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Eleven WorldTour teams unite in Velon, a joint commercial venture

Eleven WorldTour teams have come together to form a new commercial venture, titled Velon, aimed at stabilizing the business model of professional cycling.

Once titled Project Avignon, which rose from the ashes of the ill-fated World Series of Cycling breakaway league, Velon’s founding members include Belkin, BMC Racing, Garmin-Sharp, Giant-Shimano, Lampre-Merida, Lotto-Belisol, Omega Pharma-Quick-Step, Orica-GreenEdge, Team Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo, and Trek Factory Racing.

The fact that many of these teams — Belkin, Garmin, Lotto, Omega Pharma, and Giant — will see major name changes in 2015 underscores Velon’s primary objective, which is to create a more sustainable business model that is not entirely dependent on sponsorship revenue.

Graham Bartlett, the former head of business development, business affairs and licensing at the Union of European Football Associations, and a former sports marketing director at Nike, has been appointed as Velon’s chief executive officer.

“We need to stop being 95-percent reliant on the team sponsorship model,” Bartlett told VeloNews in an exclusive interview Monday. “That’s the key to reform.”

Teams that are not involved with Velon include Ag2r La Mondiale, Astana, Europcar, FDJ.fr, Katusha, and Movistar.

Bartlett told VeloNews that Velon is open to working with the other WorldTour teams that share Velon’s objectives and values.

The two foremost initiatives that Velon is focused on include adding much-needed race action to the sport’s television production, via on-bike cameras and telemetry, and working with the UCI to streamline the race calendar, to create a “season-long narrative” which fans can easily understand.

Bartlett points to its first success, earlier this year, when teams met with race organizers and the UCI, as well as IMG Media and its InCycle video magazine program, to implement the use of on-board cameras at the Tour de Suisse, Tour de France, and Vuelta a España.

Velon owns a share of the InCycle video program, Bartlett said.

“Velon has an arrangement with InCycle. IMG came to one of the teams in the Avignon group and made a proposal,” he said. “That team answered, it doesn’t make sense for just our team, it makes sense for the whole group. So we did a deal with IMG for Tour de Suisse, and a different deal for the Tour, the Vuelta, the Eneco Tour, those deals were all separate.”

Bartlett said that the UCI’s lifting of its rules prohibiting on-bike cameras during the 2014 season is an example of how the teams associated with Velon can work together with race organizers and the international federation.

“There are three parts to this,” Bartlett said. “The teams bring the bike, and anything on the bike belongs to the teams. The teams are competing in someone else’s race, so it’s important to partner with them as well. The third part is the governing body, so you have to take three positions. But if you lose the teams, you have nothing. Everything flows from the teams. The UCI was very good this year, they were proactive, and we saw that they gave derogation to existing regulations.”

While it’s difficult to quantify how those initiatives would generate additional revenue, Bartlett said that the formation of Velon is a critical first step in addressing the commercial needs of pro teams.

Orica-GreenEdge’s on-bike footage from the cobblestone stage of this year’s Tour de France, for example, was viewed over 108,000 times.

“The use of on-bike cameras, on its own, is not a particularly lucrative asset,” Bartlett said. “If you look at it, in isolation, it’s not going to do much. But if you want to bring the race alive, you want to see the data, the telemetry. You need to bring the fans inside the sport, like they’ve done in Formula One, allowing the viewer to see inside the cars. You need the excitement and education to engage that fan base, to bring these things together. Our intention is to bring those things to race organizers — new products, new ideas, to create new revenue streams. It’s a process. It takes time. We know we’re not going to get rich overnight. This really has to focus on how to change an economic model that’s existed for 100 years.”

All 11 teams involved with Velon are also members of the Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels (AIGCP). Asked to explain the differences between Velon and the AIGCP, Bartlett said that it ultimately comes down to commercial interests.

