Cycling needs some of the NFL’s “League Think” philosophy

In an interview with Shane Stokes of Velonation, AIGCP President Luuc Eisenga reiterates the need to continue the spirit of cooperation between the sports’ various stakeholders, and to find a way to stabilize the finances of cycling teams.

Yes, the AIGCP must continue their work with the UCI and race organizers to reform the sport’s model. But teams could do much more to improve their own cooperation internally. ProTour and ProConti teams already bring in over €300 million annually to fund their budgets. Teams spend that money in a relatively unrestrained environment compared to successful professional sport leagues. It is instructive to look at a  successful model used by a closed league of teams, the Nation Football League of the United States.

The NFL’s “League Think” Philosophy

In the early 1960s then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle led the NFL to adopt a scheme to share revenues among the league’s teams–the first of the major sports leagues to do so–and thus began an era of collectivism among individual team owners that came to define the NFL’s approach for the next four decades.

Under the NFL’s “League Think” philosophy individual owners pooled resources and shared profits to generate a product that, as a whole, was much more valuable than the sum of its parts. The financial parity among teams that resulted from this philosophy enhanced the competitiveness of the NFL as a whole, thereby fostering the massive popularity still enjoyed by the League today.

The largest source of an NFL team’s revenue is from the TV broadcasting deal: each team’s rights are pooled, sold to the networks, and split evenly amongst all of the League’s teams, regardless of a team’s number of appearances, on-field record, or its TV ratings drawing power.

NFL gate receipts are split between the home team and the league pool. 66% of ticket sales revenues are retained by the home team while the other 34% goes to a pool which is divided equally among all teams in the league.

The NFL also collectively negotiates sponsorship and licensing deals with the money being split evenly among all teams. Anheuser-Busch reportedly pays the NFL $200 million per year (including up to $50M in cash rights fees and $150M in marketing, media, and team spending commitments) to be the Official Beer of the NFL. Last year Nike signed a deal ($1.5B over 5 years) to replace Reebok as the league’s official uniform and on-field apparel provider, as well as the producer of sideline-personnel apparel and fan gear. Each individual team is not left to negotiate its own deal with a uniform supplier.

Combining the streams mentioned above, “League Revenue” accounts for more than 60% of a typical team’s income. The MLB, NHL, and NBA also have a form of revenue sharing but the NFL model is the most aggressive among the Big 4 leagues and is credited with the NFL achieving the most competitively balanced league, as measured by the largest percentage of league members appearing in the post-season playoffs tournament over the past decade.

TdF 2014: Wiggins vs. Froome?

Plenty of ink will be spilled on the continuing drama (some real, some imagined) surrounding the competition for leadership of Sky’s Tour de France squad. But the subheading above refers to an imaginary TdF where Wiggins and Froome are on different teams, a scenario I believe would be reality if pro cycling teams took on a bit of the League Think philosophy.

If, like every major sports league in the United States, Pro Cycling applied an inter-team revenue sharing scheme fans would see each race contested by a larger number of potential winners, with each supported by a relatively weaker cast of domestiques. As no NFL team can afford to sign multiple “Elite QBs” like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, cycling teams would not stockpile Grand Tour contenders.

Imagine if July brought a matchup between Wiggins and Froome. The previous two TDF champions racing cobbles, mountains, and a 50+km TT to settle the score before Paris. Imagine Richie Porte leading Orica-Greenedge at that same TdF instead of riding the Giro for Sky.

Would spreading GC talent across the league be the end of super trains shepherding team leaders through the mountains? Would GC contenders become more exposed and racing become less predictable? At the very least, a Froome-Wiggins rivalry would sell a hell of a lot of newspapers in the lead up to the Tour de France and isn’t that why the race was founded?

Conclusion

The sports enterprise is a joint effort requiring cooperation between teams to generate league revenues. NFL owners have rightly concluded that creating a marketing monopoly and sharing profits is better than leaving teams to fend for themselves with a few rising to the top of the heap through built-in historical and/or geographical advantages. How would cycling be different if team owners collaborated to compete against each other on the road but, off the road, collectively compete against sports like tennis, golf, and sailing for audience share and sponsorships?

