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A VERY NECESSARY (R)EVOLUTION

Recently I became a fully paid up, lycra-clad member of the cycling community. And it strikes me that there might not be another sport so out of touch with my generation.

Using the sport’s own parlance, cycling is getting dropped. Participation isn’t the problem – British Cycling report a 1.7m increase in regular cyclists since 2008. No, I think there is a more fundamental problem.

There is no emotional investment in the sport. The Brompton bike commuter, Box Hill weekend warrior or Richmond Park Strava guru have no connection to the professional elite.

Let’s address the elephant in the room immediately. I don’t think this is because of cycling’s well-documented history of doping scandals, although the ongoing Jiffy bag saga doesn’t help much.

Perhaps the biggest issue is how the sport is broadcast, particularly the prestigious Grand Tours (the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España).

Mainstream sports now accommodate our dwindling attention spans by producing high-quality, high-value highlights, real-time highlights content. Highly watchable, easily shareable and in/on-demand.

Cassandra say that younger audiences are more likely to follow sport via social media (68%) than watch it live on TV (50%).

By contrast, I could watch this year’s Giro D’Italia in one of three ways:
1. Spending up to six hours that I don’t have (I work in an agency for God’s sake) watching the live broadcast on a pay TV channel I don’t have a subscription to (Eurosport)

2. Waiting for 22:00 when I could watch Jonathan Edwards host the hour-long highlights package on Quest (a channel I’d never heard of before)

3. Watching a five-minute highlights package that doesn’t even have commentary on the Cycling Weekly website

Radical innovation isn’t necessary, but cycling needs to at least be brought up to the standards being set. Broadcasters will point to stage-racing as ill-suited for on-demand coverage. Six hours, with the peloton in formation for most of it, is a long time to wait for the excitement of a bunch sprint to the finish.

To be fair to cycling, this isn’t a problem unique to them. The IOC – custodian of the greatest sporting event on the planet – is struggling to reach younger audiences. Golf is suffering the same affliction.

Enter Velon – a collection of World Tour teams including Team Sky that have acknowledged this and reacted with the Hammer Series.
Three race disciplines over three days (the Hammer Climb, Hammer Sprint, and Hammer Chase) have distilled the most exciting elements of the sport into one event. It has the potential to become the next Twenty20.

This simple, short format produced some frantic racing at the inaugural Hammer Sportzone Limburg. Team Sky claimed the victory during the final event, edging out rival Team Sunweb by a matter of metres.

The riders’ suffering on crossing the line is plain. Velon have found a way to give this meaning, sharing rider data (power, cadence, heart rate and speed) across their website, app, and social channels. Onboard GoPro footage should be the crowning glory of the riders’ newfound connection with their fans.But it isn’t. Not for me.The crucial missing ingredient is storytelling. For too long the cycling narrative has been nothing but negative. Lance Armstrong and his infamous US Postal team have done significant damage, but there has been no attempt to recover.

There are stories to be told as well. Mark Cavendish is a former World Champion. He is 4 Tour de France stage wins behind the legendary Eddy Merckx’ total of 34.

We’ll have to wait until next year to see if he goes past it after retiring due to injuries sustained from a crash caused by talismanic World Champion Peter Sagan.

However. His riding style has also courted controversy. He has been accused of brashness, even arrogance ("when journalists at the Tour de France ask me if I am the best sprinter, I answer yes”). He is married to a former glamour model.

He is as charismatic as he is talented. But we don’t hear about any of this.

We have been spoiled by the ongoing success of British Cycling and British cyclists and so their stories have been lost amongst the medals and les maillots jaunes whilst we root for the underdog.

The rise of boxing, in tandem with the rise of Anthony Joshua, is testament to the power of storytelling. What was once a minority sport has been made mainstream by the man that still lives in a council flat with his mum.

It is an interesting idea that a brand could come in and play the role of storyteller; becoming endemic to the sport, creating the missing connection and increasing fans’ emotional investment in the sport and riders.

Crucially, however, it must be the right brand. Values must align and stories must be complementary. Something to cut through the cluster of B2B logos currently plastered across the riders’ kit would be a welcome relief as well.

Don’t waste the Hammer Series. Work with an innovative broadcaster; a partnership with Vice would be a real break with tradition. Peel back the curtain, work with influencers as well as athletes. Bring the reams of data to life and we will take notice.

