Tour de France bargains await firms
THE Tour de France, cycling's biggest prize, is a bargain for sponsors, courtesy of Lance Armstrong.
The event could once demand large investments from potential backers. Tainted by doping scandals for the past decade that culminated with the American seven-time winner being stripped of all his titles in 2012, sponsoring a team has become 50 per cent cheaper, according to Frank van den Wall Bake, a sports marketing consultant in Hilversum, the Netherlands.
"Despite, or perhaps even because of all the doping problems, cycling now offers sponsors more possibilities than ever," he said.
"If you compare cycling to other sponsorship properties, cycling still offers a lot of value for money, particularly if you are a company with a strong focus on Europe because everyone has heard of the Tour."
The 101st event was won on Sunday by Italy's Vincenzo Nibali of the Astana team. The Tour is known by half the people on the planet, while 88 per cent of Europeans are aware of it, according to sports consultancy and market researcher Repucom.
Mr van den Wall Bake was one of the creators of the Rabobank Groep cycling team. The Dutch lender spent 15 million euros (S$25 million) a year on the sport and withdrew in 2012 in the wake of the Armstrong scandal. Deutsche Telekom AG ended its US$18 million (about S$22 million) annual sponsorship of the T-Mobile team in 2007, over doping.
"Cycling is one of the few platforms that offer consistent free-to-air television coverage across Europe," said Ulrich Lacher, a director at Cologne-based sports marketing researcher Repucom.
Sponsoring a Tour de France team may be more interesting for smaller companies, he added.
"The problem is not so much the doping - which you have in other sports as well - it's the way it was handled by the parties that were involved with cycling, from the teams to the race organisers to the cycling body UCI," Mr Lacher said.
"They didn't have a very good crisis management and that intensified the problem."
That led to larger companies "staying away from cycling because it was too risky, and instead going for a safer option such as soccer or Formula One".
Having the first Italian winner since 1998 and the first Frenchmen on the podium since 1997 will boost the sport in Europe's cycling heartland, both men said. A fifth of all Europeans take part in cycling, the same proportion that plays football.
Jean-Christophe Peraud finished second in the overall classification, while his fellow Frenchman Thibaut Pinot was third. It is the first time France has had a rider on the podium in 17 years.
Having two young riders from France on the podium for the first time this century is "a godsend" for French cycling, Mr van den Wall Bake said. "It bodes well for the future. They're young, and they attack and are there to win."
Nibali is the first Italian to win the Tour since Marco Pantani, who died of a cocaine overdose in 2004.
"It's very significant for the Italian market to have another winner," Mr Lacher said. "The sport needs new, fresh winners who aren't tainted by past doping issues."
Although he is now only the sixth man to have won all three cycling Grand Tours - the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia and the Spanish Vuelta - Nibali, 29, has yet to become a household name.
He became one of the best-paid riders in the world after he extended his contract with the Kazakhstan-owned Astana Team last year until 2016 for 4 million euros a year, according to Cycling News.
He has 120,000 followers on Twitter, compared with 370,000 for last year's British winner Chris Froome and 836,000 for two-time champion Alberto Contador of Spain.
Winning the most important race in professional cycling will make Nibali a star and boost his market value, Mr Lacher said, noting that "nobody knew Chris Froome last year".
Bike-shop owners in Italy are already looking forward to a sales boost.
"When Pantani was a big winner, sales rose and everybody was pulling out their cycling gear, so I would expect the same to happen with Nibali," Andrea Di Rocco, partner of the Romeo Bike shop in Rome, said. It makes high-end custom bikes for both racing and city life.
"What I think and hope is that Nibali's wins have an impact on foreigners, with American and Japanese buyers, for example, becoming more interested in Italian bikes," Mr Di Rocco said.