Is the UCI leadership accountable to pro cycling team owners?

INRNG provides an excellent breakdown of Monday’s news that the Malaysian federation has proposed an amendment to the UCI constitution which would allow any two National Federations to nominate a candidate to stand for President of the UCI. The communiqué from UCI General Director Christophe Hubschmid also included the related piece of news that incumbent UCI President Pat McQuaid has received nominations from Thailand and Morocco.

INRNG’s piece tells of how the nomination process has lead to this latest move by McQuaid, describes the strategy, gives odds on the successful adoption of the amendment, and even presents two ways McQuaid’s opponent Brian Cookson could respond.

I don’t have anything to add to the well-written piece other than to say you should read it.

Instead, I’d like to take Monday’s news as an opportunity to point out the influence demonstrated by delegations from Thailand, Morocco, and Malaysia over the process for selecting the leader of the UCI—the body that governs, among many cycling disciplines, men’s professional road racing—while the ProTour and ProContinental teams and their athletes have no place in the process to nominate or elect the UCI President.

Compare this to Roger Goodell (NFL Commissioner) or David Stern (NBA Commissioner). Both are endowed with tremendous power and latitude to operate once in office but, critically, each is elected by the team owners of the respective leagues. The Commissioner necessarily forms productive working relationships with each team owner and franchise organization–their primary constituents.

The selection of the UCI President is problematic for ProTour and ProContinental teams for two reasons:

  1. The UCI President is not directly accountable to the team owners and athletes—those most directly invested in the success of men’s professional road racing; and
  2. The federations that do nominate and elect the UCI President have far more than only the concerns of men’s professional road racing on their mind

The UCI governs men’s, women’s, road, track, cyclocross, mountain, BMX, paracycling, and more. Each of these disciplines is separate from the other–the only common thread being the action happens on two wheels. The athletes in each discipline compete at different events and for different titles. In practice, the UCI President and the organization he/she leads serves a diverse array of masters from a diverse array of nations that participate in a diverse array of cycling disciplines.

Again, compare to the NFL where the Commissioner serves only a set of team owners who at the least share the common goal to operate a successful sports league.

Can Brian Cookson fix the UCI?

Many fans of men’s professional road racing are optimistic that Brian Cookson will be a fresh start after the many embarrassments of the Pat McQuaid era. Even some team owners like Slipstream’s Jonathan Vaughters have openly supported Brian Cookson’s candidacy. While I agree that Brian Cookson is likely more competent than Pat McQuaid, regardless of the identity of the leadership the UCI remains a cumbersome worldwide governing body overseeing multiple (mostly amateur) sports. The leader of the UCI will split his/her attention among multiple sports and his/her performance will ultimately be judged by the member federations of the UCI—not the teams and athletes.

Is men’s pro road racing ready for a new leadership structure similar to what is seen in major pro sports around the world? One that is neutral to the fortunes of any particular team, but is directly accountable to those most invested in the sport—the teams and athletes?

Teams want ‘clear and credible governance’

The AIGCP—Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels—is the association of top teams and the closest thing to a “league office” in pro cycling today. While Jonathan Vaughters served as Director of the AIGCP he butted heads with the UCI on a number of issues, the most well-documented being the race radios ban. The episode occasioned public statements on twitter calling for an increased degree of self-governance, but two years later and from the outside things look unchanged. AIGCP’s current Managing Director is Luuc Eisenga— notably not currently affiliated with any pro team, unlike predecessors Vaughters and Patrick Lefevere, who were/are central figures to the Garmin and QuickStep programs.

Luuc Eisenga, AIGCP President

In statements made to cyclingnews.com Eisenga said: “I would see no need for such a resolution. There are two candidates who have made some clear statements, in the past and the present, about how they want to run the sport. That should be enough for the delegates to make a balanced assessment…Cycling will benefit from clear and credible governance. The sport has gone through some rough times, the future can only be bright if there is a fair share for all stakeholders including teams. The AIGCP want ‘clean riders in balanced races’ and a sustainable, stable financial base for teams, so they can have the healthy environment for their riders. More stability is key to the (financial) health of the sport.”

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