Monday, April 04, 2011


We Want the Airwaves

I’ve been accused, as recently as that last post, of not being a very good conspiracy theorist. It’s true. I admit to the possibility that I lack a certain degree of insight, or that I am possessed of only limited imagination. Or maybe I just look terrible in tin foil hats. Regardless, I believe it’s important to show some effort, to rise to refute the accusations of your critics, and, in this case to strive to find ever more complex frameworks in which to place seemingly simple events. So here’s my theory on why public airing of team communications stopped being a talking point for directors sportiff and suddenly became a reality at Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen: it’s about asserting content ownership.

According to team directors, the UCI has dismissed the notion of public, auto-racing style access to team radio, an idea the teams floated in an effort to keep ahold of the communications in the face of the expanding UCI ban. But there it was, loud and proud during the RVV broadcast, and to considerable success by most accounts. Getting it done, of course, required cooperation between the broadcaster, possibly the race organizer, and obviously the teams, who provided access to their audio and had cameras mounted in their cars. And they did it all, seemingly, without a UCI finger in the pie. And I’m guessing that it’s driving the UCI nuts.

What I saw in Sunday's effort – undertaken as the radio battle between teams and the UCI rages on – was not just an earnest effort to demonstrate the idea's potential to the UCI and to anti-radio fans, though it certainly did that. I think it was – or at least, should have been – a purposeful assertion of ownership by the teams over the team communication content (i.e., everything that's said over the team radios). At the RVV, the teams arguably set a precedent that they are the ones who can permit, sell, or otherwise provide access to their communications to outside parties, whoever those parties may be. I expect you’ll see similar broadcasting in the coming months, because every time teams get the radio communications aired, it reasserts that ownership and builds the precedent.

Why is the issue of who "owns" all the chatter important? Well, due to the experiment’s apparent success on Sunday, the continued resistance to the radio ban, and the UCI’s near-slobbering envy of Formula 1, it’s entirely likely that the UCI will eventually come around to the public team communications idea. And when it does, you can bet that it will try to assert ownership of those communications, likely based on the fact that they are conducted in the course of a UCI-sanctioned race, where the UCI governs radio usage. So why, again, is this important? Why would the UCI want ownership over a stream of mostly boring drivel about upcoming roundabouts and who needs a Coke or a wee-wee break? Because it’s salable content, and the UCI would almost always rather potential income go into its coffers instead of the teams' or organizers'.

In the near-term, the rights to air those director-rider conversations could be sold to broadcasters, though I'd wager Sunday’s dose was a freebie, both to help the teams make the case for keeping radios and to win support of broadcasters, who in France have come out against radios. And I'd also guess the teams might continue to provide free access to TV broadcasters as a condition of keeping radios. But the fact that teams might be willing to provide the content without charge doesn't mean it is without monetary value. In the long-term, money-making possibilities abound. For instance, you could sell team-specific subscriptions to fans that would allow them to hear their team or teams of choice via internet or smartphone. Just 5 Euro per race, or 45 Euro for the whole year, friend. Want to get farther out there? Think product placement. Think commercials. If they maintain ownership of the communications, the teams could offer such “services” as value-adds to their sponsors and as enticements to future backers. If the UCI owns the communications, those services will go to UCI sponsors or the highest bidder, and the money will go into the UCI’s pocket.

It’ll be interesting to see what tack the UCI takes after the loudly trumpeted broadcast of team communications at the RVV. I say loudly trumpeted because the truth is, we’ve seen the same sort of in-car material before during the Tour de France and other races, and the UCI doesn't seem to give a damn. But now that the material has been re-cast as part of the radio debate, and has extended from select teams to all teams, it’s very likely to spark some sort of UCI response. Like I said, I suspect the UCI will ultimately want a piece of the action. And if it doesn’t get what it wants from the teams on the issue, I’ll be on the lookout for more rigid enforcement of rules against filming from caravan vehicles.


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