By Jeff Jones
The news that Discovery Channel is pulling its sponsorship at the end of 2008 cannot be taken as a positive in cycling's current climate. But all is not lost, as one of the world's top teams now is now putting the feelers out for a new backer. The boys in blue probably won't agree to ride for a jersey and shorts like in the good ol' days, so someone out there needs to front up with the better part of $50 million over the next three years.
Tailwind Sports, the team's management company, faced the same problem in 2004 when US Postal pulled out after eight years as head sponsor. By then, it already had Discovery on board as a minor player, and with Lance Armstrong still going strong, it wasn't an insurmountable task to bump DC up to number one status. In 2007, it's going to be tougher.
Both DC and the team say that the reason for the withdrawal wasn't anything to do with the doping scandals that have pummelled the sport in the last 10 years. Several of those have concerned former, current and recently signed Discovery team members, although no-one within the team has ever tested positive. What was worse, according to official statements, was the restructuring of top management at Discovery Channel. Former NBC man David Zaslav was appointed as CEO late last year. He brought about changes that led to the resignation of Discovery's networks president Billy Campbell, among others.
Like many sponsorships of this ilk, Campbell was a big supporter of cycling. He was very much in favour of the team's controversial signing of Ivan Basso last year. Campbell's departure gave the company an excuse to drop the team and save the network $10-12 million per year. At the same time, Discovery will lose that worldwide exposure that it got from sponsoring the squad, but that surely would have been factored into the decision.
Now the "Race 2 Replace" will begin in earnest. It's made tougher by the fact that Lance Armstrong is no longer riding for the team, even though he is still a part-owner of it. It's an American team, and needs a top American rider. One could imagine an exchange between the concerned parties along the following lines:
Tailwind Sports: "We'd like you to sink $50 million into our cycling team."
US Multinational: "You want us to put money into sponsoring boys in lycra shorts?"
TS: "You're Californian, right? It's unbeatable exposure."
USM: "And your top player is an ... Italian?"
TS: "He finished second in the Tour de France."
TS: "We've got Levi Leipheimer."
TS: "He's American. He finished sixth in the Tour. In 2005."
USM: "Sixth, eh? We'll get back to you."
But let's not be too pessimistic here. This team has one of the strongest brands in cycling, and it means to continue.
Team manager Johan Bruyneel was quoted by Het Nieuwsblad as saying, "A few big players have approached us already. We definitely want the deal to be done before the Tour. For example, and American multinational, because we are staying an American team. We still have eighteen riders under contract for next season."
Johan's usually on the money when it comes to these sorts of deals.