Jonathan Vaughters commentary: If we have to have relegation in cycling, there are better ways to do it

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Let me open with this: I am absolutely against promotion/relegation in cycling.

Had the teams gotten to vote on this — as it’s been reported we did, but I can assure you we didn’t — I would have voted no.

I have been against it when our teams were ranked high and low. I am against it as a WorldTour team. I was against it when we were a Pro Continental team. I was against it while I was AIGCP President. I will always be against it.

In some sports, a relegation and promotion system works well. It gives smaller teams an opportunity to shine. People like to see outsiders ascend to the big time. It makes sense.

In fact, we did it once. In 2008 and 2009, we were a second division Pro Continental team, and we managed to get on the final podium at the Tour de France. Someone like me should be supportive of a system that puts underdogs in the position to bite.

But this system doesn’t do that — instead, it breeds deep instability across a huge section of the sport.

As it is currently structured, promotion/relegation in cycling is destructive.

It hurts the athletes. It destroys teams. It lowers the value of the sport. And it encourages doping.

I recognize that statement may become a headline, but I’m pointing out that when things get desperate in sport, it often comes at the cost of fair play. It does all these things because it creates widespread instability (just like doping) as sponsors no longer feel safe in the sport of cycling and teams crumble.

Sponsors don’t want to bounce around from team to team in pursuit of a stable platform that will actually compete in the World Tour.

Also read: Jonathan Vaughters and how we ended up in the relegation battle

I also understand the counter arguments. It opens up the top level of sport to new sponsors, new ideas, new people. It forces teams to never rest on their laurels. All that would happen, ideally. But it doesn’t work that way.

I’ll take one snippet of the pro-relegation argument: sponsorship. Pro-relegation folks say “we need to encourage new sponsors to come into the sport via new teams.”

Yes. We need to encourage new sponsors to come into the sport. We also need to create a market where the sponsors are competitively bidding for the teams. That competitive market is what will create stability and help cycling flourish.

What we have now is the teams competing for a limited number of sponsors. New teams, old teams, brand new teams, all promising the same thing: The Tour de France.

Sponsors, possibly confused by which team is telling the truth about racing the Tour, slowly back away from a sport that has no scarcity of its most prized resource. This while the teams scramble over one another for the ever-diminishing value of a once-keen sponsor.

We need a climate in which new sponsors need to bid to enter the sport from a limited number of teams, thus increasing value. We don’t need teams chopping each other’s heads off to see who can serve the cheapest sponsor. Of course, teams already compete for sponsors, but this system ups the ante even further.

How promotion/relegation could work in cycling

Promotion/relegation doesn’t fit within cycling’s tradition, writes Jonathan Vaughters. (Getty Images)

I could go on. And I understand the timing of this writing, given the current points situation, is convenient. Instead of wasting ink in further arguing why promotion/relegation makes no sense in cycling, I’m going to take a pragmatic attitude.

The rest of this article examines a system in which promotion/relegation looks after the interests of athletes, races, teams and sponsors, much like the EPL (English Premier League). If we have to have it, then let’s make it the best possible system for everyone involved.

First let’s take a look at other models: What do they do to make promotion/relegation work inside their leagues?

Other sports with relegation in play — the most famous of which is the EPL — have consistent competition tables in mostly controlled environments. Meaning teams play each other in stadiums in a tabulated format that can accurately determine the best teams via simple math.

Cycling? We attempt to determine who the best teams are when we are not competing in the same events. While my team rarely races anything in the north of France, Arkéa-Samsic did not attend the Giro. But, for the month of May, those points are tabulated against each other, when our teams rarely even saw each other, and the levels of competition were vastly different.

That’s like an EPL team dropping down to compete in lower leagues for a month but taking points earned against lesser competition with them.

In other sports with relegation, there are consistent revenues. Every team gets a check from the league for the TV rights. Sponsorship is not a majority source of revenue for teams in leagues with relegation.

Why does this matter? Because league wide distributed revenue is consistent. You win? Here’s your check. You lose? Here’s your check. Teams keep playing, and there’s always next year.

