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.
- Ah, and what of the great Jonathan Vaughters “don’t work and wait for the sprint for third” kerfuffle that the RVV team communications provided us? The debate rages on. You know why it rages on? Because people are debating each other without acknowledging that they’re often arguing about two different issues.
Supporters of the no-work order (understandably including the team) are arguing their side based on the tactical wisdom of the call. Was Vaughters’s order the right one? That’s easy to answer: yes, though admittedly not for the reasons he thought. Garmin’s two men in the front group, Tyler Farrar and Thor Hushovd, didn’t work to bring back the move, which came back anyway under the impetus of BMC and Vacansoleil. So, it might have been the wrong reason for not working, but not working was still the right call. (Though I do believe that the instructions to sit and wait for the sprint led to Garmin being too inattentive and missing the key move.)
But in arguing tactical correctness against those critical of Vaughters’s orders, I think some folks are missing the point of what the “other side” in this fractured debate is really saying. Namely, that they just wished Vaughters's instructions to the troops had been different. In racing, there is the correct move which, as here, is often the conservative one – don’t work, sit in, follow the moves. And then there’s the popular move, the one the fans and media want to see. That move is usually the gutsy one – put your cards on the table, no prisoners, nothing to lose, risk it all. Attack, attack, attack. No, it’s not always (probably not even usually) the most tactically sound choice, but asking fans to not want it is absurd. And fans calling for the bold moves instead of the conservative strategy doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ignorant, it just means they want to see some go-for-broke racing from teams they like. Especially in the classics, which are blessedly free from the cautious we-don’t-actually-need-to-win aspects of stage racing.
[Please note: The above point is not aimed at Jonathan Vaughters. There are few in his position more fan-savvy. It’s natural that he publicly clarified why he made the call he did and why it made sense at the time, and he’s cheerfully acknowledged that, hey, it didn’t quite go down like he thought it would, and there it was for all the world to see. That’s racing. And I don’t for a minute think he’s mystified as to why he’s taking flack for it. Further, by engaging the fans, he’s turned it into a teachable moment about the healthy, engaging debate that can come from the public being able to watch the decisions as they’re made. Well done.]
- Bjarne Riis may have lost most of his team to Leopard, but he didn’t lose his ability to revitalize flagging careers. How does he do it? In my opinion: jersey design. Sure, the fake abs and feathers that fueled greatness at CSC are gone from the shirt, but the infamous trouser bird seems to have ably filled the inspirational void. Whatever the source of greatness, welcome back, Nick Nuyens.
- So is that dude on the Muur going to wear that same Colnago sweater and hat every year?
- I won’t rattle on about it, but this year’s Ronde had to be one of the best bike races I’ve seen in five years. Probably longer. What was often billed in the runup as a fairly closed race between Boonen, Cancellara and maybe Gilbert turned into a brawl between a decade’s worth of classics strongmen, from the aforementioned to Chavanel, Nuyens, Hushovd, Ballan, Langeveld, Hincapie, Leukmans, Devolder and on and on. Chapeau and thanks all.
- Today’s obscure title reference brought to you by the Ramones.
I don't think I've ever felt the tension of a bike race through a broadcast (or in person) like Sunday.
Also never seen Bjarne Riis look really happy - the in-car camera justified itself right there.
Like I said, it's tin foil hat stuff at this point. For some reason, I just find it entertaining to think about. And since the UCI has a demonstrated track record of attempted power and profit grabs, it really leaves a lot of territory open to speculation.
That's as absurd as thinking that USAC opening a race registration mechanism is the start of a near term future bid to take over the mildly profitable race registration business.