Essay: British Cycling and the MediaTwittern
Dieses Essay entstand im Rahmen meines Studiums als Kulturwirt an der Uni-Duisburg Essen im Seminar ‘Survey of British Culture’.
British Cycling, from its beginnings on the Track in the year 1997, to producing a Tour de France winner on the road in 2012, came a long way in optimizing performance and setting high standards in both disciplines. British Cycling would not be as successful as it is today, if it wasn’t for how the federation handles the media and ultimately, without the funding and coverage from their road teams main sponsor, BSkyB, and its TV and newspaper outlets. It also contributes to the less critical media coverage on the team in the UK, other than in mainland Europe and abroad.
British Cycling, as the governing body of cycling in Britain, is tightly knit onto the road team, Sky Pro Cycling, with some people playing an important part in both institutions. My paper will – in terms of media relations – focus rather on Team Sky than on British Cycling. Due to the currency of this topic, most of my sources are esteemed internet newspapers, which I will give credit to in the footnotes.
I. Humble beginnings – from the track to the road
British Cycling as the governing body for cycle racing in Britain was founded in the year 1959, but has in itself gone through several changes, numerous directors and – apart from rare exceptions1 – no real successes. The structure of British Cycling was about to change drastically, when proper financial resources came to be ensured through the British Lottery funding system, distributed by the UK Sports Council. Peter Keen, himself a former pro cyclist, was the first performance director who, thanks to a fixed and relatively big budget of an annual sum of £2,5 Million, was able to build up the “High Performance Cycling Programme”. It is based at the Manchester Velodrome, the official Headquarter of British Cycling until today. This programme helped British Cycling rise from number 13 in the 1998 ranking of nations in the UCI World Cycling table, to number 4 in the year 2002.
Peter Keen has laid the foundation of Britain’s success on the track, not only through substantial management and new approaches to diet, training and psychology, but also by focusing only on the Track. There was a strategy behind the decision to leave road cycling out of the equation in the year 1997: there is more money to be made in a Velodrome – 12 gold medals to be won on the track instead of only four on the road at Olympic events. The UK Sports Council demanded results for the money they put in and those were easier to achieve when the medals were plenty. Keens self-admitted aversion to road cycling also came from the incalculability of the field; open roads, chaotic racing mixing up planned team strategies, expensive travelling and housing for the riders in European races and most of all: the underlying doping culture evolving especially with the rise of the “blood-boosting” drug EPO in the mid-90s. Keen knew the dangers of bad media coverage triggered by a positive doping case and what this could have meant for the funding of British Cycling in general. So he saved himself and the foundation the hassle of dealing with the imponderables of road cycling and stuck to the clean, save haven of the Track, with a stopwatch in hand and only the heating of the Velodrome to worry about.
When David Brailsford took over Keens post as performance director in 2003, the Olympic Games in Sydney in the year 2004, the first real test of the new Performance Programme, proved to be a surprise success. Two bronze, one silver and a gold Medal put Britain into the spot of serious future contenders. In the London Olympics of 2012, British Cycling won 12 medals, eight of those gold, just like in Beijing 2008, which made them again dominate the Olympic track discipline.
If you were to ask how their successes came about, David Brailsford would answer with his formula of marginal gains. Basically, marginal gains describes the concept of changing little things, such as trying out new high-tech fabrics on the bodysuits riders wear on the trackbike2, working on the most aerodynamic equipment, changing tactics and working on a better diet for the athlete. This, according to David Brailsford, gives British Cycling an advantage over their contenders, even those who use doping to get results. One can also say that the funding, besides the marginal gains, gives British Cycling a big advantage over its rivals, the fabric and the aerodynamic bikes have to be developed and later tested in the wind tunnel, which is both really expensive.
With David Brailsford taking over as performance director, British Cycling’s stance on road cycling changed as well. The concept of marginal gains was adapted onto Team Sky, the road team, built up from scratch and unveiled in December 2009.
