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Like many other sports governing bodies, USA Cycling (and its former incarnations, the U.S. Cycling Federation and Amateur Bicycle League of America) is often the scapegoat for anything that goes wrong with the sport in this country. Right now, the Feds are still reeling from the October 2012 revelations of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s “Reasoned Decision” that chronicled the doping violations perpetuated by Lance Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service teammates in the late-1990s and early-2000s. In the fallout from that investigation, and because of other internal developments, many of the long-term USAC staff has moved on in the past year, while their president, Steve Johnson, will leave the Colorado Springs HQ in nine months’ time after staging the 2015 UCI World Road Championships in Richmond, Virginia. Responsibility for selecting a new president and staff members will partly fall on one of professional cycling’s most influential, the recently elected USAC chairman Bob Stapleton.
John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada
Stapleton isn’t a former bike racer, but he rides regularly. He came into the sport from a high-profile career in telecommunications when he persuaded the then powerful Deutsche Telekom pro team to extend its sponsorship to a women’s squad—which Stapleton managed before being asked to take over the pro men’s formation when it needed a new image after being accused of complicity in doping scandals that involved team leader Jan Ullrich. When the German corporation eventually dropped its cycling sponsorship after seven riders, including the high-profile Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldag, admitted to use of EPO, the then T-Mobile team morphed into the highly successful HTC-Highroad, owned and operated by Stapleton before sponsorship problems forced him to disband three years ago. He has since worked as an investments consultant, served on the board of the World Triathlon Corporation (owner of the Ironman brand), and acquired a business interest in the Seattle-based wheel maker, Mad Fiber, before being elected USAC chairman last June.
With his background in high-tech business operations, his strong interest in women’s cycling and his experience of managing the world’s most successful men’s and women’s pro teams, Stapleton is ideally placed to help take USAC into a new era for the sport in the United States. He spoke to us from his home office in San Luis Obispo, California.
peloton: Becoming the unpaid chairman of a national sports federation is a new departure for you, Bob. What sort of approach are you taking?
Stapleton: I’d like to get some things done there. You know, it’s an NGB [National Governing Body], and the whole method of operation and the desire to embrace changes is not quite what I’m used to. But I think there is real momentum there with, for example, the upcoming worlds and partnership with U.S. Olympic Committee to cover the Colorado Springs velodrome…. There’s so much to do in every dimension, frankly. Athletically, we’re good and it can get better. There’s a whole thing we can do better to help grow and promote the sport with event organizers, and really embrace our members, who are still very central to the mission of USA Cycling. While we’re doing some things right I still think there’s room for improvement in a couple of really key areas.
peloton: And what are they?
Stapleton: It needs to be a member-centric organization. There’s an active racing community that needs the full engagement of USA Cycling, and we should be growing that in intelligent fashion. We’ve got a lot of women entering the sport across the board: running, triathlon and cycling. And I think we want to be embracing them as a customer group. We’ve got a very good junior development program for developing young racers, but we can clearly do more domestically in the U.S. And I think we really want to make sure that we’re working closely with the people that organize these events that our athletes are competing in, and that they’re healthy and vibrant and we’re working intelligently together. I think that’s a fairly ambitious agenda that is really outside the athletic programs—which are actually quite good and I think stack up pretty well internationally.
peloton: Canadian coach Pierre Hutsebaut, who’s also the UCI consultant for the Americas, recently told me that the United States has the most UCI-registered teams (19) across the whole spectrum of pro racing, but has one of the fewest numbers of UCI races on its soil. He pointed out that American organizers want criteriums in stage races, so do you see a possibility of the UCI changing its rules to allow crits in American stage races? That would allow more of these races to be sanctioned by the UCI, which would give U.S. riders the chance to gain more UCI points and qualify the maximum number of riders for world championships and the Olympics.
Stapleton: I do think that’s a very specific issue that can be addressed. I’m very impressed with the cooperation between UCI president Brian Cookson and his new staff people. He’s brought on a couple of key staff folks, and they’ve worked very close with [our own] on a number of issues, and that’s one thing that’s been a consistent problem with the prior administration on some of these rules that really do affect the U.S. market. I see a general trend with Brian and his staff to work with federations that have, in some cases, unique requirements or need just a little more flexibility to grow the sport in their region. And I see good progress there in frankly a short amount of time. So I’m very optimistic that when we come forward with things that make sense in the health and growth of the sport that there will be some appropriate flexibility on some of these rules which are really very European-centric.
