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The revolutions will not be televised: a sponsor’s view

British Cycling has said it will no longer support TV highlights for its National Road Series. We spoke to Chris Lawson of Orientation Marketing about the impact this decision will have on domestic cycling sponsorship

Why do companies sponsor domestic cycling teams? It’s a question we’ve often wondered. At a time of economic uncertainty, when cherished domestic races are under threat and major domestic teams have folded, it seems that sponsorship is an increasingly precious and precarious commodity in the world of cycling.

Sooner or later, British Cycling needs to decide whether or not they have the appetite or ability to support domestic road racing

After the revelation that British Cycling will no longer support TV highlights for its National Road Series, we got in touch with Chris Lawson, co-founder and director of Orientation Marketing. His company is title sponsor of Matt Hallam’s Crimson Performance Orientation Marketing team, an elite team now in its third year of existence. We wanted to find out why Orientation Marketing sponsors a domestic cycling team, what they get out of it and what he makes of the domestic cycling landscape.

A critic of British Cycling’s decision to discontinue its financial support for a TV highlights show for the National Road Series, we were particularly interested to find out what impact he thinks this will have on domestic cycling sponsorship and what he thinks could be done to make domestic cycling a more attractive proposition to prospective sponsors. Here’s what he had to say…

Photo: Joe Cotterill

First of all, tell us a bit about your company

We are a marketing agency based in the north-west of England which focuses on the pharmaceutical, health and other life science industries. I created the business in 2015 with my business partner Gareth and we currently have six employees based in our Chester office, and a satellite office in Toronto, Canada. We work with a global client base who are located in a number of countries such as Switzerland, Germany, France, United States, Australia and of course the UK. We may still be relatively young as a business and small in number, but I’m very proud that we’ve achieved a reputation as a leading marketing services provider in the industries we serve. We’ve got pretty ambitious plans for the future of the business, we have to have to achieve my aim of retiring to Tuscany whilst still relatively young to ride my bike and drink good wine every day!

I remember in my early cycling days seeing the likes of Mapei and Mercatone Uno as team sponsors and realising that above all else, they were business owners who loved cycling

And tell us a bit about your sponsorship involvement in cycling

I’ve been a keen cyclist since I was 12, moving from mountain bike racing to road (predominantly for functional winter training) and then a combination of both ever since. I was always keen to support cycling in some way if the opportunity arose. I remember in my early cycling days seeing the likes of Mapei and Mercatone Uno as team sponsors and realising that above all else, they were business owners who loved cycling and wanted to support the sport and help it grow.

As a business, we don’t really have a need to invest in marketing (I appreciate the irony, being a marketing agency and all) but Gareth and I agreed that sponsoring a cycling team made sense in terms of aligning the physical and mental health benefits of cycling with our clients objectives of promoting good health and improving the quality of life for their customers. There has been a history of health and drug companies sponsoring teams and races, such as Omega Pharma and Amgen (who sponsored the Tour of California), so we clearly aren’t the only ones to make this link.

Chris Lawson. Photo: Orientation Marketing

What led you to sponsor the Crimson Performance team in particular?

A good friend of mine messaged me that Matt Hallam was looking for sponsors to get Crimson Performance off the ground. I met with Matt and really liked what he had to say about his different approach to rider recruitment and providing ‘return on investment’ to sponsors. Matt recognised that especially in year one budget dictated the number and quality of races the team could enter, and also to an extent the profile of rider he could recruit. He had to approach return on investment from a different angle and also, as a team, they had to punch massively above their weight (entering the Tour Series in their first season I thought demonstrated their ambition perfectly). The story resonated with what Gareth and I were trying to achieve with Orientation Marketing, and so we seemed totally suited to one another.

What do you get out of being a team sponsor?

As I mentioned above, aligning our brand with a healthy and positive team and sport such as cycling means we can use some of the excellent images that Matt provides to sponsors for our own content production such as blogs and website imagery. We also co-create content with the team on topics such as nutrition, recovery and healthy living.

