Women’s sports are among the fastest-growing in the global content marketplace. From tennis, to golf, to basketball and volleyball, women are changing how we experience sports as fans, and how sports investors and sponsors make profits. Among all the globally-recognized women’s sports, pro road cycling is an unpolished gem that is ready to connect with new fans and a wider public. Women’s pro cycling could become one of the top three women’s sports marketplaces in the next ten years, immediately recognizable for its athletes, its unique races, and the strong connections with fans around the world.
First, we need to press for big changes in the economics and governance of the sport. While it is possible for fans to follow women’s racing on websites, it is very difficult to get broadcast coverage, and its exposure is still only a fraction of what the men’s sport gets. Women’s racing is often ignored by the media, or overshadowed by coverage of a parallel men’s event. In 2016 just 25% of the WorldTour was seen on TV, and only three races were broadcast live: Tour of Flanders, Women’s Tour of Great Britain, and the RideLondon Classique. Women’s racing is every bit as exciting and dramatic as the men’s – perhaps even more so because of the better tactics, more evenly matched top teams, and the ingenuity under-rated riders use to animate big races.
Women’s pro cycling unfortunately suffers from tremendous under-investment and support. The typical cost to run a typical UCI “Elite” professional women’s team is as little as US $100,000; a top team has a budget of just over US $200,000. In our February, 2016 survey of over 400 UCI registered women professionals, 52% of the women’s peloton must actually work a second job in order to make financial ends meet. A nearly identical percentage (51.6%) of the women pros actually pay back parts of their salaries to their teams, in order to pay for basic necessities such as equipment, travel costs, and the services of a trainer. But the dedication of the women racers is a foundation on which to build a truly successful sporting venture.
Companies which market primarily to women better understand how to inspire them with messages of personal change, health, wellness, status, design and value. Women, more than men, tend to make purchasing decisions based upon their impression of the athletes as individuals and how well they relate to those athletes, rather than their victories or record-breaking exploits. Women’s cycling can capitalize on many new and different sponsorship opportunities, rather than relying on the end-market and customer categories which have traditionally driven the men’s sport. There is a unique opportunity here for the right companies to capture the attention of a sports viewing population – a more educated and higher-income female audience that either spends money, or influences the way in which money is spent in families.
We adopt the lessons other women’s sports have learned to present the sport in a new and compelling way. Women’s cycling does not have to look like men’s cycling; we can build a unique calendar, with new events and a points structure which leads up to a true professional championship. The growth in women’s tennis, for example, led to the creation of many new tournaments and series which became self-sustaining, marketable, and extraordinarily profitable. There is also the opportunity to create cross-pollinating relationships with spinning and other online fitness communities, which could provide the incentive for women to participate in all manner of virtual cycling activities.
The rise of women’s earning power in sports such as golf and tennis demonstrates how an athlete’s marketability benefits an entire sport. In tennis, parity between men’s and women’s tournaments has evolved over the forty years since the famous battle of the sexes between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. Men’s tennis sponsorship and marketing has polarized around proven winners, but women’s tennis instead highlights the relatability of its stars to women everywhere. While not every boy can aspire to win Wimbledon like Roger Federer, every girl can aspire to be a strong woman; and this is the exact message being conveyed by all-time great tennis stars like Serena Williams, and competitive players like Anna Kournikova who never won a Grand Slam. The ability of women athletes to transcend their sports – whether they are big winners, or to connect in a meaningful way with women who just enjoy the sport – is something which women’s pro cycling can tap into. Women’s cycling has the potential to outshine men’s pro cycling and change the sport’s entire business model in the process.
Most importantly, greater visibility of the women’s sport, more focus on the individual athletes and their personal stories, and increased investment in women’s specific products and forums could attract many new participants, and foster long term growth in cycling overall. A digital platform, and strong negotiations with our teams and other economic stakeholders in the sport, can help to build value from this growth. Women’s pro cycling can lead the way for the entire sport to reform and modernize, making cycling a more accessible activity for fans to fall in love with, and for our sponsors to feel confident investing into. A strong union, representing the athletes’ interests and rights, can help to guide the sport towards this brighter future.