When rally fever hit Wales, I couldn’t have been happier as the low rumbles of rally car engines returned to our forests. In the lead up to the rally I attended the Rally Forum, which is organised by Broughton-Bretton Motor Club. Big names from the rallying world attended to get interviewed on their season and their thoughts before the big rally took place. The reason I’ve mentioned the rally is because some of the things talked about in the Rally Forum got me thinking about cycling too.
A question that came to mind was;
Is cycling as a sport the problem, or the people in it?
There’s been lots of upheaval in the cycling industry recently, particularly on the road cycling side of things. There’s been teams folding left, right and centre leaving a lot of riders looking for team spots for the 2019 season. JLT Condor and One Pro Cycling just to name a few.
Something mentioned at the Rally Forum was how it is possible to reach the top of rallying as a sport if you’re willing to put the effort in. Someone quoted “if you speak to some of the top football players, they weren’t necessarily the top players on their team when they were young”. It just takes a lot of work to get there. It got me thinking that this is the same across any sport, including cycling.
There’s news articles daily about how cycling is underfunded, that it isn’t fair women get less than men…you get the idea. Big names are always saying “we need to get cycling as a mainstream sport”. And it brings me back to my question of is cycling the problem, or the people in it?
Growing up through the grass roots of racing I’ve seen riders with potential fall out of love with the sport and move on to other things. Others question why they’re not getting sponsorship despite a strong string of results throughout the season. But my view on the situation is that results simply aren’t enough anymore.
Being around many different sports growing up, I don’t have the cycling blinkers on. Keeping on similar themes for example, look at rallying as a sport. The top drivers will be expected to push their sponsors and their team by doing things like ‘Meet and Greets’ with fans and wearing team jackets covered with team sponsors when their not in the car. The teams that have the best relationships with their fans are those with the biggest fan base. The teams that will like ‘tweets’ when fans tag them in pictures. The teams with drivers who will take the time to talk to their fans. A team can have the best results, but if their drivers refuse to speak to anyone, the dream might not last very long. From a business point of view, the fans are who buy the tickets and team merchandise, so they’re what’s bring the money in.
We’ve all been there. There’s a rider we idolise and after a good experience talking to them, we all of a sudden want the products they’re using. Take Coryn Rivera for example, a cyclist who is regularly on social media in team-branded kit finding the positive in every situation. She’s one of the smallest riders in the peloton but was strong enough to take the win at the Tour of Britain, but was extremely humble about it when she did. All of a sudden I loved riding my Liv road bike that little bit more.
Then you look at the likes of Trek Drops Cycling who did something totally out of the blue setting up a British women’s development team, but had one of their top sponsors as Every Can Counts, who they still have to this day. The difference with Trek Drops and their relationship with Every Can Counts is that I know what Every Can Counts is because their riders promote the company and their products. It’s a very topical company since they encourage recycling and even encourage me to turn to cans as aluminium is continually recyclable, unlike plastics.
So many cycling teams have sponsors that I either don’t know about, or are just a name to me, rather than knowing what the sponsor actually does without having to search on the internet. If we want to attract companies to invest in the sport, like they do with football, we need to make sure we’re doing all we can to promote them to make it worth their while.
I only recently found out JLT are an insurance company. How can we expect cycling to grow as a sport if we don’t see sponsorship as a two way thing? We can’t expect companies to sponsor teams or athletes if they’re going to get not a lot in return. I think the cycling industry isn’t very creative either in terms of where it gets sponsorship from. Trek Drops is the only team I can think of who did something a little different. They didn’t just go to companies in the cycling industry. Cycling could grow so much if it ventured into other industries and turned the heads of people in those industries.
That’s obviously at the top level of cycling, but if we come back down to grassroots cycling, maybe young athletes can also change their approach to getting to the top of the sport.
When I interviewed World Rally Championship Driver, Hayden Paddon, a few years ago, he didn’t get an easy route to where he is today. He had a close bond with his Dad, but his Dad told him that if he wanted to rally he would have to fund it himself. When working three jobs as a teenager wasn’t enough, he started approaching local businesses for sponsorship. But he didn’t just provide results, he did demonstrations and car washes. He looked after his sponsors…he didn’t just ‘have’ sponsors.
I question what sponsorship even means anymore. People seem to drop the word into advertising to catch people’s attention, but when you delve deeper all it means is a discounted code to use on products. To me this isn’t sponsorship. It’s a marketing tool to get people to buy and promote products even though they’ve had to pay for them. I’ve seen people get drawn into ‘sponsorship’ where they’ve ended up buying products they’ve never even thought of using before. Just to say they’re ‘sponsored’.
Call me bitter, but I don’t see the point in buying kit just because you’ve got a discount code. What’s the difference between the ‘sponsorship’ code and the codes they might send out monthly in emails. To me this is supporting riders, rather than sponsoring them.
Back when I raced downhill, I was lucky enough to get sponsorship with Fridersinc. From the sponsorship I had team kit I had to wear (and loved to wear) and a custom painted helmet. Nic from Fridersinc even helped with some of my race entries. To me, that was sponsorship and I loved promoting them as a company.
Now you tend to see people drawn into ‘sponsorship’ deals just so they can look more professional by having a sponsor next to their name on the start sheet. Essentially these codes are a way of companies getting cheap advertising by people plastering their product all over social media. When I come to buying new cycling kit these days, I’m much more inclined to buy a product an established name uses. Not because someone’s got a discount code on social media. By established name, think Danny Mcaskill and Endura.
I think thats what puts me off, is you get people drawn in with a discount code with a brand they secretly don’t like the quality of, but they’ll go along with it anyway because they’re ‘sponsored’.
With the likes of Danny Mcaskill, I was more inclined to buy Endura for my brother last Christmas because he was someone who was at the top of their game and needed kit they can trust.
So back to promising athletes making their way through grassroots racing. I don’t think you necessarily need team sponsorship to get to the top of the sport. Granted, having riders you can rely on in a road race is invaluable, but just because you’re not on a team doesn’t mean your restricted to where you can take yourself in the sport.
Try and be a little bit creative.
If you look how big the blogging/social media industry is these days, maybe we can learn a thing or to from it. Brands suddenly want to work with bloggers, who are essentially a personal brand, so you need to build a personal brand of your own. Not only this, look at how you can fund your sport a little bit differently. You might need a little bit of help on the training side of things, so your first thoughts might be ‘I need to get sponsored by a coaching company’. Why not approach this a little bit differently and ask local businesses for sponsorship to fund paying for a cycling coach? You have their company logo on your kit and make sure you promote them as much as you can like Hayden Paddon did. As you grow your sponsorship bit by bit, all of a sudden you could have a handful of companies that help you pay for race entries, or even travelling to races. All of which can be the building blocks to help you get to the top of the sport. We only need to look to grassroots football teams and the logos on their kit to get some inspiration.