II. Enter Team Sky – The first-ever British Road Cycling Team
The idea of a British cycling team competing in the highest league of the sport has been a hot topic at British Cycling, ever since Peter Keen stepped down and Brailsford took over. But it took David Brailsford until 2007 to admit that he is planning the team and its roster by negotiating contracts with athletes, who already went through the British Cycling Academy.
Talking to the journalist Richard Moore (Sky’s the Limit, p. 21ff) at the Tour de France 2007, Brailsford underlined two basic aspects of his approach, three years before the initial launch of Team Sky: the sponsor, who was yet to be found, had to be British, (also in hindsight to the Olympics in London) and while it would be all about innovation/marginal gains, the team had to be completely clean in terms of doping. Brailsford needed a sponsor, who would be able to provide resources as high as at least £10 million per season.
The first meeting with executives of British Sky Broadcasting went so well, that, as he said in Moore’s Book (Sky’s the Limit p. 29f), Brailsford had to look no further. Sky already had a clear vision of what they wanted and were actively seeking a sport to back. With the successful history on the track and seven freshly won gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, BSyB became the new main sponsor of not just the road team to-be, but also on the track with a £1 million sponsorship of the Sky Track Cycling Team.
And they invested well over the needed £10 million, especially for the launch itself. Team Sky, with its two busses, where each of the eight seats alone costs €10003 and special fitted mattresses (a comfortable sleep for marginal gains) for every rider during every stage of a Grand Tour (Sky’s the Limit, p.205f) is rumoured to have had a start budget of £30 million from all sponsors combined in 2010 and, taken from their budget report, an annual budget of £16,680,000 in 2011. In this last year, £10,5 million this sum came directly from BSkyB as the main sponsor4.
Sky Sports was known to have revolutionized the broadcasting of football, due to its deal with the newly established Premier League in 1992, practically holding a monopoly on television rights in the UK since then5. BSkyB helped Darts, a fairly popular pub game in the UK, establish a market on television and – according to Richard Moore (Sky’s the Limit, p.243) – some English journalist admittedly hoped that Sky would be able to give the sport of cycling, even past the borders of Great Britain, the image it needed: a clean, youthful and exciting sport, where everyone can participate in, if he or she owns a bike. The official press release issued by BSkyB at the 29th of February 2009 “Announcing Team Sky – A Professional British Road Cycling Team”6 states the aims and the basic outline of the Team:
Team Sky will aim to:
- Create the first British winner of the Tour de France, within five years.
- Inspire people of all ages and abilities to get on their bikes, through the team’s positive profile, attitude and success.
- Add further support to competitive cycling in Great Britain.
Further, David Brailsford underlined his concept of marginal gains and hard work, along with providing his outlook on how he wishes the team to be perceived:
„Team Sky will bring to a professional road team the performance principles that have worked so well with the current GB teams; commitment, meticulous planning, the aggregation of marginal gains and a rider-centred philosophy. [...] We want to make heroes, persuade a generation to pull on Team Sky colours and inspire people to ride. This will be an epic story; building a British team to take on the best in professional cycling, and win.”
III. Team Sky’s Marketing Strategy and Budget
Team Sky has one of the most forward thinking media strategies among the 18 WorldTour Teams (the ‘premier league’ of cycling). This includes almost daily updates in their social network outlets such as Twitter and Facebook, contests, giveaways, their own book releases, photo sets of every major race the team participates in and the most up-to-date news section on their homepage, providing Videos, Interviews, an iPhone App, Spotify playlists assembled by team members and recorded power data of the riders. This of course correlates to their close-knit partnership to their sponsor, Sky Sports and the fact that the Team hires reporters to write, not only for TeamSky.com, but also for the Sky Sports News site. This indicates that those reporters are full time employees for both, the Team and the sponsors major news outlet. It gives them – in their role as reporters for Sky Sports – an exclusive insight into the team and also a considerable amount of bias towards their employer. A Sky Sports reporter, also employed by Team Sky, would hardly write critically about team tactics, let alone rumours considering doping.
