Interview by Chris Fontecchio and Jen See.
Welcome to the third episode in Podium Cafe's interview with Jonathan Vaughters. In these final two parts, we turn the conversation to the business of cycling and focus on the nuts and bolts of running a top level cycling team. Here, we talk about keeping sponsors happy and maintaining Garmin-Cervélo's anti-doping program.
Without sponsors, there's no bike racing, and team managers spend a significant amount of time ensuring that the funding continues to flow. At the same time, cycling offers a unique platform for sponsors, and Vaughters explains why. He also tells us why an American team doesn't necessarily have to win races in the United States. Certainly, the Tour de France remains the sport's massive media magnet, but according to Vaughters, winning the Japan Cup also delivers value to the team's sponsors.
Though it has received less media attention recently, the internal anti-doping program continues at Garmin-Cervélo. Don Catlin leads the team's efforts, whose goal is to ensure the integrity of the team's results. Catlin continually refines the testing program, which frequently includes experimental testing protocols. How does Vaughters expect to use the program's findings? Head under the fold, and find out!
PdC: I'm curious as to how you see your target audience, you as owner and manager of the team and also on behalf of your sponsors. You know, American fans are very conditioned to following the Yellow Jersey and I know you guys have a plan for that too, but what is it going to mean to the team and the sponsors if you have a big run through the classics too?
JV: Garmin — and Cervélo, and we could go into other sponsors, Transitions, POM — these are global companies. So the thought from ten years ago where a US company would want to sponsor a bike team because they do well in the Tour de France and the Tour de France is the one big bike race that gets publicity in the United States — that model doesn't apply to us.
You know, if we win Paris-Roubaix, Garmin's ecstatic about that, because that's getting play in France and a lot of Eastern European countries. It's extremely popular and it's covering their market. If we win the Tour of Beijing, that's actually covering a lot of their market. When we won Japan Cup with Dan Martin, they were incredibly happy about that! Garmin is a product that's sold in pretty much every country out there.
So of course the Tour de France generates more publicity than any other race, but we don't have to have a myopic focus on the Tour to make them happy. What we do need to do is be a fairly evergreen team: we need to win some races in March, and we need to win some races in August and in October and hopefully in July.
PdC: So if you're looking for sponsors and you're passing the hat around, your ideal sponsor is really a multinational corporation that wants to sell in Europe and around the world, isn't it?
JV: [Chuckles] I think this is a little bit like the homecoming dance...
PdC: [laughing] Dance with who you brung!
JV: Yeah, it's like, I don't go in saying this is what I want in a sponsor, it's more like this is what the sponsor wants out of me. Garmin is a great long-term partner, they're already talking about extending even longer than 2013. We have an incredible, almost like, a franchise partner with Garmin. They want the team to be theirs for a very long time. That's rare, we all know that. And so, what we need to do is make sure that we provide them with a product that continues to be very valuable. It's a little chicken before the egg on that one.
I dunno, maybe for you, you just picked whatever girl you wanted to go to the homecoming dance with.
PdC: [Chris] Yeeeeahh, that's how it went.
[Jen] I've never taken a girl to the homecoming dance.
JV: Sorry, sorry. Or the boy. Anyway, for me, whoever would go with me, I pretty much went with that. [laughter all round]
PdC: Well, that makes sense though, when you're talking to a sponsor, you're saying, 'what's your interest,' and you're trying to meet that. It's not as obvious as being an American team and so we should appeal to an American audience. Our sponsor is interested in more than that.
JV: Exactly. And I think that's the way the world is really working these days. What makes cycling so attractive is, what sport in the world can you buy the name of the team, and that it is popular everywhere? It's popular in China, it's popular in the United States, maybe not like the NFL, or like ping pong is in China. It is something that is popular and is covered all over the world. The combination of those two things makes it totally unique.
If I were just to say we're an American team, we want to be Americans, what I'm really doing is closing down a lot of options for myself. That's not what cycling is. Cycling is a growing sport in America, and of course I'm American, Doug Ellis is American, so we want it to be an American team with a lot of American riders, and continue to develop American riders.
But at the end of the day cycling is unique for those two reasons — naming rights and the ability to appeal to a global audience in an efficient way. How are you going to buy a 30-second television advertisement, which is in some ways what you're competing with — how much do you think it would cost to buy 100 30-second ad spots in every country in the world? It's ridiculous, and I bet you it's going to cost more than running a cycling team. Then, if you can do that comparison, you end up with, oh wow, cycling really a great value! That's what actually gives us traction with sponsors.
PdC: Do you anticipate any changes to the anti-doping program for this year?
JV: Not really.
PdC: I mean, does it ever really change much? Does it require tweaking from year to year?
JV: I guess, every year we try and get it more and more targeted. You start off with sort of a shotgun approach, and then every year you focus it more on certain times of the year and certain key athletes and whatever.
PdC: So you said more targeted, does that mean in terms of people, and then also you change certain practices and tests?
JV: The whole point of that is to complement the Biological Passport. Say, doing out of competition testing for, I dunno, Sudafed. I see that as a waste of money for what we’re trying to accomplish. But what we can do, because Catlin doesn’t have to live within the constraints of peer validation like a lab does, he can generally do experimental tests on different types of EPO. There’s a whole myriad nowadays with Russian, Chinese, whatever else. He can delve into different gels for different types of EPO. You can do stuff like the plasticizer test even though it’s not ratified. You can do tests for different hormone levels, Testosterone.
The point is, you can push the limits a lot more than you would be allowed to with WADA because we don’t need peer approval with Catlin. And maybe it’s only 85% accurate at this point, but at least, if he comes to me and says ‘I think this looks really suspect,’ can I fire the guy? Probably not at 80-85% probability. Can I pull him out of racing until whatever it is clears up? I can do that.
At the end, you can guarantee the authenticity of the results your team is producing. I think that’s the most important part. A lot of people are focused on the punitive part of anti-doping, but the punitive you have to leave to the authorities. The preventative is equally as important and Catlin certainly helps accomplish that.
PdC: Right, and WADA is taking on a more punitive role so their processes are more formalized and they have to go through the legal part.
JV: Exactly, you’re not going to take a guy to court and blow somebody’s livelihood up, potentially ruin his career, suspend him for two years, over 80% probability.
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On to the grand finale! We will conclude our interview with Jonathan Vaughters tomorrow with more discussion of the business of cycling. In this final part, Vaughters details his ideas for building value for team owners and creating a franchise system in the sport. He'd like to see cycling become a more stable and predictable investment for sponsors and owners.
Check back tomorrow for more!