Even setting aside that issue, overall our top-level racing is quite healthy. The Tour of Utah just got upgraded (to 2.HC), so we now have three very prominent road events (California, Utah and Colorado); you’ve got a women’s World Cup coming back to Philadelphia, which is a nice step forward, with California, Utah and Colorado also layering in some form of women’s racing at the highest level; and we’ve got four top-rated mountain bike events in the U.S. next year. I’d love to do more, and I think really we want to be in a leadership role to help insure these races are heavily supported and will succeed. It’s a tough business model at the top level of the sport, not only in terms of teams and sponsorship but also to run these events; and I think we want to make sure we’re do everything we can to help—and part of that is making sure that the governing bodies, both USA Cycling and the UCI, are very mindful of the investment people are making and doing our collective best to make it financially.
peloton: There are no major one-day men’s races left in this country following the end of the high-profile Philadelphia International Championship, which was replaced by a domestic race, and there’s no foreseeable return of events such as the San Francisco GP. Is this a problem that the federation can address?
Stapleton: I think the broader opportunity here is from a marketing perspective and look at what the international racing calendar looks like and making sure the areas that have opportunities for growth in the sport have the chance for growth—and a lot of that involves good spots on the international calendar where they can attract fans during times of the year when interest is high. Yes, there’s a very macro element to that, that is a problem to the sport more broadly, and we’ve made good inroads on getting key races in place, but I’d like to take that a step further.
There’s not a marketing orientation that’s driving all of that thinking, it’s more of a, you know, little bit misguided kind-of-logistical view of the world where people are worried about too much travel [e.g., from Europe to North America], or things that aren’t a plus but they are not too negative either. We need to match the calendar up internationally to where the prospects to create healthy events are good. And we’ve still got a lot of racing that’s going on in Europe and that some of those racing dates might be better spent in places like the U.S. and other environments where the sport has healthy growth potential. That calendar drives so much of the economic potential of the sport. It’s a powerful tool and it should really be visited from a marketing and an in-kind investment perspective.
Changes to the international calendar are debated annually, but I think it’s time to take some concrete action. You’ll never get a consensus across all the stakeholders, so it’s really incumbent on the leadership of the sport to…make some thoughtful decisions on this and consider these critical investments of economic windows for the sport—and spend those very wisely.
peloton: Funding for USA Cycling has been a big problem over the years; it’s not like the UK where the national lottery contributes most of the revenue to British Cycling. Are there things you can do to increase USAC’s sources of revenue?
Stapleton: I think there’s a couple of dimensions here. One is the toughest market to address right now: sponsorship. But we have a fairly unique proposition that includes some of the most positive aspects of the sport, and that’s around Team USA. There are young, compelling athletes that are generally products of a very strong development program. It’s the T’s, the D’s and the W’s. The T’s are the compelling athletes like [Andrew] Talansky, Taylor [Phinney] and Tejay [van Garderen], the exciting new faces in the sport. The D is development, the strong junior and under-23 development programs that are hallmarks of Cycling USA’s ability to develop athletes. And the W is women: American women kick ass at every worlds and there’s a whole crew of athletes that win races like Ghent-Wevelgem and the Flèche Wallonne, win stage races, can win anything…and rise to the top at the Olympics.
We have not done a good job harnessing that [potential] and really putting the value in Team USA that’s fundamentally there. That’s a project for USA Cycling. And you’re seeing some work with that around the recent [Team USA] training camp in Richmond. So that’s something that can bring in some much needed money and, I think, an affinity for the sport in the U.S. by wrapping really compelling athletes in the flag.
Another key piece is membership revenue. It’s one of the reasons where we have to become very custom-focused, very member-centric…and make sure we’re doing a brilliant job keeping the members we’ve got and have some intelligent and targeted growth opportunities, be it youth, be it mountain biking, be it women—that we’re really good at bringing them into the sport and keeping them over their adult life as cyclists. And we’ve got to do what British Cycling has done at cultivating different levels of membership. They have three, including a fan-based membership, which we can build value into with Team USA; they also have a riding and a racing class of member—both of which we should adapt and learn from their very positive experience with what would make sense here.
The third piece is continuing to do a good job on both our development programs—which are largely funded by private donors in the USA Cycling Development Foundation—and continuing to do a good job delivering for the USOC. They’re in the process of making an additional grant to USA Cycling because they believe cycling has a lot of medal potential, and they get a good return on their investment with USA Cycling, and we absolutely want to deliver on that.
