Us sport fans are an opinionated bunch, we all have our thoughts on what works for our sport and what doesn’t. It’s not a new phenomenon that this is often at odds with the decisions being made by sports figureheads and governing bodies. This debate is one that has been ongoing in cycling and wider sport for a long time and is part of what makes sport so fun to follow. However over the past few months it seems the gulf between fans and decision makers has grown wider than ever.
Even those not at all interested in sport would have struggled to avoid the furore that’s taken place over the last week with the attempted establishment of a footballing ‘European Super League’. The largest clubs in European football stated they would set up their own new competition, separate from the current rules and competitions where they would be at no risk of being relegated or failing to qualify. This would ensure the clubs involved had a steady revenue stream regardless of their performance on the pitch, removing any chance of upwards mobility for smaller teams in the process.
Cue blanket outrage from fans, clubs, legends of the game and even the heads of European governments. While the huge level of opposition caused the English clubs to back out and the idea now appears to be unsalvageable it served to show just how out of touch some figures have become in their pursuit of financial gain.
Obviously this is a pretty unique set of circumstances and not all sports have the luxury of such a large global fanbase that sees politicians stepping in when there’s widespread controversy. It’s also worth mentioning that football is by no means a beacon of democratic fan power, you only need to take a look at controversies around the Qatar World Cup and continued VAR debate to see that’s not the case.
It is, however, quite easy to draw comparisons between this example of an almost universally opposed decision and some of the recent moves taken by cyclings’ rule-makers. There’s a history of questionable UCI rules (enforced sock height springs to mind) that have been implemented while fans and riders have called out for action on much more important issues like doping and rider safety.
The recent rule change that has caused the most controversy has been the banning of the disposal of water bottles and litter unless in a specific zone of the race. Most would agree that there is a need to reduce the environmental impact of cycle racing and combating litter is an important aspect of that. But the giving of water bottles to the fans cheering on the riders has been a long standing tradition when it comes to top level races. There’s numerous stories of today’s pro riders being inspired to take up cycling after receiving an ejected bidon from the peloton of their local race when they were growing up.
Credit: Breakaway Digital, Team Qhubeka ASSOS
Is this rule change going to deny us the next raft of professionals? Perhaps not, but it does remove one of the aspects that adds that little bit of magic and brings fans closer to riders in an age where elite cycling is increasingly segregated from the public. It may not be the biggest issue facing cycling but it’s another example in an increasingly long line of decisions where rulemakers have shown themselves to be out of touch with the majority of fans and riders.
What are the chances of anything changing? It’s pretty unlikely we’ll see Boris Johnson doing a press conference extolling the virtues of giving away bidons on the race course anytime soon so what other avenues does cycling have?
One sport that used to have the same complaints that has managed to turn things around is Formula 1. After its buyout by Liberty Media they made huge efforts to put their fans at the centre of the sport. This started with three months of in depth research into what fans wanted from F1. The result? Fans wanted to feel like they were closer to the teams and drivers.
Liberty Media have achieved this by opening up the previously secretive world of F1, allowing fans to hear team radios and see real time data from the cars. Coupled with their use of social media Liberty have turned F1 into the fastest growing sport on social media channels for three years running.
With the chances of a similar sea change not likely to happen in cycling the onus for connecting with fans will come down to the teams. At PaceUp we have long been trying to encourage professional riders to better connect with their followers through our social media workshops. While the days of passing on a bidon to a young fan may be over, riders have more ways than ever to make a connection with their audiences.