The most value we see on the team sponsorship from a credibility standpoint is in televised races such as the National Road Series and the Tour Series

Then we have the benefits of our branding on the team kit, team car and training wear. Being able to see our brand on the team is great at the roadside, but the most value we see on the team sponsorship from a credibility standpoint is in televised races such as the National Road Series and the Tour Series. Being able to inform clients and prospects that they can see our brand featured prominently on Eurosport and ITV was a real draw for us. The Tour Series footage on ITV in 2018 captioned the team name (at that time Crimson Performance RT) and as a direct consequence, we increased our investment in the team to become co-sponsor and ensure future captions would include our company name.

Photo: Joe Cotterill

British Cycling has said there will no longer be TV highlights of the National Road Series on Eurosport. What impact do you think that will have on sponsors like you?

It’s a continual trend in the decline of British Cycling’s support of domestic racing, unfortunately. Every year there seems to be the promise of outreach and new initiatives to the teams and nothing improves, it just gets worse. Look at the last few years and the number of prominent teams that have disappeared from the domestic scene.

If cycle-specific sponsors such as Madison Genesis don’t see UK racing as a viable marketing tool any longer, what chance do external sponsors have? We’ve lost One Pro, Wiggins, Madison Genesis, JLT Condor, Holdsworth to name but a few. The cycling media have covered the teams and sponsors’ fears on a number of occasions and what is British Cycling’s answer? Let’s get rid of the TV coverage too.

If you’re announcing no TV coverage of racing in January 2020, after sponsors have invested thousands upon thousands of pounds, that change should take place for the 2021 season, not before

Sooner or later, British Cycling needs to decide whether or not they have the appetite, or ability to support domestic road racing. The timing was terrible, sponsors had signed contracts for 2020 months ago already, and then British Cycling changes a fundamental part of UK cycle racing coverage without no advance notice. If you’re announcing no TV coverage of racing in January 2020, after sponsors have invested thousands upon thousands of pounds, that change should take place for the 2021 season, not before. 

I’m a cycling fan and always have been; the reasons we sponsor the team are linked to my love of the sport. I’d say most sponsors of domestic teams have someone with a similar love of the sport. How do you move forward from this point though? Being a fan of the sport can only go so far. I’m also a business owner and have to be pragmatic. If you’re a team pitching to a marketing manager who is not a cyclist what is the incentive to invest marketing budget in a team?

Photo: Joe Cotterill

Most sports sponsorship is measured in the potential audience size for events. How do you explain that British Cycling is not televising the races any longer and there will be a few hundred spectators at most on the roadside? It takes a brave marketer to look beyond eyeballs and start to consider aligning their brand with a sport that promotes mental and physical health (and there has been much debate about that too), or producing content with teams and riders. Most marketers are answerable to someone and have to justify return on investment, or at least the potential audience size for their investment. It’s a risk moving away from being able to say ‘xxx thousand’ will watch this race on Eurosport at the weekend.

There has to be discussion with sponsors and teams. We got in touch after I tweeted about the withdrawal of TV for this year’s National Road Series. There were others that shared similar sentiments such as Phil Jones of Brother UK and Matt Stephens of GCN. British Cycling must have seen the conversation. It was the ideal platform for them to reach out and start a discussion around the future of UK racing and sponsorship.

As a sponsor, I want to see that British Cycling is actually listening and that the desire is there to support a UK racing calendar and grow domestic racing

What more could be done to make domestic cycling a more attractive proposition to potential sponsors?

This is a tricky one to answer.  I know I’ve been super critical of British Cycling over this issue but they are faced with a very difficult problem to solve. As a sponsor, I want to see that British Cycling is actually listening and that the desire is there to support a UK racing calendar and grow domestic racing. They need to show confidence in the sport, and project that confidence to potential sponsors. There are teams in the World Tour who know they won’t always be first over the line so have to view sponsorship from a different aspect. I’m thinking of EF Education First as the best example, with their alternative calendar and the footage created around things like the Dirty Kanza or Three Peaks.

Do we need to accept that there is limited spectator interest in the calendar as it currently is, start factoring in more interesting terrain and location such as races like the Rutland-Melton CiCLE Classic or Tro-Bro Léon, and consider how can you integrate sponsor opportunities into these races?  I think there are plenty of team owners and sponsors that would be really keen to have that conversation with British Cycling, pool our ideas and move the sport forward. 

Featured photo: Joe Cotterill

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