Today in a new feature I may have just invented, it’s Bad Answers to Weird Questions! And to start off this possible (but not definite) series...my Weird Question is: are we OK with the power structure of cycling?
I can’t explain exactly how this idea occurred to me, but I do think it might have legs. Just today, Mrs. PdC brought this story to my attention, and all I could think of was, see! Lots of people are giving bad answers to weird questions! Right up to the Vicar of Christ!
Pope Francis says choosing pets over kids is selfish https://t.co/RsB0ET4mbO— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) January 5, 2022
As bad an answer as this is, I am 10x more intrigued by the question. And 100x more concerned about what is going on with that St. Bernard.
Anyway, this is a cycling blog, so to the extent I will be coming up with weird questions to answer badly, they will be cycling related. And today we are starting at the 35,000-foot level of the sport. It’s been a while since we just assumed the UCI was covering up for massive doping and other forms of corruption, but not so long that we can just assume it’s not the case. What are the sport’s true safeguards against turning the sport back into the debacle of the 1990s and early 2000s, which in hindsight we maybe should have just stopped watching? Here’s the quick answer.
Bad Answer: a very uncomfortable shrug and slight nod of the head.
I want to approach the answer by comparing cycling to some other familiar (to me) sports, mostly so you guys know what I am talking about so that we can at least collectively make an educated guess at an answer. I’m not enough of an insider to say that cycling is truly run by x, y or z, but there should be some circumstantial evidence around to help lead us in the right direction.
Let’s start by pulling the question apart. Who is the real center of power in a sport? You can look at this as I posed it above — the entity that can prevent the sport from driving itself into a ditch. Whether that is a regulatory authority or more of a
moral center money driver, it depends. Another way to look at it is just more simply, who really calls the shots. These are two distinct questions getting toward the same point. The former sounds more interesting but may be harder to answer, so I’ll mention the latter as well. Ultimately, what the question seeks an answer to is, do we as fans think the sport looks like how we want it to? Is it as good as this great sport of cycle racing can be?
OK, for context, here are some breakdowns of other sports.
Major League Baseball
The Good: Few sports see their power structure balanced as evenly between players and owners as MLB. The players’ union has done a good job of seizing power through strikes and forcing ownership out of the dark ages, then out of the dim ages, and into something of an enlightened approach to power sharing in the most recent collective bargaining agreements. Owners, meanwhile, have not exactly been pushed around, using a soft cap (and some probably collusive practices) to keep prices from going haywire, which they hate for selfish reasons but which we could fairly see as a potential threat to competitive balance too. Finally, the Commissioner’s Office is an effective one on those (increasingly rare) occasions when occupied by a competent person. Before being hijacked by a self-dealing soulless car salesman and now his hand picked successor, Baseball had commissioners who went around trying to do the right thing for the game, and crazy as it sounds, succeeding?
The Bad: The MLBPA has sold out younger players and minor leaguers for ages, as those guys practically lose money right up until making the majors, which is a bit absurd since baseball is one of those sports that requires years of skill-honing before you can debut. They were scheduled to talk about this until the recent lockout. Also, there’s a lockout, if only because owners seem to agree with what I said about things being fairly balanced, an outcome they find intolerable.
The Outcome: I guess this section assesses the sport’s overall health from a fan perspective, and baseball ranks pretty high in that regard. Few sports have looked as stupid in their handling of a doping crisis as Baseball did in the 1990s and early 2000s. If you thought Hein Verbruggen was bad, let me introduce to you Bud Selig. At least Verbruggen understood what he was doing (wait, is that worse?). But after a decade of serious punishments for steroid use, including year-long suspensions, the doping problem seems to have dropped off precipitously. The competitive balance is acceptable, with smart teams often getting the better of the rich ones. And although some people I respect can’t stand Manfred, I do think the recent experimentation with changes to speed up the game show a willingness on the part of the sport to address problems. People complain about the style of the sport, but that has more to do with on-field strategy than any sort of corrupt or immoral practices. Baseball is in good health, even if it’s supposedly not as popular as it used to be.
The National Football League
The Good: I...