Some figures on what Team Sky and its sponsors spent on marketing in 2011: BSkyB owns 60% of shares on the business behind Team Sky namely Tour Racing Limited (25% is owned by Sky Italia and 15% belong to News Corp.); legal, marketing and communication is covered in-house. According to their companies annual report7, Team Sky has spent £1,085,000 in 2011 on PR and Marketing in 2011, this includes maintaining the website, social media and inviting VIP guests among other things. A fairly big figure, in 2010, their first year, it was only £214,000.
When we have a look at the marketing budget in BSkyBs report for 2011, we notice that the company has spent £1,2 billion on marketing overall, 60% (their share of Tour Racing Limited) of this sum makes roughly £6 million, which means that only 0,5% of their whole marketing budget went to Team Sky. They have got their money’s worth covered this year, with Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France and the Sky Logo on the Yellow Jersey for 14 days.
IV. How the Media handles Team Sky – post-Tour reactions at home and abroad
The start of Team Sky in December 2009 was, as the main “star” Bradley Wiggins later had to admit ,,too pompous”. TV Cameras and about 20 reporters filled the private members club on London’s Portland Square where the riders were interviewed on stage by the Sky News presenter Dermot Murnaghan, broadcast live on Sky Sports; media attention that certainly no other Team could arouse. The launch, according to one journalist, created ‘a tsunami of excitement’, with expectations which had yet to be fulfilled. David Brailsford and Team Sky set the goals high, but also set the timeframe wide: producing the first British Tour de France winner in five years time. It took the team only two years to be able to decorate the Jaguar team cars in the colour yellow and drive them down the Champs-Élysées at the last day of the Tour de France 2012 – with Bradley Wiggins as the first Britain to receive the Yellow Jersey as the overall winner of the hardest three-week race in the world. According to Brailsford, it was marginal gains that got him there, but it was also a completely dedicated team and an aggressive strategy, which was obvious since day one. Bradley Wiggins lost the opening Time Trial by seven seconds – if he had won it, he would have kept the Yellow Jersey from day one until the finish.
When a Britain wins the Tour de France for the first time ever, one cannot expect the British media to react as reserved as some of the European press did, but the divide was obvious. While the often snappy French sports press compared Sky’s dominance with Lance Armstrong’s seven-time Tour de France-winning Team US Postal, even naming Team Sky ‘UK Postal’ and either openly or between the lines suggesting the use of performance enhancing drugs, British press was praising the “historic” win. What sparked the debate in Europe and abroad was not only the doping issue that comes up whenever a team dominates a race in such fashion, but also team tactics: Sky held on to the lead by forming a strong ‘train’, escorting or even pulling Wiggins up the mountains in his teammates slipstream, keeping the pace so high, that any attack from rival teams was a hopeless endeavour destined to fail. People in front of their TV at home saw the black jerseys of Team Sky with the rest of the colourful bunch on their wheel. Whenever a rival was trying to get past the Sky train, he was reeled back in, often by Wiggins’ teammate Chris Froome at the front, who himself often looked like he had more power in his legs, than his team leader Wiggins in the mountains, sparking some debate about why he did not try to win the Tour for himself. Media outside the UK mostly agreed on a common admiration for the team’s strength and effective tactics, but also agreed on this Tour being one of the most boring ones of the last few years, the German magazine Der Spiegel even claimed that Chris Froome was the stronger rider of the two and should have won the race8.