So I think we’ve got some good avenues of growth. I wish we had the lottery funding and some of the advocacy sources of revenue that British Cycling does, but I see some clear opportunities of bringing in some much-needed money to support not only out athletic programs but also fully engage with our members and our event operators.
peloton: You had to overcome various doping scandals when you managed the T-Mobile team in 2007; that sponsorship ended and the German media then cold-shouldered the sport. Do you see doping as an ongoing problem that’s still affecting team sponsorship?
Stapleton: I think the cornerstone of the challenges in sponsorship is the almost infinite association between cycling and doping, and that is a huge overhang. I think the difference that I see, at least as it relates to USA Cycling, is this Team USA aspect, where it’s really going to the core values of sport, the pride in American athletes. So there’s a little different association than pros racing the Tour de France, and I think we’ve got some opportunities that are kind of unique. But I do think, in general, the pro side of the sport is screaming for fundamental change.
What has happened economically over the past few years is extremely unhealthy—for example, I saw that Europcar is going to exit cycling at the end of 2015. We’ve got almost no knew true commercial sponsors coming into the sport over the past several years. The sport is being propped up by the business interests or the personal interests of wealthy individuals, and in some cases the national lotteries; and in almost every case the endemic bike sponsors and other equipment sponsors are propping up the entire pro side of the sport. That’s extremely unhealthy. It’s creating this environment that we’ve talked about before of the haves and the have-nots.
One of the things we have to do as a sport is give a vehicle for new sponsors to come into the sport, have some success, and earn their way into the top races. And the more we concentrate wealth and resources in a handful of teams, and the more we layer some of the reform measures now or layer development requirements on them, that just means more and more resources to compete. Also now, it’s going to lock up a lot of the top talent in the hands of the people that already have talent and already have resources. I think it’s very misguided and a step in the wrong direction, and exaggerates this problem….
Before, you could come into this sport with 10 million euros, and you had a fighting chance to do something. I’m not sure you can do that at 20 million now. And you’ve got teams with published budgets pushing 40 million. That is fundamentally unhealthy, and we need to address that in a systematic way. So these provocative issues like salary caps, and proven tools from other sports, we need to actually do something about that. Otherwise, you are going to be talking about eight or nine franchises that really are the sport, and a big, big, big second tier that have limited prospects, don’t have access to the top athletes or up-and-coming athletes, and are just stuck in limbo. And that’s absolutely the wrong direction.
peloton: What about women’s racing?
Stapleton: Yes, on the flip side, there are some very healthy trends. Not only are women growing as participants, there’s also some excitement and buzz around women’s cycling. It’s not satisfying yet in terms of their racing exposure and the money coming into the sport, but there is recognition that there’s a whole other dimension to the sport that for some sponsors should be very interesting. There’s a sea of products that are marketed to women, and women are such a prominent part of every purchase decision in that category. I think that’s got good prospects. I’m enthusiastic about that. It’s funny how that doesn’t have any of the association with doping, even in the eyes of sponsors, that professional cycling does. Plus, it’s accessible. Sponsors can come in there at a reasonable dollar. They’re not getting the TV exposure, but the real guide to sponsorship is headed toward the rights of use—if you look at the income of even top athletes in other sports they make a lot of money off of endorsements, use of their images, and how they pitch products. That is ultimately the type of sponsors that may find women’s cycling very interesting.
peloton: If you looked in your crystal ball and looked five years ahead, where would like the sport, and USA Cycling in particular, to be headed?
Stapleton: At the sporting level, I’d like to see the fundamental economic issues addressed, and I think five years is a plenty long runway to have some real impact. There’s a host of modern marketing around digital media that is happening in all the other sports. Because of our fragmented structures and disparate rights in cycling, that hasn’t happened yet. But if that can be harnessed and channeled into the core economics, that would impact the sport dramatically, and as a consequence improve cycling as a product, something to watch and enjoy. I think both the events themselves, and how they’re broadcasted, or how you can engage with them or access them, on mobile tablets, whatever, that’s a sweeping set of changes that is realistic to do in that time frame.
One example I can just tell you…. As you know I’m a board member of Ironman, we have a project on data tracking and GPS tracking of athletes that we just piloted in Kona that’s very exciting, that’s directly transferrable into cycling. If Ironman can make a nine-hour event interesting and engaging, and allow you to follow it online in a meaningful way, we should be able to do that in cycling.
For USA Cycling specifically, I think we want to work incredibly closely with our members and our race organizers to grow the sport in a diligent, sustainable way. So get people to races, get people riding their bikes, get people racing their bikes, and give them lots of opportunity to engage in what is a fundamentally healthy and positive lifestyle. And I figure there’s lot of low-hanging fruit there; we just have to walk under it and move forward.