In cycling, sponsorship is fickle and it’s also by far the largest source of revenue for all of us. Most sponsors will not sponsor teams that drop to the second division in cycling. Maybe if you’re a French team assured a Tour spot or have an exceptionally altruistic backer you luck out. But most sponsors will walk if you can’t race the Tour de France, and cycling runs on sponsorship money alone.

Lastly, and most importantly: In other sports with relegation, meaningful financial compensation is given to the teams that drop down to the second division. Teams get checks from the league to rebuild if they drop down. Everyone has a fair chance to climb back up.

Not cycling, as the model is too unstable; revenue dries up, the best riders and staff leave, and teams begin to struggle. We’re already seeing this happen.

Also read: Unintended consequences in the promotion/relegation wars

How can we come up with a relegation system in cycling that mirrors the success of the EPL, and soon? What can we borrow?

First, we should keep closer track of “same race vs. same teams” results. Let’s put a premium on races where all the best teams are present. We send a team to the Giro — a beautiful, hard bike race — while another team we’re fighting over points with was able to skip that race and collect handfuls of points in smaller races.

That system has neither fairness nor the interests of the sport in mind. People want to see the big races raced all out, with the best riders competing. They don’t want to see teams limp through the grand tours while prioritizing points in races no one has heard of.

The current structure of point allotment is crazy. Right now, a stage win in the Tour de France, an example of a race where all the best teams and riders are present, is worth 120 points. A win at a 1.1 race most people haven’t heard of, and where four top teams are present, is worth 125 points.

We should eliminate that error and keep the races that count for relegation limited to the races where all the teams at risk of being relegated are present. No optional participation races. No races where a top team can decline participation. Apples to apples.

And the stable income part? That’s not changing any time soon in cycling. We all would like to see meaningful revenue from shared TV deals, but it’s a good thing I haven’t been holding my breath for that. For now, we operate in an unstable sponsorship revenue model. We need to accept that and move on to other solutions.

But since we know any relegated team will lose a large chunk of its sponsorship, we have to address that. Relegated teams will also lose some top riders due to contractual clauses that allow a break if the team is demoted. To ensure we live up to the standard of other sports and keep relegation a sporting matter, not a financial stability or employment risk for the 150 some people each team carries, cycling would have to do the following:

Determines total revenue loss and rider (talent) loss. For example, perhaps $8 million to $10 million in sponsorship will leave or decrease as a result of relegation. And the best three or four riders leave or have to be paid more as a risk premium to stay in the second division team. So, let’s call it a loss of roughly $9 million. This would be a very realistic figure for most WorldTour teams right now, based on my conversations with some other team managers.

Compensate the relegated team appropriately so they have a chance to move back up. This doesn’t mean overcompensate. Just make sure that relegation won’t end in organizational death, as it would for many teams today.

Where would this roughly $10 million for each relegated team come from annually, if not from TV revenues such as the EPL model?

The UCI could not sustain this in its current budget, so it has to come from a collective funded mainly by the majority revenue source of the UCI: race sanctioning fees.

Every time a race organizer wishes his event sanctioned by the UCI, they must pay a fee. This is how the UCI gets its money to operate. These fees would need to be raised considerably to fund a $10 million expense. However, considering race organizers argue that promotion/relegation is the best thing for the sport and that it benefits their events, then it seems only fair to distribute the downside of these benefits.

What’s the final model of promotion/relegation look like in cycling?

1. Races that count towards promotion/relegation have all top teams present. Same races for everyone. No exceptions.
2. When a team is relegated, the sport takes collective responsibility towards its solvency and the well-being of its employees and athletes and compensates the team for calculated losses in sponsorship revenue for a designated amount of time.
3. This payment is distributed by the UCI to give relegated teams every opportunity to return to the top league. Additionally, a multi-year period of guaranteed entry into the determined promotion/relegation counting events is guaranteed so that dropped teams have the opportunity to re-enter the top level.

These are fairly simple concepts we could get started on soon.

Are they easy to execute? No, notably not the financial component, but if stakeholders are hellbent on a relegation and promotion system, then we need one that doesn’t hurt athletes, fans, partners, and teams in the process.