Headlines on Telegraph.co.uk from the time around Wiggins win, did not hint at any critical debate regarding doping or Chris Froome: ‘Key stages to becoming a champion’, ‘The philosophy that drove Wiggins’, ‘Bradley Wiggins, Tour de France hero’, to quote just a few9. In an article on TheGuardian.co.uk from the 23th of July10, author Kim Willisher describes how the French media was trying to discredit every Tour de France winner from outside their own country, only because they did not have a Frenchman winning ‘their race’ since 1986. Willisher says: ‘The French are less resigned to sporting failure than the British but also less given to introspection, preferring to blame outside factors’. She even points out that the French underlyingly consider themselves ‘cleaner’ than teams in other countries, because the drug testing is more sufficient in France.
But Wiggins makes it easy for the press at home in the UK: he is a likeable, unique character and ‘very British’. Although born in Belgium to an Australian track racer and an English mother, the 1,90m tall and only 69kg heavy Wiggins is a so-called ‘Mod’ par definition; sporting long ginger sideburns and wearing, especially in the off season, a typical ‘square back’ hairstyle made famous by Paul Weller of the British New Wave band The Jam. This style originating in the British working-class, quickly made him popular on the isle and even invited the Daily Mail Newspaper to print a cut-out paper ‘square back’, including sideburns, onto its front page.
Team Sky was subject to media criticism ever since its beginning and it began with the probability, that the launch in 2009 almost did not include Bradley Wiggins as the experienced British team leader Sky desperately needed. His contract with the American team Garmin-Chipotle was still due another year and Garmin tried its best to keep their most valuable rider, but as it often is, it only had to come at a price. Wiggins finished the Tour de France 2009 surprisingly on the fourth place overall, which skyrocketed his market value. Other than in football, a rider changing teams within a contract period without the former teams full consent is highly unusual. After a long period of bargaining, a compensation deal of £2 million was paid to Garmin11 which ensured Wiggins’ spot in the Team only three months before the official launch. In Sky’s the Limit, (124ff) Richard Moore describes, what impact the ‘pompous’ launch of Team Sky in 2009 had on the cycling world. Richard Lavenu, manager of the French team Ag2r, criticized the danger of an imbalance between teams with a bigger budget to those with far less money to be spent than Team Sky, creating a situation similar to the transfer market in football. One of his best riders, the Irishman Stephen Roche, has been approached by Team Sky, Lavenu said:
„In the future, with a budget of only €7,5 million, we can expect to lose riders. […] We cannot bid on a salary that can be multiplied by three by other teams”.
The most direct in his critique was Marc Madiot, a former professional cyclist and now manager of Team FDJ-Big Mat. He was not only as bothered as his countryman Lavenu on the much higher budget than his own team, what annoyed him most was the teams rather loud demeanour:
„Every day there is something new with them: Twitter, the computers, the psychologists, the Jaguars. It’s information overload. We too put out riders in a wind tunnel to analyze their performance, but we don’t make a song and dance about it.”
For the managers and riders, the first season of Team Sky did not go as expected and was more of a humbling experience. Wiggins only placed 24th at the Tour de France, his best performance was winning the Prologue of the Giro d’Italia, the Tour of Italy. Fellow British teammate Russ Downing won the Tour de Wallonie in France and Geraint Thomas led the Young Rider Classification of the Tour de France for four days. Sean Yates, sports director and former professional cyclist for 14 years, said:
„We all tried desperately to live up to the expectations. In a way, we shot ourselves in the foot with the big launch. But what are you going to do? You can’t go under the radar with a sponsor like Sky.” (Sky’s the Limit, p. 305)
V. How Team Sky handles the Media – two examples
With £1,085,000 to spent on Marketing an PR, one can expect the Team to be very communicative, but there were several incidents where the media outside Sky Sports asked uneasy questions and the reaction from the Team’s management and PR department sparked even more debate than it should have resolved.
