Sponsorship in the time of coronavirus

(This post was originally published on The British Continental)

With racing suspended, what can teams and their sponsors do to maintain interest and engagement with the public? SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling rider Andy Turner pens his thoughts

The whole world is in an unprecedented situation at the moment. The coronavirus pandemic presents us with the greatest global health crisis in our time. The global economy is stuttering and businesses have been hit hard.

Competitive sports are having to look at new means and methods to survive

Many sports, too, are facing existential crises. Competitive sports are having to look at new means and methods to survive. Cycling – reliant as it is on income from external sponsorship – is a particularly difficult sport to maintain in this current climate.

Andy Turner (SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling) in the last major road race of 2020 – the Betty Pharaoh Memorial – before racing was suspended. Photo: Howard Goldberg

A significant issue for cycling is its reliance on TV coverage as an obvious way to make sponsorship investments more visible and therefore more worthwhile. This is most apparent in the higher echelons where, for a lot of teams, their survival depends on the continuation of sponsorship deals which are, in turn, reliant on conspicuous performance in the Tour de France. For UK teams, it is the ability to compete and showcase themselves in the Tour de Yorkshire and Tour of Britain.

Another issue is the exclusive nature of cycling and a tendency for snobbery amongst cycling diehard. ‘The Rules’, for example, dictate that pro team kit and merchandise should never be worn by amateurs. Indeed, if someone shows up on the Sunday club run in their favourite team’s kit, they will be ridiculed. It’s a shame these attitudes exist because if I saw someone wearing my team’s kit or riding a replica team bike, I’d feel pretty honoured that they were choosing to support my team and investing in us! However, it’s unlikely that attitude is going to change over-night. So, what can teams and their sponsors do to maintain interest and engagement with the public during this time?

SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling 2020 team launch. Photo: PCS Photography

Let’s start with eRacing… some love it, others loath it. To some, it’s an entertaining form of bike racing that can be easily viewed via streaming. Some view it as an effective training tool to use alongside road racing. Others despise it for its lack of purity, bike handling skills and bunch riding – “it’s a videogame”, they say.

Personally, I don’t really see it as that relatable to road racing. It’s too different and misses so many of the aspects that make road cycling great. I can’t imagine the 2018 Milan San Remo being as exciting if Nibali’s winning move hadn’t involved any of the incredible descending skills he demonstrated!

There’s no reason eRacing cannot be something to enjoy in its own right rather than be measured against road racing

But there’s no reason eRacing cannot be something to enjoy in its own right rather than be measured against road racing. Having raced a fair bit online myself, there is a certain skill to it. Understanding where to put down the power, when to surf the bunch, and how to surf the bunch for that matter. It does require skill. Not to mention some huge physiological efforts! There is also a massive community of people around the world who follow eRacing; it’s a community that road cycling teams and riders can tap into. Yet a lot of high-profile riders refuse to. I believe it comes down to that exclusive attitude again: that road cycling is above eRacing.

Andy Turner at the 2020 Betty Pharoah Memorial. Photo: Huw Fairclough

In reality, with no road racing to speak of for time-being, eRacing is a great platform to get on board with. A lot of teams and riders have cottoned on to this, with participation by World Tour teams and riders now commonplace in eRaces. It’s also a great way to publicise sponsors. My team (SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling), for example, have sponsors who make smart trainers, bikes, sports nutrition and kit. These are all items which are very much required for training and racing on the turbo.

I’d say racing itself doesn’t really offer much to sponsors for the most part

Additionally, all across the world, people are still riding, be that indoors or outdoors. We’re working hard with our sponsors to continually develop products that still have purpose for prospective buyers without the ‘need’ for road racing to showcase it. In fact, I’d say racing itself doesn’t really offer much to sponsors for the most part. It’s a very unspecific type of exposure for them. At the Cycle Show 2019, a lot of people came over to our title sponsor’s stand, with quite a few unaware that it was a bike brand. They had seen the team on the TV at the Tour de Yorkshire and Tour of Britain but it didn’t have the context.

TV exposure is best viewed as a directory to the team’s social media pages. This is where the team can specifically publicise and advertise what the sponsors do and explain the benefits and the reasons people should purchase from them. There’s no reason this can’t be achieved through eRacing and the huge community that watch that. For example, our kit supplier, Rule 28, is designing indoor-specific training kit for us. Some may scoff at the idea of this, but ventilation on the turbo is limited and road vibrations are non-existent. So, a chamois that is thinner with kit that allows better ventilation will make turbo more enjoyable and, in longer eRaces, will improve performance. 

Additionally, our bike sponsor SwiftCarbon has been organising eRaces, pitting us against their Portuguese team for a little friendly competition – something fans of both teams across both countries can keep up to date with. We’ve also been doing some group rides online, enabling us to enjoy social rides with anyone across the world who wants to join in. Social distancing but not being socially distant. It’s all about finding new ways to interact with and involve the wider public.

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