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Sponsorship Crisis: Pro Tour's Death Knell?

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CSC's decision to walk away from Cycling comes at an ominous time for the sport's financial base, and for the Pro Tour in particular. With the Pro Tour's original licenses' 4-year terms expiring at the end of this season, so too do the financial guarantees that went with them. According to Cycle Sport's season preview, no fewer than 13 teams have yet to secure future financial support after this year.

Now this list includes teams like Euskaltel-Euskadi and Lampre and Silence! Lotto, whose sponsors have given no indication they plan to flee the sport (IIRC). But it also includes teams like High Road -- already without a sponsor -- and CSC, Gerolsteiner, Liquigas, Credit Agricole, and maybe others who know their funding is going to have to come from someplace else.

Meanwhile, here's a short list of reasons companies might be reluctant to get on board: a sinking economy (world? or just US?), uncertain investment returns thanks to the split with the grand tours, risk of total loss and bad PR from a doping scandal, and an onerous set of guarantees demanded by the UCI. In short, companies may want to invest in Cycling but only if they can get better guarantees or the choice of getting out.

The biggest roadblock to sponsorship has to be the Pro Tour, which raises the question: is it about to die? ASO is clearly playing out its power maneuver all the way to the end, and if they succeed without repercussion, you can bet RCS will be next. Gone, then, will be the guarantee the UCI delivered in part for a few years of starts in all the important races. Arguably, that guarantee has already ceased to exist.

But there IS a way forward for teams and potential sponsors: the Slipstream Way. Thanks to their acclaimed clean-sport commitment and roster of useful (if not quite star-quality) veteran riders, they have become a de facto Pro Tour team, raking in at least as many invites as they can actually handle. By holding a continental pro license and partially-formalized UCI "wild card" status, they haven't been forced to make the same financial commitment to the failing Pro Tour structure. Politically, they're in a much-envied no-man's land, watching McQuaid and Prudhomme destroy the sport from the sidelines. What's not to like?

Imagine, then, teams like Riis Cycling and High Road and whatever becomes of Liquigas in the same position. Assuming the mega-sponsor isn't waiting to step in, can't they just blow off the Pro Tour and sign on sponsors at a more affordable, short term level? No way do they not get invited to every race of consequence, regardless of their status. Instead of a slip of paper from the UCI, these teams would feature race-start guarantees in the bodies of Bennati, Pozzato, the Schlecks, Sastre, Cancellara, Kirchen, Burghardt, and on and on. At some point the power follows the top riders, and the races wouldn't accept hastily-assembled "Pro Tour" teams of lesser riders in place of non-Pro Tour teams featuring the elites.

I'm just a humble, distant blogger, so it's always possible I'm missing something, and maybe this end-game was foreseen all along. But the growing sponsorship crisis seems to be playing directly into the hands of ASO and friends, or at least clarifying for fog-brained observers like me where this is all headed. With each passing day and each sponsorship departure, ASO's total victory over the UCI seems closer at hand.

I still say this sucks. ASO deserve their share of the pie, for all they've done to promote and preserve the sport's great races. But the cost of forcing the sport to genuflect before their benevolent throne is a return to the days when sponsors came and went, when riders saw salaries go unpaid, and when instability carried with it its own insidious pressure to win now. The Pro Tour, for all its flaws, promised the kind of ballast the sport requires in an era where more cooperation and commitment -- not less -- is needed to slay the doping dragon. Why ASO felt it necessary to kill the Pro Tour, instead of reforming it into a structure they can accept, is something I will never understand.