“We are both organizations of teams, and all Velon are members of the AIGCP,” Bartlett said. “The AIGCP must act in the interest of all its members, from the WorldTour and Pro Continental ranks, it has an obligation to all of those teams, and to the welfare of all of those teams, to represent them at stakeholders meetings with UCI. Velon is doing something different. With the AIGCP, they find it hard to gather together the rights of all its members, quite hard to do with just 11 teams. Given the number of pro teams, I think it would be expecting too much from the AIGCP to orchestrate a collective rights deal with race organizers; it would be too creaky, and it wouldn’t hold together.

“With Velon, there are a certain number of teams that share common interests, and we will seek to negotiate our position in terms of those rights, in terms of the commercial element, to provide more stability for those members, for those teams, and I think it’s impossible to do that with AIGCP. It’s there for a good reason, but it’s not a commercial business. We work well together, we’re in touch with them a lot. We have an open and constructive dialogue; there is no conflict.”

As reported by Cyclingnews.com, several of the sport’s major stakeholders, including the AIGCP, met in Paris on November 13 to discuss major calendar reforms for the sport that could begin as soon as 2017. Many of these concepts date back to the now-defunct World Series of Cycling, and fall in line with Velon’s vision of a season-long narrative that would eliminate overlap of existing events, with the possibility of one major, season-ending final event.

Part of reforming the race calendar, Bartlett said, might also involve restructuring the current UCI points and rankings models, which he said are complicated, and might be “out of sync” with a potential future season-crescendo event. As it currently stands, pro cycling’s marquee event, the Tour de France, is held in July, directly in the middle of the race calendar.

Bartlett said that he and his Velon colleagues are fully aware of the challenges of uniting the fragmented universe of professional cycling, where riders, teams, sponsors, race promoters, and the national and international federations all have a voice in the sport’s direction.

As the model currently stands, sponsors provide the money required to run teams; teams provide the athletes and equipment needed to contest the events; event organizers provide the venue and control the TV broadcast rights; and the UCI sets the rules and regulations on how and when the sport is contested and controlled.

Bartlett stressed that Velon is in no way a reform party, nor is it an effort to fill gaps in sustainability that the sport’s governing body have not addressed.

“From my perspective, the UCI is a strong facilitator, but to be fair to the UCI, it’s not their responsibility to change the economic model for the teams, it’s the teams’ responsibility,” Bartlett said. “We would hope they help us, and that they don’t stand in our way, and they haven’t, but we have no problem with the UCI. What we’re looking to do can only be done from the teams. We don’t expect the governing body to increase revenue models for the teams, or to ensure financial stability. It’s unrealistic to look at that model and expect that’s how it will be done.”

In a press release announcing the new business venture, distributed by Velon’s PR agency SHIFT Active Media, several team managers and riders address the aim of the organization, including Jim Ochowicz (BMC Racing), Jonathan Vaughters (Garmin-Sharp), and Luca Guercilena (Trek Factory Racing), as well as Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and Chris Froome (Sky).

“What’s most interesting, I think, is that all of these teams have signed over their participation rights to Velon,” Vaughters said. “It’s an interesting aspect. The AIGCP is a voluntary confederation. Velon is an actual corporation. In our case, Slipstream is a shareholder, and has a board member, as does every team. But participation decisions will be made by Velon, not by individual teams. This makes this a realistic entity to change the landscape.”

However not every team is on board with Velon’s mission, including top French teams Europcar, FDJ.fr, and Ag2r.

“There is always an effort to make pro cycling a pro-style NBA league,” Europcar manager Jean-René Bernaudeau told L’Equipe on Monday. “I’m against it.”

L’Equipe is owned by ASO, which also owns the Tour de France and controls the lion’s share of TV rights in pro cyclng.

As for why the name was changed from Avignon to Velon, Bartlett said the working title, based on the location of the group’s initial meetings, sounded “like a travel business.”

“We couldn’t go out the door with that name,” Bartlett said. “This is a new brand, and a new name with a more consumer-friendly aspect. It has to appeal to a fan base. Velon is about moving cycling forward — think Velo, for bike, and ‘onward’ — and the logo is in the shape of a prism, which is similar to a bike frame, but also symbolizes looking at cycling through a different lens.”