Velon have a huge role to play in cycling’s millennial makeover. They should be saluted and applauded for the role they have already played. But storytelling is the final, crucial missing ingredient in interesting a notoriously disinterested audience.

Get the stories right and the sport will be rewarded with the attention long denied it. Build it and we will come.

Feeling the Force

Liberty Media, who completed their $8bn acquisition of Formula One in January, are beginning to deliver on their promise to attract a new generation of fans to the sport.From creating a more inclusive and entertaining experience for racegoers, to looking beyond direct commercial gain to fully embrace social media and the proposed launch of an OTT channel (as well as making some very smart behind the scenes hires), Formula One is certainly moving in the right direction.

And in this new dawn for F1, one team is making giant strides off the track. With a striking new pink livery, Force India is undergoing a transformation that goes far beyond the aesthetics of the car. Through a savvy commercial strategy, they are putting themselves at the forefront of the Liberty millennial revolution.

Amongst the blue-chip brands, whose logos have adorned the cars across the grid for decades, Force India have quietly been attracting a new breed of partner – and one seldom seen in the paddock before Liberty Media entered the fray; those with a target audience under the age of 30. The illusive and oft-mentioned millennial.Menswear label Farah has been brought on as Official Apparel Partner, bringing to life the partnership through their #RaceReady campaign; “a six-part content series profiling the men behind the scenes of the world’s most stylish sport”. They have also announced deals with designer eyewear brand LDNR and Diageo, as well as a prominent charity partnership with Breast Cancer Care to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the famous pink ribbon.

But the deal which stands out is the recently announced partnership with SPORTbible. Part of the LADbible Group, SPORTbible has become one of the largest communities and distributors of content for sports fans in the world. According to Quantcast, SPORTbible reaches an impressive 2.7m people monthly, of which almost 65% are under the age of 34. The partnership will see SPORTbible given exclusive access to the team to create an array of content, including interviews competitions and behind the scenes video, which will be pushed across their burgeoning social channels.

One would assume that these partnerships may be below many of the inflated rights fees that we see across the grid, placing more emphasis on the reciprocal value that they will receive by association with these brands rather than upfront investment.For partners like Farah and LDNR, it gives Force India credibility and momentum. Brands want to appear alongside other like-minded brands and are likely to seek out teams who have a stable of sponsors who fit their values. We saw a similar situation in our work with Martini, whose very visible title partnership with Williams F1, helped to make Williams a more attractive prospect for sponsors such as Rexona/Sure and Hackett.

For SPORTbible, the association has the potential to enhance the whole sponsorship proposition at Force India. Firstly, it gives potential new partners (as well as the current stable) significant additional exposure to a younger audience and a ready-made activation platform; both of which are extremely valuable negotiating tools. Secondly, if SPORTbible can help Force India to develop a more sophisticated approach to data capture and segmentation, access to this database, full of rich customer data, becomes a very valuable part of any sponsorship proposal and something which not many rightsholders are able to match.

The shift in livery is also unlikely to be a whimsical choice but one made with commerciality in mind. Whilst certainly attractive to Indian brands, the Indian flag inspired livery of past seasons will no doubt have steered potential sponsors away in fear of not feeling a natural part of what was a heavily Indian stable of partners. There are even strong rumours, at the time of writing, that owner Vijay Mallya is also considering changing the teams name in order to widen the commercial appeal. One thing is not in doubt; their current choice of livery will certainly help them to stand out from the crowd.

What this new strategy does is not only open-up a new and potentially very valuable audience for Force India, with a monetizable relationship that could last decades, it also opens the door to a raft of new ‘B2C’ brands who want to reach millennials at scale. And as first-movers in this space, Force India are extremely well placed to reap the financial benefits.And crucially, this incremental revenue will help a team who have been plagued by financial concerns in recent times to safeguard their future. Concerns which would be magnified if they were to lose the sizeable revenue from numerous Mexican brands that come with driver Sergio Perez, should, as rumoured, one of the bigger teams come calling.

All of this happily coincides with an upturn of fortunes on the track. Indeed, in a world where there is a gulf in levels of spending between teams, Force India are, pound for pound, arguably the best team on the grid this season.

Formula One is changing and Force India may just have put themselves in pole position in the Liberty Media revolution.