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Selling Cycling

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Sorry for going heavy on 35,000-foot think-pieces; that'll stop as soon as I get reoriented to Cali. But I've been reading Juicing the Game, a very thorough (if ponderous and under-edited) book about PEDs in baseball. One of the earlier points is about Baseball's inability to market itself, a big error in the face of some pretty slick marketing and heavy, direct competition from the NBA and NFL.

This made me think (again) about Cycling's lack of marketing, as a continuation of my Spy vs. Spy post where I kicked off my new worrying campaign entitled "What about Cycling? Won't someone do something to help Cycling?" I've moved this to extended copy, in case you're sick of the subject already and don't want distractions from the tidal wave of Tour of California posts, already gathering just on the horizon. But if not, read on...

The poster boy for lame marketing strategies in American sports has to be Baseball. Baseball has traditionally been run by a group of owners who run the gamut from staid, white millionaires to staid, white billionaires, averaging roughly 1.8 personality disorders per owner. While other sports took off, while TV was filled with attractive images of Jordan and Favre and Shaq and Rice, Baseball committed itself to suicidal labor conflicts and shunned all efforts to reach out to anyone at all. Only recently has this changed, and baseball is swimming in revenue.

Now, I know analogizing cycling to American sports is dicey, but hey, you think with the brain you have, not the brain you wish you had. So in that vein:

  • Does Cycling do anything to market itself? This is a question for European (or Europe-dwelling) readers. Do you see Boonen's face on the side of city busses in Brussels? Are there TV ads about the sport, or riders-as-pitchmen all over the media? Honestly, I have no way of knowing.
  • Suspecting the answer "not so much," I have to wonder if this is even possible. Does Cycling have a marketing wing? Where would it lie, in the UCI? The UCI seems to be the one place where top teams come together, pooling not only their calendars but a decent amount of money as well. This pile of cash has famously gone toward the new anti-doping Biological Passport campaign, as well as marketing the sport somewhat abstractly to countries not known as Cycling hotbeds. Pat McQuaid has been trotting around the globe touting Cycling as an alternative to, oh, watching Tacraw in Malaysia, or building five-star hotels in Doha. And that's all nice, but someone should be reminding all those footie fans in Europe that Cycling still exists. Battling for eyeballs in non-Cycling countries is like sending the Red Sox around the world to play teams from Holland and Australia and Taiwan, while avoiding any conflict with the Yankees. It's not really what sells.
  • Aside from marketing the sport as a whole, aren't there some marketing efforts already in existence? Actually, I know from experience that teams promote themselves and even employ PR firms. Team sponsorship is a marketing vehicle already, so I imagine the relationship usually carries beyond just wearing the kit. If Milram isn't running spots with Petacchi and Zabel chugging glasses of milk, I'd be shocked. Same goes for races, if the proliferation of emails from the ToC (and from its PR firm GOlin Harris) in my inbox are any indicator. But this does nothing to market the sport as a whole, versus other sports.

As I type, my brain is imagining logging on to PodiumCafe.yahoo.microsoft.com in another decade and starting a post, "Is anyone marketing Cycling?" It's hard to imagine the sport uniting around some of the more sophisticated issues it faces when topics such as its basic structure are fought over like hyenas at a springbok carcass. I can dream of a day when the sport celebrates its stars, pays all its bills and more, enjoys ample sponsorship and TV presence, and spreads the beauty of Cycling across the globe. But I won't hold my breath waiting for it to come true.