Paul Kimmage is an Irish sports journalist, who, from 1986 until 1990, spent four years as a professional cyclist on a French team, but is particularly well known for his autobiography Rough Ride: An Insight into Pro Cycling, in which he describes the widespread use of amphetamines, cortisone and other performance-enhancing drugs among the teams of this pre-EPO era. Released in a time, where sporting heroes were also national heroes and cycling did not yet have such an underlying stigma of a dirty sport, Kimmage was shamed and discredited, not only criticized by most of the media, but also ostracized by his former teammates – although he did not provide names in his book. Later, as a journalist for the Sunday Times, a newspaper which – just like 36% of BSkyB – belongs to the News Corp. Group, Paul Kimmage had gotten a reputation of asking the most daring questions among his colleagues. Most of those, of course, related to doping and led to harsh confrontations with Lance Armstrong on several occasions. In 2008, Paul Kimmage followed Garmin, Bradley Wiggins’ former Team, throughout the Tour de France and planned to do the same at the 2010 Tour with Team Sky, but David Brailsford, although cooperating at first, did not give the Irishman the full access to the Team as Garmin did two years earlier. They separated on bad terms with Kimmage, claiming that Wiggins did not want him around for the full amount of time, but only from day eight onwards and his team management bowed down to his wishes. He did not want to be the one “Outside the tent, pissing in” (Richard Moore, Sky’s the Limit, 238f, 234f), so he cancelled his arrangements with Sky. In a long interview with Kimmage in 2009, Brailsford claimed his team had nothing to hide: “”All I can say is … if there is any doubt or suspicion [of doping] on our team, I’ll expose it. And if I get to the point where I think it can’t be done, I’m walking away”12.
If Team Sky had nothing to hide, turning one of the most notorious anti-doping journalist away under such circumstances, was not well-received among some of the fan base and fellow Journalists. The problem for Kimmage was not only that the team changed their mind away abruptly, but that it did not give him a reasonable explanation for it.
During the Tour de France 2012, one of the most talked-about incidents occured, when Bradley Wiggins, under the pressure of being the race leader and obviously fed-up from the questions regarding doping, lost his cool and lashed out against recent accusations on Twitter, where some people claimed that winning the Tour de France clean was not possible. His response:
„Honestly, they’re just fucking wankers. I cannot be dealing with people like that. It justifies their own bone-idleness because they can’t ever imagine applying themselves to anything in their lives. And it’s easy for them to sit under a pseudo-name on Twitter and write that sort of shit rather than get off their arses in their own life and apply themselves, and work hard at something and achieve something. And that’s ultimately it… Cunts.”
Wiggins then walked away from the conference, leaving the press with a lot of fodder for the next headlines. There were news outlets which welcomed his passionate response, claiming it was very eloquent when you ‘strip away the bad language’13 he used, but others felt that Wiggins owned them a level-headed response to the accusations after so many years of a dirty sport. Podium Cafe, a Blog for cycling fans, argued: ‘Anger? It’s only natural in Wiggins’ situation. At the same time, scepticism is natural, especially with the tarnished past [in terms of doping] of so many former Tour winners and dominant teams.’14
The team itself backed Wiggins, in person by David Brailsford, who said: “There may be a few choice words language-wise that you could change but, apart from that, the sentiment was spot-on as far as I’m concerned and there is no issue whatsoever for me.”15
While a financially wealthy team is nothing new, even in the 80s, Team La Vie Claire, with Bernard Tapie as rich backer and manager, was for some European traditionalists the beginning of an end. But few teams were, with state-of-the-art equipment and expensive riders, able to bring a significant imbalance to the sport of cycling. One example of how little money can bring great successes would be Team Europcar, with its tiny £5 million budget, winning three stages and the polka dot jersey at the Tour de France 2012. There are also, just like in Great Britain, several teams, where the national cycling federation is closely related to the road team, for example in the Netherlands with Team Rabobank, sponsoring the national federation and the road team for the last 17 years (before recently pulling its sponsorship due to the Lance Armstrong dilemma). But no other Team than Team Sky has a media conglomerate as their main sponsor, with marketing and PR being handled by BSkyB in-house. And with the Lotto funding established in 1997, no other federation has a similar money structure as UK Sports and British Cycling. Team Sky is able to rely on athletes who already went through the now 15-year old ‘School of British Cycling’, in which athletes were able to commit to the sport full time, without having to have a job on the side. Money does not make an athlete faster, but it keeps him out of the hassle of not being able to dedicate yourself to the sport as much as the talent would allow him to.
