but viewers who just loved great action and compelling narratives. And it worked. Five Emmys! They took what happened that day and focused viewers, not on a mostly rolling pack of splintered breaks, but weaving in the worthy moments. And no, it was not an ESPN-like highlights game package either; no way, it was the real story, fully told with respect for the viewer by not asking them to do all that live coverage asks from the uninitiated. The key was that they programmed for viewers that were cycling unqualified and never offended those who were.

He cried on TV

There is no more perfect example of one of the great moments in sports that had it been covered live, very likely would never have been seen. The story we were shown was not a pack of 120 Dutchies, Italians, and Belgians; it was about young American Greg LeMond, queued for a superhero’s ascent, being told on the road by his coach out a car window (as we witnessed from Michael’s camera, feet away) to throw the win and back-pedal in deference to his legendary older team leader, Bernard Hinault. What? Great TV! The beer-fisted Iowan and San Fran runner were treated to this no-tune-out rapture of pure sports drama, which ended in a bitter, distraught American pouring out tears and his heart about this injustice. This was not a filmic-looking, timeless, big-screen documentary. It was very present, early reality TV. It’s what people want and it’s what cycling has.

The LeMond story was not invented by writers, just told by them, and yes dramatically, as it deserved. And here’s the deal: no one had to ever see a cycling race to understand, to feel and sympathize with LeMond. You always want viewers to emotionalize your brand, to retell the story later, even years later. I could only imagine if the Lance run of Tours had been broadcast in this focused reality docu-drama format. What content! But so much of it was never seen as we trained our viewers to wait for some blazing live showdown, embedded in hours of “piano” countryside non-action.

Right here in Colorado is the best current example from last year’s Pro Challenge: a 103-mile stage from Golden through Boulder, up the mountains, and back. Aired live, this race was roughly 90 minutes after commercials. Shortly into the first climb, a break of 14 went away for near the rest of the show, only to get diced up in the last minutes up a steep mob-scene lining Flagstaff Mountain.

One does not need much of an imagination to consider what a post-produced show could look like with that precious network airtime. The great moments in that race were extraordinary, epic, beyond-Euro … but yet the viewers endured over an hour of a pack of 14 riding tempo. Did we actually feel the psyche and nerves, the cast expanded to include nail-biting famous cycling parents, passionate celebrities, ardent and animated fans cramming the road in epic numbers impressive to anyone? Kapow, a cameraman was catapulted into the air when his motorbike was rear-ended at 20 mph — caught completely on film and never shown — and of course, the stories coursing their way through the intense racing action. Live coverage can never tell them in a way regular people (and us, too?) will care about. We should not distort the sport; just help viewers see all of it, the best of the best.

So it’s our decision: live coverage of roll-the-dice content with breathless racers posturing for post-race interviews, or a completely inside-out undressing of the real story of the day, of the intrigue of 103 racers from 11 countries competing in rarified air, descending on paper-thin tires at 60 mph on gravel-strewn roads, lightning cracking nearby. Reveal the sport no one gets to see, with no racer allowed to avoid cameras — we are in everyone’s face. We play our sport for the TV audience, they see everything … except hours of non-action on the road. We draw them into the experience.

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FILED UNDER: Commentary

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