Just two weeks ago, Tour de France winners Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome were deep into preparations for another season on Team Sky, the most dominant team in pro cycling. Now, everything they have built is at risk with the news that Sky Television will stop support after the 2019 season.
With six Tour wins in seven years by three different riders, Team Sky rules pro cycling's biggest race like no other team has in the sport. Other participants in pro cycling say there's one primary reason for that dominance: a budget that reached more than $43 million in 2017 and supports a deep roster of top riders.
Sky has a compelling pitch to prospective sponsors. "They're selling a team that can guarantee a Tour de France win," said Jonathan Vaughters, general manager of rival team EF-Education First.
But there's a catch: They're asking for far more money, $30 million -- roughly twice as much as the average WorldTour team runs on. "They don't have that guarantee if the budget is cut in half," Vaughters said.
Here are five takeaways from the news:
Team Sky must have a sponsor to survive.
If Sky can't find a deep-pocketed backer, the team will face a choice: fold or take a smaller deal and likely give up its powerhouse position. In pro cycling's business model, teams' primary source of revenue is sponsorship. There are no tickets, no real revenue-sharing for TV rights, and merchandise sales are low. If a team doesn't have a sponsor, it doesn't have a future.
Team principal Dave Brailsford announced he wants to have a new backer in place by June. But Fran Millar, Sky's director of business operations, told ESPN that June is not a hard deadline. While the team wants to be in what Millar called "significant conversations" with sponsors by May, she said the search won't necessarily stop after June 30. The process could drag into the Tour (June 29-July 21), but that would put Sky at serious risk of losing other riders to rival teams whether they find a new backer or not.
A bidding war is likely for top talent
If the team can't find a sponsor, Sky's roster will make rich pickings for other teams, which won't wait to pry them away. Froome and Thomas have the biggest incentive to jump early. The longer they wait, the fewer teams there are that have budget space to afford their contracts, which are said to be $4 million to $5 million a year per rider. The most intense interest likely will be in Sky's deep bench of young talent that includes Colombians Egan Bernal and Ivan Sosa and Pavel Sivakov of Russia. Whether courting a current Tour winner or a future one, wealthy teams, including UAE-Emirates or Katusha, could remake their rosters significantly.
But the riders will face a shrinking market for their services. From 2018 to 2019, the 18 teams in the WorldTour shed 50 roster spots, to 476 as of this writing. If Sky disappears at the end of 2019, another 29 spots go with it, and that doesn't count what happens with other team sponsorships. The wild card is a new WorldTour team, like the rumored Chinese effort known as the Global Cycling Project, which not only could take Sky's place but also take over the team outright.
The search for a sponsor could affect results.
In its nine years, Sky has never had to search for a sponsor before, but Millar said she doesn't believe it will affect the team's preparations or performance in the upcoming season. But if the sponsor search does drag into June, the team could face the prospect of going to the Tour with two former champions each vying for the leadership role as they head to new teams, or seek new contracts. That could impact strategy and results.
A fight over leadership likely won't dampen career prospects for a phenomenon like Bernal, who was Thomas' best support rider at the 2018 Tour and finished 15th overall in his first attempt. "[Bernal] is the first to find something new," Vaughters said. But it does put into question what leadership and development opportunities are available to him if Thomas and Froome are intent on captaining the team at major events.
Sky may find a sponsor but the funding may not be enough.
The more complicated scenario is if team officials can find a sponsor, just not at the funding level they want. A smaller budget would force Sky to make hard roster choices and field a less powerful Tour team. Millar didn't answer directly when asked if team principals would consider a smaller contract -- "We're looking to find the right partner," she said -- adding that the team wasn't simply seeking money. "We're not going cap in hand to any business that will give us $30 million," she said.
Millar pushes back against the criticism that Sky's budget far outweighs other teams, pointing out that teams such as Katusha and BMC have budgets above $30 million. But Sky is roughly double the WorldTour average, and BMC, at least, failed to find a replacement sponsor of its own last year and merged with a smaller outfit to enter 2019 with a reduced budget.
As BMC found, a title sponsorship ask of $30 million per year means Sky isn't really competing against other cycling teams in the sponsorship market. That's more than some of the top stadium naming rights deals in pro sports; it's on par with some of the most lucrative shirt sponsor deals in the English Premier League, football's richest. It's major logo placement on a Formula One car. Sky's job is to convince sponsors that the value of a pro cycling team is in the same league.
Millar points to metrics provided by sports analytics firm Nielsen to suggest that the team has provided more than $550 million in media exposure for Sky over nine years, which more than justifies the outlay. But other observers, including Vaughters, are skeptical that the team can make such a solid case.
The sport of cycling has seen this before.
If Sky can't find a sponsor, pro cycling will lose its most powerful and recognizable team. Imagine if Manchester United, or Barcelona, simply ceased to exist. Even if it can continue, only at a reduced level, that change will have a huge impact on the sport.
But cycling has been through this before. The 1980s had two brief "superteams" in Renault-Elf and la Vie Claire, which famously boasted two Tour winners on the same team in Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault. Like Sky, Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service dominated the early 2000s and made a habit of buying up riders who might be rivals, such as Spain's Roberto Heras, to instead be support riders to Armstrong's quest for Tour wins.
Eventually, all cycling teams either end or undergo a radical shift in sponsorship that alters their trajectory. When that happens, Vaughters pointed out, the sport rebalances in a healthy way, in part because potential sponsors see they can be competitive at an affordable price. "Right now, the whole thing is blocked by a behemoth that bought up all the best talent," he said.
And audiences like more competitive matches. When superteams fold or fade, it often results in unpredictable, exciting Tours. La Vie Claire began to slide after going 1-2 in both the 1985 and 1986 Tours, and for four years, the sport featured seesaw battles, including the Tour's closest-ever finish with LeMond's dramatic final-day, eight-second victory in 1989. After Armstrong's retirement in 2005, the Tour swung between four winners the next six editions (albeit ones that were deeply altered by doping cases).
For the first time in five years, Sky's inexorable grip on the sport appears to be loosening. Perhaps the team finds a new sponsor and simply continues on without change. Perhaps another superteam comes in to take its place and the story remains the same, just with different names. Or perhaps history repeats, and the 2020 Tour, and maybe next year's as well, is a wide-open, unpredictable affair the likes of which hasn't been seen in years.