Cycling teams in pursuit of new sponsors

Riders in the 2011 Tour De France race their way through the French countryside The Tour has had a chequered time in recent years

The Tour de France has witnessed glory and scandal in almost equal measure over its 100-year history.

The legacy of the period between the early 1990s and mid-2000s - when doping was allowed to become endemic in the sport - is still being felt today.

Despite efforts to escape this past, it is still hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Earlier this week Russian Alexandr Kolobnev denied any wrongdoing after testing positive for banned diuretic hydrochlorothiazide on the Tour.

'Concern'

"The sport is still in a state of transition." says Prof Simon Chadwick, expert in sports marketing and business at Coventry University.

"That's reflected in the relatively benign values for cycling team costs and sponsorship deals, because there is still a concern that any time a scandal might break and it may have ramifications for the sponsors involved."

But for Bob Stapleton, owner of Mark Cavendish's HTC-Highroad team, this should be seen in the context of a wider downturn in sponsorship values.

"Ten to 15 million euros goes a long way, when before it was more like 25 to 50 million," says Mr Stapleton.

He says outside major sponsorships such as Manchester United, prices are down substantially.

HTC-Highroad team owner Bob Stapleton (left) with team member Tony Martin Bob Stapleton of HTC-Highroad says sponsorship values have fallen

When Gerard Vroomen's bike company, Cervelo, moved from being a bike supplier to team sponsor in 2009, it took advantage of the tough climate to sign Carlos Sastre, winner of the 2008 Tour, as their star rider.

"When we started our own team, it was the lowest point, but that also made it possible to have a modest budget and a really good team," says Mr Vroomen.

"Despite all the upheavals in the sport, the return for sponsors has remained very good."

He says while cycling viewership is stable or up in most areas, it has become less expensive to invest in, and thus a good investment.

Merger

The Cervelo Test Team had a strong ethical stance on doping and a modern approach to marketing themselves.

Garmin-Cervelo's Thor Hushovd in the yellow jersey at the 2011 Tour de France The merged Garmin-Cervelo team has had a good start to the Tour

But that was not enough to attract a title sponsor and at the end of 2010, they merged with Garmin-Transitions, another team strongly identified with efforts to clean up cycling's image.

As Garmin-Cervelo they have enjoyed a hugely successful start to the Tour, providing a great boost for their team's sponsors.

'Image' issues

Mr Stapleton admits finding sponsors is a challenge.

"Image is a part of it, economy is a part of it, but those aren't excuses either, we have to find our way to success," he says.

He took over one of the biggest teams, T-Mobile, at a difficult point and made it one of the most successful - but change has not been easy.

Germany's Gerald Ciolek celebrates winning the final stage of the 2007 Tour of Germany T-Mobile withdrew as a cycling team sponsor at the end of 2007

"There were a number of investigations into the team, and their flagship rider, Jan Ullrich, had been withdrawn on the eve of the Tour in 2006. For them that was the make or break point," says Mr Stapleton.

T-Mobile withdrew backing at the end of 2007, leaving Mr Stapleton, a telecoms entrepreneur, to complete his transformation of the team.

He reformed the team around the sport's "best practice" and changed it from being a "very national German-centric team to being truly international, both in athletes and management".

There are now 20 nations represented in the team, mirroring its new multi-national marketing, which has seen it provide a European presence for US outdoor lifestyle firm Columbia.

"HTC is a very international company that wanted to increase their brand awareness worldwide, but particularly in Europe," he adds, referring to his current title sponsor.

Despite this success, he admits that in challenging economic times "there's been a shift to safe, conservative sponsorships that are not going to cause you any problems and you're not going to get criticised about".

'Kept faith'

To highlight these sensitive points, there have been continued media stories about defending champion Alberto Contador and seven-time winner Lance Armstrong.

Contador tested positive for banned substance clenbuterol on the second rest day of last year's Tour.

Start Quote

If Contador was disqualified, then the bad days aren't over”

End Quote Prof Simon Chadwick Coventry University

He was cleared of wrongdoing by the Spanish federation but the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the World Anti-Doping Agency appealed against the verdict.

A Court of Arbitration for Sport decision is due in August.

"If Contador was to win and then be disqualified, the UCI would be incredibly exposed commercially," says Prof Chadwick.

"It's incredibly reliant on partners who have kept faith and trusted that the bad days of doping are over. If Contador was disqualified, then the bad days aren't over."

Seven-time winner Armstrong has retired to find himself facing a US federal investigation into allegations of doping, which he consistently has denied.

But the cyclist tweeted in May: "Never a failed test. I rest my case."

'Exciting personality'

With Armstrong's immense presence no longer around, Mr Stapleton recognises a single name - such as Mark Cavendish - is not enough to grow the sport.

Mark Cavendish wins the seventh stage of the 2011 Tour de France There are calls for cyclists such as Mark Cavendish to fill the gap left by the retired Lance Armstrong

"Cavendish is a good example of what we need - a new credible, exciting personality," says Mr Stapleton.

"I'd love to see a half dozen guys like that because I don't think a single dominating figure is enough."

While the sponsor picture for teams can be volatile, the Tour organiser ASO has attracted deals from global companies.

Nestle's Vittel water and Skoda - part of Volkswagen group - are top-tier sponsors, with a highly visible race presence their reward.

Recently Qatar Airways signed an agreement as an official race supplier, joining a list that ranges from sweets (Haribo) to gas products (Antargaz).

'Taking a lead'

However, another cycling body, the UCI, has faced repeated claims it has not driven change in the sport, limiting its growth.

Start Quote

The Tour has kept it's value because it's your same three weeks in July, the date doesn't change”

End Quote Gerard Vroomen Co-founder Cervelo Cycles

"What we have seen in cycling, it's the individual teams that have instigated the rebrand," says Prof Chadwick.

"In reality it should have been the governing body that was taking a lead."

Mr Stapleton agrees, saying there is "no reliable platform" for sponsors to put their money into.

"They want to know they are stepping into a very well-managed sport with a high level of professionalism," he adds.

But he believes the governing body has not developed the sport's commercial interests in a "predictable and safe way". Nor, he feels, has it established a level sporting playing field.

"Our governing body has struggled with that on both dimensions," Mr Stapleton says.

'Enthusiasts'

But Mr Stapleton does see the sport's participation rate as a plus.

"It's a massive participation sport, 160 million enthusiasts in the US and Western Europe alone. You're marketing to people in a sport they actually do."

And Mr Vroomen sees a broader cultural change, with cycling participation on the increase, which may help bring the money and propel it back into the top tier of sports.

"It's a reflection of the focus on health, obesity and transportation," he says.

"The Tour has kept it's value because it's your same three weeks in July, the date doesn't change.

"The events are so powerful, there's so much history there, you can't kill it."

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