World Series Cycling a masterclass in how not to tell exciting stories

A while ago, I was trying to write something about the UCI, breakaway leagues/calendar reform and revenues. I became so bored researching it, I gave up.

But seeing as the UCI seems determined to chase around after a billionaire’s loose change in return for control, I thought I’d muse afresh. A memorandum of understanding, if you will.

The Gifted Group – who are ultimately the ones proposing to mess about with other people’s money and sport – told all about the plan for World Series Cycling (WSC) which seems to have confused “might” with “will”.

Lovely to see the term Grand Prix weekend being bandied around. Just like the lucrative world of Formula 1. In case you were wondering, here’s an idea of what you get over a four day Motorsport event like Monaco:

  • Thursday: F1 free practice x2; GP2 free practice and qualifying; Porsche Supercup free practice
  • Friday: Porsche Supercup qualifying; GP2 Race 1
  • Saturday: Formula Renault qualifying; F1 qualifying; GP2 Race 2
  • Sunday: Porsche Supercup race; Formula Renault race; F1 Grand Prix

Four different types of racing, with meaningful action on every day, all building towards the prestige event right at the end of the weekend. A great sporting model with paying punters aplenty.

Which translates into four unrelated one day competitions with no coherent narrative thread in the world of WSC.

In 2010 I said cycling needed a Kerry Packer type figure. It still does. The World Series Cycling (WSC) proposal is the most risk-averse attempt at taking a risk I’ve ever seen.

Cyclismas, the Inner Ring and Joe Lindsey’s Boulder Report have covered off, with great insight, the logistical and historical horrors:

Cyclismas: Call me a Dinosaur 

Inner Ring: World Series Cycling plans

Boulder Report: A World Series of what?

Rather than retread that ground, I’ve going to approach this from the Barthesian side and look at the failings in terms of offering a compelling narrative to the audience.

Trim, prune shuffle and interlink

“Cycling’s heartland is Europe and we need to protect it” you say. A significant portion of road cycling’s history resides in Europe, but we’ve lost far almost as many historically interesting races as remain there. And there are events outside Europe whose history is equally important to the modern sport – the Tour of Colombia for example.

The last thing the punters need is another ten Eneco Tours forced upon the marketplace. You could junk Vattenfall, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem from the top tier without anyone noticing if you were feeling like giving it a haircut.

In the case of those last two, one suggestion is to link them more closely to The Tour of Flanders by running the three races as a mini-series over five days. To expand on that, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem could be run as an opportunity to showcase some second tier teams with wildcards for Flanders on offer for the best placed of them.

Admittedly, this then runs up against the issue of where to fit Paris-Roubaix which is related. How about Tro Bro Leon drops into the middle Wednesday?

So there you have a five race sequence over two weeks that could be sold as a series. It maintains five existing events, groups them in a coherent series that fans can follow and event allows the possibility of an overall champion, a ‘King/Queen of the Cobbles’, crowned in Roubaix annually.

This would give you a similar narrative arc to ‘making the cut’ in golf or getting through qualifying in F1. There’s a narrative progression and a cast of characters that you can follow for the duration.

That’s perhaps the most depressing aspect of the WSC proposals: they seem to have been outlined by someone with no real understanding of what engages a sporting audience.

Same time next week for more of the same

One obvious criticism of the WSC proposal is that they’re locked in to a far too predictable format consisting of sprint, climb, time trial, rolling stages. The excitement of triathlon doesn’t come from being the fastest swimmer, runner or cyclist but from the way in which the three skills become interlinked in the overall result.

There’s a tradition in cinema of killing off big names as a narrative shock device for the audience. These removals of protagonists from the plot are as old as Homer, but as a rule of thumb no one ever made a great movie by killing your hero in the opening act and then not mentioning them again until the credits.

It’s impossible to see WSC’s reductive view, with its false separations, as anything other than a predictable guarantee for the audience that you don’t need to stay to the end of the picture. Once the sprint stage is over, you’ve effectively killed off Mark Cavendish.

I challenge you to find a successful series where the same star dies in the same place every weekend for the duration of the run in an entirely predictable manner. The closest I can think of is “Oh my god, they killed Kenny” in South Park, but his death was never done by rote or so predictably signposted.

Narrative stripped from context

The proscriptions of the format meant that a key element of narrative will be buried. Closing off the context so that Contador winning a climbing stage bears no relation to events on the other three days of racing is a terrible idea.

Realistically there is no overall classification narrative to follow because whichever way you structure it, the comings and goings of your group of protagonists are predictable. It’s a story without risk, jeopardy or adventure, the sporting equivalent of reading out the phone book (I do know people that can make that exciting, even borderline erotic but I wouldn’t invite them to do it on a regular basis).

What’s in it for broadcasters?

Gifted Group have made much of their proposal being what broadcasters want as if there’s some mystery which so far everyone in cycling has failed to appreciate.

Let me tell you what broadcasters want: they want something that runs to time, allows them to sell their junctions to advertisers, and keeps the audience watching to the end.

There’s a reason sports with fixed durations and predictable junctions (AKA half-time, end of the quarter, innings or over) have proved so popular as televised events.

Most broadcasters like two hour chunks when it comes to ‘striping’ their programming, as do those selling the rights (again, see F1 – races fit neatly into a two-hour broadcast window), which even with a following wind gives you about 100km of bike racing.

And with the best will in the world “coming up tomorrow, the individual time trial” is not going to get the casual fan all fired up, is it now?

Women control the majority of purchase decisions

Omega Pharma promoted Predictor (pregnancy test) and Silence (snoring treatment) through their sponsorship. You think either of them was aimed at men or with a view to men making a purchase decision about them?

Once again, some rich man has decided they’d like to own the trainset and the UCI has said “on you go”. Not a hint of evolving one of the biggest potential markets by harnessing existing race structures and bringing into play massive purchasing power that holds the key to some of the most lucrative advertising revenue in the market coming towards cycling.

There is absolutely nothing about WSC that says it’s going to attract and inspire the casual female fan.

I think I’ll stop now otherwise I’m going to draw blood bouncing my head off this desk.

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