“Super league” project, breach of contract “like in football”, aborted merger between behemoths: cycling is questioning itself more than ever about its imperfect economic model which contrasts with the increasingly professionalization of the peloton.
As the races gradually resume their rights, the microcosm is barely recovering from a “turbulent winter”, summarizes Cédric Vasseur, the manager of the Cofidis team.
It was first of all the merger project between two of the biggest armadas, the Dutch team Jumbo-Visma which became Visma Lease a bike and the Belgian formation Soudal-Quick Step which kept the peloton in suspense, before the maneuver hood, to the great relief of those who would have lost their jobs in the affair.
The excitement had barely subsided, the transfer of Cian Uijtdebroeks raised new eyebrows when the new Belgian nugget broke, against all the usual rules in cycling, his contract with the German team Bora-Hansgrohe for join Visma-Lease a bike. “Transfers, I'm against it, I don't want it to look like football,” said Marc Madiot, the boss of the Groupama-FDJ team.
Finally, behind the scenes, another project is stirring, that of the creation of a “Super League”, an old sea serpent brought up to date under the name “One Cycling”. The idea, supported by several leading teams, is to design a new economic model with a reorganized calendar, a redistribution of TV rights and an outstretched hand to new investors.
According to British media, after football, golf and Formula 1, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund (PIF) is now taking a close interest in cycling. However, the obstacles are numerous because any reform project, in addition to receiving the approval of the International Cycling Union (UCI), risks clashing with the race organizers, starting with the all-powerful owner of the Tour de France, Amaury Sports Organization (ASO).
“But the world is changing and our adversaries are not other teams or race organizers, they are football, rugby, the NFL or Formula 1. If we do nothing, we are going to have a problem », Says Richard Plugge, the manager of Visma-Lease a bike and president of the Association of Professional Teams (AIGCP), who is in charge.
According to Plugge, the cycling showcase, rather attractive at the moment with riders like Tadej Pogacar or Mathieu van der Poel, hides a much less flashy back room.
“On the one hand, cycling is doing very well as shown by the arrival of new sponsors,” he says, while Decathlon, Lidl, and recently Red Bull have decided to invest in World Tour teams. “But on the other hand,” adds Plugge, “a large number of organizers and teams are in danger.”
That Jumbo-Visma “came close to bankruptcy” after winning the three major Tours in 2023 says a lot, supports Jonathan Vaughters, the boss of the American team EF Education, who is also campaigning for “a profound change”.
The particularity of cycling is known, that of a sport in which the teams are not only deprived of income linked to ticketing but also of TV rights which go into the pockets of the organizers, which makes them totally dependent on sponsorship.
“The business model is not the best because it really puts structures in difficulty on a recurring basis. If the sponsor decides to change philosophy, the team disappears,” points out Cédric Vasseur.
ASO is regularly in the sights of teams who accuse it of swallowing up the goose that lays the golden eggs. But if the teams are struggling, it is also due to the inflation of budgets and skyrocketing salaries. “The system cannot continue like this because there will be teams that will really disappear,” warns Vasseur.
Like him, Marc Madiot pleads for the establishment of a “salary cap” to avoid a “two-speed cycle”. With on the one hand teams like his – “seventh in the UCI rankings in 2023 and first behind the billionaires and the emirs”. And, on the other, armadas supported by a patron or a state like UAE Emirates where Tadej Pogacar, the highest paid cyclist on the planet, earns seven million euros per year.
“In Italy, there is no longer a World Team. And even at the top of the pyramid, the big guys come to want to associate. This means that the system (...) rests on sand,” insists Madiot, who expects “a lot from the UCI in this area. (...) Otherwise, in not very long, me and my French colleagues will have to disappear.”