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Toyota-United: a New Sponsorship Model?

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Interesting story at VN on the newly introduced domestic squad, Toyota-United. What makes it intriguing is the business model, where (from what I gather) the team is an ongoing, independent entity with its own corporate structure and enough money to survive, while the sponsor provides the budget but is otherwise divisible from the team, if necessary:

"I wanted to create a situation where, if Toyota goes away, we don't go away. I wanted to do something different. That model doesn't work. Sponsors spend millions of dollars building an asset and then it just dissipates."

Tucker believes his model marks a significant change for the cycling industry. Structured in a manner similar to the fan-inclusive models of NASCAR and Formula 1, where each team is its own individual brand supported by a strong corporate partner, fans of the team will have the opportunity to develop a long-term relationship and support the team by subscribing for membership. It's a model currently used by the Basque Euskaltel-Euskadi ProTour squad, and with limited success by the former Flanders-iteamNova.com team.

My local club runs this way, for vaguely similar reasons (don't want to refile with the secretary of state every time we change names). The model raises some key questions in Cycling:

  • Can teams attract "member" fans who stay around?  Even with riders moving as much as they do?
  • Will memberships play a meaningful role in financing the team? [And BTW, what would I get for my membership, a cheap plastic christmas ornament?] Does this give the team brand its own value when the sponsor walks?
  • Are we seeing the merger of sports financing philosophies across the spectrum of all sports?
On this last point, Cycling has traditionally been sponsors-first, compared to the big US sports who traditionally spurned the entire concept of sponsorship so they could own their identities outright.  Now we have Cycling trying to establish more independent identity; meanwhile, sponsorship is showing up more and more in US sports, from the spiderman logo on second base at the all-star game to the complete hijacking of college football bowls.  Identities without banal advertisements are nice, but the fiscal realities are immutable. Perhaps we're seeing these dueling forces coming into balance.

Is it necessary? The premise is that dissolving the team when the sponsorship ends "doesn't work," which I take to mean that the dissolution wastes a brand. Take Fassa Bortolo... is it a tragedy that they just went away and riders dispersed across the Pro Tour?  I think the model for Toyota-United is US Postal, which was never owned by the USPS, it's always been owned by Tailwind Sports, so when USPS walked, Tailwind just attraced another sponsor and kept right on going.

IMHO, I like the continuity the Tailwind model provides.  At least to the American mind, we get very invested in teams and their members, and if the sponsorship turnover just means new kits, that's fine with me. I don't wear pro kits anymore anyway...