The Bad: The owners have virtually all of the power in the league, having successfully divided the union (which, to be fair, is a really tricky one to represent) and having turned the Commissioner’s Office into a national laughingstock, even before it was staffed by a national laughingstock. Even that might not be so bad if the owners weren’t generally the worst examples of the ruling class, from the merely condescending to the actual plantation-style racist douchebags. No worker safety issue is too dangerous to not be swept under the rug. No issue can be resolved until it has first been bungled in every possible way. When it comes to basic fairness, the NFL makes the Italian Justice system look like the Burger Court. All of this is possible because the sport is so exciting and the pool of unbelievably talented labor is so deep that they will never stop making absurd money. Which not only shields the owners from criticism, it actually makes them believe their insulting PR bullshit about what a great job they are doing. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s also possible because the players are largely unrecognizable individuals who can amass power and force change. Yes, the star quarterbacks are an exception there but that’s half a dozen guys in a league that employs like 1500 players, 1400 of whom could walk down the street unrecognized.
The Outcome: The NFL is basically the Roy Family, rotting internally but never having to face any repercussions. The best you can say is that the league is so popular that they can be shamed into doing the right thing at times simply because there is so much attention paid to their (seemingly endless succession of) failures. Public criticism — not any steps the NFL took willingly or that the players were able to force through — is what slowed down the rate of devastating brain injuries. How many more times can they keep falling out of trees and landing on their feet? A lot more, because even CTE didn’t stop the flow of otherworldly talent to the league. Good for them, I guess, but the NFL model would be an abject failure in probably every other sport except soccer.
The National Basketball Association
The Good: I am not trying to cover every possible structure or league, just get a representative sampling, and the NBA is an interesting departure from baseball and football. The balance of power is largely with the players, who are so important that the league actually kicked out an owner for offending them — in an acutely intolerable way, but still! An owner! Unlike the NFL, the players are such unique and instantly recognizable athletes, and the best of the best are such rare gems, that the league can only survive off their labor and championships require at least two of these magical personages on hand. This gives an awful lot of power to the top players, who in turn share some of that power with the other veteran players. At the same time, the Commissioner’s Office has enough trophies that it too is seen as powerful enough to steer the sport in the right (or wrong) direction. Former Commissioner David Stern fashioned himself as an old-timey Kennesaw Mountain Landis type of authoritarian figure, which is probably OK at least in terms of establishing independence from the owners.
The Bad: Not much. The players’ union is definitely divided in two camps between the haves and the have-nots, but unlike baseball the younger guys are still making plenty of money and get standardized second contracts after just a few years, if they play well. I suppose the NBA now has something of a minor league system in the G League, which hopefully they will treat with fairness (i.e. reasonable wages). Not sure there. But even this vulnerability is heavily mitigated by the salaries guys can make overseas. If the G League doesn’t pay enough, veteran players who can’t get on an NBA roster will just do what they’ve been doing as a fallback for decades, going to Europe where they can get a real chance to shine. The owners are a bunch of rich white guys, mostly, although they tend to be a bit more benign than most sports and significant non-white ownership is for sure happening in our lifetime. So even the people with the most potential to drag the sport down are uniquely disinclined to do so.
The Outcome: The NBA is as healthy as any sport I can think of. If it were facing a major crisis, I don’t totally trust the powerful players’ union to get the response exactly right, because if they have to cater to stars over the masses, they will, and it might suck. But then again, they did just face a major crisis in COVID, and the Bubble Season was a huge success under the circumstances. Given the timing of the crisis, baseball got hit the hardest, and the short, empty stadium season, while the best they could do, was a bummer. But the NBA got slightly lucky — again, not as lucky as football, godverdomme — in that they were at the 3⁄4 mark of the season and just skipped ahead to the playoffs, sized to fit inside the bubble. Hockey did the same. It wasn’t terrible, nor was it as hopelessly irresponsible as the NFL approach of just pretending that everything would work out OK. Anyway, I digress... the NBA has a great check on stupidity in both player empowerment and in commissioner independence, which is about all you can ask for.
OK, so on to Cycling...
The Good: You are not going to believe what I am about to say... I like the UCI. In theory at least. Stay with me now... yes, the UCI was responsible for the 1990s and beyond, by choosing as its president someone as nakedly corrupt as Verbruggen, who then turned a blind eye to the overwhelming existential threat of EPO until the sport was about to enter the abyss. Even then, the UCI didn’t save the day or even tug on the reins. It was mostly ASO and the French government, whose shared interest in the ever-powerful Tour de France shamed or whipped everyone into reforming their behavior. Wait, this is the “Good” section? OK, well I do think the UCI, in theory, should work as a regulatory entity. None of the above sports are half as independent of their regulatory body as the UCI is from the people who (ahem) “own” cycling. The UCI assembles and “works for” the national federations, who themselves are theoretically independent of trade teams. In theory, this is a very solid structure.
