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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

Do we even watch us?

Here’s the harshest reality of all: the no. 1 selling technology device is the DVR. Very few watch appointment television anymore. It’s a timeless medium now. Research I’ve been unscientifically conducting for two years is striking: racers, team managers, federation staff, agents, sports writers, and fans almost universally watch cycling on DVRs, and [drumroll] often at high speed. Even we, the core, do not watch our own presentation in real time. So instead of our insistence to provide viewers everything all day, viewers edit up their own shows. Fast-forward here, watch the crash, fast-forward, watch the attack, fast forward an hour, catch the desk commentators, watch the sprint. Have you ever seen anyone fast-forward a drama show? They can’t, the drama is not all visual; it’s in the storytelling. How do you abbreviate a narrative story? You watch it.

And so here we are, in 2013 and trying to figure out how to unsaddle our image caked in puke from our drug-addled past. And while it is easy to forecast doom, wondering why any corporation would want to attach itself to our taint, the truth is, they will latch onto most anything that can help them reach consumers. It is time for us to go on the offensive and take a sport with some of the greatest moments of compelling action and package it for their eyes. Let’s show the best, tell the deep stories, get inside this fast and dangerous and tactically fascinating sport where unfortunately too little evolves over too much time for us to accumulate real long-term fans.

Objections?

I’ve heard every comment about this suggestion to not air cycling live: it feels more important to be live they say, but that should not be the reason we go live. We fear that social media and the Internet provide show-killing results spoilers. All sports are facing this, especially anything time-zone delayed. If the story, how they got to the finish line, is the focus, it becomes a must-watch show.

I hear that the core cycling viewer will reject anything less than crank-by-crank coverage. That’s what Tour Tracker and online distribution are great for: the diehards, and I wholeheartedly believe in that in our outreach mix. Yes to live online and Tracker!

But we must ask ourselves the right question: what is the best way to break our sport down into understandable content with sensational action worthy of people’s time when they are faced with so many options, including Little League baseball? We do not need to look far or wide to be inventive in our storytelling; we need just show the greatest sport in the world without the pressures of livecasting, making sure we cover every break, regardless if it yoyos out to six minutes, only to be caught an hour later. And packaged shows can air in prime spots, not pinned to working day times and competing with summer recreation options forcing everyone to DVR it anyway, and yes, watch it later in 10X. Cycling can be prime-time programming.

Is the problem just TV?

Am I addressing the right solution? Is it really the fact we show live programming, or is it the quality of the races or other variables? The final weekend of a spectacular and by all accounts extraordinarily successful Colorado race on NBC was not a winner on network TV. Yes, Little League had three million more viewers, two rating points higher. So what happened? It was right in the wake of the blush of the Tour de France with last year’s winner racing and fresh young American stars in a most spectacular Colorado setting, racing in marquee mountain resorts. It was even promoted throughout NBC Sports’ Tour coverage. So what didn’t work? Ok, Saturday was not a great time slot and it changed channels for the finish, but Sunday was weekend primetime.

Is it the race? NBC? Announcers? The sport? Or is it indeed that what we show is not universally attractive. We can rule out the race. California’s numbers were low too, in fact the same. We can rule out announcers; we have arguably the best interpreters in sport at our mics.

What I strongly believe is that live, continuous cycling does not fit mainstream American’s taste for entertainment.

My list of reforms for cycling extends well beyond our TV coverage. It includes ways we can directly engage the people watching the race, especially in-between starts and finishes. It’s about our need for more style and fashion and the pulse that skate and board sports have. It’s about completely rewriting the way we use PA announcers and shallow, insider content. It’s about getting promoters to get that today’s sponsorships are about immersion, not impressions. It’s about personalities — much bigger and more flavorful personalities. The sport needs more attitude. More celebrity. We need to exploit our greatest assets. And we need to think of how to make more fans — a lot more.

But right now, cycling needs to survive, find a fresh stride, and motorpace past the carcasses of needle-using cheats into an era when we refuse to show our sport as anything but its very best.

Michael Aisner is a sponsorship and marketing consultant, former owner/promoter of the Coors Classic, and race announcer. He is an inductee to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame and a Korbel Award winner. His most recent projects include his role as production consultant and facilitator on the award-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary, “Chasing Ice.”

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