feasible but risky, we explain how cycling team sponsorship works

The economy of professional cycling teams relies solely on the money of one or more sponsors to ensure their continuity.

A series of buses lined up morning and night in full view of the public and runners sporting a branding all over their jerseys for three weeks. At the Tour de France, the sponsors show themselves in style, everywhere, always. A veritable traveling advertising parade, the Grande Boucle swears by brands. And for good reason: they are the ones who make it live, since they make the teams exist.

The economic model of cycling, unlike most sports, is based exclusively on sponsorship, and can be explained by the particularity of this sport. “Cycling is free, so we have a lot of people who come to the side of the road. The Tour de France is one of the sporting mega events. For a sponsor, we have very strong visibility and spontaneous notoriety,” explains Matthieu Llorca, professor of economics at the University of Burgundy.

Stability for greater visibility

Teams are therefore looking for a sponsor with a solid backbone, who can provide them with stability over several years to build a team. “All the teams are looking for funds to support their development, which is not easy. We work in the medium term every time”, explains Stéphane Heulot, French coach of the Lotto-Dstny team since January.

Today, because we have a global business, we have to attack companies that have a global business. If you want a few million, you have to look for brands that make a few billion in sales“, summarizes Jean-René Bernaudeau, head of training at TotalEnergies since 2000.

The motorbikes and the team bus are exposed to the public in the morning of each stage, here those of Jumbo-Visma during the 18th stage.  (ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT / AFP)

Once found, it is therefore necessary to hope that he wishes to perpetuate his investment. This is the case with several teams, such as Cofidis, which has sponsored its team since 1996. Its two victories on this Tour, its first since 2008, sound as much of a relief for the team as a reward for the brand. “With Cofidis there really is a relationship of trust. I think that today the image given by the team is really very good and in these cases it is easier to start discussionsexplains manager Cédric Vasseur.

Lotto-Dstny, whose main sponsor is that of the Belgian national lottery, is also in this case. “We have a chance unheard of have a long-standing sponsor, who has been investing for some time 30 years in the team. It is a form of real guarantee, of securityadds Stéphane Heulot.

“Sponsoring in cycling is expensive if the partner is national, profitable if it is European and it costs nothing if it is global.”

Jean-René Bernaudeau, director of TotalEnergies

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But the risk of going off the track is real: some sponsors only spend a short time in the cycling world before retiring, often giving way to something else. But sometimes retirement is brutal and the consequences dramatic for the team, as it depends. This was the case of Euskaltel-Euskadi in 2013, or of B&B Hotels more recently. “It’s a difficult model. ANDobviously we want to have more and more means, but today we see that when the sponsor has difficulties, he no longer follows him, the team is forced to throw in the towel”observes Cédric Vasseur.

The goal is often simple for sponsors: to get an invitation to the most important races to obtain the much hoped-for visibility, since sponsorship cannot be quantified with precision. “For Uno-X, which has a budget of 8 million, it’s super profitable. But if you’re not on the World Tour and you’re not invited to the Tour de France, that can be a problem. We have teams that have disappeared or others that withdraw because it costs too much”estimates the economist Matthieu Llorca.

The sponsors of the teams of the Tour de France 2023. (HORTENSE LEBLANC / FLOURISH)

With budgets sometimes in the tens of millions of euros, the formations of the World Tour, the world’s first division, mostly have a comfortable mattress to sit on. But some prefer to cover their backs with the addition of a co-sponsor, which allows them to cope with a sudden departure, inflating the budget. Unless it’s called Emirates or Bahrain, it becomes quite difficult to have a single partner, because budgets increase dramatically.”, says Stéphane Heulot, whose training has a historic sponsor and a co-sponsor that has changed in recent years. In this Tour, 17 of the 22 teams have different sponsors to their name.

State sponsors, symbol of the globalization of cycling

“Today we are simply trying to buy the right to participate in the Tour de France, to be part of the 20 teams on the World Tour”, notes economist Matthieu Llorca. Each World Tour license is now granted for three years. “VSi is almost a closed championship, with 20 teams already qualified and three invited. And sponsors are automatically reassured, which explains this salary and budget inflation.” Adds.

Historically, the sponsors interested in cycling have always been the brands: national lotteries in the 90s, banks in the turn of the 2000s, or even services in the 2010s. “Slovenia, state funds, the United States, Australia… AGAINSTtranslated the globalization of the bicycle”analyzes Matthieu Llorca.

“If the Gulf States come, it’s because cycling is interesting, so it’s gratifying for us. It’s up to us to look for powerful opposite brands. Cycling will be alive in 100 years, the Gulf countries will no longer exist”.

Jean-René Bernaudeau, director of TotalEnergies

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With Jumbo-Visma (formerly Rabobank) as an exception, these state lineups often aggregate the current best riders, and it’s hard for others to compete. Between them, these state teams have won five of this Tour’s 18 stages. “It is clear that there are big differences in the engine, they have the ability to have almost eight riders who could be leaders in other teams”, observes Stéphane Heulot. “Change the dimension of the world of sport. It also pushes sponsors to the limit. But this begs the question: how high can we go?asks Cédric Vasseur.

Climber Mikel Landa in front of his Bahrain-Victorious training bus, June 29, 2023. (THOMAS SAMSON/AFP)

If this economic model of cycling does not seem destined to change radically since everyone benefits from it, organizers, teams and riders, some are still thinking about adjustments to stabilize finances. “This system is feasible, it won’t change, I don’t see cycling with paid entrances or TV rights because they are astronomical sums to produce. There are two things that need to evolve in cycling: attractiveness and credibility, and for the regulations to be much stricter.”considers Jean-René Bernaudeau. “If we could already guarantee, for example, 20% of a team’s budget on fixed income, excluding results and sponsorships, that would already be a step forward”complements its counterpart in Cofidis.

Economist Matthieu Llorca talks about the development of women’s cycling, where more and more teams – and therefore sponsors – are investing, given that 14 of the 22 teams at the start of the Tour de France Women on July 23rd also have a sponsor in the men’s group.

The idea of ​​a salary cap also emerges to avoid abysmal budget differences between small and large formations, and thus kill any suspense. “We’ve talked about maximum budgets, but still putting a limit often means opening yourself up to misappropriation. So I’m not convinced that this is the solution, unless it is firmly enforced. But I’m not convinced that would be the case.”concludes Stéphane Heulot, from Lotto-Dtsny.

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