The Bad: In practice, nobody has any money except a handful of team owners, another relatively short list of sponsors, a small number of major races, and a really small number of superstar riders. So while the regulatory structure of the UCI should work pretty well, it can be captured far more cheaply than any of the commissioners’ offices in other sports. The real power ends up being where the money is. In the best of times, the sport gets lucky and the money ends up being from sources like the Tour or the broadcasters or the bike manufacturers, all of whom more or less have the sport’s best interests at heart. In the worst of times, however, it takes only a handful of unscrupulous actors to throw things off kilter, which we saw with Lance Armstrong’s influence, which grew out of the Verbruggen era, which saw teams profit off the lack of regulation by working with a handful of doping doctors to take over the sport. I wouldn’t want to blame the riders for all going along with this system, though they surely did not fight it as hard as they could have either.
With the UCI on steadier ground, the sport’s biggest threats come from team sponsorship, which has devolved into a haves-versus-have nots system that ... hasn’t ruined cycling, but isn’t doing it any favors either. Some teams like Bahrain and INEOS are largely self-funded, which is great, or would be if ALL of the World Tour teams had the same advantages, but they don’t, and what we get looks a lot like world football — the EPL, Serie A, etc. — where a few teams have massive institutional advantages and the rest succeed only by scooping up the overflow of talent from those privileged rosters. Luckily there is plenty of talent to go around, particularly in cycling, so that has blunted the impact of the imbalance for now, at most events.
Oh, and on rider health and safety issues, the riders’ union is not especially powerful, though it has had its moments where rider solidarity has forced changes. It also benefits from cameras capturing the sport’s most terrifying moments, which in turn tend to force reforms, though it would be nice to fix problems before blood gets shed. Fan opinion is almost entirely with the riders, since the teams are barely even entities, let alone the kind of historic institutions (e.g. NY Yankees, Man Utd., Dallas Cowboys) which could win fan support over the athletes themselves.
The Outcome: Cycling is in good health at the moment, but the structure of the sport is not nearly strong enough to ensure a healthy outcome over the long haul. For every success story, be it competitive balance, regulatory justice or athlete health and safety, I can point out how the sport is enjoying more good luck than institutional excellence. Teams like INEOS can’t buy every good rider, but for a few years it seemed like they could, and the fact that the last two major Italian teams are now named after Arab kingdoms is not a sign of overall health. The fact that the UCI appears to be doing its job now is partly a reaction to all of the years’ experience, quite recently, to how things look when they don’t. And of course whether they really are is something of an article of faith.
The culprit is money, in that there simply isn’t enough of it for the sport to organize itself into something which could blunt the capture of small segments of it by a Murdoch or an Emir. If there were, then there would be options. The sponsors are used to battling their rivals on the road — companies like Specialized or FSA will sponsor multiple teams and happily duke it out with their rival bike or wheel makers at the Tour every July. It could be made to work. Proposals get offered up from time to time. But ultimately — and please check me here if I’m wrong — it just seems like there are too many teams living hand to mouth who are too preoccupied with holding things together through the next budget cycle for any major changes to take place. The UCI is nicely independent but seriously limited in its authority — its battles with ASO for who really runs the sport were about as successful as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ most recent campaign — leaving the UCI in no position to advance some sort of master plan.
And so Cycling just limps along. It has a handful of megastars who have mostly aligned with the wealthiest teams, but not all of them have done so, and the vast supply of secondary stars are spread around in a way that smells like balance. Tadej Pogacar could sign a contract for a pocket full of mumbles and still probably win the next five Tours de France. The poorer teams are just as capable of catching this young lightning in a bottle as the wealthy ones... in theory, and they sometimes do. Like baseball, you can succeed on a limited budget if you can get all Tampa Bay Rays and outsmart the wealthy teams at the talent-spotting game. But like baseball, once the wealthy teams see what you’re up to, they can regain control until you come up with the next great insight.
These are issues sometimes and will continue to be, but the only truly daunting problem for the sport is doping. For now, we enjoy a pretty strong consensus and pattern of practice in opposition to doping. The UCI isn’t off on any major misadventures, and the doping doctors don’t seem to have cracked the regulators’ codes, as far as we know. But Cycling is unique in its vulnerability here, and if eternal vigilance is necessary to protect the sport, well, this is where the lack of long-term structural stability like you see in the major US ball sport leagues is something to be nervous about. I don’t hate where things are now, but I don’t love where they might go either.