As to the media: in 2010, 36% of UK and Irish households were Sky subscribers16 and the number has most likely risen in the last two years. Those people will most likely not receive a fair and balanced coverage of the team apart from its successes – and there was a lot to criticize in how Team Sky handles the media. Beside the two examples I have mentioned, Sky has not yet established itself as the “fully open, clean and come to terms with some of the riders past” – team it so often claims to be.
Moore, Richard. 2011. Sky’s the Limit. HarperSports/HarperCollins Publishers
- Chris Boardman won a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Barcelona 1992, competing in the Kilo event. A milestone for British Cycling, inspiring riders like Bradley Wiggins to take up the sport [↩]
- A „secret fabric“, which was banned by the UCI after the Beijing Olympics because they were giving the British athletes an unfair advantage. They were rumoured to be destroyed so that other teams could not find and copy them, but as Chris Boardman pointed out, they were probably neatly packed away in a box somewhere in the Manchester Velodrome [↩]
- Behind the scenes of the Team Sky bus – YouTube Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DO_LAV2MvPo [↩]
- The team with the smallest budget of all teams at the Tour de France 2012, Team Europcar, had to make do with £5 million, Sky is among the wealthiest of teams, together with the American team BMC with a budget of about £15 million [↩]
- Nick Harris for SportingIntelligence.com, 17th of June 2012: http://www.sportingintelligence.com/2012/06/17/this-bubble-ain%E2%80%99t-bursting-yet-all-the-details-you%E2%80%99d-ever-want-to-know-about-the-premier-league%E2%80%99s-new-tv-deals-170601/ [↩]
- Official BSkyB Press release: http://corporate.sky.com/media/press_releases/2009/team_sky [↩]
- Team Skys official Budget report, reviewed by The Inner Ring, 2nd of August 2012: http://inrng.com/2012/08/team-sky-budget-accounts/ [↩]
- Chistopher Sydow for Der Spiegel, 19th of July 2012: http://www.spiegel.de/sport/sonst/tour-de-france-christopher-froome-ist-staerker-als-bradley-wiggins-a-844806.html [↩]
- Headlines on Telegraph.co.uk on Wiggins during the Tour de France 2012: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/cycling/tour-de-france/ [↩]
- Kim Willisher for The Guardian, 23rd of July 2012: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/shortcuts/2012/jul/23/bradley-wiggins-what-the-french-really-think [↩]
- Simon Jones for Dailymail.co.uk, 18th of September 2009: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/othersports/article-1214281/Bradley-Wiggins-Skyjacked-Le-Tour-Team-Sky-complete-2m-compensation-deal-Garmin-Chipotle.html [↩]
- Shane Stokes for Velonation.com 11th of July 2012: http://www.velonation.com/News/ID/12357/Kimmage-disappointed-in-Wiggins-and-Team-Sky-over-transparency.aspx [↩]
- Brandan Gallagher for The Telegraph, 19thof July 2012: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/cycling/tour-de-france/9386002/Tour-de-France-2012-strip-away-the-bad-language-and-Bradley-Wigginss-tirade-was-actually-very-eloquent.html [↩]
- Douglas Ansel for The Podium Cafe, 8th of July 2012: http://www.podiumcafe.com/2012/7/8/3145520/the-wiggins-fiasco-what-to-make-of-it [↩]
- BBC, 9th of July 2012: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/cycling/18767152 [↩]
- Paul Brown for biterwallet.com, 9th of November 2010: http://www.bitterwallet.com/sky-ten-million-subscribers-but-how-many-pricing-combinations/36932 [↩]