Monday, January 23, 2006

Do You Watch Bicycle Races?

Can cycling ever make it in the US as a spectator sport? Let’s face it there aren’t to many Oklahomans going out for a cycling event. Even if we consider our country beyond the borders of Oklahoma, there still are limited amounts of people (very limited) watching races. What is it about bike racing? From what I’ve read, NASCAR is one of the fastest growing spectator sports. According to the website Insider Racing News, NASCAR saw an increase in viewers from 2003 to 2004. Those interested in just their national series grew by 2, 8 and 22 percent, respectively. Now, isn’t NASCAR almost the same as a velodrome race? Spectators sit in a grandstand and cheer their favorite racer as they go round and round in NASCAR as well as in a velodrome. So why aren’t their velodromes in Oklahoma?

One can easily measure US participation levels by the amount of marketing dollars the US cycling associations can generate, which isn’t much. The Tour De France gets significant coverage on the Outdoor networks, but can you remember the last mountain bike event you saw on television? You can take all the time you want to remember the last race, because you’ll need it. One race per year is about all we’ll get. In contrast, Europe gets a lot of bike racing coverage. According to Amaury Sports Organisations (ASO) website the Tour De France coverage hit 15 million SPECTATORS. I’m referring to people actually standing on the side of the road to watch the peloton go by. The ASO website continued by saying that some of the spectators travel, on average, 100 kilometers to see a race and usually stay, at least, six hours on the site. Compare that to the US market and it is easy to see that bike racing may be doomed in the US.

I want to be the optimist, but it is hard too. In the US we have a pro cycling tour. However, the tour, for all the years it has been in operation, has failed to land a television contract. The Outdoor Life Network (OLN) has the rights to cover races in France, Spain and Italy, but not races in the US. Doesn’t that disappoint you? I’m not suggesting that the OLN is at fault, they are simply following their viewers’ choices. If they wanted to watch more US events, OLN would cover them. The fact is the US isn’t interested. Why aren’t they?

There’s been a lot of speculation. I’ll try to gather up all the theories, mix them up in my brain and detail them to you. I guess what I’m about to impart is my theory. To start, bike racing needs to be elevated so the normal person can understand what is happening. For example, when Phil Legget, the voice of the Tour De France on OLN, explains to me that the hill the riders are climbing is 10 degrees and very challenging, as a racer, I know what he is referring too. But, it is a shame to assume my buddy in Oklahoma has any clue whatsoever. My friend is having a problem with perception. He can relate to driving a car really fast. One the other hand, the last time he road a bike up a very steep mountain hill was NEVER. Phil is trying to detail it and so is OLN. They have charts, graphs and facing mathematical systems to make it easy for my Miller Lite Oklahoman to understand. These are all good attempts at helping my buddy, but he just hasn’t been exposed too much math.

So what’s the answer? Again, perception management has to be even more vivid, detailed and mathematic. There also needs to be more human interest stories (Lance Armstrong was/is a gold mine for marketers). If I were king of the cycling-racing-management-marketing-powerhouse I would also utilize the Ipod distribution model. It was fairly simple for NBC to hook up with Apple computers for network time. I can almost guarantee you that Apple would be happy to earn some $.20 per download on a $.99 download of a stage in the Tour De France. My final suggestion would be for there to be a more unified body of marketers interested in seeing cycling move from a once a year thing to a weekly interest!

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