Are We Doing Enough to Support Women’s Racing?

Last week, I wrote an article on the women’s Spring Classics, where I highlighted some of the inequalities in the racing calendar. This article led to some interesting debates and a lot of questions. What is clear is that there’s an overwhelming groundswell of people who want equality in sport and genuinely want to watch women’s racing. So, what’s holding us back? In this week’s post, we’ll explore some of the big questions and invite your ideas on how we can answer them.

If we return to the start of the millennium, women’s racing was a rare thing: almost an anomaly, an occasional sideshow, and something that had close to zero sponsor support. Fast forward to the current day and the landscape has changed but, equally, it has not been totally redefined. The majority of key races hold a women’s event and there’s even the odd women’s only event with no male equivalent. On the other hand, there are still a number of key events, for example, three of the five Monuments, where there is no women’s race. And, when we do have a women’s race, it is usually a watered-down version of the men’s. This leads to our first big question:

Should women’s cycling rely on piggyback events, or should it forge its own races with unique characters and appeal?

The UCI Women’s WorldTour (founded 2016) calendar contains 23 events over 52 days of racing. Most of these events are scaled-down versions of the men’s events. If we found sponsors and organisers, could a truly independent women’s calendar hold its own? For example, would you travel or tune-in to see a Women’s Ardennes Classic* with no supporting men’s version? Or, if a women’s Tour de France ran at a different time of year, would the streets and mountains still be lined with millions of avid fans? The evidence suggests we would. The 2017 Women’s WorldTour had 124 million viewers, and 2018 saw 15 of the 23 events broadcast live.

[* Not all Classics are long-established, for example, the Strade Bianchi is a newcomer; so, there’s no reason a new Classic can’t come to fruition.]

Whatever our thoughts, there’s always the question of economics. The Tour de France costs tens of millions of euros, and by any measure that’s a lot of money. In reality, is anyone going to provide that level of investment in the hope that a women’s event might make a return or at least breakeven? I doubt it. That said, one-day races have much lower funding requirements than grand tours, and perhaps it is here that we can prove the viability of commercial women’s racing - that is if we believe that all racing should be commercially viable!

Top-level cycle races generally work on the idea that organisers put together an event where they have to gain sponsorship and income from multiple sources, such as city hosting fees, sponsors, advertisers, television rights, and so forth. The organiser intends on making a profit from the event, whereas the participating teams are generally non-profit making and survive through a mixture of sponsorship, government funding, and other benefactors.

Race organisers can apply for their events to be included on the UCI’s calendars, and if they are successful, this will boost the potential profitability of a race – kind of like promotion to a higher league in football. The UCI has strict criteria for race inclusion and has the option to demote or remove races from their calendars for things such as unethical behaviour. Remember that the UCI is a governing body and not a profit-making entity. So, although the UCI doesn’t directly organise races, it has a deeply woven relationship with race organisers, and it is these organisers that take on the responsibility for attracting sponsors and selling rights. So, this being the case, we have to ask:

“How do we solve the chicken and egg scenario of organisers needing sponsors so as to create viewers, and sponsors needing viewers before providing sponsorship?”

If we accept that sponsors and organisers are commercial entities, there seems to be no straightforward way to solve the funding issue. But things are not always so black and white. Smart business doesn’t just focus on immediate profits, but also invests in the future to ensure its long-term survival. There are, for example, countless businesses that fund educational programs that help train and educate young people who may or may not work for these businesses in the future. Sponsors that support women’s racing today are building long-term relationships that will surely prove profitable in the future. Let’s consider an example. Skoda is a significant sponsor of cycle racing, and they also happen to have a product that has traditionally been promoted to a very male-centric world. But, hang-on we’d put money on the idea that women have as much purchasing power in the car market as men. So, imagine a car manufacturer that actively builds a cheap (compared to many things) long-term relationship with women through a sponsorship program of all the one-day Classics, for example. Madness that forgoes short-term profit? Or, a smart move to build a strong long-term relationship with half of the car buying market? You decide.

“The UCI supports women’s cycling, organisers will hold commercially viable events, and as we’ve illustrated there are financial models that make supporting women’s racing a possibility for sponsors. But, how do we make this happen?”

What we are talking about is change. Not gradual, well-meaning change that takes decades to make an impact, but massive and immediate change. We know that change is required, and we should all be lobbying the UCI to stop tolerating inequality in cycling. If the UCI was to rule that only events that promoted equality – either events with men’s and women’s versions or races where another event balanced it at another point in the year - would be included on its calendars, event organisers would receive a big wake up call. At the end of the day, organisers are always going to take the low-hanging fruit of men’s racing when they have no obligation to try and build a market for women’s racing.

In this scenario, organisers would have to develop the business case to sell women’s events to sponsors. Perhaps they could choose to package both a men’s and women’s event into a single entity. As an example, the sponsor contributes to the Strade Bianchi as a whole; the organiser then decides how to allocate that amount between the men’s and women’s events. Alternatively, the organiser could sell their product as two separate events; surely there are advertisers that may want to be associated with women’s racing instead of men’s.

All this said, organisers will need help to make the transition to an equal playing field. Everyone has a responsibility to help whether they are sponsors, racing fans, cycling teams, sporting organisations, or the riders themselves. If there are enough voices, change will happen. As we’ve seen, there’s no reason why we can’t have equality in cycle racing. What’s needed is for all of us to truly show our desire for things to change and support the organisers and sponsors who are willing to invest in all of our futures through women’s racing.

Photo Credit: John Pierce at PhotoSport International as part of the Women's Tour of Scotland press pack.

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